Winning the World and Losing Your Children – Sunday Style

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:

January-February, 1921
February 17, 1921
March 6-May 1, 1921
May-June, 1921
June-July, 1921
September-October, 1921
November-December, 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.

Titus 2:3-5
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

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


13 thoughts on “Winning the World and Losing Your Children – Sunday Style

  1. I love Jesus. I am a stay at home wife/mom as well as a homeschooling mom. My oldest daughter (19) is doing full time missionary work. I tell you this so you understand that I agree with you on the importance of training up our children. I do however, need to challenge you on this article. You talk about being disobedient to the Word. Have you considered verses Luke 14:26 or Matt. 10:35? What about all the verses on our responsibility to share the gospel (see for a pretty complete list–it’s huge. My point, be careful to cast the first stone at Billy Sunday. Agreed, he blew it regarding his wife (who may not have even been saved) and his children but he did SO much more good that I am guessing you (and certainly me) can’t even begin to touch. We need to focus on this and teach this to our children. I truly believe (though this sounds terrible) God isn’t NEAR as concerned with our families as He is with our hearts for Him and sharing His truths with the world. Too many Christians focus WAY too much on family and NOT near enough on service to Christ!!! Just a thought.

    Berean Wife Reply:


    Did you read the article and see what the Sunday’s actually did?

    They deserted their children to a nanny while they traversed the globe to share the gospel! How exactly is that being obedient to God’s Word? While you are correct that there are many verses concerning witnessing, nowhere does it say that parents are to desert young children in a misguided ideology that witnessing to the “World” is more important than fulfilling your responsibilities that God has given you.

    All you have to do is look at the verses concerning parenting to see that, yes, God is concerned with families. God even uses the analogies of being a Father or a Mother to show His care and concern for His children. God will never leave or forsake us. Parents should never leave or forsake their children.

    The Sunday’s fruit will remain to be seen. Just because man has acredited them with “fruit” does not mean God has. If your own family does not see the fruit in your life then just maybe the fruit is actually rotten. Serving the family is service to Christ. Yet that is not mutally exclusive to witnessing to others. Those can very easily go hand-in-hand. We witness to others as we go along serving our families, caring for widows and orphans, and sharing the Reason for the Hope we have.

    Titus 2:3-5
    3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. 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.

    It is clear that as women we are to be loving our husbands and children, working at home and teaching younger women. None of that negates serving Christ nor being a witness nor sharing the gospel, they are how we as women are to serve, witness and share the gospel.

    Berean Wife

    Berean Wife Reply:

    You shall never make a missionary of the person who does no good at home. — C.H. Spurgeon

    I think this would also apply to evangelist like the Sundays.

    Berean Wife

  2. Rebellion against God’s word cannot be justified.

    The Sundays were wrong in what they did.

    As for this ‘nanny’, was she a Christian
    or not? Even if she was, how can what they did be justified?

    God’s word stands. God does not accept any form of rebellion, even if we suppose we know better than God.

    As in the case with King Saul, who thought by sparing some sheep and King Agag, that God would accept it.

    He didn’t.

    So, when we create our own standard and our own way etc, why should God accept it.

    He doesn’t.

    Let’s not fool ourselves. God is not mocked.

  3. I think we must all remember that even in a faithful believing family with both parents raising the children, salvation is never passed on in DNA. We are responsible to pray for our kids and teach them the scriptures but it is always the work of the Spirit to draw our children to Him and not our works.

    Anonymous Reply:

    Well said

  4. I wonder why you only blame the mom…

    Berean Wife Reply:


    I don’t only blame the mom. The father is just as culpable. But as a wife and mother my responsibility according to Titus 2 is to instruct other wives and mothers to love their husbands and children. Hard to love your children when you are paying a nanny to raise them and they never see you.

    Berean Wife

  5. Excellent post–I agree wholeheartedly. I firmly believe every husband, wife, and parent’s first ministry is their family. If they fail at that ministry, what good can they really do for others?

    Many ministers and missionaries who were contemporaries of the Sundays did the same thing–abandoned their children to spread the Gospel. It breaks my heart to read those stories of sometimes very young children being placed in boarding schools and sent away to live with relatives so that their parents can tell the “good news” to others. No wonder the Sunday kids turned out terrible–who told the good news to them?? Who showed them who Jesus was?? From their parents’ example, Jesus was distant and cold and didn’t love them enough to take care of them Himself.

    Truly, to obey is better than sacrifice. The Sundays’ greater legacy would have been to love and minister to their family first. Sure, they may not have been lauded by men, but they would have received great praise in heaven.

  6. I remember years ago telling a man that I read that Nell (Billy
    Sunday”s wife) said to her husband: “Billy, your saving the world but our children are going to hell,” and being taken to task by this
    brother; because I could not remember the name of the book.
    Weldon David Andrews

  7. I heard of someone say that, he would not criticize another servant of God unless he had done something better, and usually those who have never criticize another servant of God. There but for the grace of God go I.

    Berean Wife Reply:

    However, if we do not learn from the mistakes of others we are doomed to repeat them. Scripture is full of examples of failures so that we can glean from them.


  8. I am currently reading a biography on Mr. Sunday in which so far all they’ve said about their children was that they died relatively early. However while reading about the Sunday’s constant absence from home I made all the same observations that were in this article; couldn’t agree more. Billy Sunday was a great showman, a precursor of todays televangelist’s but I’m not impressed. Anyone who cannot “manage his home well” shouldn’t even be a deacon much less in the ministry. Of course if the scriptures were followed most churches would be without pastor’s and deacons. But then again most churches are dead anyway.

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