Nell Sunday Hall was the first women’s residence hall built on BJU’s campus in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1941. When the university moved to the current campus in 1947, one of the first two halls built that year was named Nell Sunday as well.
Along with Margaret Mack Hall, it was the first hall to be updated with built-in furniture. Sunday is also the primary women’s hall to offer allergy-friendly rooms. In 2011, four rooms were remodeled with tile or laminate to give students with documented health concerns relief from their symptoms related to asthma, dust or pollen.
Additionally, Sunday features the lobby desk area where all women’s residence hall students formerly checked in or out to go off campus. After rules and methods for checking out changed, printers were installed as part of the campus mobile printing network.
Known as “Nell” or “Ma,” Helen Amelia Thompson Sunday, was born on June 25, 1868, in Illinois. When she was 18, she met recently saved baseball player and future evangelist Billy Sunday at her church. Billy wrote in his autobiography, “The first time I saw those flashing black eyes and dark hair and white teeth, I said to myself, ‘There’s a swell girl.’ ”
Several weeks later, he asked to walk her from church to her home across the street. “She shied off for a minute, then smiled and said, ‘Yes,’ and from that time on I was hooked,” Billy wrote. But because she was in a relationship with another man, she tried to get him interested in one of her friends. Billy found the girl anything but attractive.
Nell eventually had a change of heart. Whenever Billy passed her house — usually four times a day — on his way to and from the baseball field, she would sweep the front steps and sidewalk. Even if games went long, she swept until he arrived so they could talk.
By the end of 1887, Nell had broken off her relationship, and Billy had also ended one he had with a girl in Iowa. Billy went to see Nell on New Year’s Eve. “She looked like I imagine the Queen of Sheba did when she visited Solomon,” he wrote. That night he asked her to marry him, and she quickly replied, “Yes, with all my heart.”
Her father did not approve of their engagement because of the bad reputations baseball players often had. However, influenced by her mother, her father finally permitted their marriage. They were married in Chicago on Sept. 5, 1888.
A Life of Ministry
Once married, Nell traveled with her husband for half the baseball season with financial help from her parents. Several years later when Billy was beginning his evangelistic career, she primarily stayed home in Chicago with their young children. After the arrival of their fourth child, she transitioned from occasionally assisting him with revivals to immersing herself in his ministry.
Nell managed many of the logistics of her husband’s campaigns, including the offerings. “Her formidable manner and towering, large-boned frame struck terror to the hearts of those who were trying to exploit Mr. Sunday or to get their hands in the offering,” Bob Jones Jr. wrote in his autobiography.
Nell also supported her husband emotionally. She helped him through his fears and doubts and protected him from worry that would hinder his ministry. That role was invaluable to her husband’s success.
For 39 of their 47 years of marriage, Nell traveled with her husband until his death in 1935. At his funeral, she prayed, “Lord, if there’s anything left in the world for me to do, if you’ll let me know about it, I want to promise you that I’ll try to do it the best I know how.” For the next 22 years, she devoted herself to rescue mission work, women’s ministries, conference speaking and evangelistic youth meetings with the same vigor she showed helping her husband. She also became a member of the BJU board of trustees in 1936.
During those years, she experienced the loss of two children — her other two had passed before her husband’s death — and then suffered a heart attack in 1948. Despite those setbacks, she continued traveling, speaking and serving on BJU’s board until her death on Feb. 20, 1957.
Along with her ministries and support for her husband, Nell is remembered for her thriftiness. Not only did she manage money for campaigns, but she also managed her and Billy’s personal finances since the time of their engagement. She carried around money for both of them and carefully saved money and leftovers alike. However, she was always ready to give to someone in need.
Additionally, because of her disdain for laziness, she kept busy. On the day Jones was to be married, she stitched needlepoint while speaking during chapel at BJU in order to finish his wedding present in time.
Nell had a sense of humor, and she cared about others. “She was never too busy to talk to someone in trouble or to write a line of consolation or advice to a friend,” Jones wrote. She also loved the Lord and wanted to share her faith. Added Jones: “In spite of her peculiarities and eccentricities and her rough exterior, Ma always wanted to talk about Jesus.
“One never asked Ma a question unless he genuinely wanted the answer. She was not given to evasion, and tact was not her greatest virtue, but loyalty, compassion, sincerity, and an unerring judgment of right and wrong characterized this remarkable woman.”