Billy Sunday Revival Tabernacle
February 1914

Billy Sunday Revival Tabernacle
Billy Sunday's Pittsburgh tabernacle, located across Forbes Avenue from the Carnegie Museum in Oakland.
The structure is being dismantled in late-February 1914 following the conclusion of the crusade.
The Pittsburgh Athletic Association and Soldier's Memorial are visible in the background.

For eight weeks beginning on Sunday, December 28, 1913, Oakland was the scene of the Evangelist Billy Sunday's Pittsburgh Campaign. Held in a large, temporary wooden tabernacle built at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Bellefield Street, and having a capacity of 15,000, Reverend Sunday held three large meetings each day.

By the time the final sermon ended on Sunday, February 23, 1914, he had conducted 124 services with a total attendance numbering nearly 1.6 million active participants. It was the only time in his thirty-plus years on the pulpit that the barnstorming ex-baseball player turned outspoken preacher brought his revival to the Steel City.

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William A. "Billy" Sunday was born into poverty near Ames, Iowa, on November 19, 1862, to William and Mary Jane Sunday. Billy's father died in the Civil War and he had a rough upbringing, spending time in an orphanage. He ran away from home at the age of fourteen to seek out employment. He worked at various jobs and began playing the game of baseball.

It was his baseball talent that first gained him notoriety. He joined the Chicago White Stockings of the National League in 1883. Sunday's personality, demeanor, and athleticism made him popular with the fans, as well as with his teammates. Future Hall of Famer, Manager Cap Anson, made him the team's business manager, which included such duties as handling the ticket receipts and paying the team's travel expenses.

In the days before outfielders wore gloves, Sunday was noted for thrilling catches featuring long sprints and athletic dives. But, he also committed a great many errors. Sunday was best known as an exciting base-runner, regarded by his peers as one of the fastest in the game.

Billy Sunday - Pittsburgh Alleghenies - 1988
Billy Sunday - Baseball Reference Statistics

Billy Sunday liked to gamble but was never a heavy drinker, although he often hung out in taverns with his teammates. In 1887, while out on the town in Chicago, he stopped to listen to a gospel group singing some popular hymns on a street corner. Soon he began swearing off his vices and attending a local Presbyterian Church on a regular basis. In 1888 he married fellow churchgoer Helen Thompson, daughter of one of the city's largest dairy business owners.

That same year Billy Sunday was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenies. He became the starting centerfielder and the local crowds took to him immediately. One reporter wrote that "the whole town is wild over Sunday." Although Pittsburgh had a losing team during the 1888 and 1889 seasons, Sunday performed well and was among the league leaders in stolen bases.

In 1890, Sunday was named team captain, and was the Alleghenies' star player, but the team suffered one of the worst seasons in baseball history. By August there was no money to meet payroll, and Sunday was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for two players and $1,000 in cash. His new club was in contention to win the National League pennant, and the owners hoped that adding Sunday to the roster would improve their chances. Although he played well, the Phillies finished in third place. Billy Sunday retired from baseball the following spring.

Reverend Billy Sunday
Evangelist Billy Sunday

Two years after hanging up his baseball cleats and now an ordained minister, Sunday became an assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one the most well-known Presbyterian evangelists in the country. Sunday was in charge of an advance team that traveled ahead of the reverend's party and took care of the details of the large revival meetings.

Reverend Chapman was a meticulous dresser, and through his strong voice and sophisticated demeanor commanded respect in the pulpit. Through Chapman's tutelage, Billy Sunday developed his own suave and captivating style of evangelistic preaching. He used a frantic style of preaching, with exaggerated body gestures and free use of slang words that were considered risque, or profane, for the era.

In 1896, Sunday struck out on his own. He began preaching in Garner, Iowa, and over the next decade took his entertaining show on the road with week-long "crusades" in small towns and cities, mostly throughout Iowa and Illinois. When grew to large for the rural churches or town halls, he pitched rented canvas tents. Sunday did much of the physical work of putting them up, manipulating ropes during storms, and seeing to their security by sleeping in them at night.

Reverend Billy Sunday

Although ordained in the Presbyterian Church, Sunday's ministry was always strictly non-denominational. He was unorthodox in some of his beliefs while advocating sex education in schools and reaching out to followers of all religions.

During his stops many people converted to Christianity while listening to his rantings against the evils of alcohol, gambling, and dancing. Sunday was immensely popular with his enthusiastic audiences, and when he came to town news of his visit always dominated the headlines of the local newspapers.

As Reverend Sunday's popularity increased, so did the length of his revival campaigns in each location. With stays now lasting several weeks, the amount of weekly offerings contributed by his followers increased proportionately. By 1905 he was financially able to start sending advance teams to oversee construction of large temporary wooden tabernacles and hold church rallies in preparation for his visit. A "Billy Sunday Revival" became such a big draw that the host cities accepted responsibility for covering the costs of the tabernacle construction.

Billy Sunday Revival

The tabernacles were large wooden arenas, generally built to hold a capacity of 7,000 visitors. They were rather costly to build, although much of the wood was salvaged in the end. They were equipped with heating and electrical lighting. Evangelicals from around the area often joined together to help with construction.

There were plenty of doors and a spartan interior. Fresh sawdust covered the dirt floor to dampen crowd noise, keep dust down and provide a pleasant aroma. The sawdust became synonymous with Sunday's revivals, so much so that attending a Sunday sermon was referred to as "hitting the sawdust trail."

Billy Sunday Revival

By 1913 Billy Sunday was a national phenomenon, taking his revival campaigns to the major cities in the country. Near the end of that year evangelicals around the Pittsburgh area excitedly prepared amd anxiously awaited the return of the former Alleghenies centerfielder and his traveling ministry, scheduled for an eight-week visit. Approximately 500 cottage prayer meetings were held around the city on the night before his arrival, marking the end of the preliminary religious campaign.

Reverend Billy Sunday arrived in Pittsburgh on Saturday, December 27, 1913, for what the Sunday Post called "the greatest revival of its kind the world has known." Expecting large crowds numbering over 15,000, the tabernacle at Forbes Avenue and Bellefield Street was twice the normal size. In addition to the expected visitors, there was also a choir of 1400 voices and 190 ushers, made up mostly of Pittsburgh pastors including Reverend J. T. Steffy from Brookline's Episcopal Methodist Church.

Billy Sunday arrives in Pittsburgh - Dec 27, 1913

Sunday had lofty goals for his Pittsburgh revival. "I am ready for the campaign, ready for the greatest effort of my career. I hope to be the instrument of bringing upwards of 50,000 souls to God."

About 75,000 people attended opening day programs on December 28. Attendance was so great that many were turned away from the crowded tabernacle. It was estimated that 20,000 found it impossible to gain entrance on that first day. Associate ministers were stationed at nearby Soldier's Memorial Hall, as it was originally called, to handle the overflow crowds in what local papers called a "Religious Tidal Wave."

Billy Sunday Revival - Pittsburgh - Dec 1913
1 - The big Tabernacle on Bellefield. 2 - Mrs. William A. Sunday, 3 - "Billy" Sunday, 4 - Mr. Sunday in characteristic
outdoor pose. Group - l to r - William Asher, Mrs. Sunday. B.D. Ackley, W.A. Sunday, "Fred" Seibert,
Mrs. Laurin Jones, A.P. Gill and Miss Frances Miller. Pittsburgh Press photos.

While thousands had to be turned away from the opening events, organizers did find room in the tabernacle for two late arrivals. Police Lt. Hugh Duffy was approached by "a short, stocky, kindly faced man, accompanied by an elderly woman," according to a sidebar story on the revival. They were guided to the choir and seated four rows from the back.

United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, three times the Democratic candidate for president, known as "The Great Commoner," lived up to his nickname during a brief visit to Pittsburgh. "Mr. and Mrs. Bryan went to the tabernacle on a street car and back by the same route," according to the Gazette Times. "Only a few persons recognized the secretary of state," the newspaper said.

Pittsburgh Daily Post - Page 13 - Jan 4, 1914

Not to be left out of the region's "Religious Tidal Wave," two weks after Sunday began his Pittsburgh crusade, on January 11, leaders of the region's large Roman Catholic population offered a one-day demonstration by members of the Diocesan Holy Name Society. Almost 10,000 men gathered at the Pittsburgh Exposition Hall downtown to take a solemn stand against the use of "profanity and blasphemy," a reference to Billy Sunday's language and teachings. The crowd filled the seats and the outer aisles of the music hall and filled the machinery hall.

Undeterred, Billy Sunday's Revival Meetings continued every day, three times a day, with facts and figures printed daily in the local paper about his sermons, attendance figures, the amount of converts and the amount of offerings collected. On his final day, Sunday, February 22, 1914, over 59,000 people attended three meetings, bringing the total attendance to 1.6 million, equal to three times the city's population in 1910.

Pittsburgh Press - Dec 28, 1913

There were 1,425 conversions and $10,343.55 in collections, bringing the final totals to 24,316 converted and $48,980.03 collected. Offerings were broken down as such: $4199 - one/two dollar bills, $1,655 - five/ten/twenty dollar bills, $50 - gold, $369 - silver dollars, $719.50 - halves, $852 - quarters, $589.30 - dimes, $286.35 - nickels, $9.50 - pennies and $1849.50 - personal checks.

These large caches of donations had, by 1913, become the subject of some debate. During his Pittsburgh campaign, Sunday effectively made $217 per sermon, or $870 per day at a time when the average worker made $836 per year. It is estimated that between 1908 and 1920, Billy Sunday earned over $1 million as compared to less than $14,000 for the average worker over the same time span.

Plentiful Offerings
Organizers and police count the plentiful offerings collected during the last day of the Billy Sunday Pittsburgh Campaign.

As Sunday wrapped up his Pittsburgh visit, he said, "Hasn't it been wonderful? There has never been anything like it. It has been marvelous. The spirit of enthusiasm and cooperation given us here has been greater than we had ever hoped for. Words can not express my gratitude."

Before leaving, the reverend praised the local policemen, firemen and the doctors and nurses of Field Hospital No. 1, who had been on volunteer duty in the tabernacle since the beginning of the campaign. He announced that the final day's afternoon and evening collections would be divided among them.

Reverend Billy Sunday departed Pittsburgh for his next revival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Over the following few years he continued to bring his message to cities across the country, rarely visiting a city twice. His popularity began to wane after World War I, but he continued his barnstorming ways until his death in 1935.

Over the course of his career, Sunday preached to crowds totalling more than one hundred million people face-to-face and, to the great majority, without electronic amplification. He claimed to have given nearly 20,000 sermons.

Billy Sunday Revival Tabernacle - Wash D.C. 1918
The Billy Sunday Revival tabernacle in Washington, D.C. in 1915.

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