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Vocalist's musical provides a revival of evangelist's life



Published: Sat, September 7, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By D.A. WILKINSON

VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR

BILLY SUNDAY IS BACK IN TOWN! The famous evangelist is being brought to life by Brent Grosvenor. The actor and vocalist has created "Sunday in Manhattan," based on Sunday's 1917 revival in New York. His company, Lights Up Ministries Inc., of Southington, Conn., will present the show at 6 p.m. Sept. 15 at Calvary Assembly in Boardman. He'll also be at the service at 10:30 a.m. that day.

But the real Sunday was no stranger to Youngstown. He held daily revival services here from Jan. 9 to Feb. 20, 1910. The evangelist spoke at two or three services a day in a specially built "tabernacle" designed to seat 7,000 people.

Sunday may not be well-known now, but he was famous as the professional baseball player who quit the game and big cash to become an evangelist credited with preaching to more than 100 million people and winning more than 1 million converts to Jesus Christ, according to Grosvenor, who has researched the evangelist's life.

Among those were the 5,915 people who signed cards pledging their lives to Christ in Youngstown during Sunday's revival, according to The Youngstown Daily Vindicator. The newspaper dedicated an entire page almost every day of the revival to Sunday's every word.

He was anti-booze, knocked stagnant churches and preached a personal relationship with a living Savior. He was a forerunner of today's well-organized crusades, supported women's and children's rights and fought racism. And he preached and told his revival stories with fiery emotion and an athlete's motion.

"He looked very young, until he was in his 60s" Grosvenor said. "His heyday, during the New York revival, when I portray him, he was in his mid-50s."

Sunday's father died during the Civil War, and he grew up in poverty in a home for veterans' children.

Fame and fortune

Sunday's extreme speed -- he could steal bases and play the outfield -- brought him fame and fortune.

"He left the [Philadelphia] Phillies in 1890. That was his last year in pro baseball. He played five years with the [Chicago] White Stockings. He played a year and a half with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which were the Alleghenies until 1891, and became the Pirates in 1891."

"He was making $400 a month for the Phillies, which was a year's salary for any average factory worker. He was offered $500 by the Cincinnati Reds. There were rumors he was offered $1,200 a month by another team, but I've never verified that."

Grosvenor said he had been able to verify that Sunday was offered $1 million by the liquor industry to stop preaching against alcohol. He was offered another million to tell stories for a circus.

In his last years, he was offered another million dollars by Hollywood to record his sermons.

"That would have made him the first evangelist to use multimedia," said Grosvenor. "He turned them all down."

That's because in 1886, while playing for the White Stockings, he was at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, and became a Christian.

When Sunday quit baseball, he wound up working for the YMCA for $83 a month.

Starting out

As a preacher, he was a natural, but not an overnight success.

"The significant thing about Billy Sunday, his ministry can be put into two parts. His first 12 years of ministry was in small towns, not one town had electricity, and he held solo revivals. He would go into a town with anywhere from 700 to 2,000 people, and every bar would go out of business, and every brothel would go out of business. He would totally shut these towns down."

Sunday used whatever large building he could find. Later, supporters would often build large tabernacles, and then sell the material after his revivals.

"The average clergyman was real stoic, real religious, real 'let's not get too emotional about Christianity, about evangelism.' Billy Sunday said 'No way. That's not the way the Bible teaches us. We're going to preach, we're going to see people's lives turned around.' He was emotional about it."

Grosvenor said Sunday saw the need to preach to both hypocritical Christians and the unsaved as well. He eventually decided to try preaching in big cities to see if he could make a difference.

"That's when everything exploded for his ministry," said Grosvenor. "He turned this country upside down."

Sunday's heyday was from 1908 to 1922, and Grosvenor estimates that half the country heard the preacher.

"Sunday was the first preacher to really do what Billy Graham does now -- organize evangelists. Get prayer meetings started praying for each section of town. Go in several months before you come and hold special meetings. Have people who used to be drug addicts, or whatever, talk about how God has changed their life. Organize the ushers. Have programs for men, women and children."

Praise

Theodore Roosevelt said Sunday was the nation's foremost reformer, according to Grosvenor.

During World War I, when the musical is set, President Woodrow Wilson asked Sunday not to go overseas, saying he was needed here.

An injured soldier sent back from the war starts "Sunday in Manhattan," and describes the state of the world. That leads to Sunday's story and the progression of his ministry.

There's a warfare theme in the often patriotic production that refers to both the trench warfare and the ongoing spiritual warfare in America as well.

What struck a chord with Grosvenor was that Sunday was "passionate for people. He loved to see people come to know God. It's one thing to be a preacher and be religious and preach because you're supposed to do that. It's another thing to do it because you really do care about people and care about this country. That's what drove him."

wilkinson@vindy.com

XFor more information on Grosvenor's ministry, visit www.lightsup.org.




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