Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Billy Sunday in Southern Missouri

In the 1880s, while he was playing professional baseball, Billy Sunday converted to Christianity. Denouncing drinking, swearing, and gambling, he soon started speaking in churches and at YMCAs. A dynamic baserunner and a flashy but inconsistent fielder, Sunday was never more than a mediocre hitter. He soon left baseball and went to work full time for a YMCA in Chicago, where he ministered to the sick and the troubled. Later he became an assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, a well-known evangelist. In the late 1890s Sunday went out on his own as a traveling evangelist, and during the first two decades of the 20th century he became the most famous evangelist in America. Not until Billy Graham rose to fame in the late 1940s did an evangelist fill more pews or convert more sinners than Billy Sunday did. He spoke to millions and converted an estimated 300,000 people.
Throughout his life, Sunday remained a big fan of baseball, and he often used his ties to baseball to promote his revivals. One time in 1907 in Fairfield, Iowa, for instance, he urged the community businesses to organize two baseball teams in advance of his appearance, and when he arrived in town, he played alternately for both teams wearing his professional baseball uniform. Known for his fiery, histrionic sermons, he would occasionally slide across the stage in imitation of a baseball slide as he exhorted his audience to slide safely into the arms of the Lord. Espousing a traditional, "old-time" religion, he was also known for his straightforward, sometimes coarse language. For instance, he once characterized evolution as a "bastard theory" and "pure jackass nonsense."
His theatrical yet blunt style and his conservative views were, of course, not universally popular. He was criticized as a tool of big business and for making too much money from his preaching, and there were places throughout the country where he was not welcome. Yet he did adopt certain progressive positions that, if anything, might have made him even more controversial, such as his support for women's suffrage and for the full acceptance of Catholics. Even in conservative southern Missouri, Billy Sunday received a uneven welcome.
In December of 1909, Sunday held a series of revival meetings in Joplin with several hundred people in attendance. At one sermon, he preached against dancing, denouncing it as a "hotbed of licentiousness" and "nothing but a hugging match set to music." At least one newspaper, however, editorialized against Sunday at the time, claiming that he used "slang and vulgarity in the pulpit."
When Billy Sunday held a tabernacle revival at Cape Girardeau in March of 1926, more than hundred people from Sikeston alone traveled to Cape to hear the evangelist. Afterward, the Sikeston group declared that they had been "highly entertained and thrilled, an occasion seldom experienced in a lifetime." During the revival, Sunday took a side trip to Sikeston for a single sermon on March 17 and packed the Methodist Church "to the utmost."
In 1928, the ministerial alliance of Springfield tried to organize a Billy Sunday revival there, but the idea was dropped when some ministers and other church officials voiced their opposition to the idea. Sunday said he wouldn't come where he wasn't wanted.
Sunday's success and importance as an evangelist waned during the late 20s and early 30s as more people began going to movies, listening to radio, and so forth instead attending camp meetings and revivals. Sunday died in 1935.

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