This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of John Von Casper "Jack" Wyrtzen (CN 446, T4) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. Any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers have been omitted. Foreign terms are not commonly understood appear in italics. In very few cases words were too unclear to be distinguished. If the transcriber was not completely sure of having gotten what the speaker said, "[?]" was inserted. Grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. The transcribers have not attempted to phonetically replicate English dialects but have instead entered the standard English word the speaker was expressing. Readers should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and rule than written English.
Some portions of the interview that involving living persons have been removed from this transcript and from any copies made of the tape of this interview. The removals have been indicated in the text. This restriction will expire on December 31, 2030.
... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcript was made by Robert Shuster and Arnila Santoso and was completed in November, 2002
Collection 446, T3. Interview of John Von Casper "Jack"Wyrtzen by Robert Shuster, October 5, 1991.
WYRTZEN: ...Well, we weren't compromising with them at all...I mean...they didn't like us.
SHUSTER: Why did they say you were compromising with them?
WYRTZEN: Well, because we were working with the Free Church and they said they [the Free Church] were connected with the World Council. So I asked some of the leaders one day and they didn't seem to know much about the World Council of Churches. [both laugh] I mean, they...they were having a rough time keeping their heads above water in Hungary, they weren't concerned about the rest of the world.
SHUSTER: I was wondering too, when you went on...went onto the radio in the 30s and 40s Charles Fuller, particularly in the early 40s had got a lot of opposition to his radio broadcasts. That was one of the reasons, one of the factors that lead to the organization of the NAE [National Association of Evangelicals], the fact that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] had been saying, you know, "There can only be so much religious broadcasting and there is already these religious programs, so what's the need for your program?"
SHUSTER: Did you get anything like that? Did you ever suffer any opposition like that?
WYRTZEN: Yeah, yeah, there was a lot from the National Council of Churches, Northern Baptist (which is now American Baptist). And in fact, the Protestant Council in New York City under Dan Potter was the head of it back in those days, when we had our first big rally in Madison Square Garden, they wanted to cooperate.
SHUSTER: They wanted to, or....
WYRTZEN: They wanted to. So I said, "Look, announce it to all your churches, people are wanting to come." "Well, we want to be on the platform." "Well," I said, "you know, we've got the program all planned and no way could we do that." Now, I didn't throw it back in their face, but I remembered after we were talking about a Madison Square Garden rally, they're going to [radio station] WHN in New York City, and ask Mr. Petty, who up until this time, he didn't like us. He told me...one day, he said, "You know, what am I supposed to put on when you go off the air?" He said, "You got that preaching on judgement and hell," he said. "Who am I going to sell the next hour to?" [Shuster laughs] He said, "I think you have the idea that after you finish preaching everybody ought to get down on their knees and have a prayer meeting." I said, "Well, it wouldn't hurt." [Shuster laughs.] "Yeah, but, I've got to run a radio station." And he said, "You know, if I could think of a nice way of getting rid of you, I'd get rid of you." But he never did. So the Protestant Council went in because we wouldn't cooperate with them. (This is Norman Vincent Peale and [Harry Emerson] Fosdick and all this crowd, John Sutherland Bonnel.) And they asked him to put us off because we were not members of the Protestant Council of Churches of New York City. [pauses] So after they left the office, he called me. He said, "Do you know anything about the Protestant Council?" Well, he's an unconverted man, you know, and I said, "Well, yeah, I've heard of them, why?" And he said, "Well, they were in the office and they want me to put you off the air." [pauses] "Oh," I thought, "no." I said, "What did you tell them?" He said, "I told them to get the H [sic] out of this office. I would run this radio station and it was none of their G-D [sic] business." [Both laugh] I mean, those were the words he used. From there on out, he became my buddy. I mean, he didn't like it that any Protestant Council.... He'd never heard of them, and, "Who are they to come in and tell me to put you off?" [Laughs] That's funny. And Marty Glickman who got us on after we had our first Madison Square Garden rally and Gil Dodds was the world champion miler and Gil and I were on the platform, signing autographs and so on. And Marty Glickman, who was a...a big sports fan, he was at the rally. And he came up and put his arm around me and said "Wyrtzen, this...you preach one hell of a good sermon." [Both laugh] And all my friends around. I'm thinking, "What are they thinking?" I said, "Thanks, Marty."
SHUSTER: Did you get any other opposition from the Council? Or from the FCC to your radio...
WYRTZEN: More from the liberals [liberal Christians]. Because young people would come up here [to the Word of Life campground in upstate New York] and they're getting converted by the...you know, some weeks we'd have half of the campground getting converted. And they go back, and they weren't satisfied with liberalism. In fact, Walter Oliver, who was being groomed to become governor of New Jersey, he had on his...he had a rabbi, he had Norman Vincent Peale, he had a Roman Catholic bishop or cardinal or somebody (they play all the gods, the politicians do)...his granddaughter tuned in on the broadcasts and got him to come in one of our rallies. He walked in with a bunch of expensive cigars in his pocket, and when I gave the invitation, it was over at New Jersey in the Symphony Hall, about five thousand people there. And the only seats vacant were the front, and he came in late. Dumped the cigar in the theater on the way out...on the way in. When I gave the invitation, his little granddaughter said, "Grandpa, if you're ashamed to stand up for Jesus, I'll stand up with you." And he stood up. He got saved. You know, we tell everybody, "Hey, get into a good church." Well, he was with Norman Vincent Peale. And he went in and give his testimony to Peale, and Peale said, "Hey, we don't want any of that stuff around here." Well, then he was....
SHUSTER: What stuff did he mean, evangelism or...?
WYRTZEN: Yeah, yeah. And you know, Walter was speaking right up. Walter was then to lead the singing for all the Methodists in Jersey and Bishop [Garfield Bromley] Oxnam, who was one of their big leaders in those days. And Walter was to lead the singing, and he said, "Should I do it?" And I said, "Sure. I'll even help you pick the hymns out." He started in with, What can wash away my sins, nothing but the blood of Jesus. Well, Oxnam had already called that the "butcher shop religion" (anything about the blood). And then What a wonderful change in my life has been brought, and in between each verse he gave part of his testimony. And that was the last of that. They never invited him again. Then he was a thirty-second degree Mason. He said, "Should I get out?" And I said, "No, go and give your testimony." And he did, and that was the last of that.
SHUSTER: They kicked him out of the Masons?
WYRTZEN: Oh yeah, they didn't want...they said, "Hey, don't talk about Jesus Christ like this." I heard the other day about a Jewish fellow. They wanted him to join the Masons (this actually happened). He said, "I can't. I'm Jewish. You talk about..." "No, no, we don't talk about Jesus." So he joined the Masons. Then he got converted, and he got out. So I said, "Why did you get out?" "The same reason I got in." [Both laugh.] They wouldn't talk about Jesus. Well, two years later Walter Oliver joined our staff and traveled all over the country. He had a great, great testimony and became a tremendous soul-winner. And then he became our inn host and now he's home with the Lord.
SHUSTER: Besides the radio work, of course, you were one of the first people to go on television and preach. Is...is that correct?
SHUSTER: How did that come about?
WYRTZEN: How did you learn all these things? [laughs] You did your homework.
SHUSTER: I think...actually I...I had thought that Percy Crawford was the first person to go on the air in November of '49 as an Evangelical or evangelist. But I discovered that you were on the air in April of '49.
WYRTZEN: Yeah. In fact, I think it was in early '48, actually. I met a fellow who was running Channel 13 in New York City. And everything was in...it was in black and white, it was all being experimented with.
SHUSTER: Do you recall his name?
WYRTZEN: No, I might think...but I...I don't recall now. He was the manager. And so he invited us to come in to his Sunday night program. And a friend of my who was an artist, he became the director of it. Everything was very much at an experimental stage. And we set up a living room scene. We had young people sit around the floor and the quartet would sing and I'd preach and so on. Then....
SHUSTER: Why do you think he invited you? Just to see how people would react, do you think?
WYRTZEN: Yeah. Yeah, it was at ten o'clock Sunday night. It was like it was coming from a home. A lot of people thought it was. Then he invited us to...oh, then we were going to (that's why I know it was '48) we were going to the Yankee Stadium, and he tried to work it out so we could broadcast live television, live from Yankee Stadium. But I think it got to be costly, so costly that we didn't do that. But then a little bit later he started in, maybe early in '49, he wanted us to do it live, and we did do it live television from the Tabernacle in Times Square, along with the radio. And I remember we had to bring in all kinds of electricians to get lights in and all that. Then we went on ABC about the time Crawford did, I think. Then we fooled around with Channel 11 in New York City for a little while. But it was so expensive and ABC wouldn't let you even mention money on the air. They do today, but they wouldn't then. So [pauses] I guess they wouldn't even yet, I don't think any of the networks will, on the TV. But what we did then, same thing that Billy and Crawford did. We'd buy independent tape and send it to them, which we still do. Then Crawford came along and he had a very powerful program called Youth on the March, I think. Very, very good.
SHUSTER: We have, I guess, three or four dozen of those...of his programs...
WYRTZEN: That's great.
SHUSTER: ...on tape in the archives [in Collection 357]. Was the format of those programs on ABC the same as the early ones, in audio...sitting in the living room?
WYRTZEN: Yeah, in fact the same fellow that directed Percy's directed ours, Shorty Yeaworth...ShortyYeaworth. Yeah, we had more sets and so on built. Yeah, it was a quartet, testimony, message, pretty much the same as on the radio.
SHUSTER: And that was on every week?
SHUSTER: For how long?
WYRTZEN: Saturday nights. Oh, Crawford was on longer than us. We just ran out of funds and couldn't do it. Then we decided to do some specials. We did the Passion Play [about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ], and we put that on nationwide, buying time on independent, or individual stations. And then we did Let Freedom Ring in '76, and that went nationwide. Now, every year, free of charge, we get on fifty or sixty stations because these programs were that good. But it costs a mint of money to make a TV special. You know, we went to Fort Ticonderoga to do Let Freedom Ring. We built huge sets to do the Passion Play, and horses and animals, and that was expensive. But it's still going. We have it on video.
SHUSTER: What kind of impact did those early television programs have?
WYRTZEN: A lot of souls. I meet people all the time that were saved from listening to them.
SHUSTER: Did it seem a larger audience than radio, or a different audience in any way?
WYRTZEN: Yeah, for one thing, you can have a radio on and be walking around the house. With the television you can't do that. You had to stop, sit, listen, and look. And when you say "It's for you He died, for you." and they got the message when you're pointing right at them, more so than.... Yeah, I think television is very, very, very effective. Unfortunately there have been so many upheavals. And I think...I think that Billy Graham has used it very, very wisely, and.... Low-key on the finances and straight gospel. I'm glad somebody's still in there. [Portion of interview omitted.]
SHUSTER: Well, if you heard some...on a radio or the television some preacher you hadn't heard before, what would the marks of a phony be?
WYRTZEN: Well, ever since I have been saved, I have been reading the Bible and I think that's the rule book. And you see them...seeing them saying things that are so foreign. You know, like Jim Dobson just said in his latest letter, he said, "When I met this lady who had been so tortured by the communists," and he said, "I never met a more wonderful, Bible-loving, devout Christian. Then I told her about these fellows that promise you health and wealth, well, what about this poor girl. Why didn't she get the wealth? Why didn't she get the health? They've ruined her body." And I have seen so much of this all over the world where people have suffered terribly. And some of the most godly people I know. Even here in America, look at Joni Eareckson [Tada], who is a very dear friend of ours. She would like to leap out of that [wheel] chair, but...she will at the Rapture [the second coming of Christ]. And so you measure and say, "Hey, this is fanaticism." You know, you read [in 2 Timothy 4:20] "Trophimus, whom I left at Miletus sick." Well, why didn't Paul heal him? Epaphroditus was sick nigh unto death. And then Epaphroditus was upset in the book of Philippians because the people back at Colossae had heard that he was sick. You know, we get sick and we are sick at heart because everyone doesn't know about it. He didn't even want them to be praying for him, but they had other ways. So again, there is much thought for the body and less thought for the soul and that bothers me.
SHUSTER: That's called the "Gospel of Prosperity"?
WYRTZEN: Yeah, uh-huh. And there's some...Dave Hunt has written some good books, Beyond Seduction. And another one.... I forgot the first name, but the big fellow. And then Moody [Press] came with out with a very good book last year, exposing all these people. Do you remember the name of that book?
SHUSTER: You don't mean the one on cults. The one on televison evangelists?
WYRTZEN: Yeah and all the phonies across the country.
SHUSTER: There was an article just in Christianity Today, I think the current issue, about televangelism books.
WYRTZEN: Yeah, they ran a full page on this book that Moody put out, which was excellent.
SHUSTER: From what I have been reading about your ministry and talking with other people, there have been a number of organizations that come up that you have been involved with one way or another or they influenced you or you influenced them. And I would just like to ask you about some of them and ask your history of involvement with them and the part they played in your work or you've played in their work
SHUSTER: You've already mentioned the Pocket Testament League and you said they had a tremendous influence on you. What was that influence?
WYRTZEN: When we were first starting, they had a fellow by the name of Carlton E. Null. And Carlton Null was with the Pocket Testament League and we heard him a couple of times in New York and we had him out to our house and had him speak to our group, A great, great soul winner. And he taught us how to take the gospel of John and lead a person to Christ. So the first thing I know, we are ordering the gospel of...buying them by the hundreds and by the thousands. And...and we used them in all of our meetings. Well, it got so that we were using more than the rest of the Pocket Testament League put together. And I was on the board and they suggested, "Hey, look, why don't you form a separate organization?" And they had on their heading [letterhead], "Holding Forth the Word of Life", on the Pocket Testament League.... So I said, "Maybe that is a good idea." So that is when we called ourselves Word of Life. But we didn't get officially recognized until 1942, I think, in the state of New York.
SHUSTER: When you officially incorporated.
WYRTZEN: Yeah. Because when we started out, we didn't think we would be going anyplace further than the streets and jails and you didn't need a corporation for that. That was sure. And we were paying all our own way. Then we got into radio and James E. Bennett was our vice president. He was a New York lawyer. He said, "You know, we have got to get this thing organized." So he helped us with the organizing...the organization papers. Harry Bollback dug up the originals and he said, "You know, we're doing everything we said in the original papers." [laughs]
SHUSTER: Now, you mentioned with Youth for Christ the danger of being organized, that it might kill the spirit.
WYRTZEN: Well, you know we are all over the world on six continents in all these countries. But every country is autonomous. And we have a thousand Bible clubs, but they are all independent clubs across the country, all tied into local churches. I think there's...an organization can get over-organized. We've tried to keep Word of Life as a fellowship, as a family. It is Word of Life Fellowship. And we keep it as a family. So consequently, all over the world we have the same standards of conduct, we have the same doctrinal statements. And we're not ruling one another from this club, anyway.
SHUSTER: So its very decentralized.
WYRTZEN: Yeah. Uh-huh. You know, it is the same way in camping. Every once in a while you go through this. Now when Percy Crawford started his camp, (Pinebrook), it was all centralized. He didn't have any counselors at all, that I recall. But he had great, great men of God preach. And we used to go hear them. Well, then when we started up, we thought there was more of a need for a decentralized as well as centralized, so we started counsel...counseling. And we still have counselors. We take a group from Moody and from Philadelphia College of the Bible and so on. And then they would get college credit for doing the work with us in the summer time. Well, no matter....
SHUSTER: So, your counselors would work with small groups of people, small groups of kids.
WYRTZEN: Yes. We run one counselor to every five campers. Now, no matter how well you select your counselors, they may come on fire for God in June, but they may get a Dear John letter [a break-up letter from a girlfriend or boy friend] first part of August and they are not worth their salt the rest of the summer. Now we cannot sit in every cabin, our leaders, and know what is going on. But if you keep your pulpit red hot, which is centralized, we soon get word that, "Hey, that counselor is not going along with what the pulpit's preaching," so if you keep that red hot, you have a...you hear it, you know. And with good counselors, if something is wrong in the pulpit, they sure let you know. And there was a swing away from centralized camping into decentralized. And...but we never got into that. And we still...I think now most of the camps are back in the boat.
SHUSTER: Uh-huh. Are there other ways that Pocket Testament was important in your ministry, besides helping you get started initially?
WYRTZEN: Yeah, they just got.... And then during the war years [probably means just after World War II] we traveled with Pocket Testament League all over Japan with Glen Wagner and Gil Dodds and Sam Beaker and those fell...Don Robins...Robinson. And then we....
SHUSTER: You say you traveled with them. You mean they sponsored your evangelism...
WYRTZEN: Oh, no. We just worked together. We' e all one big evangelistic team. You know, its very interesting.... You know, people say, "Where will Word of Life be fifty years from now?" Well, when we started out, I did all the preaching -- Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, Yankee Stadium. I did all of the preaching . Well, last year we had what we called Superbowls during the month of November. And we had a lot of young people attend those. I'd say that, yeah.... Last year we had Superbowls in the states of Washington to Florida and from Maine to California. Thirty-one thousand one hundred and forty-seven teenagers attended. Two thousand seven hundred and seventy-six of them accepted Christ. This year in the month of November, '91, we are expecting thirty-seven thousand, they're expecting thirty-five hundred [conversions]. I am not preaching at any of those Superbowls. But of course our leadership is spread out. We have hundreds now of wonderful young evangelists. Many of them can preach the stars around me, I am sure of that. And so [pauses] it spread...the leadership, so it doesn't make any difference.... Like, I will be preaching tomorrow at our Fall Foliage Festival, Harry and George and Joe.... Joe is over in Europe, the other guys are on the road. So one of us is here. But we have been able to spread out leadership so I don't think we will lose...if I drop dead tomorrow, I don't think we'll lose an inch. They're just going to need a founding director [Shuster laughs]. But I think that has been a great thing, to see how Word of Life has spread all over the world. I mean, I haven't even been to Russia since '62 and yet our teams have been going back and forth. I have been in Hungary several times. [Portion of interview omitted.]
END OF TAPE