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Chapter 11 - A Cloud As Small As A Man’s Hand

            The spiritual revival for which the leaders of the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement were seeking the Lord during the 1940’s was not a need limited to their sphere of influence.  It was a desperate national need.  The World War II years were not a time of triumph for Christianity in the United States.  In fact, even during the decades leading up to the war, there had been an increasing breakdown in morality.  By mid-century, an expert at Yale estimated that six million citizens were alcoholics.1  Another report claimed that 70 percent of high school students drank.2  In the two years following World War II, the ratio of new divorces to new marriages spiked sharply to one in four, double the rate of five years previously.3  A young Billy Graham declared that “America has overtaken France as the leader among the nations in sex-consciousness.”  “Idolatry and immorality are openly and unashamedly practiced.”4  In the midst of these crises, the church at large had been mainly ineffective.  One of the chief Christian historians of the day described 1908-1948 as “the years of spiritual decline.”5  The church had been so consumed with internal doctrinal controversies that the cause of Christ had suffered.6  Christian leaders lamented reports that 10,000 churches had been closed between 1937 and 1946 and that 7,000 churches had not reported one single convert during 1946.7

 

            It was into the midst of this needy nation that God began causing a spiritual hunger to grow.  His raising up of the LEM in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s was just one of many evidences of this.  On a national level, the spiritual hunger first became most noticeable among the youth, including those in their twenties and a majority of World War II servicemen and women.  Around 1940, a recently converted dance-band leader and insurance salesman named Jack Wyrtzen began holding Christian youth rallies in Brooklyn, New York.8  Within months, when there were capacity crowds and souls regularly being saved, God led Wyrtzen to move into Times Square on Saturday nights.  After two years of filling Times Square auditoriums, Wyrtzen planned a giant rally for Madison Square Garden in the spring of 1944.  Twenty thousand packed the Garden, ten thousand were left standing outside, many hundreds received Christ as Savior, and in Wyrtzen’s words, “the movement seemed to spread like wildfire all around the country” from that point on.  Many contacted him for advice on how to hold similar meetings in their home towns.  Some had been conducting them for as long as a year already.  In St. Louis, a young pastor mortgaged his home to rent the city auditorium.9  On the first night, 1,000 people attended and many were saved.  In Minneapolis, a Bible college singspiration was so crowded with eager youth that the leader asked if they’d like to meet again in two weeks.10  The result was a bi-weekly Saturday evening youth rally in the 10,000-seat Municipal Auditorium with an average of 10 to 25 souls saved at each meeting.  A special youth rally at Soldier Field in Chicago brought 70,000 attendees, hundreds of hands raised for salvation, and national press coverage.11  What was it that drew multitudes to these meetings?  Nothing more than enthusiastic congregational hymn singing, uplifting special music, Scripture reading, testimonies by young Christians, and a simple sermon of repentance and salvation.12  Within two years, multi-hundreds of similarly successful youth rallies had sprung up all across the country without any central planning.13  As an afterthought, their leaders met together in the summer of 1945 to formally organize themselves as Youth For Christ International.  Their stated vision was to reach the 14 million service personnel returning from World War II and to prepare leaders and the organizational infrastructure for great city-wide revivals across the country.14

 

            Another evidence of a growing spiritual hunger in the country was the large-scale receptivity to Walter Maier’s The Lutheran Hour, Bringing Christ to the Nations.  By 1946, it had set both the national and international records as the largest radio broadcast, being aired on 809 stations.15  National magazines estimated that the weekly listening audience (national and international) grew from 15 million in 1944 to 20 million by 1948.16  What was it that radio listeners were so eager to hear?  To quote from one of Maier’s 1945 sermons,

“If until this moment you have been without Christ . . . if now the Holy Spirit urges you to believe that the Savior’s blood was shed for you . . . may you stop resisting grace, repent and return to your heavenly Father through Christ!  As . . . His redeeming love touch[es] your soul, no matter how unbelieving and blasphemous you may have been, come all the way to the Savior!  Then you proud scoffers who have been spiritually distressed can receive divine peace from your Redeemer, knowing that in Him you are surely saved.”17 

The incredible but oft-repeated report concerning this preaching was, “As you walk down the street at 12:30 on Sundays, you can hear The Lutheran Hour from almost every home.”18 

 

            These were just a few of the many signs that God’s Spirit was increasingly on the move in the U.S. as World War II drew to a close.  What the leaders of the LEM were seeing was another such sign.  Paul Lindell noticed it especially during the 1944 Deeper Life Conference when he remarked, “The people came to everything and asked for more.  This kind of hunger and thirst after the things of God only God can give.”19  Years later, LEM secretary Orloue Gisselquist recalled, “The men of the LEM committee believed that they were part of a tide of spiritual awakening.”20  “With the end of the war in 1945, the revival movement of mid-century - its organized expression somewhat pent-up during the war years - came to the fore in a wide range of strengthened institutions and evangelistic programs.  The LEM moved strongly with the tide even before the war ended.”21 

 

            I Kings chapters 17 and 18 and James 5:17-18 relate how the land of Israel under wicked King Ahab suffered an extended period of drought as prophesied by Elijah.  After three and a half years and a famous victory on Mt. Carmel, Elijah proclaimed to Ahab, “There is the sound of abundance of rain.” (I Kings 18:41b NKJV)  Then he began to pray earnestly that the rain would come.  Six times while he prayed he sent his servant to look over the sea, but each time the servant reported seeing nothing unusual.  Finally, on the seventh time, the servant returned saying, “There is a cloud, as small as a man’s hand, rising out of the sea!” (I Kings 18:44a NKJV)  It was small, but it was a sure sign of a coming deluge.  Momentarily, the sky was covered with thick clouds and heavy rain poured down.  Analogously, the years leading up to and including World War II had been largely a time of spiritual drought in the U.S., but Christians across the country had been praying for a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit.  Clearly, there was plenteous evidence of a growing spiritual hunger, but there was still no definite sign that revival itself would come.  The year 1947 changed that.  Both nationally and for the LEM, it proved to be a cloud as small as a man’s hand - a small sign from God that an outpouring of revival was indeed on the way.

 

            On a national level, the revival sign that appeared in 1947 was perhaps relatively small in itself; but considering the nationwide movement to which it led two years later, it was extremely significant.  Early in 1947, a well-known Hollywood, California, Sunday school teacher and youth leader named Henrietta Mears felt compelled to visit the European battlefields where many of her former students had served.22  As she viewed the vast destruction and ravaged lives, she became convinced that only a revival from God could spare increasingly-godless America from a similar fate.  Returning to her home, Miss Mears was overcome with the sense of God’s call upon her for such a time as this.  On the evening of June 24 at a teacher’s training conference, God’s power visibly flowed through her as she declared, “The [same] seeds of destruction . . . [are] at work . . . in America today.  There must be a Christian answer . . . God has an answer . . . We are to take [Jesus’] gospel to the ends of the earth . . . God is looking for men and women of total commitment . . . We must be expendables for Christ.”  Several of the young people were so stirred by this message that afterward they asked Miss Mears if they could pray with her.  After they had prayed for several hours confessing their own sin and seeking God’s guidance, God suddenly gave them the indelible vision of revival beginning among college students across the country.  The next day they began making plans to turn their annual summer’s-end collegiate conference into a national event promoting revival.  Two months later, well over 600 students representing 87 institutions crowded the first College Briefing Conference at Forest Home in the San Bernardino Mountains.  From the very first service, an overwhelming conviction of sin permeated the atmosphere and Christian students “one after another stood to ask God’s forgiveness for past errors and faithlessness.”  A number of unbelieving students who had been drawn in were moved to tears of repentance and found salvation in Christ.  For eight days the conference continued like this, and it was a multitude of revived students who returned to their campuses that fall.

 

            The year 1947 began for the LEM with the first of several definite signs that the revival for which they had been praying was on its way.  The theme for that January’s Midwinter Evangelistic Conference was “The Ministry of the Holy Spirit,” and the sub-themes considered over the four-day conference were the Spirit’s working a personal experience of salvation, His indwelling the body of true believers, His sanctification of believers from sin and unto Christ, and His worldwide preparation of a bride for Christ.23  Obviously the conference had been designed for the edification of the church leaders and laymen who crowded its sessions.  But it seemed that even more affected were the large numbers of seeking souls who responded to the Gospel call.24  By the second evening, the 1,100-seat Minneapolis church was packed; and fifteen minutes into the service, latecomers began standing in the balcony.25  The closing service two nights later saw the largest attendance of all.  In spite of extra chairs set up, many still had to stand the entire time.26  As had been the case throughout the whole conference, “quite a number who sought salvation were dealt with after the service.”  Over the months following, reports of many who had found peace with God at the conference made their way back to LEM headquarters from across the nation.27 

 

            Perhaps motivated in part by the Midwinter Conference, February’s edition of Evangelize contained an editorial entitled “Vision for Revival” in which readers were urged to “pray daily for a Holy Spirit revival” and to submit news items of revival stirrings for publication.28  Such submittals were not long in coming.  April’s Evangelize contained brief reports of “an evident work of awakening” at an LEM Evangelistic Mission in Bagley, Minnesota,29 and an unusually well-attended two weeks of evangelistic meetings in Chicago during which “a number of people, especially among the young, sought the Lord for salvation.”30  Rev. J.O. Gisselquist had been the evangelist at both places.  May’s edition of Evangelize brought news of Paul Lindell’s evangelistic meetings in the small town of Strum, Wisconsin, at which the opening attendance of 175 increased every night for a week and the local pastor reported a “definite change and testimony from the life and lips of quite a number of folks.”31  In the same issue, Pastor and LEM friend Charles Crouch excitedly related “the joy of kneeling with twenty and more souls at one time” during a week of evangelistic meetings held at his church in Kirkland, Washington.32  Some of these had been new converts while others had been Christians repenting of lukewarmness and lovelessness.

 

            Then came a tremendous breakthrough - an unmistakable outpouring of God’s Spirit in the small town of Williams, Iowa.33  For many years, the local Lutheran church there had been dwindling in numbers, especially among the men and youth; but the remaining Christians had been faithfully praying for revival.  The recent and sudden death of the church’s godly pastor had made a deep impression on many and had brought them under conviction of sin.  At the church’s request, Rev. J.O. Gisselquist preached a week of evangelistic meetings just before Easter 1947.  At the end of the week, some of the Christians who sensed that the Spirit was silently stirring in many hearts asked Gisselquist to continue another week.  On Easter Sunday, it was announced that he would do so.  What happened next was so incredible that it could only be attributed to the hand of God.  Without any published advertisement and regardless of cold, rain, and sleet, people from throughout the community and from many nearby congregations crowded the church every evening.  After Gisselquist’s sermon, the service would be opened for testimonies and prayer.  Without any human prompting, the unsaved “one after another would get up . . . and plead for Christians to pray for them.”  After an hour, the official service would be closed “with a strong appeal to sinners” and those who wished to yield to the Lord would be dealt and prayed with individually at the altar.  Gisselquist found, “It was easy to speak with seeking souls when the Spirit of God opened the way, and seldom was there any evidence of resentment.”  After rising from their knees, the new converts would spend time fellowshipping, praying, and laughing together for joy although the hour was now quite late.  Night after night this continued for not just one additional week but two.  By the conclusion of the meetings, those who had come to Christ totaled more than 45 from all age groups - children, youth, husbands and wives, whole families, and older folks.  The changes in their lives were obvious to all.  The attendance at regular Sunday Bible classes and weekly prayer meetings increased dramatically, most notably by men.  A general hunger for God’s Word prevailed.  One midweek prayer meeting lasted until 1:00 in the morning.  An additional weekly meeting for fellowship, singing, testimonies, and prayer swelled with eager participants.  The older Christians marveled and rejoiced “at the power of God to change the hearts of men.”

 

            Testimonies from the Williams converts abounded in Evangelize during June and July.  A sampling of these does much more to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in a time of revival than any second-hand explanation can do.

“We are now converts of just three weeks, and have found the Christian life is the only way

to live.  We thought a lot of worldly things, but the world has nothing to offer in the way of salvation.”34

“I don’t know why it was so hard for me to take the first step toward God, but when I made

the turn whole-heartedly God met me all the way at once.  What an experience - only a Christian knows.”35

“For many months I have been seeking the Lord and finally found peace.  God has made

His truth very real to me.”36

“It was fifty years ago that I knelt at the altar for confirmation.  All these years I have lived

in sin, but thank God He has now opened my eyes.  The past few weeks have been the happiest of my life.”37

“I am so glad we have taken Jesus into our family circle.  What a privilege to worship God

together in the Word and in prayer in our home.  We know our children will remember this springtime when we began this new life with Jesus in our hearts.”38

Rev. J.O. Gisselquist told the testimony of a lady who enjoyed singing in the church choir

but became convicted of lying as she sang, “It is well with my soul.”  Under deep conviction, she came to Jesus and found that she could now sing it truthfully.39

“My wife and I have been married twelve years.  Ten years ago she became a Christian. 

During these ten years I have been more or less under conviction.  I am happy that instead of pulling my wife down to my standard, I am now united with her in Christ.”40

“There has been a wonderful change in our lives since Jesus came into our hearts . . . It’s a

joy to attend prayer meetings and to fellowship with God’s children.”41

“Now we are one in Christ Jesus . . . What happy times we have reading the Word together

and learning more about Him and His love.”42

Seven months after the revival, one of the older Christians in Williams reported to Rev. Gisselquist that “not one of the converts had gone back to the world.  They had had testings, but the Lord had marvelously sustained and protected them.”43  What had happened in Williams had been nothing other than a miracle.  Although only a localized occurrence, it was a sign that a larger outpouring of revival was on its way.

 

            The Deeper Life Conference in July 1947 was another such sign.44  The attendance in itself indicated a tremendous eagerness to hear the teaching and preaching of God’s Word.  Nine-hundred and twenty-one registrants (including 44 pastors) from sixteen states, Canada, and all Lutheran synods represented a 20 percent registration increase over the previous year and a record for Mission Farms.  By midweek, so many adults were attending morning sessions in the 600-seat Youth Chapel that some still had to stand in spite of extra pews and chairs brought in.  Visitors from the Twin Cities and the nearby vicinity augmented the attendance so much that the 2,000-seat Tabernacle was filled for evening services by the week’s end.  On the closing Sunday, approximately 2,000 crowded the shores of Medicine Lake for the Galilean Service.  Bearing the theme of “The Harvest,” the conference itself was a time of harvest among saved and unsaved alike.  “God’s Spirit moved like a wind through the entire camp, searching hearts and bringing blessing.”  Even the speakers themselves were touched.  Among Christians, the Spirit lovingly softened hard hearts and produced the fruit of joy.  The loving fellowship among God’s children made it seem almost like heaven to some.  And “many unsaved came to real peace with God.” 

 

            Most remarkable of all at Deeper Life was the high school youth conference, now in its second year.  This group met for two study hours in the mornings, an informal hour in the afternoons, and a praise and testimony hour after evening services.  By midweek, a soberness had settled over their meetings as the Holy Spirit made sin seem so terrible that some even lost sleep at night over it.  Among the youth who were Christians, this resulted in the confession of hidden sins and the joyous reception of God‘s promised forgiveness.  Others, who now clearly realized that they were not Christians, took the initiative to seek spiritual help without any human pressure to do so.  One such group of burdened youth sent a representative to the Speakers’ Residence to find someone to tell them how to get saved.  On Saturday afternoon alone, between 15 and 20 youth received Jesus as Savior.  In all, about 35 of the 125 youth came to faith in Christ.  The fact that nearly 30 percent of the youth conference attendance became Christians is all the more remarkable considering that many of these high schoolers surely must have come from Christian backgrounds.  Testimonies from a couple of them reveal profound experiences described with youthful simplicity.

“I received a great blessing out of Bible camp because Jesus became more to me than ever

before.  He became my own personal Saviour when I met Him face to face and confessed all my sins to Him and He forgave them.”45

“The phrase, ‘He who loves not Christ above all loves not Christ at all,’ I felt was

especially for me.  I knew there were other things in my life I loved more than Christ and the thought of not loving Christ made me feel miserable.  I found Him at Medicine Lake and have been so much happier since.”46

 

            For the LEM, the year 1947 also yielded other small signs of a coming revival.  At the McIntosh, Minnesota, Bible Conference in early June, “the Spirit of God seemed to move mightily at some of the evening sessions,” especially “on the last night of the conference [when] a great number of people seemed moved upon by the Spirit of God” and “many were saved.“47  And at the Fertile, Minnesota, Bible Conference in October, “a spirit of awakening” was “evident at the meetings.  Sinners sought the Lord both at the services and privately” and “found peace with God.“48  To some degree, such signs continued into 1948.  For example, when a spontaneous after meeting was suggested on the closing evening of the Hendricks, Minnesota, Bible Conference in May 1948, suddenly “the altar was full of seeking souls and Christians seeking pardon and restoration.”49 

 

            But without a doubt, 1947 had been the year of a cloud as small as a man’s hand.  LEM evangelist J.O. Gisselquist rejoiced as he looked back over the Bible Conferences of that year.50  God’s power had been evident in so many ways.  There had been the intoxicated man who had come to the altar to be saved.  The following evening he had returned sober and had publicly testified to God‘s grace.  There had been the 74-year-old man who had come to a conference because he had been warned in a dream to repent of his sin immediately before time ran out.  He had come willing to do anything to get right with God, and he had surely found peace in Christ.  And then there had been the Christian mother who had lost her assurance and joy in the Lord many years earlier.  It had been during a conference Bible study in Colossians that “the light broke through” to her once again “when she simply looked to Jesus.”  Indeed, concluded Gisselquist, “It is all in Christ.  Our ten years of Bible Conferences have offered no attraction beside Him . . . Where Jesus is presented in the power of the Holy Spirit, there sinners are saved and Christians edified.”  As simple as it sounded, that had been the big secret behind every spiritual triumph witnessed by the LEM during 1947.  And when the long-prayed-for outpouring of revival finally came several years later, it too was characterized by people being irresistibly attracted to Christ.


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