Chapter 4 - While They Communed Together
Series: Our Fathers Saw His Mighty Works
On a certain Sunday afternoon many years ago, two friends were walking together and talking intently as they went. As would be fitting for any Christians to do on the Lord’s Day, they were discussing Jesus’ suffering and death and its meaning. And “while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them . . . [and] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:15,27b KJV) That was what happened to Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus road nearly 2,000 years ago. And throughout the years since then, that has also been the testimony of many people who have been attending some Christian gathering or assembly where Jesus Christ revealed Himself and had a personal meeting with them.
From its inception, the vision of the Lutheran Inter-Synodical Evangelistic Committee was to establish such Christian gatherings, or “Bible Conferences,” where people might have a true encounter with the Lord Jesus and where Christians might have rich fellowship with God and with each other. In one of their earliest documented statements of purpose, the Committee declared, “Our aim is to promote evangelism by the quickening and deepening of the spiritual life of the believers, encouraging and coordinating the various evangelistic efforts, and stimulating interest in the harvesting of lost souls at home and abroad.”1 With that purpose burning in their hearts at their first official meeting on September 6, 1937, the Committee members discussed “the possibility of evangelistic extension by means of an Evangelistic Conference Week somewhere”2 and decided that Enoch Scotvold should “inquire as to the possibilities for holding an Evangelistic Conference Week somewhere in Iowa next summer.”3
At that time in 1937, there were just two such week-long Bible Conferences within the Lutheran church. The first was Camrose Week in Alberta, Canada, begun in large part by Enoch Scotvold 20 years earlier. The second was the annual Bible Conference in Centerville, South Dakota, begun by Rev. J.O. Gisselquist in 1924.4 The Evangelistic Committee would pattern its conferences after these two existing models. Scotvold was already a Committee member; and with the last motion of that September 6, 1937 meeting, Gisselquist was made part of the Committee.5 His addition was doubly significant because not only did he know Bible Conference work but also he had come to faith by meeting God in the assembly of believers. He was, therefore, one of the most earnest proponents of the Christian assemblies called Bible Conferences.
Of all the early leaders of what became the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement, John O. Gisselquist stands out as the only one without a Christian upbringing. He was born in 1888 in Shelly, Minnesota, to Ole and Siri Gisselquist, a Swedish farmer and his Norwegian wife.6 Besides a loose affiliation with the local Norwegian Lutheran church and the fact that John and his three older siblings were baptized by the pastor, there was little Christian influence in the Gisselquist family. This seems strange in light of the revivals among Norwegian Lutherans that swept through the state of Minnesota in the 1890’s,7 but Gisselquist’s own account in later years was that “There wasn’t much spiritual life there in those days.”
When John was not quite 2 1/2 years old, his mother Siri died following complications from the birth of her fifth child, a son. She left her husband Ole with five children between the ages of 7 years and 13 days. At Ole’s urgent request, his younger sister came over from Sweden to help. Then two years later, in 1893, Ole married again - this time a Swedish woman named Emma. Into the family, Emma brought a three-year-old daughter of her own. Several years later, Ole and Emma had a son of their own, and then another. But the blended Gisselquist family thus formed experienced little besides disunity and strife. The accidental death of Emma’s daughter, which Emma blamed on Ole’s youngest son, only intensified Emma’s growing anger toward her husband’s children.
Sometimes while her husband was off working in the fields, Emma would lock the children in the outhouse and only let them out shortly before Ole returned to the house. Her utter dislike for the children was evidenced by the demeaning tone in which John was to remember her saying, “John, you can’t do that. You can’t do anything.” Years later, Ole apologized to John for his miserable marriage to Emma and for Siri’s children having had to leave home early.
It was probably a welcomed convenience to Emma that each summer she could send Ole’s children to Norwegian parochial school (something akin to Vacation Bible School). But in God’s provision, it was there at age 12 that John first met Jesus Christ through the witness of his teacher Miss Lavina Rokke. In John’s own words, Miss Rokke was “a gifted and consecrated Christian.”
“My young heart was deeply moved both by the Word of God as well as by her sincere and whole-hearted devotion to Christ. When God spoke to my heart, I was conscious of my need of salvation. Although not a bad boy I had nevertheless drifted from God and was living in sin. A still small voice within said, ‘Why not accept Christ now?’ I remember how I weighed that momentous question. That day I made the greatest decision of my life. I accepted Christ.”
Of the next day, John said, “It was great to be saved. I was on my knees in my bedroom 10 o’clock in the morning . . . As I went outside and I looked up . . . I said, ‘If I die now I’ll go straight to heaven!’” It was also at this time that he first felt God calling him to be a preacher.
But the joyful ecstasy of that experience was fleeting. It was only a short time before John, plagued by doubts and lured by temptations, began living a troubled life of backsliding in which he continued for 10 1/2 years. Feeling unable to cope with his stepmother any longer, he ran away when he was 15; but when the transients by the railroad tracks rejected him as one of their own, he returned home. At age 17, having not even completed the eighth grade, he left home for good and went to live with his recently-married older sister in Superior, Wisconsin. There he worked with his brother-in-law building the Duluth, Minnesota, ore docks. He also made “sinful friends,” and with them he “celebrated July 4th with a keg of beer.” However, he still “attended church somewhat regularly, but only on Sundays.”
But God’s work in young Gisselquist’s heart was far from finished. “One Sunday the pastor announced a prohibition lecture for the following Thursday evening,” John recalled. “I did not hear the name of the speaker and it mattered very little, as I was not particularly interested either in the prohibition question or its advocates. But that Thursday night I was impelled, as by some unseen power, to go to church. It was the only time I went to church on a week-day evening for any sort of a meeting.” Unknowingly compelled by the Holy Spirit, John rowed alone across the harbor from Superior to the church in Duluth. Incredulously, he discovered that the evening’s speaker was none other than Miss Lavina Rokke through whose testimony God had so impacted his life years earlier.
After the meeting, John visited with Miss Rokke. When she asked about his future plans, he revealed that he intended to go to college after he had saved sufficient money. She replied that in her opinion Red Wing Seminary was the best Christian institution he could attend. Her word was enough to convince him. To John, Miss Rokke was a sort of spiritual mother. By the next January (1908), he was enrolled at Red Wing. He began by finishing the eighth grade and then proceeded through high school classes, college courses, and two years of seminary before leaving the school in 1917.
At Red Wing, John said, “One thing that deeply impressed me . . . was to find so many sincere Christian boys. So I was not the only boy who carried in my bosom a deep concern for my soul’s salvation . . . These boys took part in prayer, testified and spoke to the unsaved about their soul. I soon found myself at home amongst them and began to seek the Lord in earnest for myself and was faithful at prayer meetings and in all other meetings of a religious nature.” At least a couple of times, John testified publicly of a renewed faith but soon strayed away again. In later life, he recalled of this time that, “I was stubborn and ignorant.” “I had to come to the end of self, and the law was working hard to bring me there. But . . . I thought I had to help along a little and not so little either.”
During the 1910 school Christmas break, John stayed with his father and stepmother who now lived in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. New Years Eve fell on a Saturday, and John’s own efforts at godliness could not keep him from the self-indulgent pleasures of dancing the night away and returning home after 4:00 in the morning. Still, he attended church the next morning. To his humiliation, he was asked as a returning Christian school student to open the Sunday School with Bible reading and prayer. Suddenly the dichotomy between his two lifestyles became painfully obvious to him and he was shocked with the awareness of his own inability to live a holy life. “Finally,” he said, “I came to the place where I realized that if I was to be saved, then God would have to do the saving. God had already settled my salvation on Calvary. And when I gave up, then the Holy Spirit through the Word made me a partaker of His salvation.” His years of wandering were finally over. He would not stray again.
At Red Wing, Gisselquist’s gift for preaching was recognized early by faculty and students, and he was given many opportunities for cultivating it. Red Wing’s seminary program was three years; but after just one year, Gisselquist was ordained in order to serve a two-point parish in Elmore, Minnesota, and Crystal Lake, Iowa, and to perform pastoral acts there such as baptisms and weddings. He still continued with his second year of seminary training while pastoring but never completed the third year required for a theological degree. (The seminary moved that third year to Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, due to the synodical merger which created the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America.)
In 1917, John Gisselquist married Ida Engelstad, and together they served the Elmore and Crystal Lake parish. Here two sons were born to them. Within both congregations, spiritual births also took place, there being “a very obvious spiritual awakening, a richer spiritual life.” In the spring of 1924, the young Gisselquist family moved to Centerville, South Dakota, where John took over a five-point parish consisting of the Scandia church in town and the St. John’s, Immanuel, Melhus, and Skrefsrud churches scattered from six to nine miles away in the surrounding countryside. In Centerville, one more son and two daughters were born.
The Melhus congregation was the one in which Enoch Scotvold had been raised thirty years earlier. Sometime shortly before Gisselquist moved to Centerville, he met Scotvold who urged him to consider starting a Bible Conference in the style of Camrose Week. This Gisselquist did almost immediately upon arrival at his new parish, sponsoring the first Centerville Bible Conference in late summer of 1924. The conference became a highly anticipated annual event, greatly enhancing the normal parish life which was otherwise limited by time and travel as to extracurricular activities.
Like Camrose Week, the Centerville Bible Conference was eight days long, running from Sunday through Sunday. It was usually held in late August or early September in order to fall between grain harvesting and corn husking and thus be accessible to as many as possible from the farming communities. Bible studies were held in the mornings and afternoons, and lunches were served by the women. Each evening there were evangelistic services for the adults and special services for the children. Approximately three speakers were brought in for each conference, some even from outside the NLCA.
To Gisselquist, the Bible Conference quickly became the most important part of the annual church calendar. In later life he wrote, “With all my heart, I believe in Bible Conference work and its ministry . . . its importance in the work of God has only deepened in my conviction as I have seen how God has honored this work. It supplements the work of the church especially in three fields:
1. To build and extend true Christian fellowship
2. To lead Christians into a closer and more intimate communion with Christ . . . and
experience the fullness of life in Christ . . . .
3. Real evangelistic and revival work for unsaved and backsliders.”8
Surely Gisselquist never forgot how God had revealed Himself to him in the assembly of believers - in Vacation Bible School, at Red Wing Seminary, in the local church - and his heart was moved to create and foster such assemblies where others might encounter God also. And every year saw Christians being revived and some unconverted coming to Christ.
In January 1936, Gisselquist traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to obtain help for his son’s eye problems which the South Dakota doctors had been unable to correctly diagnose. Since Gisselquist himself had been diagnosed back home for stomach ulcers, he decided to have another checkup while in Rochester. But this checkup revealed, via the latest X-ray technology, that his ailment was actually an advanced stomach cancer which threatened his life. The Mayo doctors advised him that his only course of action was surgery and that, even with it, his chances of survival were less than ten percent. However, they said, if he were to live for five years after the surgery his chances for completely regained health would be much better. On January 26, Gisselquist underwent surgery which removed half of his stomach and part of the lining of his large intestine.
Gisselquist was a very weak man when he returned to Centerville, and he had to rely heavily on another who came in to assist him with pastoral duties. Gisselquist never publicly announced his ten percent odds of survival because to him there was no chance involved. He was in the hands of the God who had given him a special word for this time from Psalm 18:39.9 “For thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle: thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me.” (KJV) Steadily he recovered over the months, but he would never plunge back into parish work. However, that had nothing to do with his health.
This major crisis became in Gisselquist’s life a dividing point not only physically but spiritually, for it was at this time that God began to lay on his heart the desire to become a full-time evangelist. The thought was planted in perfect timing. At the 1936 Centerville Bible Conference, Evangelist Joseph Stump was a speaker as he had been one other year. Later that fall, Stump became part of the evangelistic committee which included Evangelists Enoch Scotvold and John Carlsen, both of whom also knew Gisselquist and had spoken at the Centerville Conference in previous years. These men, along with Evangelist Jens Halvorson, were responsible for planning the January 1937 Lutheran Evangelistic Conference out of which would be born the Lutheran Inter-Synodical Evangelistic Committee. Because they knew Gisselquist to be an able and Spirit-filled preacher, they invited him to speak at the closing service. To a packed audience, Gisselquist delivered the message, “What Spiritual Awakening Will Mean to the Lutheran Church.” It proved to be a moving conclusion to that historic conference and the beginning of a mighty moving of God.
In June of 1937, the Hauge Lutheran Innermission Federation called Gisselquist to be their full-time traveling evangelist. He accepted the call, having become convinced that whatever remaining life God did grant him should be devoted wholeheartedly to evangelism.10 In September, he moved his family to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where means of travel for an evangelist were readily available, where his children could receive college educations, and where his wife could find employment if the cancer returned and took his life. Even before Gisselquist and his family arrived at their new Minneapolis home, the Lutheran Inter-Synodical Evangelistic Committee voted to make him a member. His cancer did not return for the next thirty years - years during which he was to play an integral part in Lutheran Evangelism and witness revival with his own eyes.
At the first Evangelistic Committee meeting which Gisselquist attended (January 14, 1938), Enoch Scotvold reported that Eagle Grove, Iowa, had invited the Committee to hold an Evangelistic Conference Week the following summer.11 The invitation was eagerly accepted and preparations were begun. The Evangelistic Committee was to plan the conference schedule and provide the speakers12 while a local Eagle Grove committee would handle the logistics.
Eagle Grove, Iowa, was a town of about 5,000 people13 roughly 70 miles south of the Minnesota border. It proved to be a very welcoming location for the Evangelistic Committee to hold its first Bible Conference. For conference assembly, the Eagle Grove Chamber of Commerce secured the County Fairground’s 4-H Club Building and the Park Board provided the use of the surrounding Greenwood Park14 where conference attendees might park trailers or pitch tents in the plenteous shade.15 For those who wished to stay for the week but not to camp, the local committee and two Eagle Grove pastors made ample arrangements for housing.16 Lunches and suppers were served on site to accommodate the many in attendance,17 especially those who chose to commute daily from the surrounding vicinity.18
Upon entering Eagle Grove, conference attendees were welcomed by a large banner hung across the main street by the Chamber of Commerce.19 In the 4-H building they were greeted by tasteful floral arrangements provided by a local man who had also secured the use of a loud speaker system and donated his time to supervise its operation.20 On the opening and closing Sundays of the conference, regular services were held at 11:00 AM, 2:30 PM, and 8:00 PM with an evangelistic emphasis at the latter two. Sunday speakers included nearly all of the Evangelistic Committee members: Enoch Scotvold, Rev. A.W. Knock, Rev. Evald J. Conrad, Rev. Joseph Stump, Rev. J.O. Gisselquist, and Rev. G.W. Busse (who had been brought onto the Committee at the same time as Gisselquist). The program for weekday mornings began with devotions by Rev. Jens Halvorson followed by a prayer and testimony time for pastors and laymen and “Practical Studies on the Holy Spirit” by Rev. Gisselquist. After a two hour lunch period, the weekday afternoons consisted of “Studies in Personal Evangelism” with Rev. Knock and evangelistic messages on types, Bible characters, and prophecy by Mr. Scotvold and Rev. Busse. Evangelistic services were conducted each evening by Revs. Conrad and Stump.21 Children often sat with their parents during the day sessions or played quietly outside the building, and special services were held for them in the evenings.22
Although this Bible Conference was advertised from the very beginning as an annual event23 in hopes of building up a large attendance over the years, the first conference was so well attended that a tent had to be obtained for overflow meetings the following year24 and the task of one local committee member became to secure ushers, police protection, and adequate space for parking of cars.25 The 1939 program, well-publicized by brochures, posters, and local newspapers,26 featured a similar program to that of 1938 with many of the same speakers as well as Johannes Daasvand, Norwegian field secretary of the China Lutheran Mission Federation.27 An afternoon round table discussion for young people was added,28 led by Rev. Gisselquist’s sons Clem and Orloue.29 Programs for following years contained sessions on topics such as “Studies in Galatians,” “Studies in Daniel,”30 “The Old Testament Tabernacle,” “A True Witness Delivereth Souls,”31 and “From Egypt to Canaan.”32
The Eagle Grove Bible Conference had an impact on people of all ages. One girl who was in the sixth grade when the conference began describes how she, her siblings, and her parents eagerly anticipated this annual conference, not merely for its social aspect but especially for the spiritual growth it provided.33 Much of the conference content was directed towards growth in the daily Christian life, an oft-neglected but much-needed and appreciated message. Each morning during the eight-day conference, this girl’s father and brothers would rise early to do the farm chores so that the whole family could pile into the car and drive to Eagle Grove for the day. In the late afternoon, her father and brothers would commute back to the farm for more chores, returning to Eagle Grove in time for the evening service. Even at twelve years old, this girl sat listening to the speakers with deep attentiveness. They preached Christ in such a personal way that listening to them was “like sitting at the feet of Jesus.” As she listened, this girl became concerned about her own spiritual state until at the age of fourteen she received the assurance that she was saved and her sins were forgiven. She was not alone in her age category. She knew of many other young people who benefited similarly from the conference.
With each passing year, the Eagle Grove Bible Conference became a more highly anticipated regional event in late August and early September. Attendance increased annually as newcomers and faithful attendees came from a 100-mile radius34 and from about 40 towns.35 Near the end of World War II, an estimated 1,500 people were gathered on one Sunday.36 It was typical for souls to be saved during the conference each year and for others to be converted later through follow-up work.37
The Eagle Grove Conference became the Evangelistic Committee’s model and proving grounds for other future Bible Conferences. By 1943, similar conferences had been held in Estherville, Iowa; Westby, Wisconsin; Ottawa, Illinois; Everett, Washington; Fargo, North Dakota; Williston, North Dakota; Elmore, Minnesota; Lisbon, Illinois; San Francisco, California; DeKalb, Illinois; and Seattle, Washington.38 Some of these became annual affairs, and the format used was nearly always identical to that of the Eagle Grove conference.
Few individual testimonies or specific reports of impact from the early Eagle Grove conferences remain today, but perhaps one pastor’s account will suffice to demonstrate how the power of God was manifested throughout the region.39 In the late 1980’s, 50 years after the first Eagle Grove Bible Conferences, Rev. Jim Peterson took a pastorate at Hauge Lutheran Church in Goldfield, Iowa, about five miles north of Eagle Grove. As he became acquainted with his parishioners, the older men of the congregation began telling him remarkable stories from long ago. They described how a tent had been set up in Eagle Grove for evangelistic services and how the crowds in attendance were so large that many were compelled to stand outside the tent or to listen through rolled-down windows of parked cars on the surrounding streets. Rev. Peterson was especially impressed by reports of “the large and general interest in hearing the Word of God by both saved and unsaved alike.”
But the stories that were most memorable were those concerning the aftereffects of the conferences. It seemed as if the reviving presence of God had flowed right out from the tent and permeated the entire region. In Badger, Iowa, about 15 miles west of Eagle Grove, a certain tavern owner who drank heavily and did not provide well for his family was in the back room of his establishment one night when he heard a clear voice telling him to lock the tavern door forever. Intensely convicted of sin, he locked the door and began walking home but stumbled and fell along the way. By the time he reached home, he had found repentance and salvation in Christ. He never opened his tavern for business again; and many years later, his children testified to Rev. Peterson that their father had become an entirely new man that night, thereafter providing for his family and joyfully witnessing for his Savior. An old farmer told Rev. Peterson that when his wife had become a believer decades earlier, presumably as either a direct or indirect result of the Bible Conference, the mature Christians had come to their house to disciple her through Bible study and prayer. Desiring to avoid any encounter with this church envoy, the farmer determined to stay in the barn until they had gone. As the meeting stretched longer and longer, he thought to himself, “This is crazy for me to hide in the barn! It’s my house and I’m going in.” In he went, and soon he too had become a Christian.
Like J.O. Gisselquist decades earlier and like Cleopas and his friend some 1900 years before, the many who were touched both directly and indirectly through the Eagle Grove and other Bible Conferences encountered the presence of God as manifested in and flowing out from the assembly of believers. Surely Jesus’ words were true that even “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20 NKJV) Where God’s Spirit was present, His power was clearly evident and, at times, seemingly inescapable. And when believers indwelt by God’s Spirit met together, they experienced that “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (I John 1:3b NKJV) From the very beginning, the foremost desire of the members of the Lutheran Inter-Synodical Evangelistic Committee was to see God manifested in these ways. And they were certainly not disappointed.
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