Walter A. Maier

February 16th, 2009

This presentation was made by Dr. Paul L. Maier in memorial of his father:

AMERICAN ACADEMY of RELIGION -

Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, Monday, November 3, 2008.

“Fathers and Sons:  The Influence of Evangelists Walter A. Maier, Percy Crawford, Merv Rosell, Jack Wyrtzen, and Charles Woodbridge on Fundamentalism in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.”

WALTER A. MAIER (1893-1950)

During the score of years between 1930 and 1950, Dr. Walter A. Maier became something of a Sunday radio institution in the lives of millions of Americans.

Radio ruled in those early years, entrancing the listening public with a much greater allure than would later be generated by television, high-fi, computers, or even the ipod.

My father began broadcasting in pioneer style, over one low-power transmitter in a South St. Louis attic at a time when radio was in its infancy, but by the time of his death in mid-century, 1,236 stations aired his sermons each week to an estimated 15,000,000 listeners[*] in 120 nations and territories.  The Lutheran Hour that he founded had become the largest regular broadcast – secular or religious – in the history of radio. More people could hear it over more stations than any other non-government radio program in the world — either in English, or in the 34 other languages into which the Maier messages were translated.  Congregational response came, not in liturgical chant, but by mail, a half-million letters arriving each year from an unseen audience, which was likely the largest “parish” in church history prior to Billy Graham.

His chancel was not always a radio station.  At mass meetings across the nation, the voice became a person, where the stocky framed, tawny brown-haired, blue-eyed evangelist addressed crowds of 25,000 and more in his campaign of “Bringing Christ to the Nations,” which was the Lutheran Hour‘s subtitle.

While striking his best-known stance at the microphone, Maier led two or three other lives, as journalists often phrased it.  He was also a Harvard Ph.D. and professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, a magazine editor of a Lutheran youth and family journal, and an author who penned thirty-one books, plus a voluminous amount of devotional materials.  In his meager spare time, he tended a dozen different projects.

His story has its paradoxes.  The man intended a private, academic career but it turned into a very public life.  He thought himself too busy for women, yet launched into so exuberant a romance that he wrote a big, fat tome on marriage.  He never knew how radio actually worked – in fact, he always called it “the miracle of radio” – but he used it to record advantage.  He could thunder as a prophet, yet charm as a father.  He never had a regular pastoral charge, yet served a congregation of millions.  His theology was unqualifiedly Lutheran, yet his message was welcomed by clergy and laity of every Christian church body, as the mail more than demonstrated.

Walter A. Maier was important to American Christianity also for other reasons.  Much of church life in the United States was in spiritual doldrums when he began his ministry, and he became one of the chief spokesmen for a vigorous reassertion of classic Christianity as an antidote to the spiritual depression that seemed to accompany the economic depression of the early ’30s.

The main thrust of my father’s messages was to communicate traditional Christianity in an untraditional manner.  His version of traditional Christianity was pure Protestant orthodoxy based on Scripture and mediated through the Lutheran confessional traditions.  Scriptures are the inspired word of God and the infallible guide to faith and life, Jesus Christ was/is the Son of God who rose from the dead and will return again, miracles really happened, there will be a final judgment, and other “fundamentals” of the Christian faith.  Was he, then, a Fundamentalist per se?  Yes and no.  Yes, in that American Fundamentalism campaigned for these essentials of the faith against what was called the “Modernism” of their day, and as late as 1948 when Eleanor Roosevelt labeled him as a “fanatic fundamentalist,” he replied with a sermon entitled, “You, Too, Should be a Fundamentalist!”  (Roosevelt later retracted her charge and apologized to W.A.M.)

But no, he was not a Fundamentalist – capital “F” – in the usual definition in American church history, since he deplored some of the stridency and extreme views of some prominent Fundamentalist leaders, and could not share their Reformed view of the sacraments.  He was, in fact, an early evangelical, and had far more sympathy with the incipient evangelical movement than Fundamentalism.  Harold John Ockenga saw this and regularly invited Dr. Maier to speak at the founding evangelical functions.

As for expressing traditional Christianity “in an untraditional manner,” Maier was a real master at that.  His oratorical technique was borrowed from such disparate types as John the Baptist, Jonathan Edwards, and Billy Sunday.  Possibly “dynamic urgency” would best describe the sounds that filled his broadcasting studio – and the air.  Sometimes pleasing, sometimes not, his voice often reached considerable intensity early in the sermon, violating the usual rule that radio speakers should use the volume of a living room conversation.  To say there was passion in his presentation is to understate, but the content of his sermons never emphasized heart at the expense of head, since all were carefully crafted to involve the intellect as well.  One magazine writer characterized Maier’s preaching as “the soapbox delivery of a Harvard script.”  Another claimed that he didn’t quite trust the amplifiers, and so had to raise his voice accordingly.

Principal targets of his denunciations in the realm of religion – aside from the usual disapproval of sin! —  included the Four As (American Association for the Advancement of Atheism) as well as the hazy theological malaise that beclouded conservative Christendom in the 1920s and 30s called “Modernism” at the time and radical theological revisionism today. Had he lived to respond to the tactics and methodology of the later Jesus Seminar, for example, he would have been apoplectic.

His main target in the political-social dimension was atheistic communism, never in any McCarthyite sense, but in the 1930s and 1940s  before the Cold War took hold, it was politically correct in many academic circles to play footsie with world Communism, which Maier forcefully opposed only on a religious, not socio-economic basis.  Beyond this, he was careful never to align himself with any particular social or political agenda so as not to polarize his listenership,

His relationship with both mainline Protestant and even Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches was remarkably positive, as mail from their clergy and laity demonstrated.  Evangelical groups, of course, regarded Maier as one of their champions, as they did the fathers of my colleagues on the panel this afternoon.  The one big exception would be when the liberally-inclined Federal Council of Churches (predecessor to the National Council of Churches) petitioned the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. that all paid religious programs be barred from the air, and virtually asking that all Protestant network broadcasting be  placed under its direction.  (This was aimed both at some less-than-responsible religious programs but also at the Lutheran Hour, perhaps in pique that Time magazine had called it radio’s most popular religious broadcast rather than the programs aired gratis for the Federal Council on NCB or CBS.)  Had the FCC approved, this would have doomed the Lutheran Hour, but the petition was emphatically rejected in the name of freedom of speech and religion.

The Lutheran Hour continued to expand in both hemispheres, setting up branch offices across the world, and although my father died of a coronary in January of 1950, the program continues today as the longest-running religious broadcast in history.  One of Professor Maier’s brightest students, Osward C. J. Hoffmann, became speaker for the next 33 years, followed by similarly eloquent successors.  Lutheran Hour Ministries has become a global media outreach effort that includes a variety of programs and projects – all fulfilling the dream of its founder.

At Maier’s passing, Billy Graham and his revival audience at Boston Garden prayed that God would “send another to pick up the torch where Dr. Maier had laid it down.”  Later he would call Walter A. Maier “the greatest combination of preacher and scholar that America has produced in this century.”  Whether or not Dr. Graham had it right, his linking of Maier as “preacher and scholar” was absolutely on-target, since one of the most important contributions Maier made to the fundamentalist-evangelical movement was to lend it intellectual respectability after it had become tainted with reactionary, anti-scientific – sometimes even luddite and racist – excesses.

His contributions to American church history begin, I think, with his own religious persuasion, namely Lutheranism.  “He put the Lutheran church on the American map,” was a repeated refrain, though this was overstatement to convey a point.  His church was on the map before this, but often misunderstood as German, insular, and Midwestern (at least in the case of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,) After the Maier ministry it was none of these, nor thought to be so.

But his influence far exceeded his own denomination.  Theologically, he assisted orthodoxy at a critical time in American Protestantism.  If Modernism and its successors had confronted a conservatism that was all piety but no perception, all inspiration but no intelligence, it might have carried the day, and Protestantism today might either have been a Christianity minus the classical faith, or a dichotomy of two extreme camps, the excesses of which more reasonable believers would have found distasteful.  Professor Maier and other conservative scholars, however, helped provide traditional Christianity with an intellectual undergirding, and his preaching added to the superstructure.  With a significant number of American churchmen listening to his messages every Sunday, clergy and laity were encouraged to speak out for the historic faith in local, regional, and national church councils.  Many of their letters also reported an increase in Christ-centered preaching in their congregations, which they attributed in part to the Maier radio ministry.

So far as broader spiritual influence is concerned, the consensus is that Walter A. Maier made a greater grass-roots impact on the people of his time than is generally known.  To the extent that there has been “a return to religion” since World War II – as evidenced particularly in growing membership in evangelical churches and religious content in the media – there can be little doubt that Maier was one of the major heralds and instruments in this spiritual revitalization, which subsequently was augmented in the maturing evangelical movement and the Billy Graham crusades.  The religious climate attending Maier’s death in mid-century was far different from that at the start of his ministry, when Christianity was not only on the defensive against materialist philosophies, but was itself laced with passive indifference or negative criticism of Scripture.

This man, then, who at time of his death in 1950 had preached to more people than anyone else in history up to that time, helped reverse the tide and provided a grass-roots impact that also helped to firm up orthodoxy at the theological level.

His passing at so young an age – a mere 56 – evoked big issues in theodicy for me at the time, as is still the case.  Still, Walter A. Maier would be delighted at the present resurgence of classic Christianity.


[*] Media audience estimates are often exaggerated beyond credibility.  This figure, however, seems reasonable in view of the regular assumption among broadcasters that only one in fifty listeners will respond in writing to a radio or television program, and many estimates are higher than that.  With the Lutheran Hour receiving a half-million letters per year, the 15,000,000 figure would appear justified.

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