Billy Sunday obviously had read Charles Finney, considered him one of the great and courageous men of the Christian church, and expressed as his own conviction a paraphrase of Finney’s view of revival. To the query, “What is a revival?” Sunday would respond, “Revival is a purely philosophical, common-sense result of the wise use of divinely appointed means, just the same as water will put out a fire; the same as food will appease your hunger; just the same as water will slake your thirst; it is a philosophical common-sense use of divinely appointed means to accomplish that end. A revival is just as much horse sense as that.”
A revival may be expected when Christian people confess and ask forgiveness for their sins and “are willing that God shall promote and use whatever means or instruments or individuals or methods he is pleased to use to promote them.” And, though criticized soundly in some quarters, Billy Sunday knew how to promote them. How “divinely appointed” some of the “whatever means” Sunday proposed presents one of the wrenching questions in Sunday’s career and the history of revivalism. Crowds soon were so large on the “kerosene circuit” that he had to expand his capacity by purchasing his own tent. When that became too unwieldy, he required that local sponsors of the campaign build a tabernacle. Sawdust was put on the floor both as an acoustical device and to keep down the dust generated by the construction and the normal bareness of the site, usually dirt floors. Eventually, Sunday had 26 paid staff, musicians, custodians, advance men, and Bible teachers the most famous of which were Homer Rodeheaver (1880-1955) and Virginia Asher, a vocalist and also the one that directed women’s ministries. Rodeheaver, a noted vocalist and director of choral music, joined Sunday in 1910 and served for twenty years until 1930. He used a trombone that he called a Methodist trombone because often it would “backslide.”
After a few years in smaller cities, Sunday began to go to large cities. In February 1915 The Christian Index of Georgia queried concerning the source of Billy Sunday’s power and answered that it “is in knowing how to mobilize the forces before the meeting begins, and how to use them during its progress.” The editor described the preparation for a meeting in Philadelphia.
For more than two months before it began, two cottage prayer meetings a week were held in every block of the great city, followed with district prayer meetings. During this period, every citizen in the city was invited once a week to attend the meetings. They were advertised from the pulpit of every evangelical church and every pastor put himself squarely behind the movement. Five thousand picked singers were secured to furnish the music, and a great tabernacle was constructed as designed by Mr. Sunday. Much space in the daily papers was used in advertising the meetings, and worlds of specially prepared printed matter was scattered broadcast. All this and much more was done before Mr. Sunday appeared on the scene. . . . Therefore, from the very first Mr. Sunday was enveloped in a spiritual atmosphere. . . .No wonder he preaches with power; no wonder thousands are being converted, and no wonder large gifts flow into the treasury for the expenses of the meeting. The resultants of preparation, we repeat, is the secret of Mr. Sunday’s power.
Two and one-half years later, The Christian Index announced in bold headlines “Billy Sunday will Soon Have ‘Em ‘Hitting the Trail’ in Atlanta” For those who could not attend, however, every sermon would be printed in two papers, well-known columnists would cover the entire event from different perspectives, an illustrator would sketch Billy Sunday and the crowds at the Sawdust Trail, along with photographers who would not miss a moment so those who cannot attend will not miss anything. For “15c a week The Atlanta Georgian and Sunday American will bring Billy Sunday to them every day.”
After the crowd gathered, Sunday did not disappoint them, but treated them to an amazing variety of sentiment, emotion, entertainment, energy, and breath-taking rhetorical displays of plain street talk. Carl Sandburg, in a very angry display of vengeful verbiage about Sunday, characterized his talk as “so fierce the froth slobbers over your lips,” resented his “rotten breath belching about hell-fire and hiccupping about this man [Jesus] who lived a clean life in Galilee,” and protested that he, Sandburg, didn’t “want a lot of gab from the bunkshooter in my religion” especially from a “bughouse peddler of second-hand gospel” who came along “tearing your shirt . . . shaking your fist,” turning somersaults, busting chairs, and standing “on your nutty head.”
Sunday had heard the mantra of criticism before and had responded, “Don’t worry about my vocabulary, sister; get on your knees and pray for your salvation; Don’t worry about my eccentricities; you’d better look after your own faults.” Though Sandburg’s piece on Sunday is vitriolic and misrepresents Sunday at several points, Sunday gave him just enough material to lend plausibility to his envenomed free-verse attack. In his sermon on booze, Sunday likened Jesus’ casting the devils into the swine to his own opposition to the liquor traffic. “Then the fellows that kept the hogs,” Sunday narrated, “went back to town and told the peanut-brained, weasel-eyed, hog-jowled, beetle-browed, bull-necked lobsters that owned the hogs, that a long-haired fanatic from Nazareth, named Jesus, has driven the devils out of some men and the devils have gone into the hogs, and the hogs into the sea, and the sea into the hogs, and the whole bunch is dead.” Billy Sunday described Pontius Pilate in terms that would use to describe a dishonest politician of his own day. “Pilate was a stand-pat, free-lunch, pie-counter, pliable, plastic, lickspittle, rat-hole, tin-horn, weasel-eyed, wardheeling, grafting politician of his day pure and simple . . .He was a typical machine politician. And there is no more low-down scoundrel on earth than a mere typical machine politician.” In preaching on Gethsemane, Sunday sought to bring his auditors to a realization of their danger by shocking them with and apparent profanity: “You’re a big fool to go to hell, but it will be your own fault if you do. God doesn’t want you to go there, but he can’t stop you. He has sacrificed His Son to keep you out of hell, and what more could He do? I am doing all I can to keep you out of hell. I have stood here and preached to you and I’ve done all that I could, and if you won’t be saved, all right—go to hell.” He followed this, after several illustrations with an anecdote about J. Wilbur Chapman into which he interspersed this bit of baptized profanity: “If anyone is offended because you ask them to be a Christians, let them go to hell. You’ve done your duty.” He would sometimes insult those whom he sought for Christian conversion: “God despises a coward – a mutt. You cannot be converted by thinking so and sitting still.”
Amidst all the organization, sensationalism, opposition, bombast, and relentless drive, Sunday also stood firmly for some very basic Christian truth and moral principles that often were under attack through the mid-twentieth century. For that he gained appreciation and influence within conservative Christian circles. Riding on the coat-tails of this sturdy stance for Christian character were views of conversion, faith, decision, discipleship, and doctrine that made it clear that Christianity now was viewed more as the work of man for the benefit of man, than the work of God for the glory of God.