Wholesome Words Home
Christian Biography

"Ma" Sunday

by Theodore Thomas Frankenberg

Mrs. William SundayNo account of the career and achievements of Rev. W. A. Sunday would be complete or accurate unless it made full recognition of the part Mrs. Sunday has had in both. So nearly coincidental are the Christian ministry and the married life of Mr. Sunday that a separation of the two is almost impossible. It is doubtful if either of the couple realize the amount the other has contributed to the success of the work.

Mr. Sunday was married about a year after his conversion, but before he began actual evangelical work. Mrs. Sunday, therefore, started married life, as the wife of a baseball player. This involved a certain amount of travel and a variety of associations vastly different from those which were to become her everyday experience.

To thousands and thousands who have sat beneath the spell of Mr. Sunday's voice, Mrs. Sunday is affectionately known as "Ma." Nothing could be more effective and at the same time a finer compliment to the woman than the manner in which Mr. Sunday is wont to introduce her to his audience. After he has presented the assistants, and the choir leader, and the soloists, and the instrumentalist, he will usually end by that terse phase "and this is Ma."

It means everything to the evangelist. In public and in private he is generous in his acknowledgment of the important part she plays in all his work. Essentially she is his business manager, practically she is the buffer which comes between the preacher and the thousand and one little trials of life which do so much to disturb the even tenor of existence. At home and abroad Mr. Sunday remains the impetuous sweetheart which he was in his baseball days. In a recent campaign he paid this tribute to Mrs. Sunday:

I've never yet gone contrary to Mrs. Sunday's advice that I haven't found myself up against it. Nell wouldn't take first prize at a beauty show, but she's got more good horse sense than any woman I ever saw in my life. And I think she's the most beautiful woman I ever saw, too.

The mother of four children, two of whom are married, Mrs. Sunday has found it possible to spend a great deal of her time traveling with her husband at the same time maintaining a home for him — first at Chicago and later at Winona Lake. It has always been open and ready for entertainment on a moment's notice. For all her much living in hotels and continued traveling, meeting with business men, clergymen, newspapermen and others, Mrs. Sunday has preserved that wonderful fidelity to her home instincts, and is in every sense a home woman, quite as much as Mr. Sunday is a home man, despite the little opportunity either has had to enjoy a natural inclination.

A charming picture of the life of the evangelist and his wife is given by Miss Julia Brandon Cole in the South Bend Tribune. Miss Cole visited Mr. and Mrs. Sunday at their home and giving her impression of the woman says:

Mrs. Sunday is a homely women in the truest sense of the old English word. Plain of face, comfortable of figure and characterized by a sympathetic smile and the kindest eyes in the world, her entire personality breathes quiet efficiency.

She sat before the broad window in the living room of her home looking out over the lake the other day as she talked about the coming revival in South Bend and experiences which the party has had in other towns. About her things were in confusion for the household was cleaning house in true old fashioned manner.

Although the two boys were excitedly watching dust gather in the glass jar of a vacuum cleaner, seriously hampering the manipulator and the maid was rushing about superintending odd jobs of the men of the Sunday party who, were spending a few days at the cottage, the confusion seemed to fall away from her. Matters referred continually to her were disposed of instantly with quiet decision, and without interrupting the thread of her talk.

With a feeling of sympathy for the housewife whose home program must be continually disarranged by the constant moving from point to point I asked if she objected to the frequent upheaval of moving about. Here I received the first insight into an attitude which fairly permeates the entire household and party.

"Why, no," with a smile of genuine surprise, "it is necessary, so I accept it as a matter of course."

Her tone held something of reproof and I hastened to explain that in putting up preserves and caring for household matters must of necessity be difficult under such conditions.

"People should just see my provision closet," she laughed, "I guess they would admit I don't let my family starve."

"Mamma where's my tennis racket?" this from young Billy, and she arose hastily to produce the lost traps.

As she seated herself again she fell to chatting about revival reminiscences.

"You know about 75 per cent of the church membership are women which would indicate that they are more easily reached than men. But in revival work I believe a man's heart is touched more quickly than a woman.

"A woman once reached, however, will not rest until the men she is interested in, her husband, her brother, father or her sweetheart, have been converted. Nine out of 10 women have unconverted husbands and with tears in their eyes their first request will be that we pray for their husband.

"It is seldom that a woman will grow hysterical in the audience, improbable as that may first appear. Generally hysteria or fainting may be traced to physical or nervous condition.

"No disturbance is allowed, anyhow, from such incidents. If a woman faints or a baby cries, there is a trained corps of ushers who take them out immediately before the interruption can break the attention of the audience. Crying babies are about the only thing Mr. Sunday is really fussy about.

"He never allows scoffing or argument during the course of a meeting he just says 'two can't talk at once, and I'm on the job' and refuses to allow any discussion."

While Miss Cole was interviewing Mrs. Sunday the evangelist came into the house clad in his outdoor togs and after his fashion entered at once into the conversation. Miss Cole asked him among other things whether it were true, as had been reported, that he employs detectives previous to conducting a campaign in a city. She thus details what happened:

"That's one thing I wish you would explain once for all, make it as strong as you please. I never employed a detective to get information against a town in my life. I won't listen or use information given by anyone unless they are willing to make sworn affidavit to their statements.

"Moreover, I never use an anonymous letter. The first thing I do when I open a letter is to look for the signature. If it isn't signed into the waste basket it goes. I don't even read it. That's a rule I made when I first began evangelistic work and I have never broken it. I never saw a town that had so many crazy ideas about me as South Bend," he fumed.

He turned away brusquely.

And what about Sunday baseball, I called.

"I never compromise with the devil."

But if it is a factory town where men can't go on week days and if they didn't have ball they'd go to the beer picnics—

"Why they go isn't your business. I'm against it! Once and for always."

"Papa," she interrupted, "I wish we could get some grass seed in before the rain."

"So do I."

"Hadn't you better put it in?"

"There's a bucket back there. Why don't you use that?"

"All right."

A minute later a pacified Billy Sunday crossed the lawn lugging a big tin wash boiler of grass seed. Then his wife pointed out where he should sow it while she called to young Billy to go take his music lesson.

"He won't go unless he's sent each time," she laughed.

"Mr. Sunday always has strength enough to do what is before him," said his wife later, talking of his reported recent nervous collapse. He speaks so often of the way the Lord gives him extra strength. We see it plainly all the time. For instance, he has to be very careful not to take cold after a sermon when he is perspiring heavily for it effects his voice. Now no matter how strong a draft he may stand in when he is shaking hands with converts, he never catches cold.

"Other times he takes a closed carriage to his room and rubs down being careful not to get cold. He never drinks water when he is talking as so many speakers do."

Talk drifted to Mrs. Sunday's experiences in Columbus where the women entreated her to accompany their car to Washington for the suffrage demonstration.

"I couldn't go, I couldn't have gotten away in the first place. Besides I'm not an ardent suffragette. Women will probably have the vote in time and that is all right if they want it..."

So much for life at Winona Lake.

At Steubenville an ambitious scribe attempted to chronicle the activities of Mrs. Sunday during the routine of a campaign. The Steubenville Gazette gives this outline:

Arise at 8 a.m.
Breakfast, 8:30.
Hunted up Treasurer of Steubenville Evangelistic Association.
Paid bills for Colonel Albert P. Gill.
Dictation one hour and a half to Secretary Robert Matthews.
Opening left-over mail.
In it found bill for 70 cents for repairs to furnace at Winona Lake home. Sent check for same.
Dispatched payment for laundry bill to South Bend, Ind.
Wrote and sent nine letters.
Answered phone a dozen times.
Helped Billy Sunday get ready to work.
Brought paper, sharpened pencils and procured other necessary materials. Sunday works fast and likes everything directly at hand, so as to insure no delay. It is Ma's duty to see that nothing is overlooked.

AFTERNOON.
Man came to talk business. Mrs. Sunday stayed at home to attend to this matter, thus permitting Billy to devote his entire attention to his regular duties.
Wrote and dispatched four more letters, one to an expert accountant in Pittsburg; another to a convict in the Ohio penitentiary.
Received two callers.
Answered a letter to the editor of The Beacon Journal, Akron, O.
Two ladies called, one of whom had an appointment by mail.
Rodeheaver introduced a singer who wished to try out with the idea of joining the Sunday party.
Washed.
Supper.

EVENING.
Prepared her husband's clothing for three changes during the day, took out and put in buttons and laid out clothes ready for his immediate use.
Attended evening service.
Prepared Bill's lemonade.

Yes, Ma Sunday is some busy lady. Bill took a sip of the temperance thirst-quencher, then said, "And if Ma hadn't been here I'd have to attend to all this. Wouldn't have had a minute for my work."

That the helpful relation existing between Mr. and Mrs. Sunday is apparent to the casual observer is indicated by the following letter which appeared in the Columbus Citizen after the close of the campaign in that city in the usual column of letters from our readers. Under a caption of "The Power of Nell" the letter goes on to say:

Whatever Billy Sunday has done for Columbus, he cannot have failed to have left, deeply imprinted in the hearts of all that heard him preach, a wonderful example of the love of a strong man for his wife. Who can have failed to notice his loving references to "Nell." From the first day to the last of his seven weeks' campaign he acknowledged her power. Billy Sunday has come and gone. That he had power and success is shown by 18,000 human beings accepting his teachings and publicly acknowledging their faith. He has shown it by the subscription of $21,000 for his meritorious work. But back of it all is "Nell."

Sunday evening when Billy Sunday had closed an inspiring sermon in Memorial Hall and the people were halting on decision, "Nell" stepped in to the breach, lead the choir and all unconscious of her power swung several hundred penitent to a public acknowledgment of God. And the beauty of it all was that she was not striving to establish something. No, she was just trying to show herself a real, live helpmate. Just trying to help Billy, that was all. No wonder Billy Sunday speaks reverently when he says "Nell."

Far more than the average outsider is permitted to know Mrs. Sunday figures in the counsel of the family and in the determination of the activities of the evangelist. No campaign of any moment is agreed upon without her assent. Anything like an innovation in arrangements is referred to her for advice. Like the wives of many great men she looks after the detail of his physical comfort with great care. She it is who sees that he has his overcoat immediately after a period of strenuous exertion. She skillfully extracts him from the throng of curious who press about him at the conclusion of every meeting, and on the other hand sees to it that not the smallest child who has real cause to meet the evangelist fails of doing so.

Wherever possible in campaigns the Sunday party secures a private home for living and for headquarters. Only where this is impossible do they accept hotel accommodations. Usually the family housekeeper comes on and looks after the routine affairs of the house. In determining upon the choice of a hotel for the Sunday party, the local committee has to be very careful. It must not have a bar. As the great majority of leading hotels have, Sunday is forced to accept second-class accommodations. In Columbus, for instance, he refused residence at five modern hotels and settled his party in a small family hostelry in a residence section of the city. Quite frequently the smaller children are visitors and whenever the campaigns are within twelve hours by rail from Winona at least one or two rest days are spent there.

In September 1913 the Sundays celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, and press dispatches thus describe the event:

Billy Sunday and wife reached the twenty-fifth year of their married life on September 5th and they celebrated the event quietly but happily at Winona Lake. A number of their friends called at the Sunday home during the day and offered their congratulations on their silver wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Sunday received congratulatory messages from friends and admirers in all parts of the country.

"The evangelist is just as devoted to his wife today as he was a quarter of a century ago when he was courting "Ma," then Nell, in Chicago, while he played on the old Chicago White Sox baseball team. Billy always has an eye for the comfort of Mrs. Sunday wherever they go and if his wife is not at his side he is continually inquiring of her whereabouts.

Mrs. Sunday has business ability rarely given to women and can conduct the affairs of her husband evangelist better than he himself, according to his own confession.

His little peculiarities, what he likes, what he dislikes, how things should be conducted are known to her and she always makes every possible effort to see that accommodations are suitable to his comfort.

Mrs. Sunday has that same tact that enables a woman to accomplish great results while apparently moving in the even tenor of her way. Their home life is an ideal one of Christian companionship and they have thus joyously passed their silver wedding and are working on hand to hand and hearts attuned to the sweet distant chimes of golden wedding bells.

Until the last trumpet has sounded the world never will know how much of what is accredited to Evangelist W. A. Sunday, is in truth, due to the one affectionately known as "Ma." She is a steadying balance wheel to an excitable and nervous temperament; a sure source of inspiration when his patience is tried; a buffer between the many annoyances of life and their intended object; the sure and level headed counselor when decisions must be wisely made; the devoted and unwearied assistant both in tedious detail and in splendid generalization Mrs. Sunday has come to be known among those who have had opportunity of intimate observation, as the power behind the throne.

With the true moral instincts which the Saxon race everywhere has come to revere, her greatest delight is in the success and achievements of her husband. Without reservation her life has been given wholly to him since the day they were joined in wedlock. From that day the star of W. A. Sunday has brightened on the horizon until it has stood at the zenith, flaming as the noonday sun. How much of that light is Billy Sunday's, the baseball evangelist, and how much of it is the self-denying, level-headed, Scotch determination of Nelle Thompson, daughter of a Chicago ice cream dealer, no one, not even "Ma," herself can tell.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Spectacular Career of Rev. Billy Sunday by Theodore Thomas Frankenberg. Columbus, Ohio: McClelland & Company, ©1913.

More Information on Billy Sunday


Christian Biography Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.