Billy Sunday: Great American Evangelist of the Early 20th Century

Billy Sunday. 1862-1935.

I visited Winona Lake, Indiana about 18 years ago, to visit the home of Billy Sunday. The Billy Sunday Home Museum is worth making an afternoon trip, as it gives you a glimpse of that “Old Time Religion,” that Billy Sunday used to preach about, as the most famous American evangelist, in the first quarter of the 20th century. Managed by the Winona History Center, of Grace College, the home museum contains a remarkable collection of artifacts, recording what life was like, for evangelical Christians living one hundred years ago. There is even a Virtual Tour that you can take.

Billy Sunday had a very poor childhood, but he rose to national prominence, as a major league baseball player, for the Chicago White Stockings. But his career as a baseball player took a turn when he visited the Pacific Garden Mission, a legendary evangelistic ministry, in the heart of Chicago. Billy Sunday committed his life to Christ, at the mission. The Pacific Garden Mission is still active today, giving help to Chicago’s homeless community, while preaching an uncompromising message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Billy Sunday went onto become a nationwide, traveling evangelist. Prior to World War One, Billy Sunday was well regarded as a champion of the Christian faith, preaching a homespun message. But in the post-war era, the national mood began to change.

It was an new era marked by the growth of “modernism,” a theological movement, stemming from German “Higher Criticism,” that began to move through America’s mainline Protestant churches. Still energetic, Billy Sunday spoke out against those liberal theological impulses, that sought to change the character of traditional beliefs and practices of America’s Christian heartland. He even became a vocal supporter of prohibition, banning the use of all alcohol. But Billy Sunday never adopted the newer methods of communicating his message, like radio or moving pictures.

He was also aging. Many of his critics came to think that his conservative theological views were aging as well.

In reacting to modernism, Billy Sunday had became the embodiment of the faith and outlook of those “fundamentalist” Christians who “hit the sawdust trail.” Billy Sunday’s unsophisticated fundamentalism represented both the stalwart and faithful return to “old time religion,” for some, and simultaneously, the object of scorn and ridicule for others.

Here is a rare film recording of Billy Sunday preaching in Boston, in 1926.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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