PREACHER: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism by Roger A. Bruns

PREACHER: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Enthusiastic biography of wildly successful evangelist Sunday (1863-1935), by Bruns (The Damndest Radical, 1986; Knights of the Road, 1980). This is a pre-Freudian version of what must have been at least a fairly complex life, including severe poverty, loss of a father, an alcoholic stepfather, a mother-fixation, and several kinds of salvation. The combative Sunday (""Billy"" to Bruns) was saved from poverty by athletic talent and became a good-field, no-hit outfielder for the Chicago White Stockings; socially, he saved himself by marrying into the upper middle class. When his soul was saved, he became the most remarkable preacher of his day--a ""frothing, howling huckster"" in Emma Goldman's words--tireless, violent, and charismatic, ranting, leaping about, breaking chairs, staging imaginary fistfights with the devil. Bruns's Sunday is a Horatio Alger character who frequented bars apparently without drinking to excess, and red-light districts without doing much of anything. A kid who ran around with the notorious King Kelly (style-setter for Babe Ruth) had to experience something, but what it was is not revealed here--and so missing from the core of this whitewashed account is a classic ingredient of conversion: the ascent from evil ways. Not that research is stinted in other areas; there is a great deal on the White Stockings and Sunday's subsequent athletic career, including his reaction to a player's strike: he was a scab. The tone is saccharine (""at prayer meetings he always positioned himself so he could keep one eye on [fiancÉe] Nell and one on the preacher""), and the reader's believability suffers. Interesting turn-of-the-century Americana, though offering no glimpse of the real Sunday--his life, marriage, relationships--but only uncritical images of a frontier-style poorboy who preached and made money until called out by the Great Umpire by way of a heart attack.

Pub Date: May 18th, 1992
ISBN: 0252070755
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Norton