Who was the most popular radio personality of the 1930s and 1940s? Bob Hope? Bing Crosby? In fact, it was a preacher: Dr. Charles E. Fuller.
Fuller wanted to use every available means "to get the gospel out" to as many as possible. The newest way to spread the good news in his day was by radio. Eventually, his voice would be transmitted worldwide. In radio's golden years of the 1940s, Fuller's "Old Fashioned Revival Hour" drew larger audiences than any other program. At its height, 20 million people tuned in to the broadcast, a notably larger listenership than almost any media outreach today.
Fuller was born in Los Angeles in 1887 to devout Christian parents. His father, converted under D.L. Moody's preaching, led the family in daily devotions. But Charles Fuller had yet to have his own encounter with Jesus. Young Fuller excelled in athletics and academics. Captain of his college football team, he graduated with honors and later used his degree in chemistry to help manage his father's orange groves.
Soon after college, Fuller heard famed prizefighter-turned-evangelist Paul Rader preach. Later that night, under deep conviction, Fuller drove his car to a nearby park. He knelt on the floor of the back seat and committed his life to Christ. He later remarked, "There had come a complete change into my life. I never heard such a sermon in all my life. Now my whole life's aims and ambitions are changed. I feel now that I want to serve God if He can use me."
He and his wife, Grace, entered the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University). Clearly God's hand was on this young couple. Biola's renowned dean, R.A. Torrey, realized their potential and told Fuller shortly before he graduated, "Young man, God has a great work for you."
Fuller's popularity as a Bible teacher spread quickly. He pastored for several years and developed a growing focus on evangelism and world missions. Late one night, the Holy Spirit awakened him with a vision to use radio to spread the gospel and reach the unchurched. Fuller knew it would be a challenge to build a listening audience and pay hefty broadcasting bills. But he stepped out in faith, and the broadcast touched a nerve with listeners. As the forerunner of a long stream of media ministries, Fuller is recognized by many today as "the father of modern evangelism." Stations quickly added his broadcast, and two national networks eventually picked it up. Grace Fuller later became a regular part of "The Old-Fashioned Revival Hour." People enjoyed her uplifting reading of testimonies received through the mail.
Fuller forged other new paths for evangelism, including sponsoring approximately 100 evangelists. He established the Gospel Broadcasting Association, which paved the way for the formation of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB).
He was also a widely acclaimed evangelist. Before Billy Graham, Fuller packed arenas and stadiums across America. Twice during outdoor rallies, heavy rain threatened to stop the meetings. On both occasions, after Fuller prayed, the rain stopped immediately. At Chicago's Soldier Field in 1946, with 68,000 people present, someone said the rain stopped as if someone "had turned off a faucet."
Fuller's compassionate voice calmed the fears of millions through the brutal years of the Great Depression and then World War II. His clear gospel preaching became a symbol of hope for much of the nation. His passion for souls evident, he would sometimes cry his way through altar calls. Thousands responded. Servicemen stationed in Southern California often attended the live broadcasts from the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. In those meetings, hundreds of young soldiers gave their lives to Christ before losing them in battle.
Fuller also championed those serving Jesus in "out-of-the-way places." Farmers, lonely soldiers, shut-ins and small-church pastors all knew they had in him an influential friend.
Fuller's overriding passion was "to see the world evangelized in this generation." He set out to do this through his international broadcast and his enduring legacy, Fuller Theological Seminary.
"The Old Fashioned Revival Hour" aired from 1937 to 1968, the year of Fuller's death. His longtime friend, acclaimed evangelical scholar Harold Ockenga, perhaps best summarized Fuller's great life: "Here was a man of faith who took great risks for God."
David Shibley is founder and world representative for Global Advance, a ministry that equips thousands of leaders each year to fulfill Christ's Great Commission. In his "Days With David" sessions with young ministers, he downloads "what matters most" from his half-century in gospel ministry. He is the author of more than 20 books. This column is based on profiles from Great for God: Missionaries Who Changed the World (New Leaf Publishing Group).
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