Last night I read about Billy Sunday, the baseball player turned evangelist of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. All I knew about Billy Sunday before was that supposedly he was a great evangelist that conducted campaigns similar to the Billy Graham crusades of recent history.
Now this post is not concerning Sunday’s theology, preaching method or his political activities. There are many that can discuss those topics better than I can. But this is about Billy Sunday’s family, his wife Nell and their children.
Billy Sunday left professional baseball to become a traveling evangelist shortly after he married Nell (Helen Thompson Sunday). It took him a couple of years to become famous as an evangelist but because of his having played for the Chicago White Stockings his name was common and attracted many just to see the famous baseball player. What started out as two or three evangelistic campaigns per year soon turned into by his peak nearly continuous campaigns. Here is a year as an example:
February 17, 1921
March 6-May 1, 1921
Although some were one day engagements, which the records of many are lost, many lasted for a month or more, several even lasted five, six or up to eight weeks at a time. While it is bad enough for a husband and father to be gone for so much time from his family, when the mother is gone also that adds to the problems.
After 1907, the year she had her last baby, Nell decided to manage and travel full time with her husband on his crusades. She left the children home with the live-in Nanny. While Billy Sunday’s campaigns grew and made more money with his wife’s complete management of them, the children suffered for it.
In 1908, Nell and Billy agreed that she would travel with him, leaving the three younger children in the care of a nanny. Nell managed the campaign organization, energized the Sunday publicity machine, and hovered over the collection plates. Her formidable manner “struck terror to the hearts” of those who tried to take advantage of her husband, and “tact was not her greatest virtue.” Nevertheless, her loyalty and sincerity made her Billy’s mainstay. Nell acted as a buffer between Sunday and the outside world, making it possible for him to concentrate on his preaching. It is doubtful that he could have become the sensational attraction that he in fact became without her assistance. Helen Thompson Sunday
Helen Edith Sunday Haines, born in 1890, was the only child that was really raised by Nell Sunday. She died of disease and Pneumonia in 1932.
George Marquis Sunday was born in 1892, William Ashley Sunday, Jr. in 1901, and Paul Thompson Sunday in 1907. These three sons were the source of untold grief and despair for their parents. They were drunkards, while their parents fought for Prohibition. They lived wild, riotous lives and embarrassed their parents. All three died before the age of 40 in tragic violent deaths. The oldest son committed suicide after being arrested for drunkenness and auto theft, one died while driving home drunk from a party, and the other crashed an airplane.
That isn’t all, the three sons had a total of nine marriages between them. Nell Sunday was blackmailed and forced to pay large sums of money to the ex-wives in order to keep them silent about their sons infidelities.
The boys’ ex-wives remained a continuing dilemma for the Sundays. Some blackmailed the evangelist to keep quiet about their children’s infidelities. Others used gentler techniques to extract money, and Nell often provided friendly advice to the women when she responded with financial assistance. Helen Thompson Sunday
See although Nell Sunday claimed to be a Christian and worked hard to win others to the gospel she ignored God’s own commands for her family. She managed her husband’s career and made him a thriving success, while her area of responsibility, her family, suffered.
3 They are to teach what is good,
4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children,
5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. ESV
Mrs. Sunday was an early proponent of women working and not being confined to the home.
She supported women’s work during the war, and in one column she gloried that “at last, the doors of the Doll House have been opened and women have been invited to come into the great world outside. The rest is in their own hands.” Helen Thompson Sunday
It doesn’t matter what you are doing, even serving the Lord, if you are disobedient to His Word you have sinned. It doesn’t matter what you have sacrificed for the cause of spreading God’s Word, God desires obedience.
1 Samuel 15:22 Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, … ESV