Billy Sunday: The Baseball Evangelist

"Preaching" by BPL - originally posted to Flickr as Preaching. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -
Billy Sunday was a preacher and a Baseball player and one of the most powerful men of his generation.

Born into poverty in 1862, his father died when the young William Ashley Sunday was just five weeks old. His mother, who, after a few years of support from her father, could no longer provide for her children, sent Billy and his elder brother to an orphanage in Iowa.

Billy was fleet of foot and athletic as a young man and made his way into professional baseball with the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) by the time he was 21 years old. He was reputedly the first man to round the bases in 14 seconds flat, and held the record for stolen bases for some years until it was surpassed by the legendary Ty Cobb.

Baseball or the Bible?

Sunday became a Christian after a he and a group of his friends stumbled across an outdoor meeting whilst out drinking. Billy was invited to attend the Mission, and he agreed. He was still playing for the White Stockings at the time and, although at first he was fearful of their scorn, most of his team mates encouraged him in his new-found faith. Billy Sunday, the Christian, almost immediately began speaking publicly about his faith.

Billy Sunday's Christianity led him to respond to professional sport in ways quite different from the leading lights of the muscular Christian era. Before him the Studd brothers had used their position in the sports world as a means to promote the gospel. Even the famed evangelist D. L. Moody had been an advocate of sport as a means to character development and moral reformation.

But Sunday was quite different and in 1891 he felt that he could no longer reconcile his faith with his role in professional sport. It was time he should quit 'wasting time' in sport and get down to the serious business of saving souls. He committed himself to full-time ministry, accepting a salary just a fraction of the amount he would have earned in Baseball.

When Sunday Comes

They used to say that whenever Billy Sunday came to town, all the local liquor joints would be shut down. His early experiences in Chicago, and the drunkenness that was rife among his team mates, convinced him of the dangers of alcoholism. Billy began to preach vehemently against the use of alcohol. He railed against 'booze' in his sermons and the people would respond.

In R. H. Tawney's tome Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, (which is substantially a response to Weber's Protestant Ethic) the author proposes that Christians have interacted with 'the world of social institutions and economic relations' in four distinct ways. Loosely these can be described as

  1. Ascetic aloofness - to actively and deliberately remove oneself from the social sphere for the sake of one's own soul. This might be most evident in the taking of monastic vows.
  2. Indifference - to allow society to continue as it is without any attempt to catalyse change.
  3. Agitation - to fight against the present order, including revolt, to produce a more righteous world.
  4. Acceptance - to 'welcome the gross world of human appetites' as an organic system in no way at odds with - but rather a part of - the Christian life.

While the Studds (and to a lesser extent D.L. Moody and the YMCA movement) had predominantly evidenced the fourth type of Christian attitude, Billy Sunday was one of the first leading figures on the Sport/faith scene to unequivocally and unapologetically stand in opposition to the kinds of attitudes he met among his baseball-playing colleagues. He was praised and excoriated, he was revered and ridiculed, he was loved and hated. All of this because he was an agitator.

You can get a pretty good flavour of the man himself from this (presumably staged) video recording.

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