The first two Billy’s were evangelists — Graham well known, Sunday less so. But who were the Billy Boys? They were followers, admirers, virtually worshippers of “Good King Billy,” King William III whose victory over a Catholic king in 1690 kept the British Isles under a Protestant monarchy.
This was particularly important to Scottish Lowlanders who had settled the north of Ireland in the 1600s but remained a minority on the island of Ireland. Descendants of these Ulster-Scots flocked to America in the 1700s and became the progenitors of eight (some say more) American presidents.
Known as the Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish, the northern branch actually organized the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, but the holiday — and parade — became Irish Catholic due to later immigration patterns. Meanwhile, the southern branch of Billy Boys who resided in rural hill country were dubbed hillbillies — and gave us moonshine and good music.
Billy Graham was Scotch-Irish, the 30 most common Scots-Irish names including Graham, Bell, Bailey, Hamilton, Wallace, Boyd, Burns, Marshall — but only one “Mc” name, McDonald. Whereas Billy Graham grew up in the Bible Belt heart of Scotch-Irish ancestry in North Carolina, Billy Sunday grew up in Iowa and was, at best, only a tad Scotch-Irish.
But in some sense Billy Sunday transcended ethnic identity. He was uniquely Billy Sunday, a major league baseball player of the 1880s who turned into America’s premier evangelist of the early 1900s and drew more front-page news coverage than any other American. Billy was box office.
Initially preaching in small towns of his native Iowa, Billy Sunday brought baseball slides, a homespun speaking style, and an evangelical message to the stage of the town halls or churches where he was preaching. When the crowds grew bigger, he preached in a tent. When a strong wind blew down his tent, he started having towns build a wooden tabernacle for him in advance of his appearance, one often lasting three weeks and allowing Billy to preach to well over a 100,000 people. The money flowed in and the converts flowed out.
The movie “Elmer Gantry” was modeled after Billy Sunday — but perhaps unfairly since he was generous in giving his money away and lived fairly modestly. But if a heckler mentioned money during one of his revival sermons, Billy would immediately challenge the heckler to come up on stage, adding “but you better get your picture taken first because your wife won’t know you when I’m through with you.”
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Billy was quick of foot as well as quick of mind. He skipped the minors and went straight to the majors — the Chicago White Sox — because of his speed, guts and agility. He was the first player to run the bases in 14 seconds. But he slowed down one day to hear a gospel message in Chicago and ultimately left baseball for the traveling pulpit.
Billy Sunday — with his business-manager wife’s help — set the pattern for Billy Graham crusades in the sense that they were organized in advance and employed staff members, advance prayer meetings, training of choir singers, and endless detail to get people in the gate and the gospel in their hearts.
I grew up hearing Billy Graham preach on the radio and later watched his crusades on television. He was far more refined than Billy Sunday, but no less dynamic, and determined to turn people away from sin and to a heavenly path and a more productive life. America shed a tear when Billy Graham recently died at age 99.
I hope we all enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day, be it with green beer, a parade, or a tip of the hat to both the Catholic Irish whose color is green and the Protestant Irish/Scots-Irish including Billy Graham, and maybe Billy Sunday, whose color is orange. Why? Because Good King Billy, William III, was originally William of Orange.
• James F. Burns is a retired University of Florida professor.