William Ashley "Billy" Sunday was born into poverty in 1862 and spent time in an orphanage until he could find odd jobs in small Iowa towns. He became a celebrity as a professional baseball player and was one of fastest and aggressive runners in stealing bases. In 1890, the last year he played, he stole 96 bases which was a record. He was a baseball idol.
One Sunday afternoon he stopped to listen to a street preacher and attracted by the Gospel songs began attending services at the mission. He went through a conversion, stopped drinking and became a changed man. He married and in 1891 turned down a baseball contract for the huge sum of $3000 to work at a Chicago YMCA where he did clerking work and assisted with evangelical work. He became an assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman a well know evangelist. His job was as an advance man to organize tent meetings and other gatherings. When Chapman retired, Billy struck out on his own. He developed a dramatic style of preaching and some said he didn’t preach, he exploded. In 1917 there were 100,000 people who responded to Billy’s call during that crusade. He held some 390 crusades over almost forty years. He was considered one of the greatest evangelist of his time.
He was against liquor and his crusades had a great influence in shutting down saloons and liquor businesses. He railed against sin and the devil. Billy didn’t stand behind a pulpit. He walked, ran and jumped as he preached. No one fell asleep during Billy’s preaching. In one of his sermons he shouted to the audience, while demonstrating with his body:
"I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I have a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition."
His style was unorthodox. He would suddenly stop his preaching and begin a conversation with the devil. Leaning the edge pf the platform, as if looking into hell, he would begin yelling at the devil. After attacking the devil he would return to his preaching.
Billy died of a heart attack November 6, 1935 at age 72. He was not the subject of scandal during his life and was remembered for his unique preaching, especially against the use of liquor. A giant in his day he died the year I was born.
Aimee Semple McPherson was an evangelist of a wholly different nature then Billy Sunday. Born in Canada in 1890 "Sister Aimee" was a sensation in the 1920's and 1930's as a pioneer in the use of the media of her time, especially radio and the drama of her religious services.
She married a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland and traveled with him while he preached at revival meetings. Robert Semple died in 1910 and Aimee returned to the United States. She married an accountant Harold McPherson two years later. After recovering from a period of depression and health problems she decided to conduct revival meetings herself. Starting in 1915 she soon became very popular and her services were attended by standing room only crowds. In San Diego, the national guard had to be brought in when she held a meeting there because of the size of the overflow crowds. She was a faith healer with many claims of healing taking place during her services.
She started her own magazine to promote religion and became so well known she was able to raise enough money, through contributions, to build a $1.5 million dollar church she called Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. When completed in 1923 it held 5,300 people and McPherson filled it to capacity each day, three times a day seven days a week. She preached at all the services. The services were illustrated in a way that resembled Hollywood productions. For example, she was in a minor plane accident and afterwords preached a sermon "the Heavenly Airplane" which involved having two miniature planes on the stage. Her sermon dealt with Jesus as the pilot of one plane and the devil as pilot of the other.
She employed a small group of construction people to set up the stage for her productions. They built the sets, just like sets for movies, for the sermons. There were artists, electrician, decorators and carpenters. The productions were accompanied by an orchestra music.
In May of 1926 McPherson went swimming north of Venice Beach and did not come back. It was assumed she had drowned. About the same time a married man, with whom she had developed a close friendship, also disappeared. About a month later McPherson’s mother said she received a ransom note demanding half a million to return McPherson. Her mother said she decided it was a prank and threw it away.
Thirty five days after disappearing McPherson showed up at the border town of Douglas, Arizona claiming she had been kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom, but had escaped and had walked thirteen hours to get to the town. Investigators were doubtful of the story. Inconsistencies were noted such as the fact her shoes were not worn from walking, she showed up fully dressed and was wearing a wrist watch her mother had given her, but which she didn’t have on when she went swimming. A grand jury investigation produced witnesses who testified they saw McPherson and the married man at various hotels over the last month, but no indictments were issued by the jury. However, additional witnesses turned up who reported having seen them at a cottage in Carmel, California over a period of a month. The grand jury was reconvened. McPherson refused to take an oath and was evasive about the situation. She was charged with obstruction of justice. Charges were later dropped and she continued her ministry, but she had lost popularity with the media and the public.
By 1930 she had suffered a nervous breakdown and a year later married a third time, having divorced her second husband. The marriage ended in 1934. On September 26, 1944 she was found dead due to what was said to be an accidental overdose of medications. Her church, the Four Square Gospel Church exists today.
While Sunday and McPherson are the better know evangelists of that time there are others. S. Parkes Cadman had a weekly Sunday afternoon radio broadcast on NBC starting in 1928 and claimed an audience of five million listeners. Father Charles Couglin was a Roman Catholic priest who also had a radio broadcast that made him a political figure until the Church authorities required him to stop broadcasting. Bob Jones, G.E. Lowman, Charles Fuller and Ralph W. Stockman were also well know radio evangelist of that time. Robert Schuller and others like Bishop Fulton J. Sheen were pioneers in using television for evangelism. But none of these had the followers, the drama and the publicity in the 1920's and 1930's to equal that of Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson