The Big Fisherman

by Bernard R. DeRemer

William ("Billy") McCarrell grew up a tough kid in a matching neighborhood. He was born in 1886, just 15 years after the Great Chicago Fire, only three blocks from where the disaster began.

With his "filthy tongue and a mean temper," Billy was not very promising. When the family moved to the section known as "Little Hell," and he outgrew picking on neighborhood kids, he graduated to the "ordered violence of Sunday sandlot football."

But life was about to change drastically. A neighborhood mission, Pioneer Chapel, held special meetings and Billy went to find out what was going on.

Afterward he argued with the preacher: "When these people receive Christ' as you say, does that mean they are through having any fun out of life?" Patiently the pastor explained that it is not what we do or don't do that saves us. He emphasized that salvation was only through the shed blood of Christ, and quoted Hebrews 9:22 among other passages.

But McCarrell was not satisfied: "What about playing football on Sunday? What about dancinggambling?" The preacher urged, "You take Christ, trust in Him, and all these things will take care of themselves."

A few days later McCarrell was at the point of decision. He received Christ as his own personal Savior and thus became a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Immediately he became active, teaching Sunday school and working with young people.

After six years in his father's employ, he realized that God was calling him to preach. So in 1910 he entered Moody Bible Institute and was graduated two years later. The next year he preached to 25 people, including children, in an "impoverished little suburban church." 

Thus began the great Cicero Bible Church, in a southwestern suburb of Chicago—a flourishing ministry with far-reaching battle lines and tremendous results. At first it was slow going, but the Lord blessed and the church grew. In his 45-year tenure as pastor, membership rose to more than 1,000, with Sunday school attendance as high as 800. Out of the original organization, 23 branch churches grew. Cicero supported 30 missionaries, and had to expand four times to accommodate the crowds.

One of McCarrell's most outstanding activities was the Cicero Fisherman's Club. This great soul-winning effort became worldwide; an average of 5,000 gospel meetings a year was conducted with some 3,000 professions of faith. Half a million tracts were distributed yearly.

Converts included one who had been the brains of a half-million dollar mail robbery. Another had managed a pool room for the mob. Indeed, the Word of God grew and multiplied.

In 1930, McCarrell founded the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, bringing together those of like precious faith for inspiration and fellowship. At the last report I obtained, some 700 churches belonged. Directly and indirectly, IFCA supports a number of Bible institutes. Other entities include 16 home and four foreign mission agencies.

In addition to his many church duties, McCarrell found time to serve other organizations. For many years he was a trustee of Wheaton College, including service on the executive committee. He was also a trustee of Pacific Garden Mission, Chicago, where he also taught the Sunday afternoon converts' class. His marriage to Minnie Mense was blessed with nine children, 27 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. His son, David McCarrell, is president of Pacific Garden Mission.

At age 93, in 1979, McCarrell went home to be with the Lord and to await the Lord's "well done," as well as rich rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.

"[B]lessed are the dead which die in the Lordthat they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them" (Rev. 14:13).

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