Hero of the Heartland

Hero of the Heartland by Robert Martin is a biography of evangelist Billy Sunday.  Sunday was a fundamentalist evangelist whose sermons concentrated on personal salvation and individual morality.  He was the most influential revivalist in the United States between 1896 and 1935.  He had a theatrical aspect to his sermons.  Those who attended his sermons expected to be entertained and were rarely disappointed.  A former professional baseball player he would use slides, leaps, catches, and other baseball antics in the pulpit.  He was a master of crowd psychology and understood the power of a good story not only to entertain but to persuade.

Sunday was born to a Father, who died in the Civil War when he was a boy, and a mostly indifferent Mother, who put him in an orphanage as she was unable to support him otherwise.  At 21 Sunday began a reasonably successful eight year professional baseball career but after his conversion begin working for the YMCA.  After a couple of years he became an advance man and assistant to well-known evangelist Wilber Chapman.  He learned much about the construction and delivery of sermons as well as the organization and administration of revivals.  Chapman abruptly decided to take over the pastorate of a church in 1895 after which Sunday began receiving invitations himself to conduct revivals in several small Midwestern towns.  These events convinced Sunday that God had ordained him as an evangelist and he held revivals in these small towns for about a decade.  As his popularity increased he went on to preach to millions of people in most of the nation’s largest cities until his death in 1935.

Much like Billy Graham to come, Sunday ran his revivals with business efficiency and worked with local church leaders to heavily promote his revivals and ensure large crowds attended.  Also, like Graham, he faced criticism from the “Social Gospel” crowd who felt that it was more important to concentrate on addressing society’s ills than on saving individual souls.  While both Graham and Sunday acknowledged the importance of social and economic milieu in helping men and women live better lives, they both also believed the social ills originated in flawed human nature and could only be ultimately cured by individual salvation and the resultant changed lives.

Sunday’s popularity declined after 1918 due to his aging and detonating health causing his sermons to be less flamboyant and polished and the nation’s cultural center of gravity shifting toward modernity and away from the traditional Midwestern christian conservatism that Sunday espoused.  Further, his two sons wayward living and subsequent suicide of one of his sons weighed him down and affected his reputation and ministry.

This short book is one of the relatively few biographies currently available on Billy Sunday.  It is not particularly well-written as it bounces back and forth and repeats frequently however it is a good overview of one of the great Christian evangelists of the 20th century.