Billy Sunday was a well-known fundamentalist in the early 1900’s, famed not only for his crusading against liquor (and for Prohibition), but for also becoming as rich as Croesus in the process. His sermons were of the classic “fire and brimstone” variety. Carl Sandburg wrote his own fire and brimstone sermon against Sunday and his firey moralizing. Originally titled “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter” with references to Sunday removed to avoid libel, it was only printed in its original form after both men had passed on. In his way, Sunday is stronger than ever, thanks to the modern-day versions of him who have carried his legacy deep, deep into the halls of power; if there is one overwhelming threat to our freedom today, it is the glee with which the wall between Church and State is being demolished, and how some refuse to acknowledge its validity at all. The portrait Sandburg paints of a conman in preacher’s clothing hasn’t faded one bit in the ninety years since it was written. If anything, now that the charlatans run the place, it’s more important to remember what they are.
You come along… tearing your shirt… yelling
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 wash a good four-flusher work but not
when he starts people to puking and calling for
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
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