Sunday, 27 April 2014

Gresham Machen on Billy Sunday

Short, interesting video on the life and ministry of American ordained Presbyterian evangelist, Billy Sunday. It reminded me of fellow Presbyterian, Gresham Machen's impressions when he went to hear him preach in Philadlephia. Machen did not get a minister's ticket that would have got him nearer the platform and had to queue in heavy rain. He eventually got into the Tabernacle before, having to stand at one of the back corners from where he could hardly make out even the preacher's face. (There were 20,000 in attendance even on that stormy night.)  He heard most of the sermon, but felt too much out of things to give a proper impression of the meeting. Afterwards, he made his way into the centre of the Tabernacle where he listened to the vast choir and afterwards to the discussion of methods before hundreds of church workers. Machen later recorded, "This last part impressed me as much as anything else." 

Repeating again, that he felt unable to judge Sunday, he did say that Sunday preached on Romans 12:1 "and the treatment was thoroughly textual" He continued: "I was impressed as I have seldom been with the permanent power of great words. In an enviornment so intensely modern, the words of Paul seem to be as up to date as they ever were." Again, Machen (who was not noted for suffering fools gladly) commented: "The big argument for Billy Sunday is the result of his preaching. 'By their fruits, ye shall know them'." 

Machen returned to hear Sunday, a few days later. He obtained his ministerial ticket and got closer. This advantage encouraged him to say that he was more impressed than the previous visit. Sunday preached on 2 Samuel 12:13 "And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." He described the sermon as being "old fashioned evangelism of the most powerful and elemental kind" but did not warm to some of Sunday's antics, which he confessed left him "cold" and were not his. Nevertheless, he had to confess that "the total impact of the sermon was great" especially after Sunday stood on the chair and preached "the boundlessness of God's mercy" coming on the back of a sermon where "the sinfulness of sin had truly been presented". Machen concluded, "In the last five or ten minutes of that sermon, I got a new realisation of the power of the gospel." 

Billy Sunday was actively opposed by the Unitarians in Philadelphia. Machen stated: "I like Billy Sunday for the enemies he has."  Sunday was asked to go to Princeton University and address meetings there. Princeton itself was deeply divided over Sunday, with the Princeton newspapers on the attack. This had an effect on Machen: "The result of the whole thing is to make me more and more enthusiastic for the work that Billy Sunday is doing." Again, there was the need for Machen to distance himself from some of Sunday's methods: 

"His methods are as different from ours as could possibly be imagined from ours, but we support him to a man simply because, in an age of defection, he is preaching the gospel. We are not ashamed of his 'antiquated theology'; it is nothing in the world but the message of the cross, long neglected, which is manifesting its old power."

Machen was asked, at short notice, to address a prayer meeting in Princeton at this time. He did so and spoke informally about the relationship between Sunday's evangelism and Princeton theology. Perhaps at this point, it may be a good thing to remind my reader that the theology known as "Princeton Theology" is solidly Calvinist. It's main proponents were men like the Hodges, BB Warfield and Gresham Machen himself. Machen records that the relationship between Sunday's evangelism and the Calvinist "Princeton Theology" is "I think, very close." 

From anything that I have read of Sunday, (a limited statement) he has never particularly indicated  any adherance to Calvinism, other than accepting ordination at the hands of a Calvinistic church. Machen's observations are therefore the more interesting.


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