The Town which Billy Sunday Couldn’t Tame
by Rev. David T. Myers
“Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town
Chicago, Chicago, I’ll show you around, I love it
Bet your bottom dollar, you’ll lose the blues in Chicago
Chicago, the town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down.”
So went the opening lines of Frank Sinatra’s song, “Chicago,” which prominently proclaimed it as “the town which Billy Sunday couldn’t tame.” This writer often wondered whether listeners even knew who Billy Sunday was, but the populations of both small and large towns and cities in the early part of the twentieth century knew him well. Billy Sunday was an evangelist, who preached to one hundred million people during his crusades, with the result that one million professed Christ as Lord and Savior. He was also a Presbyterian, having been ordained in 1903 by that church.
Billy Sunday was born William Asley Sunday in Iowa on November 19, 1862. His father was a Union Army veteran of the Civil War, and died of complications from battlefield wounds. His mother, unable to care for him and a brother, sent him to two Orphan Homes in Iowa. He eventually came under the tutelage of a Lt. Governor of Iowa who sent him to a public high school. It was there that this athleticism stood out, especially on the baseball field. Billy went on to play in the National League with Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia professional baseball teams in the latter part of the eighteen hundreds.
It was while he was in Chicago in 1880 that he heard a street corner evangelist who invited him to attend the Pacific Garden Mission. He did, and was converted to evangelical Christianity. He began to attend a Presbyterian Church in Chicago regularly. It was there that he met his wife, Helen Amelia “Nell” Thompson. They were married in September, 1888. In the next decade, after working for the YMCA, he became the advance man for Presbyterian evangelist J. W. Chapman. When the latter returned to the pastorate, Billy Sunday took over the evangelistic crusades in small and large towns alike.
He popularized the “sawdust trail” in large wooden tabernacles, built for just the crusades. During his ministry, over 300 crusades were held in 39 years, with the gospel being presented and believed. In Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, for example, over twenty-five percent of the population came to Christ. In the ensuing year, over 200 taverns permanently closed down. It was said that as he preached his messages, his Bible was always opened to the Messianic text of Isaiah 61:1, which reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath send me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (KJV) And all these results were being accomplished during his meetings.
Billy Sunday went to be with the Lord on November 6, 1935. His funeral was held at Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, Illinois, with Harry Ironside presiding, and 4400 mourners present. His wife lived until 1957.
Words to live by: While the great evangelical truths of the historic Christian faith were believed and proclaimed by Billy Sunday, we cannot affirm that Biblical Calvinism was indeed taught by this Presbyterian evangelist. There were many flaws in his theology. He preached that man had some part in his conversion, even though God had always the greater part. Further, converts were sent back to the churches in which their membership was found, even if they were Roman Catholic. The deepest tragedy—a common one among men consumed by their ministry—his own children had disastrous moral lives as a result of Rev. Sunday’s frequent abandonment of his family for crusade meetings. There is much that we can commend, but also much to be sorrowful about in his life and ministry. God’s people, and pastors especially, need to remember that marriage, and thus family too, precedes and is the , in Scripture, marriage and family precede the existence of the Church. We must first be faithful in the context of our family before we can truly be fruitful in ministry to others.