A Pioneer of Gospel Broadcasting: William G. Detweiler

Written by Forrest Moyer on July 11, 2018

Republished from the MHEP Newsletter April 1977. Author unknown; if anyone can identify the author, please contact MHC archivist Forrest Moyer at moyerf@mhep.org.

Editor’s note (1977): In the July issue (Vol. 3, No.4) of the MHEP Newsletter, several acquisitions from Mrs. Detweiler Stolzfus [Anna Landes Detweiler Stoltzfus] were noted. Among them was the following biography of William G. Detweiler, founder of The Calvary Hour in 1936. The title page from the biography is missing so that we do not know who wrote it.

William G. Detweiler was born on May 3, 1903, and he died on January 13, 1956. He is buried in the Blooming Glen cemetery, less than a mile from where he was born.

Introduction

Have you ever thought of pioneering? Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be a pioneer? What it would cost in sacrifice of time, money, and even close friends? One man who took that step was William G. Detweiler. While he met with much opposition and criticism, he lived to see the day when Gospel broadcasting, the field in which he pioneered, was generally accepted throughout the Mennonite Church.

Early Life

Just three years after the turn of the century on May the third, William G. Detweiler was born. The proud parents were Wilson and Minerva Detweiler. They resided about forty miles north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the small village of Blooming Glen.

He early attended the Blooming Glen Church — the same church which Clayton Kratz, another pioneer of his day attended. Sunday School was started at a nearby church; revival meetings were beginning to be held in a number of the churches; the mission movement was just beginning. All this was a part of the awakening within the church.

Blooming Glen Mennonite Meetinghouse as Detweiler knew it, prior to construction of the current church in 1930. Photo by John C. Wenger (Hist. Mss. 11)

Doubtless the above things influenced William Detweiler, and at the early age of fourteen he felt the call of the Spirit to the foreign mission field. Probably it was this call of the Spirit which a few years later helped William to decide to attend a Christian school, when going away to school was still a rare thing.

He was first contacted about attending a Christian school by Professor Ernest Gehman (then a college freshman). He appeared never to have given much thought to it, but tried to look at it seriously. [1]  When school began in the fall of 1921, William Detweiler was one of the students in the high school senior class at Eastern Mennonite Academy, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

At Eastern Mennonite Academy his fellow students were impressed by his conscientiousness. One fellow student said of William Detweiler, “He was a man of serious purposes.” [2]  He was very studious and did not participate in sports as much as many of the other boys. Considerate of others and trying not to be offensive to others, he was deeply hurt if he did offend anyone. He had a real passion for evangelism and participated in cottage meetings and Young People’s Bible Meeting. One illustration which points out his spiritual concern took place over the Christmas vacation in 1921. Before vacation William Detweiler told a close friend in school that he wished his parents would have a family altar [time of family devotions]. When William Detweiler got home he suggested it to his father. His father liked the idea and in that way William Detweiler was partly responsible for the family altar in his own home.

He graduated in the spring of 1922 along with twenty-one other high school seniors (eight of which were later ordained to offices in the church).

Graduating class at Eastern Mennonite School, 1922. William Detweiler is in center rear. Photo gift of Wynne J. Nyce (1982.32.3)

After William Detweiler graduated he taught school in the winter and attended school in the summer at Millersville State Teacher’s College and Elizabethtown College. Later he attended Saturday and night school at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University, both in Philadelphia.

While teaching school and attending the university, William Detweiler began courting Anna Tyson Landes of Skippack, Pennsylvania. However, he left nothing interfere with his convictions, and so he told Miss Landes of his convictions early in their courtship. He indicated that unless she was willing to be the wife of a missionary, there was no reason for continuing their courtship. On August 13, 1927, William and Anna took the vows which made them man and wife.

He continued teaching and taking schooling at Temple University. In June, 1928, William Detweiler graduated from Temple University with honors. He received the degree of Bachelor of Science in Education.

He taught for several years in the FitzSimons Junior High School of Philadelphia. Each teacher was allowed to teach some extracurricular club. The number of pupils in each club was not to exceed forty. Brother Detweiler decided to start a Bible story club. It wasn’t long until the number of boys in his club grew to eighty. Although he had more boys than the school thought should be in one club, he was never told to reduce the number in his Bible story club. [3]

Because of William’s intentions to go to the foreign mission field, he was appointed superintendent at the Norristown Mennonite Mission about fifteen miles away from the school in Philadelphia where he continued to teach. It was during this time that twin sons were born into the Detweiler home.

In 1931 the call came to serve at the Mennonite mission in Canton, Ohio. After two years of service there, he was ordained to the ministry.

Norristown Mission hall and house in the 1920s, around the time William and Anna Detweiler became superintendents and moved into the house where twin sons Bill and Bob were born in 1929. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

Service as Minister

While the Detweilers were serving in Norristown and the first years in Canton, the Mennonite Mission Board was raising the needed funds to send them to the Mission field in India. This was quite difficult because of the worldwide depression at the time. Just when the mission board was about to send them, Mrs. Detweiler’s health made it impossible to serve on the foreign mission field.

In mission work at Canton, William Detweiler became more aware of the many hundreds and thousands of Americans not being reached with the Gospel. Many other people were going to churches where the preachers did not preach the way of salvation. From his bedroom window at night he could see the lights of the city. He often used to say, “There’s a lost soul for every light in Canton.” [4]  He had a concern for the lost and at times he would get up in the middle of the night and pray for the lost of Canton.

Since the masses remained untouched by former conventional methods, William Detweiler looked for new ways to reach the lost with the Gospel. Radio impressed Brother Detweiler as a means of witnessing to thousands who would otherwise not be reached by the Gospel witness. For more than a year Brother Detweiler and his wife prayed that the Lord would show them His will. Finally he felt certain that the Lord’s will was to begin radio broadcasting.

Brother Detweiler was offered free time on WHBC, a 100-watt station. On Saturday, November 28, 1936 Brother Detweiler gave the first program on the air. For a while the broadcast was called The Mennonite Hour, but because of opposition from some sections of the Mennonite Church, the name was changed to The Calvary Hour. After four free programs on WHBC, difficulties made it necessary to pay $25 a week and change to WADC, Akron, Ohio a 5,000-watt station.

For the first three-and-one-half years, the Gerber Sisters’ Trio provided the singing. The second station, WEED, Reading, Pennsylvania, was added in November of 1939. Once a month William Detweiler came to Reading and with a mixed octet from Elverson, Pennsylvania, gave the program. The rest of the time, the broadcast was transcribed. In 1940 this broadcast was transferred to WBAL, Baltimore, a 50,000-watt station. By the end of 1943 The Calvary Hour was heard over five stations. The stations were not added because of an oversupply of funds, but because Brother Detweiler felt the Lord’s leading. The programs on these five stations were heard as far around as Nova Scotia, Florida, the East Coast, and Chicago. William Detweiler believed that one should move ahead as God moves knowing that God will also supply. It was this faith in God that made it possible for the broadcast to begin and continue.

Although Brother Detweiler had a firm God-given conviction that he could reach many more people with the Gospel through the use of radio than he otherwise could, many people whom he felt were his friends severely criticized him, calling him “head-strong” and “stubborn” when he began radio broadcasting. The Mennonite conferences of Franconia, Lancaster, and Virginia immediately closed their pulpits to him. Many people in these conferences shunned him until the day of his death. [5]

Minute of the Franconia Conference Bishop Board stating that William Detweiler was no longer welcome to preach in local congregations “as long as he continues to preach over the Radio.” This action was taken two years after Detweiler began radio ministry. John E. Lapp Papers, Mennonite Heritage Center (Hist. Mss. 1)

Because he was not allowed to preach in the churches, William Detweiler was invited to speak in private homes. In that way he was able to present his burden and the need of support both by prayer and money to those who were truly interested.

Not only were some in the church greatly opposed to Gospel broadcasting, but also many of the radio stations themselves opposed it. Many stations adopted the policy of not selling any time for Gospel broadcasting. This was especially prevalent during the Second World War.

In spite of all the opposition and the many other problems he encountered, Brother Detweiler was able to say, “Some of the greatest problems and keenest disappointments He (God) used for the furtherance of the Gospel.” [6]  When William Detweiler began producing the radio broadcast, The Calvary Hour, he was pastor of the Mennonite Mission in Canton, Ohio. He continued serving there until 1938 when he was called to be pastor of the Oak Grove Mennonite Church, a large rural church near Orrville, Ohio. In 1947 he became pastor of the Pleasant Hill Mennonite Church in the same community. Although he kept his membership there until his death, he resigned full pastoral duties in 1952 in order to devote more time to the radio program and his many speaking engagements throughout the country.

The number of stations over which The Calvary Hour was being broadcast continued to grow. In 1956, the year of Brother Detweiler’s death, The Calvary Hour was being heard over sixteen stations in nine states. In addition to that it was also being broadcast from five foreign stations, one of which was the most powerful station in the world – HCJB, Quito, Ecuador.

Brother Detweiler and The Calvary Hour have received many letters from listeners who have been helped and blessed by the broadcast. The following is taken from a letter of a nineteen-year-old college student: Thank you again for your series of sermons on the Holy Spirit. I am in college and this is the time in my life when I am studying God’s Word in order to clearly formulate my own beliefs, so I may help others to know Him, and many of these sermons help me immensely. [7]

Along with the radio work, William Detweiler also printed The Calvary Hour Bulletin to share with the listening audience both the needs and blessings of the broadcast. He also printed the sermons heard on the air and sent them to those requesting them. Some of these sermon booklets have been requested in excess of 5,000 copies.

The death of Brother William G. Detweiler on January 13, 1956 from a heart attack, came as a shock to all those who knew him. He was only fifty-two years old and seemed to be in good health.

Gravestone of William and Anna Detweiler at Blooming Glen Mennonite Cemetery. Photo by Bud Gross.

It was William Detweiler’s desire to have his twin sons continue the work if anything should happen to him. He had frequently asked them if they would be willing to continue the broadcast in the event that something happened to him. They always replied that they would try as the Lord enabled them. Although it was not an easy task, the twins took up the radio broadcast with the Lord’s help where the father left it. The Calvary Hour now reaches more people with the Gospel than it ever did in the past.

Twin brothers Bill and Bob Detweiler who continued their father’s ministry.

Evaluation

William Detweiler was a witness to those about him by his personal life. As one of his fellow students said of him, “He was a conscientious, considerate person with serious purposes.” [8] He tried not to be offensive to anyone and desired to be in the will of God.

Because of his frequent speaking engagements the home life was sometimes broken up. Before separation the family, William and Anna Detweiler, and Bill and Bob, their twin sons, would always gather for a short time of Bible reading and prayer. He often read his favorite passage–Psalm 91. In prayer they often mentioned the blessings of an unbroken family circle and their assurance of meeting in Heaven if never on earth again.

People who knew the family remarked at its closeness. William Detweiler worked, played, and was not ashamed to pray and discuss spiritual matters with the family.

God was a part of Brother Detweiler’s everyday life, a personal God. He got up early every morning to have his devotions with God. He often withdrew to the quiet of a nearby woods for these periods of fellowship. God was a close friend to him and those about him knew it. Many of them were challenged by his life to live closer to the Lord. Many others who never saw William Detweiler were blessed through his radio ministry. In addition to preaching and sending the printed messages to those who requested them, he also tried to help those who wrote for help on personal problems.

In 1953 The Calvary Hour decided to support missionaries in foreign lands. The first missionary they supported was Miss Mary Alice Smith under The Sudan Interior Mission in 1954. Later they began supporting another missionary, Miss Ruth Nussbaum (now Mrs. Allen Martin), a former Calvary Hour secretary. She served for eighteen months under the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in La Plata, Puerto Rico, during which time she taught in a school for missionaries’ children. After she returned to the states, the board of The Calvary Hour decided to partially support Rev. and Mrs. Robert E. Wanstall, missionaries to Chile under the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism.

Many people have been helped by the missionaries who would not have been reached by the broadcast. By supporting these missionaries, The Calvary Hour has been able to increase its witness throughout the world.

Conclusion

I think the last sermon William Detweiler prepared, “Repentance Commanded,” [9] is somewhat symbolic of his passion for souls. His foremost concern was the saving of lost souls. It was this passion and his God-given conviction which led him into radio broadcasting. Although radio broadcasting was greatly opposed by many people in the Mennonite Church, Brother Detweiler obeyed his convictions and began broadcasting.

When the Mennonite Church, more than ten years later, began sponsoring a radio program, The Mennonite Hour, Brother Detweiler displayed his Christian character. He had no bitterness or jealousy toward it even though its growth was greater than that of his own broadcast. He rejoiced to see that the cause he had pioneered was being accepted and used to the honor and glory of God.

Brother Detweiler’s life remains a challenge to those who follow. He followed his convictions through life. This is what led him to be a pioneer.

If the Lord calls us to pioneer, in whatever way it may be, may we be ready and willing to offer our all to Him and do our best for the cause of Christ.

Endnotes

[1] Prof. Ernest Gehman in interview with writer, May 1957.

[2] John R. Mumaw, president of EMC, who graduated with William Detweiler in 1922, in interview with writer.

[3] Clarence Fretz in interview with writer, May 1957.

[4] William G. Detweiler, Be Ye Doers of the Word, Walfred Publishing Company, 1956, p. 10 of prelude by sons Bill and Bob Detweiler.

[5] Mrs. William Detweiler in letter to writer, April 18, 1957.

[6] William G. Detweiler, The Christian Home, Courier Publishing Co., 1952.

[7] Letter from listener printed in The Calvary Hour Bulletin, February 1955.

[8] John R. Mumaw in interview with writer.

[9] William G. Detweiler, Be Ye Doers of the Word, p. 9.