One of God's Tools
I want to be a giant for God.—Billy Sunday.
HEAVEN often plays jokes on earth's worldly-wise. After the consensus of experience and sagacity has settled upon a certain course and type, lo, all the profundity of the sages is blown away as a speck of dust and we have, say, a shockingly unconventional John the Baptist, who does not follow the prescribed rules in dress, training, methods or message. John the Baptist was God's laugh at the rabbis and the Pharisees.
In an over-ecclesiastical age, when churchly authority had reached the limit, a poor monk, child of a miner's hut, without influence or favor, was called to break the power of the popes, and to make empires and reshape history, flinging his shadow far down the centuries. Martin Luther was God's laugh at ecclesiasticism.
While the brains and aristocracy and professional statesmanship of America struggled in vain with the nation's greatest crisis, God reached down close to the soil of the raw and ignored Middle West, and picked up a gaunt and untutored specimen of the common people—a man who reeked of the earth until the earth closed over him—and so saved the Union and freed a race, through ungainly Abraham Lincoln. Thus again Heaven laughed at exalted procedure and conventionality.
In our own day, with its blatant worldly wisdom, with its flaunting prosperity, with its fashionable churchliness, with its flood of "advanced"" theology ovemhelming the pulpit, God needed a prophet, to call his people back to simple faith and righteousness. A nation imperiled by luxury, greed, love of pleasure and unbelief cried aloud for a deliverer. Surely this crisis required a great man, learned in all the ways of the world, equipped with the best preparation of American and foreign universities and theological seminaries, a man trained in ecclesiastical leadership, and approved and honored by the courts of the Church? So worldly wisdom decreed. But God laughed—and produced, to the scandal of the correct and conventional, Billy Sunday, a common man from the common people, who, like Lincoln, so wears the signs and savor of the soil that fastidious folk, to whom sweat is vulgar and to whom calloused hands are "bad form," quite lose their suavity and poise in calling him "unrefined."
That he is God's tool is the first and last word about Billy Sunday. He is a "phenomenon" only as God is forever doing phenomenal things, and upsetting men's best-laid plans. He is simply a tool of God. For a special work he is the special instrument. God called, and he answered. All the many owlish attempts to "explain" Billy Sunday on psychological and sociological grounds fall flat when they ignore the fact that he is merely a handy man for the Lord's present use.
God is still, as ever, confounding all human wisdom by snatching the condemned baby of a Hebrew slave out of Egypt's river to become a nation's deliverer; by calling a shepherd boy from his sheep to be Israel's greatest warrior and king; and by sending his only-begotten Son to earth by way of a manger, and training him in a workingman's home and a village carpenter shop. "My ways are not your ways," is a remark of God, which he seems fond of repeating and illustrating.
There is no other explanation of Billy Sunday needed, or possible, than that he is God's man sent in God's time. And if God chooses the weak and foolish things of earth to confound the mighty, is not that but another one of his inscrutable ways of showing that he is God?
Why are we so confident that Billy Sunday is the Lord's own man, when so many learned critics have declared the contrary? Simply because he has led more persons to make a public confession of discipleship to Jesus Christ than anyother man for a century past. Making Christians is, from all angles, the greatest work in the world. Approximately three hundred thousand persons, in the past twenty-five years, have taken Sunday's hand, in token that henceforth their lives belong to the Saviour.
That amazing statement is too big to be grasped at once. It requires thinking over. The huge total of dry figures needs to be broken up into its component parts of living human beings. Tens of thousands of those men were husbands—hundreds of whom had been separated from their wives and children by sin. Now, in reunited homes, whole families bless the memory of the man of God who gave them back husbands and fathers. Other tens of thousands were sons, over many of whom parents had long prayed and agonized. It would be hard to convince these mothers, whose sons have been given back to clean living and to Christian service, that there is anything seriously wrong with Mr. Sunday's language, methods or theology. Business men who find that a Sunday revival means the paying up of the bad bills of old customers are ready to approve on this evidence a man whose work restores integrity in commercial relations.
Every conceivable type of humanity is included in that total of over a quarter of a million of converts. The college professor, the prosperous business man, the eminent politician, the farmer, the lawyer, the editor, the doctor, the author, the athlete, the "man about town," the criminal, the drunkard, the society woman, the college student, the workingman, the school boy and girl: the whole gamut of life is covered by the stream of humanity that has "hit the sawdust trail"—a phrase which has chilled the marrow of every theological seminary in the land. But the trail leads home to the Father's House.
One must reach into the dictionary for big, strong words in characterizing the uniqueness of Billy Sunday's work. So I say that another aspect of his success is fairly astounding. He, above all others in our time, has broken through the thick wall of indifference which separates the Church from the world. Church folk commonly avoid the subject of this great fixed gulf. We do not like to face the fact that the mass of mankind does not bother its head about conventional religious matters. Even the majority of churchgoers are blankly uninterested in the general affairs of religion. Sad to tell, our bishops and board secretaries and distinguished preachers are really only local celebrities. Their names mean nothing in newspaper offices or to newspaper readers: there are not six clergymen in the United States with a really national reputation. Each in his own circle, of locality or denomination, may be Somebody with a big S. But the world goes on unheeding. Great ecclesiastical movements and meetings are entirely unrecorded by the secular press. The Church's problem of problems is how to smash, or even to crack, the partition which shuts off the world from the Church.
Billy Sunday has done that. He has set all sorts and conditions of men to talking about religion. Go to the lowest dive in New York's "Tenderloin " or in San Francisco's "Barbary Coast," and mention the name "Billy Sunday," and everybody will recognize it, and be ready to discuss the man and his message. Stand before a session of the American Philosophical Society and pronounce the words "Billy Sunday" and every one of the learned savants present will be able to talk about the man, even though few of them know who won last season's base-ball championship or who is the world's champion prize-fighter.
This is a feat of first magnitude. All levels of society have been made aware of Billy Sunday and his gospel. When the evangelist went to New York for an evening address, early in the year 1914, the throngs were so great that the police were overwhelmed by the surging thousands. Even Mr. Sunday himself could not obtain admittance to the meeting for more than half an hour. Andrew Carnegie could not get into the hall that bears his name. Probably a greater number of persons tried to hear this evangelist that night than were gathered in all the churches of greater New York combined on the preceding Sunday night. To turn thousands of persons away from his meetings is a common experience of Mr. Sunday. More than ten thousand, mostly men, tried in vain to get into the overcrowded Scranton tabernacle at a single session. Every thoughtful man or woman must be interested in the man who thus can make religion interesting to the common people.
The despair of the present-day Church is the modern urban center. Our generation had not seen a great city shaken by the gospel until Billy Sunday went to Pittsburgh. That he did it is the unanimous report of press and preachers and business men. Literally that whole city was stirred to its most sluggish depths by the Sunday campaign. No base-ball series or political campaign ever moved the community so deeply. Everywhere one went the talk was of Billy Sunday and his meetings. From the bell boys in the hotels to the millionaires in the Dusquesne Club, from the workmen in the mills and the girls in the stores, to the women in exclusive gatherings, Sunday was the staple of conversation. Philadelphia more than duplicated this experience.
Day by day, all the newspapers in the city gave whole pages to the Sunday meetings. The sermons were reported entire. No other topic ever had received such full attention for so long a time at the hands of the press as the Sunday campaign. These issues of the papers were subscribed for by persons in all parts of the world. Men and women were converted who never heard the sound of the evangelist's voice. This series of Philadelphia meetings, more than anything else in his experience, impressed the power of Sunday upon the metropolitan centers of the nation at large; the country folk had long before learned of him.
Any tabulation of Mr. Sunday's influence must give a bigh place to the fact that he has made good press "copy": he has put religion on the front pages of the dailies; and has made it a present issue with the millions. Under modern conditions, no man can hope to evangelize America who haa not also access to the columns of the newspapers. Within the memory of living men, no other man or agency has brought religion so powerfully and consecutively into the press as William A. Sunday, whom some of his scholarly critics have called "illiterate."
All of which proves the popular interest in vital, contemporaneous religion. Men's ears are dulled by the "shop talk" of the pulpit. They are weary of the worn platitudes of professional piety. Nobody cares for the language of Canaan, in which many ministers, with reverence for the dead past, have tried to enswathe the living truths of the Gospel, as if they were mummies. In the colloquial tongue of the common people, Jesus first proclaimed his gospel, and "the common people heard him gladly," although many of the learned and aristocratic ecclesiastics of his day were scandalized by his free and popular way of putting things, by his "common" stories, and by his disregard for the precedents of the schools. Whatever else may be said about Billy Sunday's much-discussed forms of speech, this point is clear, and denied by nobody: he makes himself and his message clearly understood by all classes of people. However much one may disagree with him, nobody fails to catch his meaning. He harnesses the common words of the street up to the chariot of divine truth. Every-day folk, the uncritical, unscholarly crowd of us, find no fault with the fact that Sunday uses the same sort of terms that we do. In fresh, vigorous, gripping style, he makes his message unmistakable.
College students like him as much as do the farmers and mechanics. In a single day's work at the University of Pennsylvania, when thousands of students crowded his meetings, and gave reverent, absorbed attention to his message, several hundred of them openly dedicated their lives to Christ, and in token thereof publicly grasped his hand. Dr. John R. Mott, the world's greatest student leader, once said to me, in commenting upon Sunday: "You cannot fool a great body of students. They get a man's measure. If he is genuine, they know it, and if he is not, they quickly find it out. Their devotion to Mr. Sunday is very significant."
This man, who meets life on all levels, and proves that the gospel message is for no one particular class, is a distinctively American type. Somebody has said that the circus is the most democratic of American institutions: it brings all sorts and conditions of people together on a common plane and for a common purpose. The Sunday evangelistic meetings are more democratic than a circus. They are a singular exhibit of American life—perhaps the most distinctive gathering to be found in our land today. His appeal is to the great mass of the people. The housekeepers who seldom venture away from their homes, the mechanics who do not go to church, the "men about town" who profess a cynical disdain for religion, the "down and outs," the millionaires, the society women, the business and professional men, the young fellows who feel "too big" to go to Sunday school—all these, and scores of other types, may be found night after night in the barn-like wooden tabernacles which are always erected for the Sunday meetings. Our common American life seems to meet and merge in this base-ball evangelist, who once erected tents for another evangelist, and now has to have special auditoriums built to hold his own crowds; and who has risen from a log cabin to a place of national power and honor. Nowhere else but in America could one find such an unconventional figure as Billy Sunday.
Succeeding chapters will tell in some detail the story of the man and his work; and in most of them the man will speak his own messages. But for explanation of his power and his work it can only be said, as of old, "There was a man sent from God, whose name was"—Billy Sunday.