From Stealing Bases to Saving Souls
Billy Sunday, the best-known evangelist in America during the first half of the twentieth-century, used blunt language and a simple gospel message to call people to Jesus. He beseeched people to "hit the sawdust trail" (respond to an altar call), "stay on the wagon" (abstain from alcohol), and remain faithful Christians until "the great Umpire of the Universe" said, "You're safe at home." From 1896 until his death in 1935, between eighty and one hundred million people heard Sunday's straight-talking message. Revered by some and reviled by others, Sunday left an indelible mark on American evangelicalism. For good or ill, he became what many Americans thought of when they heard the word "evangelist."
Two recent books offer introductions to Sunday. The Sawdust Trail, Sunday's only autobiography, originally appeared in The Ladies Home Journal in 1932 and 1933; the University of Iowa Press has now published a new edition. TheSawdust Trail is both a testament to God's work in Sunday's life and an American rags-to-riches success story. Sunday begins his story with his father's death in the Civil War and continues through a tough childhood (including stints in orphanages owing to his mother's financial and marital hardships) and his career as a baseball player for the Chicago Whitestockings ("I am not tooting my horn to sell you any clams, but I could steal the bases and play the outfield as well as any of 'em in my day"). During his time as a ballplayer, Sunday made two momentous decisions: He became a Christian and he married Helen "Ma" Sunday. He eventually left baseball in order to become an evangelist—a career in which he owed much of his success to the support of his wife.
Sunday's autobiography is not a smooth, well-organized narrative. If you just want the story of the evangelist's life, there are better books. But if you want a taste of his language and message, it is a great place to start. In 86 pages, you get classic Sunday language on some of his favorite subjects. He lambastes overly intellectual preaching: "The time has come when we preachers must be something more than walking theological mummies swathed in papyrus, oozing Greek diphthongs and seven terminologies of Latin and Greek extraction." The loose morals of the day also come in for criticism: "The modern dances are disgusting with their brazen pandering to lust. There seems to be but one idea prevalent." By the 1930s, Sunday was no longer at the apex of his evangelistic career, but the former ballplayer was still slugging with his words.
W.A. Firstenberger's new book In Rare Form: A Pictorial History of Baseball Evangelist Billy Sunday (University of Iowa Press) shifts the focus from what Sunday said to what Sunday owned. Firstenberger, the curator of the Billy Sunday Historic Site Museum in Winona Lake, Indiana, argues that people's possessions shed light on their lives. Not all readers will be interested in the methodological claims Firstenberger makes throughout the book (although it might be worthwhile to consider what your possessions say about what you value). The pictures in the book, however, are of general interest. They give a sense of Sunday's life as well as life in early 20th-century America. Pictures of his house, for example, reveal a tendency toward simplicity. Spaces guests might see were expensively decorated. Private spaces (and the house consisted mainly of private spaces) were comfortable but plain.
The book also uncovers some interesting discrepancies between Sunday's reputation and his possessions. Some of the discrepancies are, granted, more tantalizing than important. Firstenberger asks why a man who railed against modern dances, music, and drinking would have kept a victrola, secular dance music, and a couple of brandy snifters and cordial glasses in his house. Fun questions—but Firstenberger has no answers.
More significant are his findings regarding Sunday's supposed materialism and his purported anti-intellectualism. Sunday was a successful evangelist—both in terms of souls converted and money made. Some people criticized Sunday's luxurious lifestyle. On the basis of an analysis of his house, however, Firstenberger suggests that Sunday's lifestyle was more comfortable than opulent. The evangelist lived well but not as well as he could have. Sunday may also have read more than his critics guessed. While the evangelist famously said of St. Augustine that unless he played for the National League, he would not know of him, a perusal of his library shelves reveals that Sunday read a great deal (similarities between some of the books and passages in Sunday's sermons suggest that he also "borrowed" extensively). He mainly read books that buttressed his own conservative theology, but read he did.
If you are interested in getting to know Billy Sunday in somewhat unconventional ways (there are also more conventional biographies and studies of Sunday), these two books are good places to begin.
Sarah Johnson is a Ph.D. student in American religious history at Duke University.
* For further reading about Billy Sunday, see Lyle W. Dorsett's Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Eerdmans, 1991) and Robert F. Martin's Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of American Society, 1862-1935 (Indiana University Press, 2002).
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