The Hero of
The Heartland

Billy Sunday and
The Transformation of
American Society,
1862 - 1935

Robert F. Martin
(Indiana University)
Next to Dwight Moody, he was the first of the big evangelists, traveling throughout the United States, scaring the bejesus out of the country and city folk, railing against alcohol, the movies, sin, sex, and jazz. At the peak of his career, from 1910 - 1920 , he was bringing in a million dollars a year --- in current dollars close to $20,000,000. He invented the concept of the silent offering: "Don't let me hear any coins fall into those buckets; I want to hear the rustle of paper," he would declaim.

He was a world-class baseball player before going to work in the playing-fields of The Lord. He dressed in fancy clothes, had fancy cars, lunched with the likes of Rockefeller and had extensive real estate holdings. His message to the poor masses: it's no sin to be rich ("The Bible, my friends, hasn't one word to say against success.") He also railed that virtue was to be found in the heartland of America, not in the big cities. He was the first to bring big business techniques and mass advertising to evangelism, making him the precursor of Pat Roberts and the other current Divine Millionaires.

A reporter for the Des Moines Register said that when he was on stage he

    charged back and forth on the platform, dropped to his knees at times, flopped into a chair, jumped upon it, waved his handkerchief and shook his fists, shouted, laughed, stormed, sweated and performed a variety of other feats which would put an ordinary man in bed for a week.

His description of the fruits of sin could cause members of the audience to pass out, especially when he got onto one of his favorite hobby-horses, venereal disease. He would have had a field day if AIDS had been around in 1915, but he had to make do with syphilis and gonorrhea. The author reports that his message was that "immoral and irresponsible sexual conduct had emotional, biological, and social ramifications that were unacceptable to any right-thinking man or woman."

His organizers reported that,

    One of these sermons ... 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.

His attitude toward the Devil's Brew --- and those who produced it --- was no less militant. He said that brewers and distillers were "the most damnable, corrupt institution that ever wriggled out of hell and fastened itself on the public." The saloon

    came as near being a rat hole for wage earners to dump his wages in as anything you can find.

He may have preached family values, but his own family was a wreck. His sons' conduct, reports Martin, "made a mockery of the version of the gospel to which their father had committed his life ... They found themselves entangled in a web of divorce, remarriage, allegations of immorality, litigation, and debt." One son, George, committed suicide in 1932.

Sunday's great success was tied to the material progress of the forty years of his ministry and the ideal of the "Middle West" which "epitomized traditional, wholesome, vibrant, prosperous, democratic American civilization," according to the author. It all began to fall apart with the changes in social restraints after WWI. The evangelist's star faded so that by the time of his death in 1935, "both Billy Sunday and the Middle West seemed to millions increasingly quaint, ludicrous, or irrelevant."

Although the writing style is plodding, sometimes creaky, Hero of the Heartland makes for moderately interesting reading because Sunday was such a fascinating character. However the author, a history professor by trade, is so intent on making his didactic points (such as trying to analyse Sunday, and his "psychological problems") that he fails to give us a sense of the power and fire that made the preacher so popular. The book would have benefited from extensive excerpts from his sermons and fewer lectures on the socio-economic factors that built his career and "the mystique of the Middle West."

From those few bits of his sermons included here, it is easy to see that Sunday's power lay in the old rhetorical devices of repetition, rhythm and poetry. His Saloon Speech, for example, is a fascinating study in the use of the English language for didactic purposes:

    The only interest it pays is red eyes and foul breath, and the loss of health. You go in with money and you come out with empty pockets. You go in with character and you come out ruined. You go in with a good position and you lost it ... It pays nothing back but disease and damnation and gives an extra dividend in delirium tremens and a free pass to hell. And then it will let your wife be buried in the potter's field and your children go to the asylum.

"You go in .. and you come out... You go in ... and you come out ... You go in and ... you lost it." Then: "What does it give you? Disease Damnation (an extra) Dividend (in) Delirium (tremens) and [note the Miltonian rhythms here] "a free pass to hell." Finally there's this unabashedly dramatic poetic conclusion: your wife goes to "the potter's field," your children go to "the asylum."

--- A. W. Allworthy

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