Sometimes beaten, often broke, occasionally thrown into jail for preaching Nazarene novelties, Paul the Apostle trudged the original sawdust trail of Christian evangelism in the first century, and for his pains he was posthumously sainted. American entrepreneurs and hucksters would eventually discern and exploit the vocation’s even greater potential for fat profits and self-advancement in the here-and-now. While it is true that one of St. Paul’s televangelist successors lately came to prison grief for fleecing the sheep unduly, the show business of revivalism--making a killing marketing eternal life--remains a growth industry in the land.
For such prosperity in our own day, we are told in this religiously neutral, regrettably skin-deep biography, we can particularly thank--or blame--a onetime Iowa baseball player whose name, happily for his later line of work, was Billy Sunday.
Billy Sunday was a cagey opportunist quite sure that he was divinely commissioned, and his cock-sure, impassioned and sometimes malicious preaching played well at the turn of the century in cavernous tabernacles all over the U.S. Smugly secure in theological illiteracy, his contentious ministry made him a millionaire and a household word (“Bunkshooter” was poet Carl Sandburg’s inventive choice). But his ultraconservative, Middle America messages--combined with his genius for organization and crowd manipulation--also would touch and influence, author Roger Bruns concludes, such dissimilar shepherds of today’s electronic church as Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart.
Devising an innovative amalgam of worship and theatrics in prairie towns in the 1890s, Billy Sunday launched himself as a tent-meeting preacher after throwing over a more-or-less promising (good fielding, no hitting) career in baseball’s major leagues. He had been much admired as the adroit center fielder for the Chicago White Stockings despite a groaning slow start at home plate in his rookie year, when he struck out 13 times in a row.
As a clean-shaven novice, Sunday was a team player on and off the diamond--a tag-along on the other men’s forays into barrooms and brothels. Yet sufficient was his guilt that one Sunday evening in Chicago, while “tanked up” with his mates, he was abashed to hear a medley of hymns played and sung by evangelists riding by in their horse-drawn “gospel wagon"--songs little Billy once heard at his mother’s knee. Rising unsteadily to his feet, by one of his various accounts, the convert addressed his drunken companions: “I’ll bid you good-bye, boys; I am going to Jesus.”
Sunday did not then and there give up the game he loved. But while continuing to hold the esteem and attention of sportswriters and fans with his fielding and base-running (71 stolen bases in 1888), he never again strayed from the off-field straight and narrow. He joined a Presbyterian church (where he met his wife-to-be) and went to work part-time for the YMCA. In 1894, with his batting average stagnated around .250 and his zeal for religion monopolizing his thoughts, he became the improbable full-time assistant to Wilbur Chapman, a highly successful itinerant evangelist known for his pince-nez decorum.
Still, the fledgling preacher hit it off with his boss and shortly discovered an extraordinary aptitude of his own for fixing the attention of thousands of sinners simultaneously. True, he made some changes: For Chapman’s pulpit primness, Sunday substituted histrionics, harangue and gymnastics--the pastiche of body languages he came to perfect and his public loved--as he pounded out his be-saved-or-be-damned sermonics.
New techniques deserved new accommodations. As his reputation for routing sin and perdition began to flourish, cities and towns desiring a Sunday purge were obliged to erect vast plank structures to contain the crowds that his presence was sure to draw night after night. The tabernacles were built to the preacher’s specifications, the low roofs an architectural necessity to project his thin, unamplified voice from a central platform afloat in the sea of perishing souls. Arrayed around him, pickup choirs sometimes the size of army brigades sang the soulful hymns. To dampen the sound of all the shuffling feet, the floors were strewn with wood shavings or sawdust. Whence sawdust trail, the phrase that Sunday coined and that entered the dictionaries as code for the road to salvation.
Sunday’s call to the altar was urgent: the Second Coming of Jesus for a thousand-year reign of tranquillity could--would!--occur at any time, and you’d better get right in a hurry. Some evangelists suggested that Jesus might not show up until America rid itself of its glaring sins of racism, child labor and workers’ exploitation no less than people’s personal faults. Sunday, however, focused almost exclusively on bedroom and barroom vice, and hewing to biblical literalism and Fundamentalist rigidity, preached that a choosy God cares only for those who scrupulously toe the moral mark: pledge allegiance to Jesus first, and thereafter don’t smoke, cuss, drink, fornicate, dance, play cards or entertain radical (i.e., un-American) notions.
As for atheists, communists, humanists, foreigners and members of the ACLU, forget it; Sunday consigned them to hell wholesale. “I wonder God lets some people live,” he would say, having in mind as well most biblical scholars and certain “tea-drinking, smirking clergy” who believed in evolution or who intellectualized the Virgin Birth. Most of all, teetotaler Sunday had it in for the makers, sellers and users of John Barleycorn, boon companion of his youth. Liquor traffic, he preached, was the “most damnable, corrupt institution that ever wriggled out of Hell and fastened itself on the public.” When Prohibition was voted in, not a little because of him, Sunday was ecstatic.
Though it pleased the evangelist to suppose that Satan, feeling he now had met his match, named Sunday his No. 1 nemesis, it was rather from the American left (religious as well as political) that he took the most heat. Many in that camp perceived him as the dispenser of mean-spirited rubbish and as the tool of capitalists opposed to labor reform. “A bughouse peddler of second-hand gospel,” Carl Sandburg wrote in a published poem--which was promptly seized by police in New Haven and in Lynn, Mass. (“Who is this Sandburg?” said Sunday when he was shown the poem. “Sounds like a Red to me.”
Sunday’s three sons mocked his ministry, too. The first-born, a profligate alcoholic, flung himself out an apartment window to his death; another was, for most of his life, a heavy drinker and philanderer; the third was a womanizer, too. In Los Angeles where they lived, the Sunday sons were not unknown to readers seeking scandal in The Times. So, for all the father’s intolerance of others, for all his viciousness and narrow-mindedness, our sympathy is roused a little as we see his grown children die or betray his ideals, his influence dwindle and his money dry up. He would, one thinks, have expected a better outcome.
From this book, though, we cannot tell. Author Bruns, a deputy director at Washington, D.C.'s National Archives, has marshaled a wealth of colorful material on his subject’s arresting, often atrocious behavior, but apart from quotations from a smattering of early love letters, almost nothing of Sunday’s private feelings and thoughts is divulged. Whether the author’s search for Sunday’s self-disclosures in his correspondence was unavailing or he simply chose not to use what he found is not discussed in his bibliographical note. Whatever his reasons, Bruns pretty much confines himself to mining secondary sources: newspaper and magazine articles, sanitized contemporary biographies (man and boy, one of these tells us, Sunday’s recreational beverage of choice was sarsaparilla), and other writings of the self-enhancing sort that Sunday himself provided to Collier’s and the Ladies’ Home Journal.
“Preacher,” then, while abundant with anecdotes and worthwhile historical asides, is fairly thin fare; it presents the external flashes of Billy Sunday absent the shadings of the inner man. Bruns tries to fill in his portrait with vivid, if rather repetitive, characterizations of Sunday’s shenanigans and ejaculations upon tabernacle platforms, but display is no substitute for insight.