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Carl Sandburg, To Billy Sunday

To Billy Sunday

You come along… tearing your shirt… yelling
about Jesus.
I want to know… what the hell… you
know about Jesus.

Jesus had a way of talking softly and everybody
except a few bankers and higher-ups among the
con men of Jerusalem liked to have this Jesus
around because he never made any fake passes
and everything he said went and he helped the
sick and gave the people hope.

You come along squirting words at us, shaking
your fist and calling us damn fools so fierce the
froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips —
always blabbing we’re all going to hell straight
off and you know all about it.

I’ve read Jesus’ words. I know what he said. You
don’t throw any scare into me. I’ve got your
number. I know how much you know about

He never came near clean people or dirty people
but they felt cleaner because he came along. It
was your crowd of bankers and business men
and lawyers that hired the sluggers and murderers
who put Jesus out of the running.

I say it was the same bunch that’s backing you that
nailed the nails into the hands of this Jesus of
Nazareth. He had lined up against him the
same crooks and strong-arm men now lined up
with you paying your way.

This Jesus guy was good to look at, smelled good,
listened good. He threw out something fresh
and beautiful from the skin of his body and the
touch of his hands wherever he passed along.

You, Billy Sunday, put a smut on every human
blossom that comes within reach of your rotten
breath belching about hell-fire and hiccuping
about this man who lived a clean life in Galilee.

When are you going to quit making the carpenters
build emergency hospitals for women and girls
driven crazy with wrecked nerves from your
goddam gibberish about Jesus — I put it to you
again: What the hell do you know about Jesus?

Go ahead and bust all the chairs you want to.
Smash a whole wagon load of furniture at every
performance. Turn sixty somersaults and stand
on your nutty head. If it wasn’t for the way
you scare women and kids, I’d feel sorry for
you and pass the hat.

I like to watch a good four-flusher work but not
when he starts people to puking and calling for
the doctors.

I like a man that’s got guts and can pull off a great
original performance, but you — hell, you’re only
a bughouse peddler of second-hand gospel —
you’re only shoving out a phony imitation of
the goods this Jesus guy told us ought to be free
as air and sunlight.

Sometimes I wonder what sort of pups born from
mongrel bitches there are in the world less
heroic than you.

You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to
fix it up all right with them by giving them
mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the
worms have eaten ’em.

You tell $6 a week department store girls all they
need is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead
without having lived, gray and shrunken at
forty years of age, and you tell him to look at
Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.

You tell poor people they don’t need any more
money on pay day and even if it’s fierce to be
out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that all right, all right —
all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.

I’m telling you this Jesus guy wouldn’t stand for
the stuff you’re handing out. Jesus played it
different. The bankers and corporation lawyers
of Jerusalem got their sluggers and murderers
to go after Jesus just because Jesus wouldn’t
play their game. He didn’t sit in with the big

I don’t want a lot of gab from the bunkshooter in
my religion.

I won’t take my religion from a man who never
works except with his mouth and never cherishes
a memory except the face of the woman on the
American silver dollar.

I ask you to come through and show me where
you’re pouring out the blood of your life.

I’ve been in this suburb of Jerusalem they call
Golgotha, where they nailed Him, and I know if the
story is straight it was real blood ran from his
hand and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
spurted out where the spear of the Roman
soldier rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus
of Nazareth.

— Carl Sandburg, 1915

19 thoughts on “Carl Sandburg, To Billy Sunday

  1. This was awesome to read.

    “I won’t take my religion from a man who never
    works except with his mouth and never cherishes
    a memory except the face of the woman on the
    American silver dollar.”

    1. Billy Sunday preached to over 100 million people face to face, largely before the age of radio and television. He personally shook the hands of the one million converts he made. He didn’t find buildings to preach in, he built them himself, in many of which, he was a laborer. As for money, Billy gave the entire profits of his two largest campaigns of New York and Chicago to the Red Cross, YMCA and the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. He also gave up the greatest offer in baseball history to enter ministry. I think Carl hated Jesus. No wonder he hated Billy too. I guess Carl Sandburg and his disciples can shoot off their mouths if they want.

      1. Don’t know enough about Church history from Billy Sunday’s era, to comment that knowledgeably. So this is only my opinion, from the little I have read about him on the net. According to archival records, the man was a good Christian who did not shut out any people, not even different denominations from his Christian love. My husband suggested that I mention, that some of us may be erring on the side of’ dishonoring a good christian’. it is very possible, that Billy Sunday, was ‘not at all’, what the angry poet’s words, seem to ‘think and believe’ Billy Sunday was! I also respect the fact that ex -fundies have had about enough of ‘ranting’ preacher boys’ for a life time. And that their ‘residual anger and emotional pain’ would find a familiar affinity, emotionally speaking, with the extreme anger in Carl Sandburg’s very angry poem. Remember the words of Isaiah “God’s Word will not return unto Him void.” God’s Word ‘needs to be spoken’ with a human ‘mouth’, to be heard. So if an evangelist doesn’t use is ‘mouth’ he could not possibly preach or teach God’s Word. It is very unwise, to evaluate a man’s ministry, through the angry words of a ‘God hater’. And Carl Sandburg was ‘a God hater.’ A very provocative post.

        1. Actually, I would disagree with you. Billy Sunday was not a good Christian. His sons were all rotten to the core, and when Sunday’s daughter-in-law and grandchild came begging for some help (since their son and her husband wouldn’t provide for them), the Sundays refused. They were wealthy beyond any comprehension, and their family was unprovided for.

          Sandburg’s right. Really, really right. And he still is.

          1. Hi Camille. I received your correction about the side of Sunday I did not know about. I replied to your reply to me, but when i pressed ‘submit’ the reply somehow got lost in cyber space. Thanks for setting e straight Camille. I don’t have time right now, but I will ‘re reply’ later and rewrite what got lost. Funny. Never happened before! Did you get my long reply at all before the cyber space monster gobbled it up? Have a great day. Barb.

          2. Camille,

            As Barbara said, this was a provocative post. It was helpful to me by provoking me to look past both the hagiography and hate-iography of Billy Sunday. His admirers and his enemies tended to perpetuate the extremes and contradictions of the man himself. Both extremes prevent us from learning constructively from his life.

            Sandburg is a good example. He flattered Jesus as one who spoke softly but at the same time he cast gratuitously crude and vulgar personal insults to accuse Sunday of contradicting Jesus’ life. He accused Sunday of peddling a second-hand gospel, flattering himself with the vain imagination that his socialist worldview was the gospel. He criticized Sunday for his love of money (justifiably), but ignored the fact that Sunday gave much of it to others in need, which Sandburg himself did not do. I could give other examples, but these should suffice.

            Incidentally, the sources that I have checked do not support your description of Sunday’s response to his son’s wife, perhaps George’s wife Henrietta. Historian Roger Bruns states that the Sundays did provide her as well as his other wife with assistance. Of course, Sunday’s tragic neglect of his sons contributed heavily to their shameful lives. It’s not evident that he ever made the connection, though Nell did, albeit too late.

            More importantly, Sandburg, like Henry Tichenor, Charles Wood and others, did not hate Sunday merely for his commercialism or imperfect preaching of the Gospel. They were emphatic that they rejected the eternally redemptive purpose of Christ’s death, regarding it as a delusion that obstructed their political agenda. Their caricature of Jesus as a proto-socialist, cherry-picked from Scripture, was thin cover for the fact that they were scorners of Christianity.

            Your use of Sandburg invites readers to join his destructive scorn. I think that Barbara made a valid point which you avoided. Camille, please answer this: why are you as a Christian evaluating and encouraging others to evaluate another Christian’s ministry through the acidic and hateful words of a scorner of the Gospel?

      2. Hey Greg, there is such a strong division between your reaction and mine; and the others’ reaction to Sandburg’s poem, as to this ‘angry’ poem about Billy Sunday, that it makes me think that, some of us may not really understand, what either Sandburg or Sunday, were really ‘all about’! The sad state of Sunday’s sons,how they turned out with such personally broken failed lives, is unfortunately the tragic results of Sunday’s poor parenting skills and neglect. Whether that neglect was intentional or unintentional,only God knows. And his sons did carry the consequences of how Sunday failed them as a father. But, did that render the man a failure as a christian? Sunday lived in an orphanage for a few years, and never knew his father. He grew up in a post civil war America. He never learned how to be a father because he never knew his father to follow a father’s parenting model. Should we throw the man ‘some slack?’ because of this big emptiness and deprivation, in Sunday’s childhood? Two of his sons predeceased him. Sunday would have had to deal with the guilt of that with God for the rest of his life and ministry. Would not God have forgiven Sunday, for his failures at properly parenting his sons? Yes, Sunday ‘did’ put his ministry before his children. A big error in personal priorities. BJ jr. and BJ 3 rd., became both became very angry sons and men, because ‘their’ father, put ‘their’ ministry of BJU ‘before’ their relationship with their son as well. And they experienced REJECTION from their fathers. Rejection, leads to anger, leads to rebellion, leads to bondage. I think we can easily err, on the side of too much anger, when someone presses some or many of our unhealed, ‘anger buttons.’Sandburg’s poem is a real ‘anger triggering’ poem. Sunday’s preaching style, and type of personality, was that which God used to reach people, who may not have been reached by another kind of evangelist. Angry preaching about sin and hell, upsets us today, but that may have been the very kind of preaching, that people in Sunday’s era, would bother listening to. I don’t know. Because Sunday used physical ball playing postures in his preaching sermons, to make a point,to emphasize something he was saying, is no reason to make that something to criticize as silly showmanship or shallow theatrical , entertainment. Sunday’s kind of personality as an evangelist, was what made people interested in coming to listen to the man. God used Sunday’s personality and his preaching style, to draw people to a place and a time where they could ‘hear the Gospel ‘ preached in such a way that they would ‘want’ to respond to the message. God uses different personalities all the time. No one preacher is the same as another. Camille is right about Sunday not being a good father. But does Sunday being a bad father make the man a bad Christian? I just think we may ‘miss the message’ about a man’s ministry, when we get ‘blinded by’ so much ubridled anger in an unbelievers’ poem. I still don’t know why Sandburg would write such an angry poem? I wonder if Sandburg was angry at ‘his own father?’ You see there is so much about these things that we really don’t know. I want to throw Sunday some slack about his failures as a dad, and thank God for the people his ministry brought into the Kingdom. I think it’s wrong to ‘throw the baby put with the bath water,’ because we don’t like preachers who get angry when they preach, and weren’t perfect dads ! This poem by Sandburg inspires me to want to let God cleanse and heal more and more of my inner life, of any unhealed anger issues , so that I can heal, change, grow and become a more loving, forgiving and peaceful Christian, who wont ‘need’ to project, or dump anger, onto anyone for any reason. “Let the peace of God reign in your hearts.”

        1. Grace should be given, certainly. However, I just don’t see the validity of screaming at someone to ‘come to Jesus’ when Jesus’ message was not loud, boastful, or violent.

          The only other comment I have is that if a man cannot keep his house in order then he has no business being a leader in the church.

      3. Thanks, Greg. I googled to see if Carl S. was a Christian. I should have known that a Communist sympathiser would spew out garbage like this. In this poem he wallows in his own filth and blasphemy. You are correct. An enemy of a friend is an enemy. Billy S. was a friend and servant of Jesus. Bless him. God was Carl Sandburg’s judge.

      4. You miss the point, I fear … the enormous damage done by Billy Sunday who was handsomely paid by the big thieves who used him, as they have other evangelists, to quiet the crowds of the working poor, while the mega-rich walk away with millions. The whole evangelical enterprise is corrupt to the core, twisting the gospel into an unrecognizable mess, using fear to foist upon the people lies compounded by lies … Billy Sunday was a travesty, and so are his crowd-manipulating disciples, all of whom have been used by the big thieves to further their own wealth on the backs of the Average American. Sandburg’s poem pulls back the curtain to reveal a fraud pulling the levers and making a lot of noise. That people should believe such nonsense only compounds the sorrow – a sorrow that Jesus never exploited, but a sorrow exploited to the hilt by a fraud like Sunday.

  2. “bughouse peddler of second-hand gospel.”

    I’d pay a lot of money to be able to write one sentence as beautiful as that.

    Thanks for sharing. It heartens me to know that all along there have been great people who stood up to the Billy Sunday bullies in the world. Camille you’re my hero for being one of them today!

  3. A REAL poet and intellectual against the biggest blowhard in American history (until Glenn Beck). It’s no contest.

  4. I remember having to memorize a Billy Sunday speech in Christian school.

    Thank you, Carl. And Camille.

  5. I believe that even Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. thought Billy Sunday’s sermons & style were too staged and aimed at the lowest common denominator – “like an act”, I believe he said – something like that.

    Personally, I avoid preachers that have a “style” of preaching.

  6. I remember reading that poem many years ago and wondering whether lightning would have struck Sandburg for speaking against God’s man. Now I realize I am the one who needed the lightning strike–to wake me up to the truth. Carl Sandburg was right.

  7. I’d never heard of this poem–so good, beautiful word-magic.

    “You don’t throw any scare into me.” Love. that. line. If I could write like that…mm-mm.

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