Childhood & Early Life
William Ashley ‘Billy’ Sunday was born to William Sunday and Mary Jane Corey, near Ames, Iowa. After the death of his father in 1862, his family moved to live with his grandparents for a few years.
Billy and his elder brother were sent to live in Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, where he received a decent primary education and also began to hone his athletic skills.
At the age of 14, with a will to earn money of his own, he started working under Colonel John Scott. Soon, he was offered a home with the Scotts, who made sure that Billy studied at Nevada High School.
Despite not receiving a high school diploma, he was already considered well-educated by the standards of others, by 1880.
He moved to Marshalltown in 1880, where he was employed with the fire brigade team for his athletic build. It was during this time that he began playing for fire brigade baseball tournaments and eventually joined the town’s baseball team. His first match was two years later, where the town team defeated the Des Moines team.
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His professional baseball career began in 1883, when he signed with the Chicago White Stockings, a National League team.
Initially, he started off as a part-time player, but was soon recognized for his speed and by 1887, made a regular right fielder. However, an unfortunate injury limited his games to about 50.
For the 1888 season, he was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys team. This was the first time that he played the whole season. The crowds in Pittsburgh took to his prowess on the field, thus creating a large fan base.
In 1890, he was named the team captain of the Pittsburg Alleghenys, but with a bad season, the team could not afford him and he was, thus, sold to the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he played a total of 31 games.
In 1891, he was released from his contract with the Philadelphia Ball Club, but still remained one of the greatest baseball players in the United States. In his best season, he ranked 17th in the league and had hit .291.
Meanwhile, he started attending the Christian services at the mission and soon converted himself to become a Christian. Shortly thereafter, he gave up swearing, drinking and gambling.
It was in 1891 that he turned down a baseball contract and instead accepted a position with the Chicago YMCA.
In 1893, he became an assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the most influential evangelists. He received a course in homiletics and turned to the pastorate three years later.
He was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1903. The next decade witnessed Sunday’s popularity rise by leaps and bounds. Such was his escalating popularity that his followers failed to accommodate in town halls and churches.
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Just as his fan base expanded, so did the administration responsibilities. In 1908, he entrusted all the campaign and administrative responsibilities to his wife, Nell Sunday. It was under her administration that his campaign became a prominent national phenomenon.
By 1910, he regularly conducted meetings in relatively smaller cities in the United States. However, in the next five years, he moved his meetings to the more commercial cities of the country including Boston, Buffalo, Detroit and even New York City.
By 1917, he had become extremely popular among the rich and affluent and was invited to events by politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and even personalities like Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Even during the Great Depression of 1929, he managed to pull large crowds to attend his preaching and sermons through his campaigns. However, his campaigns had started to become insipid and his popularity slowly began to fade post-World War I.
Through his evangelist career from 1896 to 1935, Sunday preached about 20,000 sermons.
Personal Life & Legacy
He met Helen Amelia ‘Nell’ Thompson at a time when both of them were in serious relationships respectively. However, just as they say destiny plays a part of its own, the two eventually broke off their relationships to unite with each other.
Financial differences did not come in between as the two eventually tied the knot on September 5, 1888. They were blessed with four children, three sons and a daughter
In 1935, he suffered a heart attack. Though the doctors advised him to be cautious about preaching with such delicate health, he paid no heed and continued to preach. He breathed his last on November 6 of the same year.
His obituary described him as ‘the greatest high-pressure, mass conversion Christian evangelist of America or the world has ever known’.
Not many people know that this famous American evangelist, who was also a league baseball player, was an ardent supporter of World War I.
This American evangelist scoffed at popular amusements such as dancing, theater, playing cards and even reading. However, he believed that baseball was a nationalistic form of entertainment and that it should be pursued.