Billy Sunday

I tell you the saloon is a coward. It hides itself behind stained-glass doors and opaque windows, and sneaks its customers in a blind door, and keeps a sentinel to guard the door from the officers of the law . . . it strikes in the night. It fights under cover of darkness and assassinates the characters it cannot damn, and it lies about you. It attacks womanhood and childhood. The saloon is a coward.

— The Famous “Booze” Sermon, Billy Sunday, biblebelievers.com

 Liquor is God’s worst enemy, and hell’s best friend.

— Billy Sunday

“William Ashley Sunday (1862-1935) of the Philadelphia Phillies, who became world-famous for loving Christ and hating booze, put away his glove, his bat and his spikes in 1890. He had just completed a season in which he had stolen eight-four bases and earned $3,500, roughly nine times the wages of the average American industrial worker.” (Last Call, Daniel Okrent, p. 96)

Although Sunday wasn’t a heavy drinker, during his years in professional baseball, he observed the problematic drinking of fans, team owners, and his fellow players. “I never drank much. I was never drunk but four times in my life . . . I used to go to the saloons with the baseball players, and while they would drink highballs and beer, I would take lemonade.” (The Sawdust Trail, Billy Sunday, p. 67)

In 1886 or 1887, he was drawn to the preaching at the Pacific Garden Mission. The hymns reminded him of his mother. This led to his conversion to Christianity.

Humble Beginnings

Billy’s father was the son of German-born immigrants named Sonntag. To get along better in his new country, the family name was changed to Sunday. Conscripted into the Civil War, William Sunday Sr., an Iowa bricklayer, died of pneumonia in an army camp right around the time his wife was giving birth to their youngest child. The widow moved her children in with her parents for a time, but at age ten, Billy and an older brother were placed in the Soldiers’ Orphans Home in Glenwood, Iowa. At the orphanage, it became apparent that the young boy had exceptional athletic skills.

Billy worked odd jobs from ages 14 to 20 and played baseball for the fire brigade team in Marshalltown. In 1882, with Sunday in left field, the town team defeated the state champions, and he was signed by the Chicago White Stockings in 1883. After 4 years as a part-time player, he was traded to Pittsburgh, a team that fell into financial problems. Sunday moved on to the Phillies where he was very popular with the fans. However, his conversion to Christianity changed Sunday’s priorities. In the spring of 1891, he refused the Phillies’ offer, variously reported as being from $3,500 to $5,000 for the season and accepted a position as “Assistant Secretary” of the YMCA. The remuneration was $83 per month.

Hot Gospelling

After a few years, he took a position as an assistant to the famous evangelical preacher, J. Wilbur Chapman. When Chapman took a parsonage, Sunday took over the town-to-town caravan of Christ. He had learned something of “homiletics” from watching Chapman’s sermons, and he honed his own skills preaching on the “kerosene circuit” of small-town Iowa and Illinois. By 1905, he still couldn’t afford an “advance man,” so he often set up, and disassembled his own tent. When his wife, Nell, took over the administration of his tour, his career took off. Within a few years, he had a paid staff of 26.

Theologically, Sunday was a Fundamentalist. “He gets his results by inspiring fear and gloom in the hearts of sinners.” (The Reverend Billy Sunday and His War On The Devil, Lindsay Denison, p. 461)

Hell is the highest reward the devil can offer you for being a servant of his.

When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell.

I have no interest in a God who doesn’t smite.     

— Billy Sunday

“I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the liquor traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command. I shall ask no quarter from that gang, and they shall get none from me. After all is said that can be said on the liquor traffic, its influence is degrading on the individual, the family, politics and business and upon everything that you touch in this old world. For the time has long gone by when there is any ground for arguments of its ill effects. All are agreed on that point. There is just one prime reason why the saloon has not been knocked into hell, and that is the false statement ‘that the saloons are needed to help lighten the tax burden.’” (billysunday.org)

During WW I, coverage of Sunday’s campaign often surpassed coverage of the conflict in Europe. When Billy Sunday came to town, it was a big deal. His homespun preaching and dramatic, physical style were generally extremely popular with the public. Many returned night after night to hear his various sermons. “By 1917, he was considered by many the greatest revivalist in American history, perhaps the greatest since the days of the apostles.” (Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, William G. McLoughlin, xvii.)

Not everyone was thrilled with his style. One competitor found his preaching to be shockingly salacious. ” . . . Mr. Sunday’s sermon on the sex question was raw and disgusting . . . {his} famous sermons on amusements and booze . . . were the ugliest, nastiest, most disgusting addresses . . . ever listened to from a religious platform . . . ” (Billy Sunday, The Man and The Method, Frederick Wm. Betts, p. 30)

There may have been some jealousy involved. Sunday drew tremendous crowds, and the offerings were substantial. It is estimated that he took in over a million dollars in the years from 1908-1920. He sometimes made as much in a single day as the average American worker earned in a year. By all reports, he was very generous with his money, a “soft touch.” He sometimes turned over the full collection to a worthy cause. Although he had a taste for expensive clothing, for both himself and his family members, he was otherwise not extravagant.

Prohibition

Whiskey and beer are alright in their place, but their right place is Hell.

 — Billy Sunday

As organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League performed their political machinations that were geared toward effecting national prohibition, there was undeniable value in popular, charismatic characters like Sunday carrying the message to the citizenry that drinking is sin, that drunkenness is a corrosive evil.

Sunday had been an ardent champion of temperance from his earliest days as an evangelist, and his ministry at the Chicago YMCA had given him first-hand experience with the destructive potential of alcohol. Sunday’s most famous sermon was Get on the Water Wagon, which he preached on countless occasions with both histrionic emotion and a mountain of economic and moral evidence. Sunday said, “I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command.” (McLoughlin, p. 184)

Sunday played a significant role in arousing public interest in Prohibition and in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. When the tide of public opinion turned against Prohibition, he continued to support it. After its repeal in 1933, Sunday called for its reintroduction.

Do away with the cursed business and you will not have to put up to support them. Who gets the money? The saloonkeepers and the brewers, and the distillers, while the whisky fills the land with misery, and poverty, and wretchedness, and disease, and death, and damnation, and it is being authorized by the will of the sovereign people.

You say that “people will drink anyway.” Not by my vote. You say, “Men will murder their wives anyway.” Not by my vote. “They will steal anyway.” Not by my vote. You are the sovereign people, and what are you going to do about it?

Let me assemble before your minds the bodies of the drunken dead, who crawl away “into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,” and then out of the valley of the shadow of the drink let me call the appertaining motherhood, and wifehood, and childhood, and let their tears rain down upon their purple faces. Do you think that would stop the curse of the liquor traffic? No! No! 

 — The Famous Booze Sermon, biblebelievers.com


About the Author

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1991, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AA Agnostica website for over 8 years, and in January, 2015, published Key Players in AA History In 2013, he co-founded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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Dean W
Dean W

Thanks for another very interesting bit of history. It’s amazing (and appalling to me) how prevalent Christian fundamentalism still is in the U.S. today. We are way more religious as a nation than Canada or Europe. I’m sure this explains much of the apparent difference between AA meetings in Canada vs the U.S. One of the more frightening aspects of this national religiosity is a common disdain for science, including evidence-based addiction treatment. But I guess as long as God keeps telling the religous right-wingers here to keep supporting Trump all will be well. Maybe I should just get on… Read more »

Joe C
Joe C

One might wonder if this is the era of “great America” that the political right are trying to recreate. Sunday was accused of being salacious; the leaders of the day-even Bill and Bob-experienced their formative years in the Victorian era. Bertrand Russell has some liberal ideas about marriage and morality and he incensed more than one Yank at the time when he observed: “Urban New York of the 1940s was at exactly the same point in the road towards enlightenment as rural England in 1868.” And this is post-Billy Sunday. Articles like this (thanks B0b K) shed light on the… Read more »

Bob K
Bob K

Thanks for the various plugs. I’ve been researching and writing about the road to Prohibition. That pathway intersects with the road (more accurately, various roads) to Alcoholics Anonymous. Ernie Kurtz wrote about the timing of AA, arriving two years after the disastrous failure of America’s Great Experiment to rid itself its alcohol problem. I’ve long had a queer fascination for America’s preachers — mainly the televangelists. Billy Sunday, although not the first, may well be the epitome of the fire and brimstone theatrics that catch my eye and ear. I’m charmed by the phrasing, while finding the whole pomp and… Read more »

John L.
John L.

Fascinating. As an athlete, Billy Sunday had great energy and coordination. There are videos on him on Youtube. In one almost violent gesture, he seems to be throwing a baseball. The early evangelists had sex appeal, for example, Aimee Semple MePherson and Billy Graham. Sunday was a handsome man, and even in middle and old age, he was in great shape. No paunch. The virtues of exercise and abstinence.