November 19, 2020 — “I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it ‘til I go home to Glory, and it goes home to perdition!”
Those were words spoken by the famous “Billy” Sunday – pro-baseball player turned preacher – who was born on this date in 1862.
Billy’s father, a Civil War soldier, died when Billy was less than a year old, and the boy was raised in an orphanage. It comes as no surprise that his early years were hard; beginning at age 14 he worked many jobs including fireman, janitor and undertaker’s assistant.
But his real talent lay in his legs. Sunday was an extremely fast runner, and when he was 21, he was discovered by the Chicago White Stockings, and he played for the team for eight years.
Three years into that career, Sunday became born-again while listening to a street preacher. Five years later he retired from baseball and went on to became a minister himself.
Sunday soon held crusades across America, and his congregants were said to “hit the sawdust trail,” because the floors of his temporary wooden “tabernacles” were covered with sawdust. He was a fire-and-brimstone preacher with an acrobatic flare. Speaking with passion as well as humor, he would say things like, “Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in.” At the close of each service, scores of people would rush to grasp his hands to show they’d been converted.
In April 1912, Billy Sunday brought his crusade to Fargo. A special tabernacle built near present-day downtown was dedicated before a crowd of about 2,000 people. Three days later, on Easter Sunday, the crusader’s services began. The Fargo Forum reported that about 12,000 people attended the three services that first day. Billy Sunday’s Fargo crusade lasted six weeks.
His style was tremendously popular. He used colorful, slang-filled language along with mimicry, impersonations and anecdotes to entertain and instruct. He railed against the theory of evolution, divorce, birth control and other modern-day sins. He bombasted cigarette smokers, dance halls, Unitarianism and women who played bridge. But his most passionate topic – the evil of alcohol – was his mainstay. Bars often closed when he came to town, and by the early 20th century, Billy Sunday played a key role in getting prohibition enacted.
But that didn’t really affect North Dakota, which was dry even before it ever became a state. It was cities like the one across the Red River that Billy Sunday was targeting: Moorhead, otherwise known as “Sin City.” While Fargo was dry, Moorhead had a boom in the liquor trade with about 45 bars ... in a town of only 3,700 people.
Billy Sunday continued his revivals for 20 years before dying of a heart attack in 1935.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.