In 1929, he was among the first members of the Dodge City Lions Club.

As a famous evangelist, he visited Dodge City in the late fall of that year to conduct revival meetings on top of Boot Hill. While he was here, the men forming the Lions Club talked Rev. Billy Sunday into joining them in their endeavor.

Billy Sunday was born on Nov. 19, 1862 near Ames, Iowa. His father died shortly after his birth and his stepfather deserted his family. For this reason, at 10 he was moved to an orphanage, where he received an education, good habits and honed his athletic skills. Later he participated in local running and baseball teams. Some websites list Sunday as an athlete, then as an evangelist. Starting in 1883, Sunday began playing for the National Baseball League; first, for the Chicago White Stockings. In 1888, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys acquired him, and, lastly, he played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1890 and 1891.

Sunday was popular with the fans, but his record was average for the major leagues. The big event in his life during his baseball career was his conversion to Christianity in 1886 or 1887.

Soon he began attending the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago where he met his wife to be, Helen Amelia "Nell" Thompson, the daughter of a prominent Chicago businessman.

After leaving baseball in 1891, Sunday became an assistant secretary for the Chicago YMCA. Despite his official title, his work there involved ministering to those in need and was excellent preparation for his later evangelism.

This stint was followed in 1893, with Sunday serving as an assistant to famous evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman. Sunday learned from Chapman’s preaching style and Chapman critiqued Sunday’s sermons.

By 1896, Sunday was ready to go on his own. His reputation as a ball player helped him draw crowds to his revivals. In 1908, he hired his wife Nell as his administrator and by 1917 the Sunday’s had a staff of 26.

By this time, he was a famous evangelists nationwide. Sunday preached in major cities all over the U.S., reaching more than one million people. He was known for giving colloquial, but sometimes graphic, sermons in a intense manner which involved sliding into home plate and occasionally smashing chairs. Sunday’s strong support of prohibition was instrumental in passing the 18th Amendment in 1919.

Sunday came under fire, like many modern evangelists, for making too much money. Between 1908 and 1920 he made more than $1million, while the average worker made only $14,000 during the same period.

Though Sunday preached up to the end of his life, his final years were marked with health problems, dwindling attendances and family tragedy. On Nov. 6, 1935 he died after ignoring his doctor’s advice to end his preaching.

In 1963, an article in the Daily Globe recalls Sunday’s 1929 visit to Dodge City when he gave an interview to Helen Havely Fowler. He reflected on the youth of the day, "Oh. I’m not alarmed about the boys and girls. There are many ways in which the young people can make fools of themselves. Youth rushes to the extreme and reaches the front page of newspapers.

"Their acts become news if they do something unusual and exciting. But extremists are in the minority of everything." Little has changed in nearly 90 years.

 

Kathie Bell is the curator of collections and education at Boot Hill Museum.