Billy Sunday and Old Fashion Preaching
I have a complete 1921 edition of the magazine The Country Gentleman. I got it professionally framed, and I have the joy of seeing it everyday as it hangs. Hard to believe it will soon be 100 years old. (I also have an original cover page of the 11/24/51 edition of The Saturday Evening Post which shows a grandmother and her grandson at a diner in some working class town praying. I love it. It’s professionally framed as well.)
About 25 years ago, Judy and I went to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. We didn’t know much about the man, but we had seen enough of his work to be interested in seeing the museum. It was a really fun and informative experience. It helped me to appreciate the incredible talent this man had.
After we left the museum, we went to a little store in the town. While looking around, I saw a pile of magazines and in it was the magazine I now own. I had to have it. For its age, it was in incredibly great shape.
Here’s what drew my attention to it:
It was the 4th of July issue.
The cover is of an old Civil War soldier holding his musket in his hands while aiming it.
Right behind him is his grandson, couched down just a little and peering around his grandfather to watch him shoot.
And, down at the bottom of the front cover it says: “America Our Meal Ticket — Billy Sunday.”
It’s a brief article by the Evangelist Billy Sunday about immigration.
I couldn’t pass up the magazine for those reasons. But primarily it was the fact that Billy Sunday was highlighted as a contributor in the magazine.
“So … who is Billy Sunday?” you might ask.
I’m not going to go into this with any sense of exhaustive depth. That’s easy to research online. But, here are just a few things.
He was born during the Civil War and died during the Great Depression. That’s the time frame in which he lived. But, here’s what’s forgotten and not known by the average Christian today. He was a man that preached literally to thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people in his preaching crusades.
Here are just a few things I dug up that you might find interesting. They are from an online article entitled:
What Was It Like to Hear Billy Sunday Preach? August 3, 2016 Justin Taylor
(article quotes begin)
Sunday was converted to Christianity at Pacific Garden Mission around 1886, and he retired from baseball to pursue evangelism. By 1895, he was headlining his own revivals, and he soon became one of the most successful evangelists of his generation. His events were so well-populated that the locations of his revivals would prepare months in advance, constructing wooden tabernacles able to hold up to 10 percent of a smaller town and up to 20,000 people in a major city. The apex of his career was in 1917, during World War I, when 98,000 people “hit the sawdust trail” (came forward for commitment or recommitment to Christ) during a 10-week revival in New York City. (You can listen to the old fashioned radio program dramatization from Pacific Garden Mission here )
(same article) — His biographer Robert Martin wrote: ”He believed and preached only enough doctrine to make sense of his own conversion and that which he hoped to engender in others.” From what I can tell, he never really set forth the beauty and importance of communing with God through Christ by the Spirit to the glory of God. Rather, the focus was more on decisive transformation and good Christian morals for the good of society. He portrayed an image of the all-American man: plain-spoken, unabashed, athletic, patriotic, professional, and hyper-masculine, delivering a form of old-time religion with entertainment, toughness, and passion.
(same article) — Martin writes:
Although he offended some worshipers’ sense of decorum, his unabashed breach of rules of syntax, frequent use of slang, and forceful delivery generally enhanced the preacher’s tough, street-wise image.
Regarding his early preaching style, Sunday recounted:
“I wrote sermons with sentences so long that they’d make a Greek professor’s jaw squeak for a week after he said one of them: but I soon found that that didn’t get any results. So I loaded my gospel gun with rough-on-rats, ipecac, and barbed wire, and the gang’s been hunting a hole ever since.”
(same article) — Instead of praying, “Lord save us from weak Christianity,” he prayed:
“Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified three-karat Christianity.” (end of article quotes)
Here’s a link to a brief YouTube clip of Billy Sunday preaching in Boston in 1926.
Here’s a quote from a 1916 newspaper.
November 12, 1916
Evangelist Billy Sunday Draws 70,000 to Boston Revival
“On this day in 1916, 55,000 people came to hear Billy Sunday preach in Boston. An overflow crowd of 15,000 had to be turned away from the temporary tabernacle that had been erected on Huntington Avenue. During the next ten weeks, the baseball star-turned evangelist drew an estimated 1,500,000 to his Boston meetings. His acrobatic antics, colorful language, frank discussion of sexual mores, and retinue of performers smacked of a vaudeville show. But his masterful preaching moved many to commit their lives to Jesus. Billy Sunday led countless crusades across the nation. The sermons against the evils of alcohol that he delivered in Boston, long remembered as among his most powerful, helped win passage of the constitutional amendment that made prohibition the law of the land.” (Amazing stuff. A million and a half people!) Read the article here.
One more quote from an article found here.
“During the next 46 years, till his death November 6, 1935, over 100 million people heard Billy Sunday preach.”
How is it possible that a whole generation of Christians living now doesn’t know diddly-squat about this man? How can a man who drew an estimated 1,500,000 to meetings in Boston and preached to over 100 million in his lifetime just drop off the Christian radar? This demands an answer.
You watched the clip (I hope you will). You read what I quoted. Any thoughts, suggestions, as to how/why this man is collectively gone from our memories along with many more of our great, forgotten Bible preaching (and missionary) forefathers?
May I suggest:
Billy Sunday (and others like him) preached from an assumed and understood position of commonality among God’s people at that time. His kind of preaching wasn’t foreign to them. Pulpits up and down our nation thundered with men like that. We don’t hear anything like this anymore (or at least very, very little like it) from our pulpits. Actually, do we hear preaching … period? I submit to you that what fills our pulpits today is: Teaching.
I’ve lived through the transition from Preaching to Teaching in our Christian churches over the years. And honestly, I understand what happened and why. We were getting (in my opinion) preaching that lacked a foundation built upon personal expositional study.
What I mean by that is this. When coming to a passage there is the need to know what surrounds the passage — the context. You can’t just take a text and make it a pre-text. For the text to stand properly, it must be built upon the contextual foundation. Otherwise, you just end up with somebody’s watered down pablum. Not much substance to it. And … it first has to be absorbed into the heart of the preacher and not just his head.
I got frustrated with that kind of “preaching.” Many others did as well. God’s people need “meat” to grow into strong believers. So, an emphasis developed that focused more on teaching.
It was so refreshing. You could feel new spiritual life coming back into you. Kind of like when I found out I had cancer. Luke got me into full-blown juicing. 64 ounces a day (or more) for a few weeks. I could literally feel my body reviving, changing, getting healthier. It was amazing.
But, I hit a wall to where I couldn’t keep up with that amount of intake. I was full. My body wasn’t needing/able to take in that much anymore. I think that’s sort of where we are now in Christianity and in the Messianic movement. (Actually, I think it’s worse among the Messianic “teachers.”)
We’re full-up to our ears with teaching. But yet, we keep getting more dumped into us. We know it all. We’re “healthy.” We’re bored. We’ve lost interest. We’re looking elsewhere. We’re turning into a condition that is similar to where it all started from: Flabby believers in need of substance.
But this time it’s the substantive need for productive change within the life of the individual believer. You would think that knowledge alone would produce the change in God’s people that is needed. And though for awhile it might, it doesn’t last. We’re just like God’s people have always been — we wander, stray, become sinful, worldly, nondescript.
And at that point, what’s needed is what God’s people have always needed:
A GOOD KICK IN THE SEAT OF THE PANTS. It’s called PREACHING. Old Fashioned Preaching.
We can’t let down the next generation of God’s children. We have to stop the descent into Christian Heathenism. Yes, Christian Heathenism … not being noticeably different from the lost world around us. Nondescript.
But! … I do sense that there may be a growing hunger once again for good old fashioned substantive preaching.
We just need some Preachers.
Lord, please raise up some.