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Billy Sunday, Man of God

Billy Sunday
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Billy Sunday
Sunday in action
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Sunday in action
In full swing
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In full swing

In the early 1900s, Billy Sunday sold what was then a unique brand of muscular, testosterone-laden Christianity.

Today, ministers in some of the country's largest churches preach in shirtsleeves and talk about God in terms of football or golf. Billy Sunday was one of the first to do this. He was a professional baseball player turned tent preacher who became the richest and most influential preacher of his time.

On All Things Considered, NPR's Steve Inskeep talks with Robert F. Martin, author of Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of American Society, 1862-1935.

Sunday, says Martin, was "one of the most acrobatic evangelists of the age." One newspaper columnist at the time estimated that Sunday traveled about a mile during each sermon.

The physicality of Sunday's sermons was an outgrowth of the preacher's stint as a pro baseball player. As a young man, he moved from rural Iowa to Chicago to play for the Chicago White Stockings (later the Cubs).

There, he not only wowed the crowd with his considerable athletic skills, but he won the public over with his "squeaky clean Christian image," says Martin.

Baseball proved to me a "convenient entrée into the hearts and minds of his audience," Martin says.

And the transition to preaching was almost seamless. He often employed football and baseball metaphors (sometimes in the same sentence) in his sermons.

The prohibition movement gave Sunday a political platform. "Sunday's rise to national prominence really corresponds to the rise of the prohibition movement," Martin says.

In arguing for prohibition, Sunday was particularly animated -- and sometimes vitriolic.

The "muscularity" and movement of his sermons was meant to counter the view by some that Christians were docile and fragile.

Sunday, Martin says, wanted to prove that Christians could be "as strong and as tough as anybody else."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.