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Billy Sunday Cleans Up

Today's televangelists are often in the news, but they're by no means the first pulpit-pounders
to capture the attention of Nebraskans. When the flamboyant and controversial Billy Sunday
announced his intent to clean up Omaha in 1915, everyone sat up and took notice.

Billy Sunday wasn't easy to ignore. Famous for his blunt, informal language and his
energetic delivery, Sunday was America's most popular and successful evangelist. He had
heard things in Omaha were "rotten as hell," and he and his organization came to town to see
what they could do about it.

The fifty-day campaign to rid the city of "civic vice, greed, corruption, and liquor" began on
September 4, in an 11,000-seat tabernacle the Sunday group had built at 14th & Capitol
Streets. Sunday's message was simple. He said he "knew less about theology than a
jackrabbit knew about ping pong," but he was convinced that those who drank, danced, and
played cards were on the road to hell. Salvation was simple, too. To "hit the trail," converts
came forward at the end of Sunday's exhortations to "accept Christ as their Savior."

The message may have been simple, but Sunday and his entourage showed great sophistication
in gathering public support. Sunday cited Omaha's newspapers as the first which the
"whiskey gang" had not been able to "gag and throttle." The papers responded by printing
Sunday's sermons in their entirety. Some editors conceded that the language and pulpit antics
of Sunday were extraordinary, but concluded that the result of the crusade would be an
improved community.

Only the Omaha Excelsior took exception to Sunday's labeling of Omaha society matrons as
"selfish prigs" without whom "the world would be well off." The Omaha Examiner found the
Sunday campaign's emphasis on the offering plate decidedly un-Christlike. Editor Alfred
Sorensen also doubted Jesus would suggest "smashing anyone in the jaw." Unlike Sunday,
Jesus "forgave his critics and enemies. He didn't tell them to go to hell."

Sunday was scathing in his attacks on those who opposed him. When the Omaha Board of
Education ruled it would be improper for the evangelist to appear at the public schools,
Sunday labeled the group a bunch of "mutts." He advised other Omahans to hold "their noses
to avoid the stench from these people."

The Christian Science Church was another of Sunday's favorite targets. He categorized the
religion as "three parts mental suggestion, three parts Hindoophitia, and ninety-one parts pure
humbug." And those who accepted the scientific view of evolution were denounced as "bullnecked,
beetle-browed, hog-jowled, peanut-brained, weasel-eyed, four-flushers, false alarms
and excess baggage."

Opposition to Sunday may have been registered by one or two newspapers and a few letters
to the editor, but the crusade was a huge success by the numbers. When the campaign
concluded October 24, more than 742,000 people had heard Sunday preach. Sunday's
announced goal of $27,000 had been collected and was augmented by another $30,000
gathered in "thank you" offerings the final week. Some 13,000 had professed to accept the
Billy Sunday brand of Christianity. Clearly, Billy had cleaned up.

The long-term effect of the crusade is hard to assess. Skeptics pointed out that almost 45% of
the converts were children who came forward at special juvenile meetings. Another observer
noted, "After the meeting, the thirsty 'hit the trail'--the trail that ended at the brass rail. The
several saloons were doing a land office business. No doubt the saloonkeepers would be
willing to pay Billy a bonus to remain the rest of the year."

Some applauded Sunday and his methods; others did not. But there's no question that
Sunday's sensational seven-week clean-up was a phenomenon Omahans would not soon
forget.

 

 

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Last updated 14 September 2005

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