In the first half of the 20th century, Billy Sunday (1862–1935) was America’s best-known evangelist and revivalist.
Born to poverty in rural Iowa, Billy was sent to an orphanage at the age of 10. He would later used his hard-scrabble past as a justification for his plain-spoken style:
The mal-odors of the barnyard are on my feat. I have greased my hair with goose-grease; I have blackened my shoes with a cob; I have wiped my proboscis with a gunny sake; I have drunk coffee out of my saucer and eaten peas with a knife. . . . I am a graduate from the University of Poverty and Hard Knocks.
In 1883 he became a professional baseball player with the Chicago White Stockings, playing center field (in the days before outfielders used gloves). He also played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Athletics. He was never much of a hitter, but he impressed fans with his acrobatic diving catches and his base running (he stole 84 bases in the 1890 season).
If you wanted to get on Billy Sunday’s nerves, just try suggesting to him that the game was rigged. He once responded:
When some withered-up, walrus-jawed, limber-legged, gimlet-eyed, pink-tea-blooded old fool of a pessimist comes to me and tells me in a voice like a dying calf and the gurgle of a wheezy cistern pump that the game is crooked as the devil, and that pennants are bought and sold, I feel like knocking his block into the middle of next week.
Sunday was converted to Christianity at Pacific Garden Mission around 1886, and he retired from baseball to pursue evangelism. By 1895, he was headlining his own revivals, and he soon became one of the most successful evangelists of his generation. His events were so well-populated that the locations of his revivals would prepare months in advance, constructing wooden tabernacles able to hold up to 10 percent of a smaller town and up to 20,000 people in a major city.
The apex of his career was in 1917, during World War I, when 98,000 people “hit the sawdust trail” (came forward for commitment or recommitment to Christ) during a 10-week revival in New York City.
As his biographer Robert Martin notes, Sunday was not a doctrinal preacher. “He believed and preached only enough doctrine to make sense of his own conversion and that which he hoped to engender in others.” From what I can tell, he never really set forth the beauty and importance of communing with God through Christ by the Spirit to the glory of God. Rather, the focus was more on decisive transformation and good Christian morals for the good of society. He portrayed an image of the all-American man: plain-spoken, unabashed, athletic, patriotic, professional, and hyper-masculine, delivering a form of old-time religion with entertainment, toughness, and passion.
Although he offended some worshipers’ sense of decorum, his unabashed breach of rules of syntax, frequent use of slang, and forceful deliver generally enhanced the preacher’s tough, street-wise image.
Regarding his early preaching style, Sunday recounted:
I wrote sermons with sentences so long that they’d make a Greek professor’s jaw squeak for a week after he said one of them: but I soon found that that didn’t get any results. So I loaded my gospel gun with rough-on-rats, ipecac, dynamite and barbed wire, and the gang’s been hunting a hole ever since.
His use of language was designed to reach the common man: “I want to preach the gospel so plainly that men can come from the factories and not have to bring a dictionary.”
He had an ear for the rhythm of language and for evocative word pictures, and he delivered his adjective-laden descriptions in rapid-fire succession. So instead of saying, “I’m against sin; I’ll fight it as long as I live,” he would put it this way:
I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I have a foot. I’ll fight it as long as I have a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I have a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition.
Instead of praying, “Lord save us from weak Christianity,” he prayed:
Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified three-karat Christianity.
So what would it have been like to hear him preach? Martin described his approach:
As he harangued audiences, Sunday often conveyed the impression that he was something of a prophetic pugilist battling for righteousness. When his preaching grew fervent, he would sometimes divest himself of his collar, coat, and tie; roll up his sleeves; and adopt a truculent stance. He might shake his fists in the faces of local clergymen as he condemned the ineffectiveness of their churches or point an accusing finger at his audience as he recited a lengthy litany of contemporary sins. . . .
. . . As thousands of enthralled worshipers watched, Sunday would run, jump, hurl unseen baseballs, smash imaginary home runs, slide for home plate, and shout in umpire-like fashion “you’re out,” thus announcing God’s judgment on the unsaved. Congregations marveled at the evangelist’s remarkable agility and energy, and journalists commented upon his stamina. One reporter estimated that as he preached Sunday traveled a mile during each sermon and more than 100 miles in every campaign.
He fully measured up to his reputation for dramatic presentation of his themes. He charged back and forth on the platform, dropped to his knees at times, flopped into a chair, jumped upon it, waved his handkerchief and shook his fists, shouted, laughed, stormed, sweated, and performed a variety of other feats which would put an ordinary man in bed for a week.
A Louisville newspaper in 1923 recorded that
Sunday was a whirling dervish that pranced and cavorted and strode and bounded and pounded all over his platform and left them thrilled and bewildered as they have never been before.
So back to our original question: what would it have been like if you had been there?
The first thing to note is that even with audio and video, we can’t really replicate the experience. Those still living who heard Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching in person invariably seem to say that something, almost indescribable, is lost in the transition from hearing the Word preached face-to-face and hearing it on an audio recording. When you add in Sunday’s theatrics, combined with an outdoor venue, and throw in poor audio and video capabilities at the time (remember that he was born in the middle of the Civil War and died during the Great Depression), much is undoubtedly lost in trying to know what it would have been like to see and hear him in person.
Here is a clip of Billy Sunday preaching in 1929. Keep in mind two things, though, as you watch: first, he was advancing in years (at 66 years old, he had only six more years to live); second, this is recorded in a studio, so it lacks the natural dynamic of communicating to a flesh-and-blood audience:
Here’s another clip of him, noticeably older and slower in speech, preaching about alcohol (a key theme of his preaching ministry). In January 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution was ratified, declaring illegal the production, transport, and sale (though not private consumption or possession) of alcohol. Sunday, who witnessed the destructive effect of his stepfather’s alcoholism upon his family, declared himself “the sworn, eternal, and uncompromising enemy of the liquor traffic.”
Although the audio is not very good, in the following video you can see Sunday preach outdoors after being introduced by his music leader Homer Rodeheaver at Winona Lake, Indiana. (I’m not certain of the date of this video.)
Finally, here is some stock video footage of Sunday preaching in New York City in 1917, without any sound:
Combine all of the above together in your imagination, and you may begin to approximate the experience of hearing America’s most famous evangelist after Dwight L. Moody and before Billy Graham.
For more on Billy Sunday, especially his effect on American culture, see Lyle Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Eerdmans, 1991) and Robert Martin, Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of America Society, 1862–1935 (Indiana University Press, 2002).