PREACHER by Roger A. Bruns


Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism
Age Range: 1863 - 1935
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 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 [fiancÇe] 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 poor-boy who preached and made money until called out by the Great Umpire by way of a heart attack. (Photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: May 18th, 1992
ISBN: 0-393-03088-1
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1992