William Ashley Sunday (1862-1935) was the foremost Protestant evangelist of the early 20th century. “Billy” Sunday, as the so-called baseball evangelist was widely known, made an indelible imprint on the style of the urban revival campaign, a form developed by Dwight L. Moody in the 1870s and continued by Billy Graham in the post-World War II era.
Sunday's early years in rural Iowa were difficult: His father, a Union Army soldier, died just days after his son's birth. In the family upheavals that followed, Billy shuffled between an orphanage and various menial jobs, until he left Iowa to join the Chicago White Stockings in 1883. A top-ranked base-stealer, Sunday also played for teams in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia; however, after he experienced a dramatic religious conversion in 1887, he quit baseball to begin full-time work with the Young Men's Christian Association in 1891.
In 1888, Sunday married Helen Thompson, a bluff, capable woman affectionately known to Billy's public as “Ma Sunday.” Often credited as the organizational mind behind her husband's volatile public persona, Mrs. Sunday typically fielded speaking invitations and business arrangements for Sunday's evangelistic campaigns. The couple had four children: Helen (1891), George Marquis (1894), William Ashley Jr. (1902), and Paul Thompson (1908).
Sunday entered the national evangelistic circuit in 1893 as an advance man for J. Wilbur Chapman. Chapman, a polished, genial Presbyterian, perfected the technique of the “simultaneous campaign,” which brought his entourage to a city for 3 or more weeks at a time and orchestrated regular participation by area Protestant churches. When Chapman left the revival circuit in 1896, Sunday began his own tour of small towns and cities in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois.
Within 10 years, the former baseball player was a national sensation, holding major crusades in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, where thousands walked the “sawdust trail” to mark their conversion. Though each local campaign took many months of advance preparation and systematic fundraising by area churches, Sunday himself was the star of every show. His platform antics, which included breaking chairs and wrestling with the devil, won him regular front page headlines in the secular as well as religious press. An ardent prohibitionist, Sunday directed some of his most famous sermons, including “Booze, or Get on the Water Wagon,” primarily at men and boys. Sunday also attracted his share of religious critics, who regarded his emotional, individualistic piety as overly simplistic, or recoiled at his slangy, vaudeville style of “muscular Christianity.” Secular critics, including Carl Sandberg, John Reed, and George Creel, denounced Sunday's close ties with wealthy supporters and the large amounts of money he received through free-will offerings.
Sunday's career peaked during World War I, culminating with the successful passage of the Prohibition amendment in 1920, but it began to decline in the years before his death. Personal troubles played a role in the reversal, including the highly publicized divorces of his two sons, George and William, the death of his daughter Helen in 1932, and George's suicide in 1933. Sunday also suffered from ill health, the cumulative effect of a rugged travel schedule and a weak heart. He died of a heart attack in November of 1935.
Baseball and Ballparks, Prohibition