WILLIAM ASHLEY SUNDAY    (11/1862 - 11/1935)

He was an American athlete who, after being a popular outfielder in baseball’s National League during the 1880s, became the most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century.

Born into poverty in Iowa, Sunday spent some years at the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans' Home before working at odd jobs and playing for local running and baseball teams. 

His speed and agility provided him the opportunity to play baseball in the major leagues for eight years, where he was an average hitter and a good fielder known for his base-running.

In March 1891, Sunday requested and was granted a release from his contract with the Philadelphia ball club. Over his career, Sunday was never much of a hitter: his batting average was .248 over 499 games, about the median for the 1880s. 

In his best season, in 1887, Sunday hit .291, ranking 17th in the league. He was an exciting but inconsistent fielder. In the days before outfielders wore gloves, Sunday was noted for thrilling catches featuring long sprints and athletic dives, but he also committed a great many errors. 

Sunday was best known as an exciting base-runner, regarded by his peers as one of the fastest in the game, even though he never placed better than third in the National League in stolen bases.

Sunday remained a prominent baseball fan throughout his life. He gave interviews and opinions about baseball to the popular press; he frequently umpired minor league and amateur games in the cities where he held revivals; and he attended baseball games whenever he could, including a 1935 World Series game two months before he died.

Sunday left baseball for the Christian ministry. He gradually developed his skills as a pulpit evangelist in the Midwest and then, during the early twentieth  century, he became the nation’s most famous evangelist with his colloquial sermons and frenetic delivery. 

Sunday held widely reported campaigns in America's largest cities, and he attracted the largest crowds of any evangelist before the advent of electronic sound systems. He also made a great deal of money and was welcomed into the homes of the wealthy and influential. Sunday was a strong supporter of Prohibition, and his preaching likely played a significant role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

Despite questions about his income, no scandal ever touched Sunday. He was sincerely devoted to his wife, who also managed his campaigns, but his three sons disappointed him. 

His audiences grew smaller during the 1920s as Sunday grew older, religious revivals became less popular, and alternative sources of entertainment like Radio appeared. Nevertheless, Sunday continued to preach and remained a stalwart defender of conservative Christianity until his death.


On a Sunday afternoon in Chicago, during either the 1886 or 1887 baseball season, Sunday and several of his teammates were out on the town on their day off. At one street corner, they stopped to listen to a gospel preaching team from the Pacific Garden Mission. 

Attracted by the hymns he had heard his mother sing, Sunday began attending services at the mission. After talking with a former society matron who worked there, Sunday – after some struggle on his part – decided to become a Christian. He began attending the fashionable Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church, a congregation handy to both the ball park and his rented room.

Although he socialized with his teammates and sometimes gambled, Sunday was never a heavy drinker. In his autobiography, he said, "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 gin fizzes and beer, I would take lemonade."Following his conversion, Sunday denounced drinking, swearing, and gambling, and he changed his behavior, which was recognized by both teammates and fans. Shortly thereafter, Sunday began speaking in churches and at YMCAs.

In the spring of 1891, Sunday turned down a baseball contract for $3,500 a year to accept a position with the Chicago YMCA at $83 per month. Sunday's job title at the YMCA was Assistant Secretary, yet the position involved a great deal of ministerial work. It proved to be good preparation for his later evangelistic career. For three years Sunday visited the sick, prayed with the troubled, counseled the suicidal, and visited saloons to invite patrons to evangelistic meetings.

In 1893, Sunday became the full-time assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the best known evangelists in the United States at the time. Chapman was well educated and was a meticulous dresser, "suave and urbane." Personally shy, like Sunday, Chapman commanded respect in the pulpit both because of his strong voice and his sophisticated demeanor. Sunday's job as Chapman's advance man was to precede the evangelist to cities in which he was scheduled to preach, organize prayer meetings and choirs, and in general take care of necessary details. When tents were used, Sunday would often help erect them.

With his wife administering the campaign organization, Sunday was free to do what he did best: compose and deliver colloquial sermons. Typically, Homer Rodeheaver would first warm up the crowd with congregational singing that alternated with numbers from gigantic choirs and music performed by the staff. When Sunday felt the moment right, he would launch into his message.

Sunday gyrated, stood on the pulpit, ran from one end of the platform to the other, and dove across the stage, pretending to slide into home plate. Sometimes he even smashed chairs to emphasize his points. His sermon notes had to be printed in large letters so that he could catch a glimpse of them as he raced by the pulpit. In messages attacking sexual sin to groups of men only, Sunday could be graphic for the era.

A friend says that Mr. Sunday's sermon on the sex question was raw and disgusting. He also heard the famous sermons on amusements and booze. He says that all in all they were the ugliest, nastiest, most disgusting addresses he ever listened to from a religious platform or a preacher of religion. He saw people carried out who had fainted under that awful definition of sensuality and depravity.

Homer Rodeheaver said that  “ One of these sermons, until he tempered it down a little, had one ten-minute period in it where from two to twelve men fainted and had to be carried out every time I heard him preach it." Some religious and social leaders criticized Sunday's exaggerated gestures as well as the slang and colloquialisms that filled his sermons, but audiences clearly enjoyed them.

In 1907, journalist Lindsay Denison complained that Sunday preached "the old, old doctrine of damnation". Denison wrote, "In spite of his conviction that the truly religious man should take his religion joyfully, he gets his results by inspiring fear and gloom in the hearts of sinners. The fear of death, with torment beyond it—intensified by examples of the frightful deathbeds of those who have carelessly or obdurately put off salvation until it is too late—it is with this mighty menace that he drives sinners into the fold.”

But Sunday himself told reporters “ with ill-concealed annoyance" that his revivals had "no emotionalism."  Certainly contemporary comparisons to the extravagances of mid-nineteenth-century camp meetings—as in the famous drawing by George Bellows—were overdrawn.  Sunday told one reporter that he believed that people could “ e converted without any fuss," and, at Sunday's meetings, "instances of spasm, shakes, or fainting fits caused by hysteria were few and far between."

Crowd noise, especially coughing and crying babies, was a significant impediment to Sunday's preaching because the wooden tabernacles were so acoustically live. During his preliminaries, Rodeheaver often instructed audiences about how to muffle their coughs. 

Nurseries were always provided, infants forbidden, and Sunday sometimes appeared rude in his haste to rid the hall of noisy children who had slipped through the ushers. Tabernacle floors were covered with sawdust to dampen the noise of shuffling feet (as well as for its pleasant smell and its ability to hold down the dust of dirt floors), and coming forward during the invitation became known as “hitting the sawdust trail."

The term was first used in a Sunday campaign in Bellingham, Washington, in 1910. Apparently, “  Hitting the sawdust trail” had first been used by loggers in the Pacific North West to describe following home a trail of previously dropped sawdust through an uncut forest — a metaphor for coming from, in Nell Sunday’s words, "a lost condition to a saved condition."

Sunday was a conservative evangelical who accepted fundamentalist doctrines. He affirmed and preached the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, a literal devil and hell, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ. At the turn of the 20th century, most Protestant church members, regardless of denomination, gave assent to these doctrines. Sunday refused to hold meetings in cities where he was not welcomed by the vast majority of the Protestant churches and their clergy.

Sunday was not a separationist as were many Protestants of his era. He went out of his way to avoid criticizing the Roman Catholic Church and even met with Cardinal Gibbons during his 1916 Baltimore campaign. Also, cards filled out by "trail hitters" were faithfully returned to the church or denomination that the writers had indicated as their choice, including Catholic and Unitarian.

Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1903, his ministry was nondenominational and he was not a strict Calvinist. He preached that individuals were, at least in part, responsible for their own salvation. “ Trail hitters” were given a four-page tract that stated, “if you have done your part  and you believe that Christ died in your place, and receive Him as your Savior and Master.  God has done HIS part and imparted to you His own nature."

Sunday never attended seminary and made no pretense of being a theologian or an intellectual, but he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible and was well read on religious and social issues of his day. His surviving Winona Lake library of six hundred books gives evidence of heavy use, including underscoring and reader's notes in his characteristic all-caps printing. Some of Sunday's books were even those of religious opponents. He was once charged with plagiarizing a Decoration Day speech given by the noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll.

Sunday’s homespun preaching had a wide appeal to his audiences, who were "entertained, reproached, exhorted, and astonished."  Sunday claimed to be “ n old-fashioned preacher of the old-time religion" and his uncomplicated sermons spoke of a personal God, salvation through Jesus Christ, and following the moral lessons of the Bible. Sunday's theology, although sometimes denigrated as simplistic, was situated within the mainstream Protestantism of his time.