Billy Sunday in Kewanee

Click here to link to Wikipedia’s Billy Sunday Biography


For Kewanee Star-Courier, 2007
By Larry Lock

This 1906 postcard was published in time to promote Billy Sunday’s appearance in Kewanee at the National Guard Armory. In fact the picture was used with the Nov. 10 Star Courier news article on the previous night’s revival meeting. The Armory, located on Central Blvd. (then called South Street) on the now vacant lot between Central School and the Star Courier, was constructed in 1906 just in time for the 38-day revival. The building contained a first floor auditorium of 140 by 110 feet capable of seating 4,000. The second story, which was half as large, was the headquarters of Company K of the Illinois National Guard, a unit that was organized in Kewanee in 1904 and saw duty in the 1918 offensives that ended World War I. The Armory was demolished in 1942 after the Illinois Adjutant General declared it unsafe for future use.

A phenomenon hit Kewanee just over 100 years ago; there had been nothing like it before and nothing like it since. In searching Kewanee’s past at the Kewanee Historical Society’s museum it is the most unusual event that I have encountered.

The extraordinary happening was a five-week religious revival in November of 1906 conducted by the soon-to-be-nationally- famous Rev. William “Billy” Sunday.

At meetings from October 27 to December 3 with an estimated attendance of 200,000, Kewanee area residents assembled at the just completed National Guard Armory to hear Billy Sunday “assail vice and sin in every form,” as the Kewanee Star Courier reported.

I was prompted to learn about the famous evangelist’s visit to Kewanee when a 70-something-year-old lady from Tuscola, IL came to the museum in 2003 and asked if we had a list of those baptized by Billy Sunday back in 1906. She wanted to see if her grandparents were among those who “came forward.” I thought it quite unusual that such a list would exist and simply told her that we had nothing except for a very brief news item that he was in Kewanee during the winter of 1907.

My curiosity engaged, I went to the Star Courier microfilm files at the Kewanee Public Library and found that he was here early in the winter of 1906-07.

“Yes, Mr. Sunday is different,” the Star Courier reported in the first of its 36 consecutive front-page headline stories on Sunday’s five-week revival. Reading the reports makes it clear that the newspaper thought he was “different” in a positive way, for each and every meeting drew high praise. Not one word of criticism or skepticism was printed by the Star Courier. Rather the paper promoted Mr. Sunday’s efforts to the utmost.

The first meeting on Saturday evening, Oct. 27 drew just over 2,000 and most remained in the Armory even though Rev. Sunday arrived two hours late because of a train breakdown. Then on Sunday over 2,000 attended each of the morning and afternoon meetings. By Sunday evening the word must have spread, as 4,000 filled the Armory and “were glad they were not among the 1,500 or 2,000 that were turned away.”

And that’s the way it continued for the next five weeks, with one meeting each weekday evening except Monday and four meetings on the weekend. The weekday meetings drew 2,000 to 3,000, the weekend meetings at least 3,000 and each Sunday evening the evangelist preached to a packed house of 4,000.

There were also some special sessions including lunchtime talks to 2,000 at Western Tube (Kewanee’s largest factory that became Walworth in 1917) and to 500 at Kewanee Boiler.

Special sessions for men were held each Sunday afternoon. The first attracted 3,500 to hear a “coatless, collarless, cuffless, and breathless” Rev. Sunday expend “enough energy to operate a street car line.” The reporter added that Billy perspires so much that “it is easily understood how the suit of underwear and clothing that he wears to one meeting can not be used at the next.”

Not to be outdone 4,000 women attended a “ladies only” meeting on Nov. 20. “The largest audience of ladies that has been assembled in Kewanee….crowded to the storm-doors” to hear Sunday’s message just for them.

Young people were also among the revivalists. On one Wednesday night Kewanee High School students presented Rev. Sunday “a great bunch of chrysanthemums, tied with long ribbons of orange and black, the High School colors.” Seated up front the students “let loose three or four yells that tore the atmosphere into shreds.” After “remarks of appreciation” by Rev. Sunday, the students “liberated four more yells that testified to their belief that Mr. Sunday was all right.”

Hundreds from the country and surrounding towns attended. Some came by train and many came by horse and carriage. On the second Sunday the “livery stables had all they could do to take care of the conveyances…. One livery barn had ninety-four teams and carriages from out of the city to look after and another had thirty-five.”

It was not until the 11th day of the revival that the first “call for people” was made at the close of a “convincing sermon.” The first to “come forward” and take the hand of Rev. Sunday was R.I. Cherry, “an old soldier of ’61-’65.” None of the other 27 baptized that first night were mentioned by name, but some were identified by their job or position in the community, such as “Chief Engineer of the Western Tube company” or “Exalted Ruler of the Elks lodge.” Many were similarly identified in succeeding reports.

However, eventually the newspaper began to list the names of those who were baptized. This occurred for the first time on Nov. 26, with one week of revival left. By that time over 1,400 had come forward and in the final week an astonishing 1,600 more would be among those for whom “the waters of salvation have flowed.”

When 250 of another capacity crowd were baptized at an encore meeting on Monday, Dec. 3 (held because so many were turned away at the scheduled last meeting the previous night), an utterly amazing event had come to an end.

The Star Courier reported that the 38-day revival had “shattered all records in evangelistic work in the United States, at least, in recent times.” It reported total attendance of 200,000 at 82 meetings with a “total number of conversions” of 3,018. Financial collections included $4,060 for current expenses and $5,400 “offering to Mr. Sunday.”

An ingenious method of “passing the hat” was described in one of the early news reports: “Tellers had been appointed who stood in the aisles and received the subscriptions of those in the section who would give first, ten dollars, then later five dollars; then three, two and one. The names were called out as the subscriptions were made and were taken by the secretary. The money could be paid at any bank by next Monday. Later, the baskets were passed and the smaller amounts were received.” Obviously in 1906 a one dollar bill was “real money.”

And finally, incredibly the names of all 3,018 persons baptized were listed in the Dec. 4 issue of the Star Courier.

When Bill Sunday came to Kewanee, he was 43 years old. Born in Ames, Iowa, he grew up in an orphanage. He played major league baseball from 1883 to 1891 (mostly with the Chicago White Stockings). After a religious conversion he left baseball, got married, and went to work for the Chicago YMCA and then for evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman. Sunday struck out on his own in 1897 and by the time he came to Kewanee was well known for his small town revivals in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. By the 1910’s Sunday was preaching in the nation’s large cities, culminating in a 10-week revival in New York City in 1917 in which 98,000 came forward to accept Christ. His fame declined after World War I, but Rev. Sunday continued to conduct revivals until his death in 1935.

And for the rest of the story. Yes, the names of the grandfather and grandmother of the lady from Tuscola were on the list. In a thank you note for the information sent to her by the historical society she said that she was “so excited” that her grandparents’ “conversion by this great man is part of my heritage.” She added that she too “accepted Christ through another great ‘Billy’ evangelist-Billy Graham.”

If you want to know more, see if an ancestor is on the list of conversions, or share some of your family history concerning Billy Sunday’s Kewanee revival, visit the Kewanee Historical Society’s Richards Museum at 211 N. Chestnut St. or email us at


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