Charles E. Fuller: Radio Pioneer

by Bernard R. DeRemer

It was a defining moment. The student had preached a sermon on Cain and Able for his teacher training class at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University).

When he finished and sat down, perhaps wondering about its effectiveness, Dr. R. A. Torrey, dean, sat for some two minutes, staring at the blackboard without a word. Then the distinguished revivalist simply declared, "Young man, God has a great work ahead for you."

Charles E. FullerIt was powerfully prophetic. Charles E. Fuller's two deep, lifelong passions were a love for the Word of God and for the souls of men. Now he was being divinely fashioned for a mighty work he could not begin to imagine, which would eventually reach around the world.

Born at Los Angeles in 1887, Fuller grew up "surrounded by orange trees and family devotions," his father being an active Methodist layman. Yet in spite of this nurturing, Scripture would have little influence on his life for many ears.

Fuller dated his conversion from 1903, yet though he attended church regularly and even because an elder of the Placentia Presbyterian Church, he still found Christianity "old fashioned and far away." His supreme desire was to get ahead in the business world and make money.

His life was suddenly transformed in 1916, when he heard Paul Rader, famous evangelist and pastor of Moody Church, Chicago (then known as Moody Tabernacle). Rader's powerful message on Ephesians 1:18 brought Charles under deep conviction that he had not been living for the Lord. He did not respond to the public invitation, but immediately drove to Franklin Park Hollywood, where he knelt on the floor in the back seat of his car, surrendering himself completely to the Lord.

Gone was the desire for fame and fortune. As days went by, he read and studied the Bible for long periods. Books by A. C. Gaebelein and others were mightily influential, and he became increasingly absorbed in prophecy which would become one of his major themes, to the blessing of multitudes.

By 1919, when he was manager of a packing house, Fuller struggled with a call to leave the business world for Christian work. Accordingly, he entered Biola, uncertain as to his future service. The practical Christian outreach program provided many opportunities, and he began preaching in logging and mining camps, a ministry he continued for many years.

After graduation in 1921, a Bible class he had started grew into the Calvary (independent) Church, which he pastored. But he kept up the orange grove he had acquired earlier, gave Bible lessons over Biola's radio station (the first in the U.S. devoted exclusively to religious programs), and preached in various conferences.

Radio, which began in 1920 with KDKA in Pittsburgh, was soon sweeping the country. One authority called broadcasting "the most effective means for mass communication in the history of the world."

In 1929, on a trip to the East, Fuller was asked to substitute for the regular speaker on a local gospel broadcast. Because of the favorable response, and realizing the enormous potential, Fuller felt impelled to begin a more extensive radio ministry, in spite of the many difficulties involved. He knew that many could not or would not attend church, including those in remote camps he was so familiar with.

But the Depression, failed business deals, and severe, prolonged family illness combined to produce crushing financial burdens. During this time, iron entered into Fuller's soul. Eventually it would find expression in various ways, particularly his marvelous series on Job, which I still recall with enormous appreciation half a century later.

Charles E. Fuller at the microphoneThen in 1933, at almost the bottom of the Great Depression, he founded the Gospel Broadcasting Association, paving the way for the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour, with its easy mailing address, Box 123, Los Angeles. This outreach over the Pacific Coast CBS network was an enormous undertaking, and funds were desperately needed. His first mail appeal urged listeners to "Pray, Pray, Pray," and also to "Put your dollars to work for God now." He also began issuing a small monthly devotional, Heart to Heart Talk.

By 1937, he was able to reach coast to coast via the Mutual Network. It was a struggle, because Satan sought to "hinder Christ's servants in carrying on their work…" Offerings fluctuated; at times it seemed that he would not be able to continue. But one of his favorite promises was, "Call unto me and I will answer thee and show thee great and might things, which thou knowest not" (Jer. 33:3).

He also traveled on occasion to hold large rallies in Chicago and elsewhere. In 1942, I was privileged to meet him during meetings at the Uline Ice Arena in Washington, D.C.

Liberals, of course, hated the message of salvation and sought to silence it. As a result, he was forced to leave Mutual and broadcast over independent stations.

But another major milestone occurred in 1944, when he began broadcasting live from the 5,000-seat Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. Servicemen, other visitors, and residents filled the vast auditorium week after week for these services, which featured the incomparable music of the choir, quartet, and pianist Rudy Atwood, as well as heartwarming letters from listeners which Mrs. Fuller shared.

In 1947 he founded a seminary to train evangelists and missionaries. From an initial class of 39, Fuller Theological Seminary had grown to 2,775 students by 1983.

As TV increased in popularity, radio response declined slightly. Yet Nielsen ratings in the 1950s showed that the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour "was the third most popular broadcast during daylight hours on Sunday." It was the leading religious broadcast.

But the years took their toll. As he turned 70, Fuller found his strength decreasing. The program was cut to a half hour, and aired from a studio. Fuller greatly regretted not "meeting our radio friends each week," but he vowed to continue beseeching "men and women to be reconciled to Christ."

Finally congestive heart failure sidelined him for several months, before his home-going on March 18, 1968. What an entrance he must have had, with millions saved or richly blessed through his ministry waiting to greet him.