of the North Manchester Historical Society, Inc.
VOLUME XIII, NUMBER 1 (FEB, 1996)
Life of Billy Sunday
by Paul Keller
I wonder how many of you ever heard Billy Sunday? Three, four, half a dozen
people at least, and I envy you for that because I never had opportunity to hear
him myself and would have liked it very much. Let me just give you a backdrop of
something like this.
There is going on right now even as we meet here this evening the fine tuning of
some technical equipment down in Puerto Rico which will make it possible for the
Billy Graham Crusade to be beamed to ten million, they estimate, ten million
people. That will happen at 3,000 different locations in 29 time zones that
cover 185 different nations in 116 languages. They've got technical equipment
that makes it possible for them to translate this material into all of those
languages and to cover a good part of the globe.
Now that sounds like a phenomenal thing and it is. They estimate that once the
follow-up process has been carried through, Billy Graham will contact about one
I ask you to turn your time machine back to the beginning of the 20th century
and that's when Billy Sunday was around and recall that at that time there was
no such thing as radio and there was no such thing as television, and there was
no such thing as public address, no such thing as a microphone.
All there was was a human being trying to contact other human beings. And when
you realize that over the span of his time Billy Sunday spoke to about, the
estimate is, a million people, that's not bad in comparison. That's a phenomenon
The reason I think this program is appropriate here this evening is that from
1909 to 1935 Winona Lake was the evangelical center of the United States. At the
center of Winona Lake, and the activities there, was Billy Sunday. It is
interesting that our historical tradition in this country has produced about one
famous evangelist in each generation. In colonial times it was George
Whitefield. In the 1800's it was Charles Finney and Dwight L. Moody. And then at
the beginning of the 20th century, the first third of the 20th century, it was
Billy Sunday. Now in the last half of this century, it's Billy Graham. These
great evangelists come along just occasionally.
Here's what I want to do. I am going to quickly give you a picture of why and
how Billy Sunday was at the center of his tradition. Then tell you something
about the man himself and how he ran his campaigns and a little bit about his
life at Winona Lake.
The prime period in the career of Billy Sunday was between 1909 and 1920. He
lived until 1935 but between 1909 and 1920 was when he was at the prime of his
evangelical effort. During that time Glen Curtis who was the inventor of the sea
plane -- do you remember seeing or hearing about the Curtis Sea Plane?--Glen
Curtis flew one of his sea planes out to Winona Lake so that he could give Billy
Sunday a ride in that new invention. He was a nationally known figure. William
Jennings Bryan at that time was Secretary of State. He came to Winona Lake so
that he could spend time with Billy Sunday. Hundreds of thousands of people, as
you know, came to Winona Lake Bible Conference so that they could hear Billy
Now this is an extraordinary man. If he'd had an ordinary life I don't think we
would have ever heard of him. He had a very extraordinary life partially because
he lost his father by the time he was nine years old. His father was a soldier
in the Union Army and got pneumonia and died and the mother was not able to keep
the family together. She had a number of children to provide sustenance for and
so she had to put Billy Sunday and one brother of his in an orphanage. So he
went to an orphanage at age ten. There's a lot of detail about that early part
of his life but what you need to know is that he learned to work hard and work
with his hands and that was an important part of who he was later. But that
wasn't the thing that distinguished him the most.
The thing that distinguished him the most was that he was very fast. I mean he
was a quick, quick runner. And that was important then because it allowed him to
star as a baseball player. What Billy Sunday was, if you take an overall view of
him, was a very skilled baseball player who turned evangelist. That's the story
of his life. He somehow got to Marshalltown, Iowa (the home of Pat Helman).
Marshalltown fire department had a very successful baseball team and they were
winning games in Iowa. When Capson who was the manager of the Chicago White
Stockings came over to Marshalltown to visit his aunt she regaled him about this
baseball player they had who was very fast. And he said, "I've seen those people
many times." He didn't want to go but she got him to go and watch the game. He
was amazed at Sunday's speed. So he signed him to a contract with the Chicago
And Billy Sunday spent -- and a lot of people don't know this -- Billy Sunday
spent eight years playing professional baseball. He played for the
Chicago White Socks, for the Philadelphia Athletics and for the Pittsburgh
Pirates. To show you how quick he was and I know some of you are not baseball
fans, but hang in there with me anyway, he was the first man to circle the bases
in 14 seconds. That's pretty fast. Try that sometime. He played center field. In
one game for Philadelphia the score was tied in the ninth inning. He made all
three put outs in the outfield. Then when his team came to bat he led out the
inning with a walk. Then he stole second. Then he stole third. And then he stole
home for the only run of the game.
Philadelphia won the game because of his base-stealing capacity. We play l60-l62
games in a season now in baseball. When he was playing he only played 116 games
but he stole 94 bases. That isn't equaled very often in this day. He was a very
skillful baseball player.
He might have played baseball for a much longer time had it not been for the
fact that he ran into a conversion experience. You know how it was in those
--well I understand that the way it was in those days was that a player had very
little to do when they weren't playing ball. And so it was very commonplace for
them to spend their time in saloons. Just while away the time drinking. It was
on one of those occasions after Billy Sunday had played a game that day he came
up in the evening and he and some others from the team were in a saloon on
Madison Street in Chicago. And they sat down on the curb, according to his tale
--you know I can't verify the truth of these things but this is the story --they
sat down on the curb next to a vacant lot at State and Madison. That shows you
something about how times have changed doesn't it. Can you imagine a vacant lot
at the corner of State and Madison in Chicago?
At any rate that's where it was and there was a woman from the Pacific Garden
Mission who was there with a band from the Mission. You know they had a horn and
a flute and a trombone and a drum and they were playing evangelical music. She
was making a speech in part which went like this, "Come down to the mission and
hear testimonies of women who used to sell their womanhood to whoever would buy
but who have straightened out their lives and are now good wives and mothers
with children." And Billy Sunday because of some echoes he had from his own home
experience and because of the emotional power working inside him just got up,
according to the story, and said to his companions, "Boys, I bid the old life
And from then on he just quit baseball. He turned down an offer from the
Cincinnati Reds. They were courting him at that time. He decided that hewouldn't
play professional baseball any more. What you need to remember is that at this
point he was a famous baseball player. So when the YMCA got him to speak to
their youth meetings he was very popular because here's a well known baseball
player who's going to talk about how to live the clean life. So he was very
popular from the very beginning.
He started teaching a Sunday School class at a Presbyterian church in Chicago
and fell in love with one of the daughters of a Chicago businessman who thought
that baseball players were not fit company for his daughter. So he had a little
struggle over that but eventually married her. She's the one who became "Ma"
Sunday later on. Nell Thompson was her name. That was just one hundred years ago
-- I realized after I had been reading the material about this --a hundred years
ago in 1895 that Billy Sunday got into the profession of evangelism.
He joined the staff of J. Wilbur Chapman who was a well known evangelist in
those days, serving him as an advance man. But he had only been working for him
for about a year when Chapman was offered a pastorate in Philadelphia and
decided that he's rather be a pastor than to be a traveling evangelist.
Suddenly Billy Sunday was faced with having nothing to do because this is what
he thought his career was going to be. He agonized for a long time over that.
Then an invitation came from a little town called Garner, Iowa, saying that they
needed an evangelist and asking him whether he's be willing to come out and help
them. He decided that he would try that.
He went out and discovered that he could do it. He enjoyed doing it. He decided
that maybe that was a career for him. So for the next twelve months he moved
around on what he called the kerosene circuit. The evangelism meetings were held
in tents and the tents were lit with kerosene lamps.
Billy Sunday at this time had no organization; he was the organization. He would
go to a local community and arouse some farmers, local residents, to help him
put up the tents. He would help in the construction and then during the night he
would wake up every hour or so to check the tent tags to keep the tent from
blowing away. He did that for twelve months until a rather cold winter night in
Sheldon, Iowa. The snow collected on the tent and was heavy enough to collapse
the whole thing.
Sunday decided that that was enough tenting for him. He didn't want to have
anything to do with that any more. From that time on he began to require that
any community that wanted him to do an evangelism series for them would have to
provide the tabernacle. He started in small towns. One of the early communities
in which they provided a tabernacle was Elkhart, Indiana.
He required that they raise the money and set up the organization so that the
tabernacle could be built. From then on that was the rule of thumb for his
campaigns. With the tabernacles growing in size until one was built to seat
20,000 people. Now when you know that Chicago stadium only seats about16,000 and
is a tremendous big place, just imagine constructing a tabernacle that would
seat 20,000 people. I think that was one of the really remarkable dimensions of
the Sunday campaigns.
Billy Sunday was licensed to preach by the Presbyterian church --but almost not.
He was not learned. They tried to test him and they were asking all the wrong
questions. He didn't want to know the answers to those questions.
He had his own theology. It was a simple theology. It was very straight forward
and it never varied. So for a while they wouldn't license him. Later due to the
influence of some people within the Presbyterian church who thought that this
man was having such an impact nationally that they couldn't ignore him they
decided to license him. That happened in 1903.
You're familiar with the phrase to hit the sawdust trail? That the converts at
Billy Sunday's meetings would hit the sawdust trail? The tabernacles always had
sawdust on the floors for two reasons. One was to cut down the dust and the
other was to cushion the sound. It was a practical decision to have sawdust on
the floor. When people got up and started down the aisle somebody said they were
hitting the sawdust trail and that phrase stuck.
Interesting thing, the original phrase, sawdust trail, came out of the Oregon
forests where lumber jacks would get lost deep in the forest. They needed to
find their way out. They would follow a trail of sawdust to get them to a place
where they could get their bearing.
To give you a sampling from Billy Sundays meetings --in the Youngstown, Ohio
campaign 80,000 people hit the sawdust trail; in Columbus, Ohio 181,000; in
Philadelphia 42,000; in Syracuse, New York 21,000; Kansas City 26,000; Detroit
27,000; Boston 64,000; New York 100,000. And here's an oddity, an historical
oddity that has to do with Winona Lake. With all of those people who hit the
sawdust trail and came down and said they wanted to give their lives to Christ
-- in all those conversions, Billy Sunday only baptized one person in all of his
career. That person was Jack Laurien who was a brother of a policeman in Winona
Lake. I don't know the circumstances but I discovered this when I went over and
spent time at the archives at Grace College where they have some 4,000 items of
memorabilia from Billy Sunday. Jack Laurien was the only person Sunday ever
baptized from the thousands, hundreds of thousands, who hit the sawdust trail.
How did Billy Sunday run his campaigns? He had a close partnership with Ma
Sunday; a very forceful, aggressive, capable woman. When I was working on
amasters degree at the University of Wisconsin I wrote to her because I thought
I might do some biographical work on Billy Sunday and I got a long, very
friendly letter back from her, not telling me at all whether I could get into
the correspondence but telling me what a wonderful man Billy Sunday was.
I gathered from that letter that Ma Sunday was a vigorous part of the operation
herself. She was in charge of the advance crew or maybe she was the advance
crew. She was the one who set up all of the training and preparation that had to
go into going into a city before the campaign really moved in. During the
campaign the churches had to call off their services; that was part of the
agreement. Otherwise, Billy Sunday wouldn't go. He said if they were not willing
to call off their services while he was in the community then he didn't want to
waste his time. So what communities did was to make his meetings the focus of
evangelism in the days while he was there.
Let's imagine a picture of Billy Sunday. He might be standing on his head in the
front of the auditorium. He looks like a polished man, maybe a banker. He drew a
lot of criticism because once he was very successful and at the peak of his
career he liked to dress in fancy clothes. He liked to drive fancy cars and he
liked to live with very wealthy people. I found some highly critical quotations
of people who were suspicious of all that. But behind that polish was another
human being and I'll tell you a little more about that later.
Let's take a look at the tabernacle. These chairs that you see are choir chairs.
It would frequently number about 2000 people. Two thousand all seated in rows
around him. Then the tabernacle stretches far in the front of the speaker. One
of the characteristics of the tabernacles was that it didn't have any windows.
No windows but it had wooden baffles in the ceiling. Just above the speakers
platform; they were designed to project the sound. If you have a tabernacle that
seats 20,000 people on one floor it's a tremendous expanse. And remember, he has
no way to project the sound except his own voice.
As years went by, Billy Sunday had his own architects who went ahead and worked
with the people in the next city to build the tabernacles. They had to be
designed in such a way that they didn't contain too many echoes but projected
the sound. So tabernacles became standardized. The same kind of construction;
the sawdust floors, no windows and so on. I think it was amazing that there was
never, so far as I know, a fire in one of those tabernacles. They were supplied
with exits but I still don't know how they could have gotten all the people out.
Did sound carry in that kind of space? One of the reports in the New York
campaign is that Billy Sunday in the midst of his sermon heard a baby cry way
off some place. He stopped immediately. There couldn't be any other noise. There
had to be absolute concentration or you couldn't possibly make out what was
being said. There were ventilation devices at the top of each wall.
When Billy Sunday put on one of these campaigns it was just a tremendous civic
event. The papers would be full of stories ahead of time about the construction
of the tabernacle because it was usually put at some central place. Sometimes
they had to take a building or buildings down to put up the tabernacle. It got
to be a matter of civic pride to see which community could do the best job of
putting up the tabernacle.
Once it was time for the campaign itself there would be all kinds of parades.
The men who were on the wagon, that is, the men who had stopped drinking would
be marching down Main Street in a big block. Just waves of men who had stopped
drinking. And there would be Sunday School classes who would march and fire
brigades who would march. The policemen would march and the businessmen would
march; everybody would march in a big civic parade in connection with the event.
When the meetings actually started it was typical especially in the banner years
for Homer Rodeheaver to warm up the crowd for about an hour with his trombone
and music and asking people from Ohio to stand up or people from Illinois to
stand up. You know, just in general making it seem like home folks there even
with 20,000 people around. But to speak in such a place required radical
dramatics, otherwise you couldn't have kept the attention of that kind of an
Billy Sunday used his athletic ability when he was doing one of these meetings.
He acted out the homely little stories and Bible vignettes which had become a
revivalists stock in trade and he gave them breath taking vigor. He skipped and
ran and walked and bounced and slid and gyrated all over the platform. He would
pound the pulpit with his fists until nervous listeners expected to hear
crunching bones. He would, in a rage against the devil, pick up the simple
kitchen chair which stood behind the reading desk and smash it into kindling.
Once it slipped away from him and nearly brained a few people in the front row.
As he gesticulated and shook his head, drops of sweat flew from him in a fine
spray. Gradually he would shed his coat, then his vest --by the way he pitched
all of these (as Ma Sunday wrote me in that letter) to her as she sat nearby.
He'd pitch his coat and then his vest, and his tie and finally he'd roll up his
sleeves as he went back and forth crouching, shaking his fists, springing,
leaping and falling in an endless series of imitations.
He would impersonate a sinner trying to reach heaven like a ball player sliding
for home and illustrate by running and sliding the length of the stage. Every
story was a pantomime performance. Naaman the leper, washing himself in the
Jordan to cleanse away his sores was reproduced with extravagant vitality by the
evangelist who would stand shivering on the bank, stub his toe on a rock, slap
sand fleas, shriek with cold at the first plunge and blow and sputter as he
emerged from each healing dip. He kept you awake.
If you were sitting on the back row you could see this whirling dervish and you
might wonder what was going on up there. He constantly made people curious. In
one sermon he took off his coat the reveal the scars. The point was --you think
you've got scars. You're going to show me that place you cut when you had an
accident? Are you going to show me these superficial things? You don't really
have scars. Christ had real scars.
The kitchen chair was one of his standard props. He would sometimes stand up on
the speaker's stand. That was standard equipment for him and then at the proper
moment he'd pick that chair up and smash it to smithereens on the floor. One of
his standard themes was to do battle with Satan and he would dare the devil to
come out and fight with him. He'd tell the devil he was going to fight him to
the last breath.
One of the things he was criticized for was that he developed a slang style. He
did that in the wording. He did that because he needed that kind of engagement
with audiences. So, for example, his interpretation of one of the Bible stories
went like this. Jesus looked around and spied a little boy whose ma had given
him five biscuits and a couple of sardines for his lunch and she said to him,
come here son, the Lord wants you. Then he told the lad what he wanted. And the
boy said, uh it isn't much Jesus but what there is you're mighty welcome to it.
Billy Sunday said a man who drank was a dirty, lowdown, whiskey soaked, beer
guzzling, bull necked, foul mouth hypocrite. And that was just the beginning.
I've got a whole page of samples of his rhetoric but I'll just give you a few.
All of these come from his sermons. "You can find everything in the average
church today from a humming bird to a turkey buzzard." "Some persons think they
have to look like a hedgehog to be pious." "Some people pray like a jack rabbit
eating cabbage." "When a baby is born," he said, "what do you do with it? You
put it in the refrigerator? That's a good place for a dead chicken and cold meat
but a poor place for babies. Then don't put new converts, who are
babes-in-Christ into refrigerator churches." He was very much for lighting up
the church. Conventional churches didn't please him very much. "Going to
church," he said, "doesn't make a man a Christian any more than going to a
garage makes him an automobile."
It was very easy for him to be very blunt and forthright with people no matter
who he was talking to and he said to an audience on one occasion "you sit in
your pews so easy that you become mildewed." There is defense of his language
and the people who defended him said, "He speaks a language that everybody can
understand and identify with and that means something to the people who hear it
so it's valid for him to use that." Other people especially among the more
educated elite looked down their noses at that --as you might expect.
Billy Sunday came to live at Winona Lake in sort of an accidental way. When he
was working with J. Wilbur Chapman, Chapman had a cottage at Winona Lake that he
used for vacation purposes. At that time Billy Sunday was still living in
Chicago but in 1901 Chapman sold Sunday his cottage furnished at Winona Lake for
$875.00. So he lived in that cottage until 1911. In 1911 he built the cottage
you can still see at Winona Lake for $3,800.00. The cottage was maintained for a
long time by the Winona Lake Christian Assembly. It is now owned and operated by
the Winona Lake Historical Society and you can call and make an appointment to
If you remember where the tabernacle used to be in Winona Lake and you go south
of that about a block and a half driving along a street which runs along the
bottom of a hill. If you look up the hill you'll see this house with a porch
across the back and a set of stairs coming down the hill.
That's the Sunday residence. If you go up the hill, there's another street
called Sunday Lane, I think. It's just sort of an overgrown alley - not used
much as a street. If you drive along that you will come to the Sunday residence.
The house has nine rooms and two spacious porches.
PK-From the sources I have read I believe the history of the Sunday family
was not a happy one. Billy Sunday was gone too much of the time. He hardly ever
saw his four children. But I can't really tell that story now.