Billy Sunday was the king of the early twentieth-century revivalists. They built special tabernacles to hold the thousands who came to hear him. His name made front-page headlines wherever he went: his preaching even inspired the Prohibition Amendment. And after thirty-nine years of ministry, one hundred million Americans had heard him speak and over one million had come forward in response to his altar calls. Billy Sunday was a religious superstar.
But what about his family? In his day, it was an enormous task to organise such a large-scale ministry, requiring months of travel at a time. Billy and his wife worked feverishly, side by side. He often preached seven days a week, four times a day, while she took care of the mountain of administrative details. Their children?
The oldest daughter was in college at the height of their ministry, but their three sons hit adolescence while mom and dad were on the road, busy saving America.
While Billy pounded the pulpit about moral responsibility, his irresponsible Hophni-and-Phinehas sons bounced in and out of trouble. They were constantly in debt, flagrantly promiscuous, and later had disastrous marriages. Two of their ex-wives even blackmailed the Sundays by threatening to go public with the embarrassing details. And, tragically, in 1933 the oldest son committed suicide.
After his son’s death, Billy pondered his busy life in a poignant moment with his wife, Nel. “Billy stood gazing out the window of their Winona Lake home. Watching the autumn leaves fall, and looking wistfully toward the lake, he turned to her with tear-filled eyes and said, ‘Ma, where did I go wrong? I thought we heard God’s call to evangelism. But look at our boys. Where did I go wrong?'”
(Lyle W Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America [Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991], p.132) Memorable Scenes from Old Testament Homes by C.R. Swindoll