Girl  Evangelists

William Ashley (“Billy”) Sunday was the star American revivalist in the late 1800s and the first third of the 1900s. He was the best known male revivalist during the golden age of the girl evangelist phenomenon. The woman preacher and church founder Aimee Semple McPherson was the nearest thing that could rival Sunday as a revivalist preacher, and Sunday and McPherson were household names in both religious and secular society. Of the girl evangelists, Uldine Utley had similar name recognition, and frequently the three are mentioned together as the leading revivalist preachers of the day.

Young preachers were often compared to Billy Sunday. Indeed, even young girl evangelists were sometimes so compared. Sunday’s style was dramatic, raucous, and direct. He had been a professional baseball player in the National League, playing for Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. He was a leading base stealer, and he put his quickness and athletic abilities into his preaching. Some thought he was too flamboyant, and some girls didn’t like to be compared to him. Others, of course, would not have minded the comparison at all.

Sunday was famous not just for the style of his preaching but for the massive temporary wooden structures he built for many of his city-wide crusades. These buildings were called tabernacles. A New York Times article (21 December 1916) describes Billy Sunday’s New York City tabernacle as the largest structure ever built for public meetings in the city. It seated 20,000 people. The tabernacle structure was convenient for several reasons. It could handle a range of stormy weather better than the tents that revivalist preachers often used. Billy could also handle the audience better by controlling the crowd, with doors that closed rather than loose canvas sides of a tent that sometimes beckoned the rowdies. As well, the tabernacle was a better venue for large crowds, allowing the preacher’s voice to be heard throughout the building.

A few revivalists followed his pattern, but with smaller-scale constructions. The father of Betty Weakland, one well-known girl evangelist, built a Sunday-like tabernacle in Jamestown, New York, when Betty retired from itinerant evangelism to co-pastor a church with her father.

Billy Sunday