When I was called to preach, I studied and adopted Billy Sunday’s moves. Sunday, a former professional baseball player, was athletic in his preaching style. His favorite gestures were baseball poses.
Some clergymen thought that Sunday was undignified in his preaching style and placed too much emphasis on hell, fire and brimstone.
Good moves are helpful in drawing the attention of an audience who are not usually interested in religion. I like to brag that I have better moves than Mike Jagger; we are the same age, 76. I never tried to imitate the moves of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, because his moves were effeminate.
When I first started on the campuses a leader of Chi Alpha was critical of me, claiming that the Billy Sunday model was out of fashion and not appropriate for an intellectual setting.
Students have fun imitating my moves and voice inflections while I am preaching and later in the dorms. They enjoy regaling their friends with Brother Jed tales. I want to appeal both to people’s audio and visual senses, which will make an indelible impression on their minds.
The following is quoted from the New World Encyclopedia:
Part of Billy Sunday’s near universal appeal was his unapologetically vigorous and bombastic homiletic style. At a given meeting, Sunday would wait until the moment felt right, and then would launch into his message. Sunday gyrated, stood on the pulpit, ran from one end of the platform to the other, and dove across the stage, pretending to slide into home plate. Sometimes he even smashed chairs to emphasize his points.
His sermon notes had to be printed in large letters so that he could catch a glimpse of them as he raced by the pulpit. In addresses directed to an audience of men, many of which attacked sexual sin, Sunday’s delivery could be graphic (at least for the era). Some religious and social leaders criticized Sunday’s exaggerated gestures as well as the slang and colloquialisms that filled his sermons, but audiences clearly enjoyed them.
Further, some modern scholars argue that Sunday’s approach can be seen as an instance of the muscular, virile Christianity that was arising at the time in response to the perceived “weakness” inherent in stereotypical Christian values. Indeed, his ministry did “share the conviction [common in his day] that Christianity must be a muscular, masculine religion to be effective. Through the content of his message, his aggressive style of evangelism, and the remarkable story of his own life, Sunday’s revivalism both reflected and addressed some of the gender-related concerns of his day.”
In 1907, journalist Lindsay Denison complained that Sunday preached “the old, old doctrine of damnation,” getting results by “inspiring fear and gloom in the hearts of sinners.” But Sunday himself told reporters “with ill-concealed annoyance,” that his revivals had “no emotionalism.” Sunday told one reporter that he believed that people could “be converted without any fuss,” and, at Sunday’s meetings, “instances of spasm, shakes, or fainting fits caused by hysteria were few and far between.”