William Ashley “Billy” Sunday (November 19, 1862 – November 6, 1935) was an American athlete who, after being a popular outfielder in baseball’s National League during the 1880s, became the most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century.
Born into poverty near Ames, Iowa, Billy never met his soldier father, and the family was deserted by his step-father. When he was ten, his impoverished mother sent him and an older brother to the Soldiers’ Orphans Home. By fourteen, he was shifting for himself.
Speed was Billy Sunday’s claim to stardom. For years he held the record as the fastest man in baseball, circling the bases in 14 seconds flat. He was known as the most daring base stealer in the game. . .
It was while playing ball for Chicago that Billy Sunday signed up with God, in the fall of 1887. Years later, he recalled: Twenty seven years ago I walked down a street in Chicago in company with some ball players who were famous in this world, some of them are dead now – and we went into a saloon. It was Sunday afternoon and we got tanked up and then went and sat down on a corner. I never go by that street without thanking God for saving me. It was a vacant lot at that time. We sat down on a curbing. Across the street a company of men and women were playing on instruments – horns, flutes, and slide trombones and the others were singing the gospel hymns that I used to hear my mother sing back in the log cabin in Iowa and back in the old church where I used to go to Sunday School.
I sobbed and sobbed and a young man stepped out and said, “We are going down to the Pacific Garden Mission. Won’t you come down to the mission?”
I arose and said to the boys, “I’m through. I am going to Jesus Christ. We’ve come to the parting of the ways,” and I turned my back on them. Some of them laughed and some of them mocked me, one of them gave me encouragement, others never said a word.
Twenty seven years ago I turned and left that little group on the corner of State and Madison streets and walked to the little mission and fell on my knees and staggered out of sin and into the arms of the Saviour.
The new Billy Sunday continued to play ball, but his extracurricular activities changed dramatically. He followed the rule of the Pacific Garden Mission that the redeemed of the Lord should say so, testifying at every opportunity. At first he could hardly speak three sentences without “sputtering and sweating,” but he gained confidence with each meeting. The Y.M.C.A. arranged speaking engagements for him on his baseball circuit, and soon everyone knew that the Chicago baseball star was a Christian. Captain Anson made him the business manager of the Chicago White Stockings. . .
Billy did not immediately leap into the field of evangelism. It was a slow, arduous move, full of doubts and fears. He continued playing ball for Pittsburg until he was traded to Philadelphia in 1891. It was a three-year contract with a huge salary, but Billy soon wanted out. . . his heart was burdened to give himself to full-time Christian service. A contract for three years of his life stood in his way, a contract from which Philadelphia refused to release him.
Sunday begged God, and finally set out a fleece: “Lord, if I can get my release by March 25th, I will go into Y.M.C.A. work. If I don’t get it, I will accept that as evidence you want me to continue playing ball, and I will play out the rest of my contract.” On March 17, Sunday was notified that he could have his release. God had answered.
Immediately, God sent a test. Cincinnati offered Sunday a contract for five thousand dollars for one season. For two days he wrestled, neither eating or sleeping. Another baby was coming and times were hard. He decided to accept the contract, but his wife Nell reproved him. “You promised God that you would quit. Stick to your promise.”
He did. The next day he signed up as a full-time Y.M.C.A. worker, trading a $5000 contract for a salary of $83.00 a month. His duties included street meetings, literature distribution, fund-raising, routine office duties and securing speakers for the noon prayer meetings. . .
Over the course of his career, Sunday probably preached to more than one hundred million people face-to-face—and, to the great majority, without electronic amplification. Vast numbers “hit the sawdust trail.” Although the usual total given for those who came forward at invitations is an even million, one modern historian estimates the true figure to be closer to 1,250,000. . . Before his death, Sunday estimated that he had preached nearly 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 per month from 1896 to 1935.
His style of preaching was his own. It is estimated he walked a mile over his platform during each sermon. He would be in all kinds of positions before the service was over. The choir was always one tenth the size of the crowd. The song service lasted for 30 minutes, then Sunday preached for an hour and gave an invitation, personally shaking hands with all that came forward. It is said he could handshake 84 “trail-hitters” a minute. His Bible was always opened to Isaiah 61:1 every time he preached. . .
Sunday was a strong supporter of Prohibition, and his preaching almost certainly played a significant role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. His most famous sermon, “Get on the Water Wagon” lasted one hour and forty minutes. The liquor industry offered him $1 million to quit preaching, but he refused.
Hear some of Billy’s sermons : http://www.geneamondson.com/mission/billysundaypromo.html