Ask McGehee: Did evangelist Billy Sunday ever visit Mobile?

In January of 1927, Billy Sunday arrived at Mobile’s Cawthon Hotel with his wife and a half dozen staff members to conduct a heavily promoted six-week revival. Sunday, an Iowa native, had been a professional baseball player before joining the staff of a Chicago YMCA in 1891. Within two years, he had joined forces with a popular evangelist before going out on his own to become a national sensation.

In preparation for his Mobile arrival, a “tabernacle” had been constructed on the block between St. Anthony and State streets, west of Water Street.  The hulking warehouse-like structure was capable of seating as many as 8, 000 according to newspaper accounts.

F. I. Thompson, the publisher of the Mobile Register was a rabid prohibitionist who gave Sunday front-page coverage on a daily basis throughout his entire visit to Mobile. Crowds averaging 5, 000 a night packed in to hear Sunday preach sermons such as “Crooks, Corkscrews and Bootleggers.” In it, he condemned the “wets, ” whom he termed “anarchists, ” and assured his audience that “the saloon is as dead as an Egyptian mummy!” 

As Americans shimmied and entered Charleston contests by the thousands, Sunday warned his audiences that dancing was “a hugging match set to music and a breeder of immorality.” And ladies playing bridge were even worse. He derided card playing of any sort as “kindergarten for gambling dens.” 

- Sponsors -

He denounced what he termed “intellectual” sermons and those who delivered them. On stage, he enthusiastically jumped and shouted, and his audiences loved it. In preaching on the Ten Commandments, Sunday wielded a hammer and noisily smashed each of 10 vases set upon a table.

Services were set aside for different denominations and races. One week, the Methodists had Tuesday; Baptists, Wednesday; and “Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and all other denominations” were together on Thursday. Some nights were for men, others women. Blacks were invited on a Monday, the Register citing “there (will) be no services for white people that day.”

Sunday spoke to the Rotary Club at their weekly meeting in the Battle House and was even entertained at the Ann Street home of Coca-Cola bottler Walter Bellingrath.

During the course of that memorable evening, Mrs. Bellingrath was stunned to observe the celebrated minister give his wife a very friendly and public pat on her fanny.

As the end of his revival drew closer, he told his audience of his love for the Port City. He said that should he ever lose his voice and the ability to preach, Mobile would be an ideal place for him and “Ma” to retire.

His farewell sermon was delivered to a crowd of 5, 000 on a rainy Valentine’s Day. As a piano rattled off “Blest Be the Tie That Binds, ” he was handed a check for more than $10, 000. The newspaper explained that this was presented “not as pay for his services, but as a free-will offering of affection.”

After reportedly shaking the hands of 1, 000 well-wishers, Sunday and his entourage boarded an Atlanta-bound train. That morning’s newspaper had included a classified ad requesting sealed bids for Sunday’s tabernacle, “as it stands or on (1) Lumber and Roofing, (2) Plumbing and (3) Electric Bulbs.”

Sunday never lost his voice and kept preaching to the end. He died in 1935 at the age of 73, after having delivered an estimated 20, 000 sermons. The site in Mobile where Sunday once preached currently holds the local FBI offices.


Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!