When famous evangelist Billy Sunday came to Ashland

A friend recently found some old newspaper clippings from the Ashland Daily Independent that were tucked away in one of her grandmother’s old catalogs. Some of them dated back to 1917 but were in incredibly good shape. She posted many of the clipped-out articles and shared them on Facebook. Flipping through her Facebook post was fascinating and educational, like having a time capsule in front of you.

I don’t claim to know everything about Ashland – especially outside the sports arena – but I’ve long been a fan of reading old newspapers via microfilm machines. The writing is creative yet in a far different way from today. Most of the sports reports never included any comments from coaches or players but often lists the entire starting lineup in football and basketball and practically every play that happened.

Included in this treasure trove of newspaper clippings was one about world-famous evangelist Billy Sunday preaching in Ashland. He was here in January of 1922 at the First M.E. Church on 18th Street and Carter Avenue (aka the “Chocolate Church”).

Sunday was met in Huntington and a caravan of cars brought him to Ashland. He left after also speaking at the Rotary Club.

Sunday, known for his dramatic flair while speaking, preached for an hour “to the largest audience Ashland has ever sent to hear a preacher,” the newspaper reported. He was introduced by the Rev. H.V. Carson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church and president of the Ashland Ministerial Association, which remains in operation today.

Sunday’s fiery sermon was entitled “Is it well with thee?” and the evangelist didn’t hold back. He spoke on the welfare of the wife, husband and child and especially the child. The newspaper quoted the famed evangelist extensively in the story about his visit, which I also found interesting since quotes were seldom found in most stories.

“My friends, little can you realize how the child looks to you for guidance, looks to you for an example. Will you come through? Will the only times that he hears the name of God from you be when in profanity or derision when you take the name of the Lord in vain?”

He talked about the importance of getting children into Sunday School so they could learn about Jesus to help them through life’s difficulties.

“The Sunday schools lost 500,000 children because their parents did not take them to the Sunday School, setting them an example and teaching them the right way to live.” He said it was up to the parents to get their children in church “to show him that he cannot fight the battles of life without the assistance of Jesus Christ.”

Sunday spoke of what can happen if parents don’t have control of their children and haven’t taught them about Jesus including a girl “giving up her virtue” and the boy “entering a bootlegging joint with no one to say that is not right.” He was a huge proponent of Prohibition with his preaching likely playing a role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

Sunday also talked to the wife and asked if her husband was “merely the man whose name she bears” or do you realize that “without Christ he is lost and that you will never see him again? Are you working to save his soul?”

What Sunday preached 100 years ago largely rings true today.

Sunday was a famous baseball player, too, who played as a speedy outfielder in the National League for eight years with the Cubs, Pirates and Phillies before leaving the game for the Christian ministry. He once stole 84 bases in a single season in 1890 and had a career .248 batting average with 246 steals.

But it was in the pulpit where he was most effective in life, becoming the nation’s most famous evangelist partly because of his frenetic delivery where his movement in the pulpit was active and unique, almost as if he was winding up to pitch. His audiences were smaller in the 1920s as he grew older and other sources of entertainment began to appear which may explain why he was in Ashland. But he was a strong defender of conservative Christianity until he died in 1935.

Sunday was 59 when he preached in Ashland, but at least the famous evangelist was here, if only for one hard-hitting sermon.

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