Billy Sunday Essay, Research Paper
For almost a quarter century Billy Sunday was a household name in the United States. Between 1902 when he first made the pages of the New York Times and 1935 when the paper covered his death and memorial service in detail, people who knew anything about current events had heard of the former major league baseball player who was preaching sin and salvation to large crowds all over America. Not everyone who knew of the famous evangelist liked him. Plenty of outspoken critics spoke of his flashy style and criticized his conservative doctrines. But he had hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of loyal defenders, and they were just as loud in their praise as the critics were in their criticism.
Whether people stood for or against the Reverend William A. Sunday, they all agreed that it was difficult to be indifferent toward him. The religious leader was so extraordinarily popular, opinionated, and vocal that indifference was the last thing that he would get from people. His most loyal admirers were confident that this rural-breed preacher was God s mouthpiece, calling Americans to repentance. Sunday s critics said that at best he was a well-meaning buffoon whose sermons vulgarized and trivialized the Christian message and at worst he was a disgrace to the name of Christ (Dorsett 2).
There are elements of truth in both of these views. He was often guilty of oversimplifying biblical truths, and at times he spoke more out of ignorance than a heavenly viewpoint. He was also a man with numerous flaws. He spoiled his children, giving them everything that they asked for. He put enormous responsibility on his wife, burdening her with many aspects of his ministry. He always noticeably sought the applause of the crowd for his own praise. He often confused the will of God with his own social and political agenda. He even sometimes compared the gospel of Jesus Christ with special interest and American foreign policy.
Nevertheless, Billy Sunday was a sincere man whose life was fundamentally changed by his response to an evangelist s call to repent of his sins, to believe that Jesus Christ died in his place for those sins, and to follow Christ in thanksgiving by worshiping and obeying him. Following this spiritual rebirth, the convert became deeply devoted to Jesus Christ. A devotion manifested in living out many of the teachings of Christ as found in the New Testament s four Gospels. The professional baseball player became a regular churchgoer. He also studied Scripture and became unusually generous toward the needy.
Furthermore, Sunday was constrained by an obsession to tell others how he had finally found inner peace and a more purposeful life. At first through lectures and then in sermons, he related how Jesus Christ gave him a new life of meaning, peace, and hope. This same gospel, he said, would similarly transform others. The evidence is overwhelmingly that it did.
If Billy Sunday was sincere devoted, and motivated, he was also a product of his times and an example of the culture and morals of middle America. On the other hand, Sunday took many stands against popular beliefs, and he persuaded multitudes to join him in a war against many of the modernistic ideas of the time that he saw as evil. As he once summarized his opinion so well, What this world needs is a tidal wave of reform (Sunday Satan 24).
It is true that Sunday was a showman who craved an audience and loved applause. But he also touched the lives of countless men and women of all social classes, helping them escape various forms of personal bondage and find freedom in the gospel. And if he did not convert all of urban America to his brand of Christianity, he at least played a major role in helping to keep conservative biblical Christianity alive in this century (Dorsett 3). To understand fully why he thought, lived, preached, and teached the way he did, we should look at his upbringing and conversion experience.
William Ashley Sunday was born on November 19, 1862. His father, a union private, would die of pneumonia just five weeks later, three days before Christmas, in a cold, damp army tent in the Missouri wild. His father s death and a series of other deaths would come to have a tremendous impact on Sunday s life. For the first three years of Billy Sunday s life he was a very sickly child. His mother, Mary Jane, would carry him around on a tote pillow while helping her parents plant corn, milk cows, chop wood, and wrangle horses. Then a traveling doctor prepared a syrup that Mary Jane fed to Billy every day for three weeks. Miraculously, Billy gained strength and became a normal active child.
Luck changed for Billy s family, but only for a short time. His mother remarried and had two more children. Sadly, the second child, a girl, died in a fire when she was three. Not long after, Mary Jane s second husband died also. These untimely deaths left a mark on young Billy that stayed with him for the remainder of his life.
In a short autobiography written for The Ladies Home Journal, he begins with the words I never saw my father. In the first few pages of this revealing tale he recalls ten deaths in addition to that of his father. Four aunts and an uncle died of tuberculosis, and then a grandmother he loved dearly died of the same disease. Billy was six years old when she died. I would leave her coffin, he recalled, only when forced to do so. The second day after the funeral my mother missed me. They called and searched everywhere; finally my dog picked up the scent and they followed my tracks through the snow to the grave, weeping and chilled through with the November winds. For weeks they feared I would not live.
As painful as these deaths all were, Billy Sunday soon experienced a more hurtful separation. By 1872, Mrs. Sunday and her parents were so impoverished that they could not feed and clothe all the children. Thanks to a state senator, they re assigned to one of Iowa s three well-run Civil War Soldiers Homes located in Glenwood, about a hundred and fifty miles from the Sunday homestead. Billy remembered the departure this way:
When we climbed into the wagon to go to town I called out, Good-bye trees, good by spring. I put my arms around my dog-named Watch and kissed him.
The train left about one o clock in the morning. We went to the little hotel near the depot to wait
The proprietor awakened us about twelve-thirty saying, The train is coming. I looked into mother s face. Her eyes were red and her cheeks wet from weeping, her hair disheveled. While Ed and I slept she had prayed and wept. We went to the depot, and as the train pulled in she drew us to her heart, sobbing as if her heart would break (Sunday Sermons 14).
Life at Glenwood became rather pleasant for Billy and Eddie. Despite their initial homesickness, they found the environment to their liking. But good things never seemed to last for the Sundays. No sooner had the boys settled in and begun to feel part of the landscape than the pain of separation entered their lives again. They were moved to Davenport, another Soldier s Orphan Home, because of State money concerns.
The four years in orphans homes were important ones for Billy Sunday. They turned out to be some of the best years of his formal schooling. He left Davenport with an ability to read, write, and do elementary math. His legacy from the Pierces care also included an ability to work hard and a desire to keep himself and his clothing neat and clean.
Living in the Soldiers Home taught him to get along with many people, and in the midst of hundreds of other youngsters he was freed from a temptation common to all children, the temptation to believe that he is the most important in the universe. The orphanage years also taught Billy Sunday some self-confidence. He not only discovered that he could perform all sorts of tasks; he also learned that among several hundred boys he was a first-rate athlete. He found that he was exceptionally fast on foot. He also found that on the baseball field he learned that his legs could do more than quickly get him under fly balls, they enabled him to steal bases.
After he left the orphanage, he went back home for a short while. He then left for the city of Nevada determined to make it on his own. He worked for a Civil War veteran and his wife. Colonel and Mrs. John Scott took him in, loved him, worked him hard, and sent him to two years of high school. No one knows whether or not he graduated, but he was much better educated than the typical American was.
In 1880, two months before his eighteenth birthday, Billy Sunday decided to give up the rural life. He moved thirty miles east to Marshalltown, an agricultural service community that was becoming a small city. He was recruited by the Fire Brigade and began to work in a furniture store. Billy began to play baseball each time the Marshalltown team took the field. The boy from Story County not only made the team but also immediately distinguished himself as a base stealer and left fielder. He helped the team prove themselves as one of the finest in the state.
It was in early spring 1883 that Billy Sunday received a telegraph message from Adrian Anson, captain and manager of the Chicago White Stockings. That was the first telegram I had ever received, Sunday wrote in his autobiography, and it was good news! The good news was that Pop or Cap, as the players called Anson, wanted Sunday in Chicago immediately to try out for the famous National League baseball team.
He had heard of Billy from an Aunt in Iowa.
In a remarkable display of self-confidence, the twenty-year-old bush leaguer resigned his job of finishing furniture and making mattresses. He spent his entire saving, $6.00, on a new sage green suit. He then borrowed $4.50 from a friend and spent $3.50 on a trip to Chicago. He arrived with only one dollar in his pocket.
Although Chicago was only 250 miles from Marshalltown, as far as Billy Sunday was concerned the growing mid-western metropolis might as well have been on another planet. The former farm boy had never been so far from Iowa, and he had never seen a city larger than Des Moines (Dorsett 18). Within an hour of arrival the small-town Iowan felt the anxiety and self-consciousness of a county bumpkin in the big city. He arrived at Spalding s Sporting Goods Store, Spalding was owner of the team, just as the telegram directed. After waiting a couple of hours team members began to arrive.
After a while Cap Anson strolled in. Tall, rugged, and burly, he introduced himself to the uncomfortable newcomer. Billy, they tell me that you can run some. Fred Pfeffer is out crack runner. How about putting on a little race this morning?
Sunday happily agreed. Billy borrowed a uniform from a pitcher named Larry Cochrane, but for the time being there were no athletic shoes. Pheffer came out and he had on running shoes, so I ran him barefooted, and I m glad to be able to say that I ran rings around him, beating him by fifteen feet.
It was Sunday s speed that ultimately won him a permanent spot with the Chicago club, because this ingredient was part of Pop Anson s recipe for success. Anson made Sunday a member of his twelve-man squad in 1883. The rookie played very little that first season, he took the field, in only fourteen games, but he also served the team by handling all of the business management for Anson while they were on the road.
The results were not stellar, but the rookie showed marked improvement. Sunday batted .241 in fourteen games his first year, and he hit .222 after forty-three games in 1884. In 1885 he played in forty-six games, raising his batting average to .256. In 1886 Sunday played twenty-eight games and batted .243. During the season of 1887 he was a starter in fifty games and rapped out fifty-eight hits, pushing his average to a career high of .291. He also stole thirty-four bases that year.
Establishing himself as a professional ball player was important to the Iowa farm boy, but it paled in comparison to an event that took place during the 1886 season. One afternoon during the summer of 1886 Billy and some of the other players were walking the streets of Chicago. There were no games on Sundays in those days, and none of the half dozen players with Billy had anything purposeful to do. After a few drinks in a downtown saloon they strolled along and came upon a horse drawn wagon. This particular wagon was one of the Pacific Garden Mission preaching teams.
After listening to the gospel hymns that reminded him of his mother, something in Billy began to stir. Whatever the source of this inner restlessness, the veteran of three baseball seasons stood up at the street preacher s invitation and abruptly announced to his teammates on the curb, Boys I bid the old life good-bye. Billy considered going down during the invitation but did not. After several days of agonizing over this Billy went back to the mission and decided, With Christ you are saved, without him you are lost (Sunday Satan 4). He committed his life that night to a cause that he saw was more important than any baseball game ever played.
Despite becoming largely famous after being traded to Philadelphia, it would be the results of that decision at the Pacific Garden Mission that the world would remember Billy Sunday for. Some applauded Sunday and his methods; others did not. But there is no question that Sunday s sensational career was a phenomenon Americans would not soon forget.
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