Chapter 29: The Real Beginning of Present Work
The meetings held by Elder S. A. Oberg and me in the “Hollywood” district of Salem, Oregon, ended on July 1, 1933. Just prior to this date I received an invitation that was to result in the start of the great worldwide Work of today.
This invitation came from Mr. and Mrs. Elmer E. Fisher. They were the couple who had been brought into the Church by our private Bible study in my room, the night the storm prevented the meeting, during the tent campaign in Eugene, in the summer of 1931. The Fishers were successful farmers, living seven miles west of Eugene. Mr. Fisher was a member of the school board of the one-room Firbutte school, eight miles west of Eugene on the old Elmira road. The Fishers asked me to hold meetings in this country schoolhouse, inviting me to be their guest in their farm home during the meetings.
Organizing Another Church
But I was still in the employ of the Oregon Conference of the Church of God. The salary, as stated in the preceding chapter, was $3 per week. The conference was to have paid our house rent in Salem, and they supplied us with bulk foods—whole wheat flour, raw sugar, beans. Farmer members supplied us with vegetables and fruits. However, part of the time the conference was unable to pay our house rent, which was $7 per month, and my wife had to make up the deficit by doing the washings for our landlady. In addition to this, I raised a vegetable garden on our lot that summer.
Decision about the Firbutte school meetings near Eugene required a special conference board meeting. About the same time the Fishers’ invitation came, the way opened also for a series of meetings to be held in the little church building we had rented in Harrisburg. The board wanted to decide which assignment was to go to me, and which to Elder Oberg.
But since the Harrisburg church seated about 150 people, and was located in a town, while the Firbutte schoolhouse seated only 35, and was located eight miles from town, in a sparsely settled rural district where farmhouses were a half-mile apart, the board readily agreed to assign me to the country schoolhouse. Elder Oberg was assigned to the church building in Harrisburg, at his urgent request.
Meanwhile, the Salem meetings, after three months, ended on July 1, 1933, with no results. Mr. Oberg left immediately to make preparations for his Harrisburg meetings.
After he left, Mrs. Armstrong and I visited a number of the people who had attended regularly. They had not come into the Church because of a few doctrinal differences. Mr. Oberg, as explained earlier, had done nearly all the preaching after the first week. The meetings had become altogether Pentecostal—or, as some might have stated it, “inspirational.” These doctrinal differences had not been explained. I felt that I could explain them. As a result of nearly a week’s work with these people in their homes, a number of them did accept the truth. We thereupon accepted them into fellowship as members of the Church.
During these four or five days I rented a church building in the same general part of Salem, at 17th and Chemeketa, for Sabbath services, and Thursday night prayer meetings. After conference with the board, it was arranged for Mr. A. J. Ray to act as pastor of the new church at Salem. The members from the Jefferson area agreed to attend at Salem, and this formed a church of around 30 or 35 members.
The church there lasted only a few months. The new Pentecostal members apparently dropped out after a few weeks, and the older members around the Jefferson area went back to meeting in a country schoolhouse southwest of Jefferson.
The Start of the Present Work
As soon as arrangements were completed for starting the new church at Salem, I hurried on down to the Fisher farm to start the new campaign west of Eugene.
Mr. Oberg was starting his new meetings in Harrisburg on Sunday night, July 9. The Fishers and I decided to start the meetings at the Firbutte school the same night. I arrived at the Fisher farm, leaving my wife and children at our home in Salem, about July 5 or 6.
This was the small—actually infinitesimal—start of what was destined to grow to a major worldwide gospel Work reaching multiple millions of people every week.
But if small, it started with a burst of energy and inspiration. First, it started with intensive and earnest private prayer. To the rear of the Fisher farm home was a fair-sized hill. Running over this hilltop for exercise I discovered a rock about 14 inches high. It was in a secluded spot. It came to mind how Jesus had dismissed the multitudes, and gone up into a mountain “apart” to pray—alone with God. I dropped to my knees before this rock, which seemed just the right height to kneel before, and began praying earnestly for the success of the meetings. It became sort of a daily pilgrimage, during my stay at the Fishers’, to this, which became my “prayer rock.” I’m sure that I drank in much energy, spiritual strength and inspiration at that prayer rock.
Preparing for the meetings, I borrowed a typewriter. I think the Fishers arranged this for me through one of their relatives. With carbon paper, I typed out some 30 notices, announcing the meetings, and the topics of the sermons for the first week or 10 days.
There was no local newspaper in that localized school district. We could not have afforded to purchase advertising space to announce the meetings, had there been one. We could not afford to have handbills printed. But I took these typed notices, and part of the time walking, part of the time with Mr. Fisher driving me, and part of the time driving his car which he let me use, I visited all the homes for some five miles around—farther, toward the west—telling the people about the meetings, inviting them to attend, and leaving the typed announcements.
Then we anxiously awaited Sunday night. Would the people come?
Twenty-seven people filled 27 of the 35 seats that first night. I spoke on prophecy.
The second night attendance dropped to 19. But that night we had a bit of excitement. An event occurred that greatly stimulated interest.
Heckled—Put on the Spot
In this neighborhood, near the schoolhouse, lived an elderly “Bible scholar” with quite a reputation in the community. His name was Belshaw. He owned the most extensive theological library in the district—probably the only one. The neighbors regarded him as something of a Bible authority.
Mr. and Mrs. Fisher had warned me of one of his habits which was traditional in the neighborhood. In Eugene, adjoining the University of Oregon campus, is a theological seminary. Frequently, advanced students were sent to one of these country schoolhouses to hold a short series of meetings as part of their training. It was Mr. Belshaw’s custom to attend one of the first two meetings, and to put the speaker on the spot by heckling with a trick question.
It was Mr. Belshaw’s contention that these young men did not really have a thorough knowledge of the Bible. He was sure that he did. He was adept at asking questions the answer to which he was pretty sure the young preacher, or preacher-to-be, did not know. If he could tangle the speaker up and expose his ignorance, the neighbors would have a good laugh—and then fail to attend any further meetings.
“If Mr. Belshaw can trap you with a trick question, no one will attend your meetings after that,” warned Mr. Fisher. “He nearly always has a question these young men can’t answer. But if you can answer him, or turn the tables on him, the news will spread all over the neighborhood and the attendance will increase.”
Mr. Belshaw had not put in an appearance the first night. Apparently he had decided to first see whether I had a good crowd. But the second night, he was one of the 19 present.
He interrupted my sermon.
“Mr. Armstrong,” he called out, “May I ask you a question?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Belshaw,” I replied, “you may.”
“Have you been saved yet?”
Instantly I knew what his trap was. He expected me to say that I had been, of course. Then he would have asked me if I did not know what Jesus said in Matthew 24:13. So I immediately quoted this scripture to him.
“Jesus said, in Matthew 24:13, that he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And in the very next verse, Jesus also said that His gospel of the Kingdom—which is the rule of God—the keeping of His commandments—shall be preached in all the world as a witness. That is what I am doing here tonight. Why do you not obey the commandments, as Jesus said, Mr. Belshaw?”
I knew that Mr. Belshaw argued against the Ten Commandments.
“I would, if I could see any love in them,” he replied.
“Then you must be spiritually blind,” I said. “The Ten Commandments are merely the 10 points of the great law of love. The first four tell you how to love God; the last six how to love thy neighbor. The Bible says love is the fulfilling of the law. The commandments came from God, and God is love. He gave the commandments. Do you think God ever did anything that was not done in love?”
Mr. Belshaw had no answer. He was silenced for the night. But he was not through. He tried to trap me with the Scriptures three more times, in later meetings.
The news did spread.
Tuesday night 36 were in attendance—one having to stand through the service. Thursday night 35 came—every seat filled. Our highest attendance was 64—with 29 standing in the crowded little room. Attendance for the six weeks averaged 36—one more than seating capacity.
Heckled Again—and Again!
The final Sunday night, beginning the last week of the meetings, a young minister who also fought against God’s law came as a visitor. It was the custom to ask visiting ministers to lead in prayer—a custom from which I have long since learned to depart. I asked him to lead in prayer.
My sermon topic had been announced. He knew I was going to speak on the subject of God’s Sabbath. In his prayer this young preacher did his best to belittle me, discredit everything he thought I could say in my sermon, and give the impression I was not preaching the gospel.
“I thank Thee, O Lord,” he prayed in a strong voice, “that we have a Christ to worship, and not a day! Help us, O Lord, to preach Christ, and Him crucified—not about days and laws. Help us to be like the Apostle Paul, who said, ‘I am determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.’”
As he prayed, I realized he was trying to knock my sermon into some kind of a cocked hat before I could start preaching it—and that unless I had the right answer his prayer would cause many to be prejudiced, and to reject everything I would say. As he prayed, I prayed desperately, asking God to put the right answer in my mind. God did! Instantly I knew what to say.
This is another incident that has been mentioned before, on the air and in the Plain Truth—but it properly belongs at this point in the Autobiography. After his prayer I said to the audience: “I am glad to know that Mr. … (I don’t remember his name) says he is determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, for I, too, am of the same determination. I am going to preach Jesus Christ, and Him crucified tonight! But to do that, one must first know why Jesus Christ had to be crucified!
“I have just received a letter from my wife in Salem,” I continued. “She wrote me that our elder little son, Richard David, 5 years old, has just preached his first sermon. He, too, preached Christ crucified. He and another little boy were playing by the side of our house. The window was open, and my wife overheard the conversation. The other little boy had been using a lot of slang. Our Dicky was exasperated. He picked up two sticks, crossing the longer with the shorter one.
“‘Now you look here, Donald,’ said Dicky with flashing indignation. ‘Do you know what this is?’
“‘No,’ answered Donald.
“‘Well, this here is a cross. And they had to put Jesus Christ up on a cross, and drive nails through His hands and His feet, and nail Him to that cross so He would die, just because you have been saying gosh and darn and gee-whiz! Don’t you say those words any more!’
“And I wonder,” I continued, “if people realize that sin is the transgression of God’s law—and that Jesus Christ was crucified because you people have been transgressing His holy Sabbath! Don’t you profane what is holy to God any more! And now I propose to preach to you Christ crucified tonight—and why He was crucified!”
My young preacher guest, in white-hot anger, stomped out of the schoolhouse, to the accompaniment of the laughter of the audience, all of whom apparently delighted to see the tables turned on one who took a hostile advantage of a friendly invitation to lead in prayer.
He had merely provided me with the most effective possible introduction for my sermon.
Belshaw’s Last Stand
The elderly Mr. Belshaw tried twice more, during those meetings, to entrap me with the Scriptures. But each time, God through His Spirit put the correct answer in my mind, and the right scriptures with which to reply.
Much later, after the meetings had closed, and we were holding meetings three times a week at the next schoolhouse, four miles farther west—the Jeans school—he made one final attempt. He staked everything on this, his last stand.
He waited until after the close of my sermon. He accosted me in the rear of the schoolroom just as people were starting to leave.
“Mr. Armstrong,” he said in a loud voice, “May I ask you a question?”
This acted like an electric shock on everyone present. Mr. Belshaw’s question had stirred much excitement. The two or three who already had gone out the door rushed back in. All circled around Mr. Belshaw and me.
“Yes sir, Mr. Belshaw—you most certainly may try once again,” I responded, and by this time with a confident smile.
“Well, Mr. Armstrong, have I not heard you mention the scriptures stating that the Apostle Paul told the Gentile converts that he had not shunned to declare unto them the whole gospel—and that he had not held anything back that was profitable to them?”
“That is correct,” I smiled.
“And have you not also said that no nation ever kept the Sabbath, except the Israelites—that is, that these Gentiles had not been Sabbath keepers before Paul taught them?”
“That is also correct!”
“All right,” pursued Mr. Belshaw confidently. He was sure he had the best of me this time. “IF the Sabbath law is binding on us today, then it was binding on those Gentiles as soon as they became Christians. They were never Sabbath keepers prior to conversion. IF it is binding on us, then it was necessary for Paul to teach them to keep it. Now can you show me any scripture where the Apostle Paul ever taught or commanded the Gentiles to keep the Sabbath?” He felt he had delivered a telling blow—unanswerable, that would finally discredit me and what I preached once and for all! He was shocked at my answer.
“Yes sir, Mr. Belshaw!” I answered without any hesitation. “I certainly can! But before I do, I will now ask you a question: If I do show you where the Apostle Paul commanded the Gentile converts to keep the Sabbath, then that is irrefutable proof that you are commanded to keep it today. Now before I show you this command, I demand to know this: If I show where Paul commanded the Gentiles to keep the Sabbath, will you now give up your rebellion, and surrender to keep it also?”
He looked at me completely dumbfounded. He had been sure there was no command in the New Testament from Paul to Gentiles to keep the Sabbath. My answer caused him to back up, so startled, he almost fell over backward. It literally staggered him. Now he was not so sure of himself. I appeared very confident. He wasn’t sure whether I was bluffing. But he was afraid to take the chance.
“NO, I won’t!” he snapped, and angrily stomped out of the schoolhouse.
I do hasten to add, however, that aside from these four skirmishes where Mr. Belshaw, as was his custom with all preachers coming to the neighborhood, tried to trap me, he was most friendly toward me. He respected me. He refused to agree, but he did respect me. We had many friendly visits together. Mr. Fisher and I called on him three or four times, but, much as he liked to argue Scripture, he usually avoided the subject when we came around.
After he left I did show the rest of the people present where Paul did command the Gentiles to keep the Sabbath. My challenge to Mr. Belshaw was not a bluff.