by Brenda Roger
I’m currently working on label text for The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library, set to open at the Frick Art & Historical Center on April 21. In the course of working my way through the exhibit checklist, I discovered a character: Billy Sunday.
The most enjoyable thing about discovering this character is that my first look at him was through the eyes of painter, illustrator and lithographer, George Bellows. Like Bellows, I was intrigued enough to take a second look. When Bellows took his second look he was repulsed, and compelled to draw.
In 1915 George Bellows was sent on assignment to cover a revival starring extreme Evangelical preacher, Billy Sunday. Yes, I kid you not, his real name is Billy Sunday; William Ashley Sunday to be exact.
Billy Sunday organized camp revival meetings that were so well attended that large temporary wooden structures were erected as an arena for his mass-conversions. The floors were covered with sawdust. A regular part of the experience was a chance to walk up the sawdust covered center aisle and shake the very hand of Billy Sunday. Hence, “The Sawdust Trail” was born.
Sunday was against drinking and an outspoken supporter of Prohibition. His sermons included all manner of gyrations such as shadow boxing with the devil, as well as, but not limited to, pointing, kicking, and yelling. His preaching was physical to say the least.
The Bellows drawings of Sunday are dynamic; the compositions complex. At first glance, I thought dear Mr. Bellows was a follower of Sunday, and then I read what Bellows said about him:
I like to paint Billy Sunday, not because I like him, but because I want to show the world what I do think of him. Do you know, I believe Billy Sunday is the worst thing that ever happened to America?
My dear Mr. Bellows, come back from the peaceful slumber of death for a day and let me tell you what has happened since!
The modern political climate makes Sunday that much more interesting to study. Depending on where you land on the web he is either a hero or a circus freak. I think he was probably a little bit of both.
His story is irresistible. Billy Sunday was the orphaned son of a Union soldier, and a former baseball player of some talent and reputation. He was then "saved", and apprenticed with a very reserved traveling preacher. By the time he was headlining his own revivals he had learned every aspect of the camp revival business and what followed, I suspect, was somewhat like a preaching tornado.
I see a screenplay in here somewhere. Now if only I knew how to write one........