Friday, August 8, 2008

Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America by Lyle W. Dorsett

Billy Sunday's story is the quintessential American story of rags-to-riches with a heavy dose of Christian redemption to boot. The basic contours of the William Sunday's life is that his father died in the Civil War and his mother was too poor to take care of him. He and his brother grew up in an Christian charity orphanage until they were old enough to be emancipated. Billy developed athletic prowess as a teenager and became well-known in Iowa for his local league baseball playing. He was discovered by the coach of the Chicago White Stockings (I'm thinking this was due for an abbreviation before too long!) and joined the pro's at a young age. During a period of great success athletically and professionally, Billy came into contact with the famed Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago and went through a conversion process. Soon he became a devoted student of the Bible and began to lead Bible classes with the YMCA. Eventually this led to an apprenticeship with an evangelist and soon Billy was leading tent revivals all over the Midwest. In the course of time he and his wife grew to national fame and he became a preacher with celebrity similar to that enjoyed by Billy Graham. Along with this came way too much adulation and way too much income which was to have a corrosive effect on his family and ministry. Eventually he is humbled by health problems, staff problems, kid problems, and the near nervous breakdown of his beloved wife. In the end his fame and popularity wane, but a humbler Billy emerges who faithfully preaches in smaller towns and venues until his dying day. Lyle Dorsett does a great job of telling the story neither seeking to deconstruct the life of this great man of God or make him a plaster saint. He does a good job explaining the context of Billy Sunday's life and how many of his foibles as a celebrity preacher were not tied to a lack of integrity but rather his formative years as an orphan. Readers will also learn how Sunday is in the spiritual lineage several other famous ministers including Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. A good brief, but nuanced treatment of someone who used to be a household name in America but has been forgotten with the passage of time.