How Billy Sunday Battled Demon Rum in Detroit
By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News

These views of Billy Sunday energetically battling the devil appeared in the Rotogravure Section of The Detroit News Tribune October 29, 1916.

When Billy Sunday brought his battle against the devil to Detroit in 1916, it was big news -- bigger than the reports from the World War raging in Europe and bigger than visits by mere presidents.

The evangelist in his days with the Chicago White Stockings in the 1880s.

      As his train rolled into town that September, more Detroiters were waiting at the station than President Woodrow Wilson found when he visited the that summer.

      The baseball-player-turned-evangelist had come to town to save souls and help the "drys" in their campaign for state-wide prohibition. Michigan voters were to decide the issue in the November election.

      Sunday was rabid in his opposition to demon rum. It was a key part of his crusades, and it had role in his own conversion.

      William Ashley Sunday was born Nov. 19, 1862 in a log cabin in Ames, Iowa, and lost his father in the Civil War when he was a month old. His mother was so poor that she sent Sunday and his brother to an orphanage.

      Sunday struck out on his own at 15, and worked a variety of jobs before becoming a professional baseball player. In 1883, he joined the Chicago White Stockings. Over the next eight years he played for a variety of National League teams.

      Like most ballplayers of the time, Sunday did his share of drinking. One evening in 1887, he stopped to hear a group of gospel singers after leaving a Chicago saloon. They invited him to services at their mission and Sunday accepted. He experienced a religious conversion. Over the next few years, Sunday quit drinking, got married and became an evangelist preacher.

      He began with revivals in small towns and then stormed the big cities, gaining fame and a huge following along the way. His career was at its height when he came to Detroit in 1916.

      Sunday's fiery preaching drew thousands of Detroiters to his revivals -- and thousands of dollars into his collection plates. Those plates were huge dish pans, two feet across and 10 inches deep. His workers passed a pan for each of twelve sections, and they came back full of money. His last day's collection in Detroit in 1916, brought $50,000 from a crowd of 50,000.

Billy Sunday and his wife, "Ma" Sunday, in 1932, three years before his death.

He also attracted the support of Detroit's leading citizens.

Dime-store king S.S. Kresge moved out of his palatial home so Sunday could use it as his battlefield headquarters. Automaker Henry M. Leland gave him a new $8,000 Cadillac as a "personal thanks offering." After a visit with Sunday, Henry Ford said that if Michigan voted for prohibition, the breweries could be converted to produce denatured alcohol as auto fuel for his cars. The ex-governor, Detroit police chief and some pro baseball players appeared with him at the revivals. And, merchant J. L. Hudson was a regular at the sermons.

Sunday's Michigan crusade that fall began in early September and lasted until early November. He claimed 2 million came to see him and 200,000 were converted. But the newspapers put total attendance at about 1 million with 25,000 converts. Whatever the number, Sunday had a big impact.

His preaching was electrifying. He attacked preaching with the fierce competitiveness of a turn-of-the-century ballplayer.

The church needs fighting men, Sunday said, not those "hog-jowled, weasel-eyed, sponge-columned, mushy-fisted, jelly-spined, pussy-footing, four-flushing, charlotte russe Christians.

"Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified, three-karat Christianity."

His Detroit revival tabernacle stood on a large field between Woodward and Cass at Forest. His stage held a choir of 5,000 singers. And, from that stage he led a frontal assault on sin:

"He appeared on the platform high above the sea of clean shining faces like a wispy cross between a businessman and an angel. Attired in a light gray suit and white shoes, a white negligee shirt of the finest linen and a white silk tie to match, Sunday feinted, walked and ran, crouched and jumped, from one end of the stage to the other, sweating from his gyrations until he was wet as a rag held under a pump.

"By his actions he kept the audience transfixed, hanging upon his every word and movement. He jumped on a chair; down on the floor again. He beat out a cadence with his fist upon the platform in order to emphasize a series of points; on top of the pulpit, he tore off his coat and collar and threw them to the stage ...

Detroiters line up outside the Masonic Temple for a Billy Sunday meeting.

"Wild-eyed at the climax of his address, like an addict going cold turkey, Sunday told his God to help old Detroit. Throw your arms around her. Go into her barber shops, Lord, into the hotels, factories, and saloons. Help the man in the street, the floater, and drunkard. The devil has him almost out. He's on the ropes and groggy, Lord. One more stiff uppercut will finish him. Help him, Lord, to square his shoulders, raise his dukes and cry, Yes, Lord, I'll come when Bill gives the call.'

"Help me, Jesus, to lasso and corral the young man on his way to hell. Help me save the young girl merchandising her womanhood. Help me, Jesus, help me save all in Detroit who are rushing to hell so fast that you can't see them for the dust.' "

-- From "Billy Sunday: You've Got a Job in Detroit," by Larry D. Engelmann, Michigan History Magazine.

Sunday's sermons concentrated on the evils of drinking and the need for the prohibition law.

"There isn't a man who votes for the saloon who doesn't deserve to have his boy die a drunkard," Sunday said. "He deserves to have his girl live out her life with a drunken husband."

Sunday attacked drinkers in his audience as "dirty, low-down, whiskey-soaked, beer-guzzling, bull-necked, foul-mouthed, hypocrites" He spiked his sermons with stories of drunks shooting family and friends, or axing their wives.

Sunday's Detroit crusade "tabernacle" under construction in 1916.

He extracted promises from converts to give up alcohol forever. Women pledged that "lips that touch liquor, shall never touch mine."

Sunday's campaign paid off on election day, when Michigan voted 353,373 to 284,754 in favor of Prohibition.

While Sunday gained the devotion of millions and helped bring Prohibition to America, he also became the subject of derision. One of his revival songs, "Brighten the Corner Where You Are," became a drinking song in the blind pigs that prospered during Prohibition. One line, "Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar" called the waiter for another stein of beer.

By the time Sunday returned to Detroit for another crusade in 1934, the nation's grand experiment with Prohibition had ended. And, the lawlessness and excesses of that era left a bitter taste with many.

Sunday's 1934 campaign was a disappointment. He attracted small crowds and even smaller donations from Detroiters struggling through the depths of the Great Depression. This time he only collected $2,000.

"This town is as different from the Detroit I knew 18 years ago as sickness is from health," he complained in the revival tent when no one heeded his call to come to the altar to be saved.

A little over a year later, Billy Sunday died in Chicago at the age of 72. He left an estate of $50,000 and a trust for two of his children.

The audience listens raptly to Sunday inside the tabernacle.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)

Dwight L. Moody / Billy Sunday


  • Notes from Dwight L. Moody Prayer Meetings ... The Right Spirit by Dwight L. Moody, Chicago, 1877

  • Notes from Dwight L. Moody Prayer Meetings ... Prayer and Daniel by Dwight L. Moody, Chicago, 1877

  • Notes from Dwight L. Moody Prayer Meetings ... Heart-Searching by Dwight L. Moody, Chicago, 1877

  • Notes from Dwight L. Moody Prayer Meetings ... Getting Ready and Unleavened Bread by Dwight L. Moody, Chicago, 1877

  • Notes from Dwight L. Moody Prayer Meetings ... Give God the Glory by Dwight L. Moody, Chicago, 1877

  • Notes from Dwight L. Moody Prayer Meetings ... The Disciple's Prayer by Dwight L. Moody, Chicago, 1877

  • Notes from Dwight L. Moody Prayer Meetings ... Unanimity by Dwight L. Moody, Glasgow, 1877

  • Does God act on our ... Prayer by Dwight L. Moody, Edinburgh, 1874.

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     "I am an old-fashioned preacher of the old-time religion, that has warmed this cold world's heart for two thousand years." óBilly SUNDAY