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


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