This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Armin Richard Gesswein (CN 517, T1) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words have been omitted, except for any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers. Foreign terms which 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 after the word or phrase in question. If the speech was inaudible or indistinguishable, "[unclear]" 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.
... 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 Kirk Hayward and Wayne D. Weber and was completed in May 2007.
Collection 517, T1. Interview of Armin Richard Gesswein by Robert D. Shuster, April 19, 1995.
GESSWEIN: ...”Only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16] [loud beep]
SHUSTER: And ah...which microphone is this...that one [pauses] and you were saying a little bit earlier about...about Luke and its first few chapters, especially the first few verses in Luke, is that...is there a verse in the Bible you’d say is your favorite? Or is that....
GESSWEIN: Well, I have a lot of verses. Jeremiah 33:3 was my first life verse when I began the ministry on Long Island, New York. “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.”
SHUSTER: This is an interview with Reverend Armin Gesswein...Gesswein, by Robert Shuster, for the Archives of the Billy Graham Center, it took place on April 19, 1995, at 10:00am, in Reverend Gesswein’s home, in San Juan Capistrano, in California. Reverend Gesswein, when...when and where were you born?
GESSWEIN: If I can remember it, you mean? [laughs]
SHUSTER: [laughs] Well, I don’t know if you remember being born.
GESSWEIN: [unclear] My name is Armin A-R-M-I-N Armin Gesswein, I tell people don’t think just “gess” and add “wein” Gesswein. I was born, yeah...did you say when and where?
SHUSTER: When and where, yeah.
GESSWEIN: I was born in the little town of Corning, Missouri, up just south of Lincoln, Nebraska, in that area, and back in November 28, 1907. That was on Thanksgiving Day, I was born on Thanksgiving Day. My father had to deliver me. Can you imagine that?
GESSWEIN: And he was nervous about that....
SHUSTER: Was he a doctor?
GESSWEIN: No, my father was a Lutheran Minister, and my mother, who told my sisters about this that, of course, we were high church Lutherans, and he always prayed out of a book. But mother said you should have heard him pray without the book when he had to delivered me.
GESSWEIN: Born on Thanksgiving Day, and so I always thought about that, I guess I was born for thanksgiving, and I do thank the Lord for his great grace.
SHUSTER: What are your parents names?
GESSWEIN: Well, my father’s name was Theodore [pauses] Gesswein, and my mother’s name was Lydia.
SHUSTER: What was her maiden name?
GESSWEIN: Hilgendorf. She was from the Milwaukee area, a lot of Hilgendorfs around there, still. H-I-L-G-E-N-D-O-R-F, Hilgendorf.
SHUSTER: Now, you mentioned your sisters, how many brothers or sisters did you have?
GESSWEIN: Well there were five of us children, my older sister, and then me, two sisters, and two brothers, five of us living, one had passed away when we were in Philadelphia, she was a girl, she was the one born right after me.
SHUSTER: What...what are your brothers and sisters names?
GESSWEIN: My sister, the older sister’s name is Ada, A-D-A. And the youngest one of the family, she lives in Seattle, her name is Myrta, M-Y-R-T-A. And she had six children, and what a story with her. Two brothers living, my brother...my brother Herb passed away, Herbert, and my brother Paul is living, he’s in a rest home, he has Parkinson’s disease, but he was a missionary, and opened up a field in Dutch New Guinea that had never even seen a white man, and today has become one of the glamor pages, really, of missions. Back in the....he was with the Regions Beyond Missionary Union.
SHUSTER: And your sister who passed away in Philadelphia?
GESSWEIN: That was way back. She was only four, four and a half years of age, developed pneumonia, which would be nothing today, lovely girl.
SHUSTER: What was her name?
GESSWEIN: Ilma, I-L-M-A. She too was born in Missouri, she and I were the only two born there, in Corning, Missouri. She was the one after me. I was very small when she died, and I realized her death, and yet I didn’t. I cried, and I didn’t know...know the kid....but her life influenced me a lot, she, was a special little girl.
SHUSTER: How did she influence you?
GESSWEIN: I don’t know, she seemed to be so different, so real and so different, so kind of in this world, and yet not of it. And when she died, I thought...I just cried for a week, and thought she should come back, but she never did. You know, as a boy, you think about things, but she influ...got my life started in a way, thinking of God, and the Pure and Right, and Holy things, got going in me, somewhat through Ilma’s death. I can’t say how much, because we were raised...Father was a minister, my mother, were Godly people. So we had a strong Biblical upbringing in our branch of the Lutheran Church.
SHUSTER: Were you a close family?
GESSWEIN: Close? Oh, yes, very close. Always have been.
SHUSTER: How would you describe your father?
GESSWEIN: My father was the oldest of five brothers, and he became the minister. They had in the old German Lutheran days, they had a kind of a saying that the oldest son should become a pastor.
SHUSTER: Was he American born?
GESSWEIN: Yes, he was. His father, that is, my grandfather, was born in Germany, Neustadt an der Aisch not too far from Nuremberg. Came over as a student, with his brother. The one, to become a minister, that was my grandfather, the other, his brother, to become a schoolteacher in the Synod, which he did. He outlived my grandfather far many years, and I met him in St. Louis, lovely man, but I never got to know my grandfather, he died earlier. Now, my father was born here, and all the children, everybody, here.
SHUSTER: So how would you describe your father? What kind of words come to mind when you think....
GESSWEIN: Well, Dad was a...was a man of quite a...much distinction, I would say he was a man of great ability, and he died too soon, as far as I’m concerned. He had a coronary, and he was about 58. Now, they would have done more for that today. And I’d just got to know him really well, I mean, in an intimate way, when...we were really close when he soon passed away then, in 1940, way back in 1940. He was a....I don’t know, the preaching part was not the most powerful part with Dad, I often wondered wether he had the full call of the Spirit to preach, I’m not sure. But he, of course, he could preach quite well, but he didn’t have that same drive in preaching that he had in some other things, but he was a good pastor, and he had many parishes, Missouri; Philadelphia; northwest Pennsylvania; Rome, New York; LaPorte, Indiana, where he then passed away. He had literary gifts, of quite some distinction, and had he been trained more, he would have been a good writer. He was...he had a very...a lot of punch in his pen, a lot of color too. He was very gifted as a writer, he was a very gifted man.
SHUSTER: What kinds of things did he write?
GESSWEIN: Oh, he wrote essays, and things like that, and...and for the newspaper, he’d write things, and he started to write more when...more at length when he...his life came to a close.
SHUSTER: You said that he had more power in other things than preaching, what were the other things?
GESSWEIN: Well, I don’t know how to say that. He was a [pauses] he was a man of many parts, he had also been an athlete, and he was a great conversationalist, he was tremendous at that with people. And he led Bible studies. He was a good Bible study teacher. Really fresh and refreshing. Not stale, not archaic, he had a freshness about him but he was strong for the Word of God, Bible being the Word of the Living God. We were all trained that way, and we were very thankful for that training, that basic training, in our branch of the Lutheran church. We never had any doubts instilled into us in our seminary training about the Bible being the Word of God. I’ve often say that’s one big thing I got through my Lutheran training, I didn’t get through them everything that’s in the Bible, by any means, but I got the Bible without doubt about what is in there, and that’s a great help, tremendous. Dad was a...Dad was strong in the Word of God, and he led fellowship with other Christians and many ministries in a day when that was not the thing done in our Synod. You could be really put on the carpet, and look for your [pauses] your resignation, almost, if you mingled with others widely, in those days. Now, it’s changed.
SHUSTER: How did...how did he seek fellowship with other Christians?
GESSWEIN: Oh, well, he would consort with them, and the little towns where we were, sometimes, like in Pennsylvania, he had two country parishes when I grew up as a boy, near Mahaffey or near Punxsutawney, where the groundhog sees or does not see his shadow. And one time, he was walking down the street of Sykesville and the...one of the men of the...one of the churches (that Dad had told me this years later) that the board of that one congregation was almost going to wait on my dad, because he had even conversed with a Catholic priest, walking down the street in Sykesville, Pennsylvania. Now that’s...that’s a strong...probably overdone, but that was a true...true statement, just the same. I mean, the attitude was very strict in the separatism, and not mingle with others. My dad was beyond that. He was never happy with that. He felt that we should mix, whether we agree with them thoroughly or not, we should mingle with them. I used to hear him come home as a boy, I didn’t ever thought of being a preacher, you know, myself, at that time, but I heard a lot of things. When he’d go to a local ministerial association meeting, which was not done by men in the Synod, which they called that “Unionism.” Well, Dad would come home, and I’d hear him say, “Why should I stay away from this group? I have a chance to mingle and influence these men, and I don’t change my position. I don’t...I’m able to help them, I can’t help them if I don’t get in with them, and they help me too by my listening to them.” So he began...he was working...even my grandfather worked on that. This straight-jacket thing where you can’t mingle with others, you’re compromising your faith if you do, well, you don’t do everything for fellowship, you only have fellowship anyhow with those that are in the Father and in the Son, Jesus Christ, but you don’t do everything for fellowship. Billy Graham battled this through too. You do it for ministry, not just fellowship all the time. You...you can’t fellowship with anybody you’re not in fellowship with anyhow. So what’s the big deal on that? You know, I had to wrestle through that for years [laughs] plenty of struggle. You know, you want to be conscientious, you don’t want to be a heretic, you don’t want to deny the truth, you’ve got to face it, and honor the Lord in it, and not compromise either with the Word of the Living God. So that’s the thing we all had to battle through in our branch of the church. Billy Graham went through that struggle in his own way too, and I understood his struggle very, very much. I had been through it, you see, I’m about eleven years older than Billy, so [laughs] in some ways....
SHUSTER: He was born in 1918, so....
GESSWEIN: Yeah. He was born in November, also.
SHUSTER: What kind of...how would you describe your dad as a father? What kind of father?
GESSWEIN: Wonderful dad. We were, you know, he was...he had so many struggles in the church, because of so many things that the boards were...they would wrestle, they would...it bothered me as a boy. They would fight for their doctrines, and lay down their lives for their doctrines, but they’d fight each other all the time, and that bothered me as a boy. “What is this?” I used to say to myself. I didn’t know how to speak up about it, but I thought about it. And later I learned those distinctions. But Dad went through those struggles, and I don’t think he had a complete way of victoriously going through all of it at the time, with whatever light he was struggling through to live through with an honor in it all. I mean, it’s a big deal, like the struggle between light and darkness, almost. Which wins?
SHUSTER: Were you able to spend much time with him?
GESSWEIN: Oh, yes. Increasingly. Yeah, we...he traveled with me, and he loved what I was doing. See, when I widened my fellowship early, very early...
SHUSTER: I don’t mean as a boy, as a child...as a child growing up.
GESSWEIN: Oh, as a child. Yeah, in Philadelphia, yeah, Dad would take me arm in arm. I...I remember going one place, we...we were walking together, and we saw horses pulling a streetcar, and I still remember that.
GESSWEIN: Now that must have been in Brooklyn someplace.
SHUSTER: Oh, that was in New York?
GESSWEIN: That was probably Brooklyn. I don’t know where they still had some. But you see, I’m ancient, so [laughs] it was pretty far back. Dad, you know, we used to have a lot of time together.
SHUSTER: Do you see any characteristics of his personality in yourself?
GESSWEIN: Oh, I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that. Yeah, I suppose we all have some. My mother also, wonderful mother, Godly mother, my mother was no speechmaker, but all the parishes that my father had, they loved my mother, and....
SHUSTER: What did they love about her?
GESSWEIN: Just her gentle, gracious, good, solid way she was strong for the Lord. But she was not a speech-making type person. She...she could do things with her hands in the kitchen, and help all kinds of ways like that, but just her way of being with people, they liked to be with her, and she had a wonderful influence, something, I would say, like Billy Graham’s mother did for him. I met her in Lausanne, Switzerland. Talked with here there.
SHUSTER: Graham’s mother?
GESSWEIN: Yes, Billy’s mother. Marvelous person, in more ways than one. If Billy didn’t have that mother, he wouldn’t be here, [laughs] you know.
SHUSTER: How do you think your mother influenced you?
GESSWEIN: Her...her lovely true life, I mean, she wasn’t eloquent, she didn’t quote a lot of scripture, she was always humble, and loved to hear the word of God, and never once fought against any one thing that she heard was the Word of God, even though it was beyond what she had known in her upbringing. She was...I don’t know, when I began to preach more widely, and all over the place, she was always there, and she never once opposed anything I ever did that was for God, never, never. My dad didn’t either, you know, when I widened into my fellowship, my dad had to watch me sideways two years, to see if I was a heretic.
GESSWEIN: When he...he concluded (I heard this through others after a while) he told others “Armin is not a heretic because God’s doing things for Armin in answer to prayer that I don’t know about.” [laughs] All in all, I was a period. [sic] Let’s....Mother...they were...they never opposed anything that I did, which was out and out for the Lord, even...even if it was way out of reach of what they had known, and their history, or experience, and so on. I mean, I never tried to be...do anything fanatical, I tried to follow Scripture thoroughly, do what I was brought up to do. The Bible is the Word of God, it’s truly biblical, it’s truly Lutheran, if I can find it in the Word of God, plain Scripture, and plenty of it, then it’s for me. It was just that simple.
SHUSTER: Now, you were the oldest boy in the family, is that right?
GESSWEIN: I’m the oldest of the boys, right.
SHUSTER: Second oldest child?
GESSWEIN: Second oldest child.
SHUSTER: What kind of things did your family do together?
GESSWEIN: [coughs] Well, [clears throat] you know when we grew up, like in Pennsylvania, we...our little town, we did everything. We did everything from...everything. Plant gardens, do the plates, do the chores, do things together. Each had his job, his chores to do. You know, we were togetherness personified, we had to do it.
SHUSTER: Why did you have to do it?
GESSWEIN: Well, we were just thrown together to live that way. We just didn’t have all the refineries and the niceties that we have today, we were poor. So the poor people get thrown together quickly.
SHUSTER: And of course you were a preacher’s kid.
SHUSTER: What was that like?
GESSWEIN: Yeah, I rebelled at that as a kid, I thought “my goodness, here I am in Pennsylvania, now my dad has not one but two churches, mind you, two of them. I better fix up....”
SHUSTER: He had a circuit?
SHUSTER: Did he go back and forth?
GESSWEIN: Yeah. In the wintertime, he’d take one at a time. One was five miles away from the little town, the other was two and a half miles the other side. In the wintertime, and the winters were tough in those days, I don’t know, back in there, they didn’t seem to have the same tough winters they used to have. And I’d go with Dad to....You know, we...we just...everybody was poor, we...everybody had...everybody other’s...everybody else’s possessions memorized because they were so few. And we were thrown together and....family that prays together and plays together stays together.
SHUSTER: How did you pray together?
GESSWEIN: Well, now, in our branch of the Lutheran church, we didn’t have prayer meetings.
SHUSTER: I mean as a family.
GESSWEIN: Yeah. But we had daily devotions, and Dad would read from this long page every evening, I wanted to get out and play ball with the kids in the sandlot. But, yet God used that, and....
SHUSTER: How did you play together?
GESSWEIN: I was a...well, we had...we played everything that was playable. Marbles in their season, baseball, sled season, everything had a season.
SHUSTER: So the family would all do these things together?
GESSWEIN: Well, not together always, no, but sometimes, when you’d do it, you’re living in a close little town, where you’re together, wether you’re always together on it or not, you...you’re together. But I did rebel about this church thing because I thought here my dad has two churches, and I have to fix up for two of them every Sunday, and my kids around here that I play with that don’t have to go to any, [clears throat] I thought that’s too much. And you know I get into the black...dark... darkness on God there, through that period that I can’t take time for now, and I almost had the feelings of an atheist, “Who cares?”
SHUSTER: About how old were you then?
GESSWEIN: I was just about, oh, six, seven, in there, eight, yeah. But then I began to think it over, and I lay on my back there one summer, looking up in the stars there in Pennsylvania, I said “This is beautiful country, there is a God, he made all this beautiful Pennsylvania. And that’s why there are churches, and that’s why your dad’s a minister, and they’re right, and you’re wrong.” And I began to get some help. I wasn’t a Christian, I didn’t know what it was to be born again yet, but I had a whole new opening on there is a Living God, who’s the Creator.
SHUSTER: Divine inspiration?
GESSWEIN: Yes, opening...sort of the beginning of God working in me. In a new way, certainly.
SHUSTER: What was important to you as a boy, growing up? What were the main...
SHUSTER: ... main things in your life?
GESSWEIN: Loved to...well, I loved to play, and I played...got into baseball, didn’t even have a hardball, we were poor, as I said, so the kids would get together and get a nickel at the end of the week, and I’d go across to the...the store, where you got everything, buy a ball of twine for a nickel, and wrap that around some piece of an inner tube, and make that as our ball, and sew it with a darning needle, and that thing had to last us for a week. In my little school, which was by where roads came together, four stones [?]. And there was a church on the one side, on the corner was the school, and the other, and so there were barns down there, and oh, I love baseball, love ball, so I’d...I’d do my chores, I had a lot of chores to do, and I’d ask my mother, “Can I do these early, so I can go to school early and play ball?” And if I got my chores done, they let me go, and I went to school early just so I could be the first one to get to the bat.
GESSWEIN: And we had a game called “Scrub.” That is, you’d “Scrub one, scrub two, scrub three,” that means you’d...whoever...that would be your position in the bat, at the bat. So one day I went up there and I said “Scrub one for all year.” [Shuster laughs] And the guys picked up on that, “Scrub two, scrub three.” You know what, I was the first batter for all year. With that ball, you ought to have seen the...the strings on that ball, by the end of the week, and I love baseball, I didn’t even see a hardball for a long time. So later on, I pursued baseball. That’s the one game I sought to achieve in. The others I’d play at, and....
SHUSTER: What did you love about baseball?
GESSWEIN: I don’t know, I just liked it...liked it. My dad was a ball player.
SHUSTER: Baseball player?
GESSWEIN: Yeah. His brothers....at Concordia College, Dad was on the ball team, I don’t think, no, he didn’t make the seminary team in St. Louis. That’s university brand baseball, and of course, I made that team, and played there three years. And had to try out with the Cardinals the second year, because I had a real good year.
SHUSTER: The St. Louis Cardinals?
GESSWEIN: Uh huh.
SHUSTER: Did you have heroes? Baseball...professional baseball players who were your heroes?
GESSWEIN: Oh, yeah. Babe Ruth, of course. [laughs] In Bronxville, New York, I was thirteen when I left the little town in Pennsylvania, and went to Bronxville Concordia Collegiate Institute. Thirteen years of age. At age fourteen, I was the pitcher for the high school team there, and I went down to the Polo Grounds one day to see Babe Ruth hit the ball, and I said, “Wow, can you hit a ball like that! I mean...” And I never got over it. And he was, of course, everybody’s hero in that day, as far as heros go, and the others, a lot of great players through the years. But I suppose because I was a boy, and you...you intend to be more hero-worshiping then, Babe Ruth always stood way out, head and shoulders above all others, although he...he played in the same Yankee team with other famous men, like the great first baseman Lou Gehrig, who had this sad thing later on, [a fatal neuromuscular disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehring’s disease], and Gehrig was equally strong as Babe Ruth, but Babe Ruth was built...he had a big upper torso, and he had a long bat, and a strong bat, and he would just slither through the home plate with that bat, slide through it with a graceful sling, but there was power in that swing, and that ball took off. I mean it would rise, and go up over, or he’d get a blooper type, which he didn’t get all the bat on, and still become a home run. He had enough bat on the ball. And even the sky, an infield fly, I’ve seen him hit an infield fly so high that the second baseman had to scramble, and very...watch very carefully, that he could catch the thing coming down.
SHUSTER: Did you see him play often?
GESSWEIN: A number of times. And then, of course, years later, I heard him on the radio.
SHUSTER: The radio?
GESSWEIN: He liked kids, and he had a Saturday morning radio broadcast. But his voice was getting very husky, and then later, we heard he had cancer, and I guess it was throat cancer that finally took him. Great big man. One day...there’s a picture of him, a famous picture of him standing with Miller Huggins, was his manager, and he had Miller Huggins under his arm, stretching out his arm, and he was that much taller. He wasn’t super-tall, but he must have been quite tall, and his body was big, his upper torso, really strong. His legs were not that...all that great, but his upper part....
SHUSTER: Yeah, people usually described him as being big chested, big above the waist, and kind of tiny little legs below the waist.
GESSWEIN: How did ever did it, because you didn’t train like they do now, I mean, in the wintertime, they go to the gym. [laughs] Babe Ruth ate hot dogs. He could eat a whole bunch of them at one time. How he did all that, I don’t know, well, anyhow, he was the big one then.
SHUSTER: You talked about baseball, and games; what...were there other things that were important to you as a boy?
GESSWEIN: Well, ministry was not one of them.
GESSWEIN: I left the little town in Pennsylvania to go to Bronxville, New York, and I agreed to go there because they wanted me to get a good education.
SHUSTER: Your parents did?
GESSWEIN: Yeah, my parents did. My...I wanted no part in the ministry.
SHUSTER: Why was that?
GESSWEIN: I don’t know. I just said “That’s not for me.”
SHUSTER: Was there something...
GESSWEIN: So they had another course, they had a ministerial course, and they had a science course, and I took the science course. I didn’t know what science meant, but to me, it meant it’s as far away from the ministry, of course, as you can get, and I want it.
SHUSTER: Was there something you didn’t like about the ministry, or something that...
GESSWEIN: Well, [clears throat] I had seen the struggles my dad went through, for one thing, another thing, that I never could conduct a funeral and all those things, no, no. You know, in my mind. But at the school there, the second year at Bronxville, we had...most of them were studying, already, for the ministry.
SHUSTER: And about how old were you at this time?
GESSWEIN: I was thirteen, fourteen. And I took...there was one class period vacant, second one in the morning, for New Testament...for beginner’s Greek. And the kids said “Come on, take it, won’t cost you anything, you can always back out.” So I went and took that class with them, and I liked it. I sat toward the front, and the prof never brought a book to school all year, he was that skilled in it, and he was a drill master, a skilled master at that. I ate the thing out of his hand, and I went through the Greek, and that year, at graduation time, I got a prize.
SHUSTER: What was your prize?
GESSWEIN: Out at the Odeon [?] Hall, New York, where the whole student body was on the platform, and I was still in knee britches, and I was so embarrassed, I had to come out and get this prize for that Greek. But the point I want to...should make, later, God knew I needed that Greek., see, because when I went through the different schools, and graduated later from Concordia College, Milwaukee, still wanted no part in the ministry, but I’d had Greek, Greek, Greek, those years, and later I would need that in the seminary, and for the ministry, in our system.
SHUSTER: You talked about how much you enjoyed Greek. Was school important to you?
GESSWEIN: Well, [pauses] yeah, I...you know your mind was clear, and rather sharp, and I could memorize a lot of stuff, though I didn’t grasp it. I was the youngest one in the class. Most of the time, we had these heavy subjects.
SHUSTER: Such as?
GESSWEIN: A lot of languages and history, and [clears throat] and all the big...Hebrew, or, no, no, take Classical Greek, I mean I never grasped that stuff, but I got through it. My mind wasn’t mature enough to grasp it, but my mind was supple enough and my powers of memory were great enough so I could memorize a lot of stuff, and get through. We had to do a lot of translating, and that sort of thing, but I didn’t have a grasp on that...[unclear] and things like that. Plato, Sophocles, who cares? I mean, I wasn’t in on that stuff yet. Now, of course, I would like...I’d go back...I’ve gone back over a lot of it, through the years. But I went through, it was the thing to do...it was the thing to do.
SHUSTER: Did you like it? Did you enjoy it as a whole?
GESSWEIN: I enjoyed it because of the guys and the kids that were together, and I enjoyed the whole system, because I was religious, I was religious before I became a Christian, I sought God, and that became very important to me, and at the age of fifteen, in New York, in Rome, New York, I suddenly had a real terrible conviction of sin, and I didn’t even know what it was.
SHUSTER: How did that come about?
GESSWEIN: I don’t know. Well, used the background, used the training, used the catechism, used the Law of Moses, used the Commandments, used the things that were laid in my system. I’d been confirmed, and...and was a member of the church, but I...well, I didn’t know how in the world I could ever meet a Holy God, because I wasn’t holy, and I knew I was a sinner, and that I was.... Had planned things in my life I knew were not right, not that I ever went out to steal, or commit adultery, but still, the things, I knew they were not right in the sight of God, and I was a sinner, now suddenly, in Rome, New York, in the summertime, it was between school years, I had a job at the brass and copper mills there, and I got on this old bike, that morning, and suddenly I was smitten with the idea, “Where’s God in your life? You’re planning all these things, you’re going to have fun...fun in quotes, this summer, you’re going to do this, that and the other, where’s God? Don’t you know God’s Holy, [clears throat] and that you’re a sinner, and you’ll never get to heaven like this.” And I began to think, “Well, I don’t want this thought, I’m going to shake this off, and I’m gonna have fun.” You know, I never shook it. And that was like a gnawing conviction in me for years, “How are you going to get right in the sight of the Holy God, and get to His Heaven, where there is no such thing as sin ever enters there? I can’t get there.” And I struggled, and I tried to be good, do good, be holy and be religious, and all the schooling, you see, at the Concordia schools was very religious school, and I was climbing that ladder to try to really find great peace and forgiveness with God, and assured that I’d go to Heaven if I would die. You know that was a big thing at that time, anyhow, “Be sure to go to Heaven when you die.” I hadn’t thought of the...of Christ as our life, I thought of his death for our salvation, which of course, is basic, and so I sought the Lord in those years, three, four years, with conviction of sin in my being. And so the schools, the Concordias were helpful, and in that way, they’d keep me pursuing... [pauses] “How do you find God, how do you find forgiveness, how do you find peace with God, how are you going to be sure to go to Heaven when you die?” That was my big quest through those years. And so I think the school system was a great help, although I didn’t really get through there yet. I had a Luther experience, actually, on salvation.
SHUSTER: As [Martin] Luther, you mean, reading through Romans, “the just shall live by faith?” [Romans 1:17]
GESSWEIN: Yeah, and he tried the church systems, everything he tried, oh, I would get up early in the morning, my dad was my minister, I’d prepare my heart, especially for communion service, thinking “Now it’s gonna happen. This time, I’m going to go from the Communion back to my seat, and I know I’m going to have this peace.” And I never got it, I was only worse. Finally, I still had the same old bike, and we were living in LaPorte, Indiana, and I had gone through Concordia College in Milwaukee.
SHUSTER: So you were how...about how old then?
GESSWEIN: About eighteen, nineteen. And I went to that, and of course, we were such strict Lutherans, we didn’t mix around with others, we didn’t even mix with other Lutherans, in those days, so when I heard about this religious Lutheran man at the other end of town, [coughs] and I knew his sons and I went over to talk with him, and I talked with him again and again, and I went back from his house, I thought “He can help me.” And I saw he was worse than I was, he didn’t help me, and I couldn’t help him, and you know, I came back to my home and I threw the little bike down, and I said, “Dad, I’m lost. Others are going to Heaven, and I’m going to Hell, and I don’t know what to do anymore about it. I’m lost.” The old bike was laying there, and I suddenly thought here’s the thing...the best thing of learning the catechism that I’d been taught. “Why did Christ die on the cross?” Oh, it lit...lit up for me, thousand watt bulb. He died for sinners, you know, I said “I qualify, I’m a sinner. I know that, whatever I don’t have, I know I am a sinner. He died for sinners, real sinners, who know they are sinners. Not just those who say they’re sinners.” But, and confess it in that kind of a way, which is not really a confession, but those who know they’re sinners, and want to face their sins, and repent, and get rid of them. Sinners, he died for, you know, the light went up...up in my whole being. “Look, on the cross, he died, the Holy Son of God for unholy me, the pure Son of God for impure me, the righteous Son of God for unrighteous me, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Right there with the bike laying there, I had...I said “That’s it.” And I had a peace, assurance. I know, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 3:28, which I’d learned in catechism, Romans 5 verse 1, these verses were alive then, and I knew I am forgiven, I am ready to go to heaven if anything happens, I am saved. I know Christ is my Savior, personal Savior. And that struggled through...and so I say that was a little bit, quite a little bit too, like Luther, struggled through on his own on that thing...
SHUSTER: For several years.
GESSWEIN: For several years, and....
SHUSTER: Did you talk with your father at all about this when you were struggling?
GESSWEIN: Not very much, no, because that was in our system, we didn’t talk about that, nobody seemed to bother saying anything about that.
SHUSTER: Talking about...
GESSWEIN: The old days, I’d say they did, back in the days of [Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm] Walther, yeah, I think I’d just been reading Walther’s sermons, some of them, now, and you know...
SHUSTER: Walther, of course, being one of the founders of the....
GESSWEIN: C.F.W. Walther of the Missouri Synod, the founding father, he was a revivalist. He...they would hate the word, they wouldn’t use it, but you can’t fool me anymore, that...that’s what he was. And in his day, and you know, Walther had an experience in Germany, before he ever came into the Lutheran church, he had experiences, some background, but there was fanaticism there, and he didn’t go along with that, and so...but he went strong into Lutheranism, but the point still remains that Walther had a vivid experience with Christ in the background. And if you read Law and Gospel and some of these sermons I’m reading now, he was strong on that, and so, those old timers, I’d say, they would talk about it.
SHUSTER: Talk about what?
SHUSTER: Experiencing God?
GESSWEIN: Yes, about spiritual things, about the preacher, what he said, and what he preached, and they’d go home from a sermon [brief gap in tape] religious, and many of them were really...had a real Martin Luther experience of justification by faith, it was vivid and alive and real to them, it wasn’t just religion, but they became limited again, to their...you know, their views, otherwise, but they were really...the...my grandmother, and those people in that generation, the Walther generation, they were stalwart believers with a living faith in Christ.
SHUSTER: Well, when you say that in your time, they didn’t really talk about it, I mean, surely your father talked about spiritual things?
GESSWEIN: Yes, but not on the experience side. It was objective. Talk doctrine, yes, experience, no.
GESSWEIN: Ah, because...and they didn’t sing gospel songs, because gospel songs or hymns are experience oriented. I have experienced this, and I’m singing to the praise of God about it. They would sing largely, if not mostly, hymns that were objective, doctrinal, away from you, not what you’ve experienced, so much as what your longing was, and what Christ did for you, yes, some of the old Gerhard [Tersteegen] hymns, and those, you can’t say there wasn’t experience in there, it certainly was heavy in there, but it was not as...it wasn’t...it was more objective oriented than subjective. My, I’m singing what I experience, they were singing the longings, and objectifying it in Christ’s great work, and scripture, and so forth. Well that’s a whole other...other field.
SHUSTER: Let me ask you something kind of related to that, as you were a boy, growing up was from about 1907 to 1927, that was also the great era of Billy Sunday.
SHUSTER: Had you...did you hear of him as a boy?
GESSWEIN: I heard of him when we lived in Philadelphia...
SHUSTER: And how....
GESSWEIN: Well, I was very small, very young,...
SHUSTER: How was he regarded by your family?
GESSWEIN: Evidently, I didn’t hear much about it, except, one night, I know my dad and my mother.... [audio drops out for 13 seconds]
SHUSTER: ...but, of course, then, his...his preaching was very much about personal experience and [unclear]...
SHUSTER: So I was just curious if there was any kind of reaction....
GESSWEIN: Oh, yeah, anything...no, Dad, my dad, I think, was a little more open to that. And [clears throat] even in seminary in St. Louis, they would speak about Moody. Not very much, but they...they were kinda careful, they...they reverenced what Moody did, in a way, but they didn’t want to have too much to say about it, because it was “revivalistic” and “experience oriented” and they didn’t work that line.
SHUSTER: When you...did you talk with your father, your mother, your family, about your experience?
SHUSTER: What...how did they react?
GESSWEIN: They didn’t react to that, and Dad...I never went around saying an awful lot about it, you know, except they knew I’d been changed, and then I had a further experience at that time that really capped it off, and it was over the radio, that came in, and that was the full assurance of being born again.
SHUSTER: Now this first experience, how would you describe it?
GESSWEIN: More of a justification by faith, peace with God. Now I ha...I must hasten to say, I don’t say everybody has to do it like this, but I have to honestly say I did go through it like this, so that’s...you can’t...[clears throat]
SHUSTER: So first was justification, what was the second?
GESSWEIN: Alright, when I was confirmed in Bronxville, New York, I took catechetical instructions there, and of course, it was a school where they were largely studying to be ministers, and I...I of course took that too. We had catechism twice a week, we had an extra dose of it there because of being a training school for the ministry, and I would raise my hand a time or two on being born again, and that was just me, and then I got an answer that was their answer, but it never...
SHUSTER: What did they say?
GESSWEIN: Said, “That’s...that’s settled for you.” And they more or less settled it in the baptism, the baby baptism, and I didn’t want to buck and fight that, but I...I didn’t get it, I didn’t have any clarity on it in my inner being, and I wasn’t satisfied, and I...yet I...I shut my mouth. I asked no more questions, because I wasn’t going to get an answer that would satisfy me at least, anyhow, when we knelt there to be confirmed, at the end of that confirmation instruction period, it was about Palm Sunday, around that time, right there in Bronxville, New York, as I was kneeling there, and then you become a member in good standing in the church.
SHUSTER: You were about twelve or thirteen then?
GESSWEIN: I was thirteen, fourteen...a communicant member...I was fourteen at least, fourteen, yeah. Then I thought of it while I was kneeling there. “You must be born again,” what did Jesus mean, “You must be born again, you can’t see the Kingdom, can’t enter the Kingdom, must be born again.” And I never was satisfied, and I never said anything about it, because I didn’t get the answer, and I didn’t want to discuss it and make trouble.
SHUSTER: But this was part of your struggle, and....
GESSWEIN: Part of the struggle was in there, and that was never resolved, ‘til in LaPorte, Indiana, that same house where we were living, I had done a...no idea of being a preacher, I never wanted any part of that. So I was working in the shops there, and also playing a lot of baseball, and I got a radio for the folks.
SHUSTER: Was this after the experience you described, with the...
GESSWEIN: Yeah, right after that.
SHUSTER: At the same time...a little bit after.
GESSWEIN: A little after. And over the radio, here was this Chicago preacher, Paul Rader. Well, we didn’t go to other churches, and....
SHUSTER: Had you ever heard of Paul Rader before then?
GESSWEIN: No, but he was big, and he was talked about around, not only in Chicago, I found this later, but in LaPorte, and even the shops where I worked, they talked about Paul Rader.
SHUSTER: What did they say about him?
GESSWEIN: It was only good, that I heard.
SHUSTER: What kind of thing...well what kind of thing did they say?
GESSWEIN: Something like we’d talk about Billy Graham today. They...filling the thing...the people had to think about him, and it was in Chicago. Well, I tuned into him on the radio, and it was toward evening, it was in the evening, in the dining room there, and he said...well, first of all, I was attracted to him, I said, “He’s sound, he’s sane, he’s real, he’s not just drumming up your emotions, he’s...he’s for real, he’s preaching God’s word, and something about him that appeals to me, I think I’m going to listen.”
SHUSTER: What kind of preacher was he? I mean, what did he sound like, what was his preaching style?
GESSWEIN: Well, it was very hearty, tremendously so, and great with Christ, tremendous Christ-preacher. I’ve never heard Christ preached in that fashion.
SHUSTER: How do you mean that?
GESSWEIN: Well, I mean, it was Christ, it wasn’t just the words of Christ, it was Christ and the Word. Wasn’t just the work of Christ on the Cross for our sins, it was Christ and the work of Christ. The person and work, not just the work. Not just the atoning work of Christ, but the person of Christ, as well as the work of Christ.
SHUSTER: Like somebody who knew Christ?
GESSWEIN: He knew him, personally. Person to person relationship. That case, I didn’t know about. See, justification by faith...was personalized, but it wasn’t me and the person of Christ so much as His work for me on the cross, which is, of course, fundamental, basic, absolutely. Well, when he said on the radio, all at once he said, “What you need, poor troubled soul, is not some doctrine...doctrine has it’s place, not some set of doctrines or rules, they have their place,” (I’m glad he said that, because we were all doctrine, in those days.) But he said, “You need to open your heart, and receive the person of Jesus Christ into your heart.” Do you know what? I’d never heard that before. It was a new note to me. I didn’t know that it was preached... wasn’t preached like that, I never got it. I thought...my first reaction is...was, this idea, is that...is that plain Scripture, or is that this preacher’s idea? It may be heresy. We were taught to have a doubt for...doubt for heresy. We were heresy hunters. And then I thought of John 1 verse twelve, which I’d learned to memorize in catechism days. If you managed to receive Him, H-I-M, Him, the person, the person of Jesus, to them gave you the right, the authority to become - become, not to live the Christian life - but to become the children, born ones, [unclear] become the Children of God. Well, and those that do that, the thirteenth verse goes on to say, they are born of God. That’s the new birth, not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, can’t get it that way, not that way, not that way, but this way, of God, born of God, the new birth, that’s it. I said to myself, “He’s saying the same thing that John the Apostle said, can’t improve on that.” I’m not here to tell God what...the way to be born again, He’s here to tell me, and He’s telling me, and I’d better listen. This is the Word of God, this is truly Lutheran, this is the Word of God, on the subject, plain as plain can be. Anyhow, right there, I didn’t dance, holler, shout or kneel, but I said, “That’s it.” I closed in on Christ, I received Christ distinctly and definitely as my personal Lord and Savior, in a person to person confrontation, as I’m now talking to you, I received Him, accepted, not only accepted Him on the Cross for me, but I received him into my heart, as my very Lord, and my life. You know what, I knew I was born again. I had....
SHUSTER: You knew right then that you were born again.
GESSWEIN: Yeah, I knew it. I was...I was really living on cloud nine for a couple days, I was ready to sing “Blessed assurance, Jesus IS mine, oh what a foretaste [of] Glory Divine.” Now I...later, of course, I knew all the scriptures, He gives the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits, that we are the Children of God. The Holy Spirit brought that assurance that new birth, clear to me, right there and then, on the radio. I still didn’t go to any other church, but that was settled, and I knew then...it wasn’t shortly after that...it was shortly after that, I was called to preach.
SHUSTER: How did that come about?
GESSWEIN: Well, and I might say I believe in the call to preach, and that’s part of the problem today, I don’t think men are called, a lot of them are called to preach, but that’s another subject. I was playing ball, as I mentioned, and I was working in the shops, in LaPorte, Indiana. The Advance Rumely Company made all pull tractors, and I was in the wheel shop, punching up...out these iron tires for the great, old, big all pull tractor, which was used in the western wheat fields, Brazil and other places, and I had the burden that I gotta preach now, gotta preach this Gospel.
SHUSTER: What you did experienced?
GESSWEIN: Yeah, and I said, “I can’t do that,” I said “No, no, I can’t, I could never, never, preach.” I...I could never conduct a funeral service, I saw my dad all these years, the church, the church, the church, never could do it. And even at school, at college, if I had to get up before the student body of the class, to say something, to give a speech, or memori...give something that was memorized, which they had to practice with doing that, I would suffer, I could... I would lose a night’s sleep thinking about it. Sometimes more than that. And I said....
SHUSTER: You hated talking in front of people?
GESSWEIN: Yeah. “I can’t do this, I can’t do it.”
SHUSTER: You mentioned a couple of times....
GESSWEIN: I might say, though, it went on for six days, five days, and the sixth day, right by the little punch brass, suddenly it hit me: “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.” I got scared, and that really changed it, and soon, packed my bags, and went on to seminary in St. Louis.
SHUSTER: You mentioned a couple of times that you could never conduct a funeral. Why was that particularly something that....?
GESSWEIN: Oh, I mean, that was part of the whole deal, I mean, I couldn’t, but that all changed, changed, changed, with the coming of Christ into my life, and the call into the ministry, and so, when I started to preach, I was a little like Billy Graham, I was ready to preach to the cows, or anything that would listen, let them have it, go to it.
SHUSTER: When you were...you talked a couple times, when you were growing up, that you didn’t want to be a preacher, that you knew. Did you have ambitions, or something that you did want to be?
GESSWEIN: No, except I wanted to preach the Gospel, and get people....
SHUSTER: I mean, when you were gro...you were saying, when you were growing up?
GESSWEIN: No, I never had any idea like that. I was seeking God, for myself, but no that was foreign to my thinking, I mean I put it out, if it ever tried to get in, like, I’d always put it away from me, until it was about...I was about [clears throat] eighteen, nineteen, when I had the call to preach.
SHUSTER: As a young man, growing up at that time, what...what was then the important things in your life, up to then? You mentioned baseball, but were there other interests, or things that you were pursuing, or....
GESSWEIN: Well, I was pursuing God. I’d have to say that, in my way, you know, it was primary. I was...once I got conviction of sin, I...I cried down in my heart many times. I sought God, and I did everything I could to try to get to be holy and right, and peace, and I...I dearly wanted to be holy, and [laughs] the more I tried, the worse I got.
SHUSTER: After you felt the call to preach, how did your parents react when you told them about that?
GESSWEIN: Oh, they were ready for that, they were happy, yeah, they were...you see, they were wise too. My father never once said one word to me about becoming a preacher. Can you believe that? And when I did want to become, because he struggled through so many things, in the system, but when I did, he not only didn’t oppose it, he and my mother were very happy about it.
SHUSTER: Did he ever sit down with you then, or at any later point and give you advice about being a minister, or talk about his own experiences?
GESSWEIN: Oh, yeah, I had learned plenty by being with him. And I didn’t...we just talked, whether I talked with him about it or not, it was talk I picked up all the time. Our kitchen was full of preachers. Mother was a good cook, and we had them coming and going from our house...through the parsonages, through the years, some pretty big names too, and [pauses] but I’d say that we had some Godly men in the Synod, but they also were...many of them were...were fighters, so they’d fight, fight, fight. Fight doctrines, fight each other, and I was really burdened about that.
SHUSTER: Why do you think that was? Why were there so many....?
GESSWEIN: They wanted to be clean and pure in doctrine, not any deviations at all, well that was one big thing. There were other things. And any departure in any way at all would be considered...you’d have to consider it as being perhaps somewhat heretical, if not fully, at least you have to watch it and avoid it. A major Scripture was Romans 16 [16:17], “Mark those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoide them.” We were...that was drummed into us, even at seminary. And that is always in my [unclear] if you grant the premise they had in mind, you had to go with their conclusion, but as I get to know Scripture, and the Lord, and through the years, and got into all these things, and...and yet see the premise that Paul had in mind wasn’t the same premise that they had in mind, it was different.
SHUSTER: What was Paul’s premise?
GESSWEIN: The doctrine of Christ, of course, and it’s...that’s the unifying doctrine, and then it was, “Because you belong to Christ, you belong to me, one in the bonds unbreakable, felt ‘round for eternity. Spirit with spirit joined, who can those ties undo, binding the Christ within my heart to the Christ in you.” Christ. Now we did have men in the Synod, and my dad was among them, struggling with that feeling, “This is not sufficient.” You may be in ignorance, or you may be in error, but that doesn’t mean you have to completely separate. And that struggle was through the Synod years back, now that’s gone through, so one is much more free to speak today about that. But when I grew up, boy, any deviations were serious business, but today, no, uh-uh, they don’t know, many of them don’t even know that struggle.
SHUSTER: So, at about the age of eighteen or nineteen, then, you went to Concordia Seminary?
GESSWEIN: Yeah. I had been out for two years, playing ball, working in the shops, thinking...didn’t ...didn’t know what I was going to do. No clear ambition, really. But when I met Christ, I began to have an ambition, He change...motivated me.
SHUSTER: And the mission was to preach?
GESSWEIN: When He called me to preach, and I wanted to be the best kind of a preacher I could be.
SHUSTER: How would you describe your education at Concordia Seminary?
GESSWEIN: Excellent. I loved the seminary. Good seminary.
SHUSTER: Who were some of the teachers?
GESSWEIN: Oh, I had stalwarts and Walter E. Maier, the founder of the Lutheran Church...the Lutheran Hour. [radio program] [clears throat] He was my professor and friend, and I was with him when he started the Lutheran Hour, singing in the chorus choir there. And boy, we said, “You’re gonna...the world’s going to hear from this man.” In that day the radio was very...not so sensitive as it is now, and he really...he really took off his coat, in that stylish seminary chapel, and went to work on that broadcast, and poured it into that mike loud. And we were thinking, you know, we had a great...great professors like that. Doctor [unclear] Peaper, Fraz Peaper the great dogmatician, godly men. He died the time I graduated, 1931. St. Louis seminary. Godly men. They don’t come better. But they had a limited view of fellowship with other Christians, and they had another view, a lot of that, and I won’t go into that here, but I honored these men in my heart, and they never ministered doubt into us about the Bible being the Word of God. Very important.
SHUSTER: But they had a limited view of...of fellowship?
GESSWEIN: Yeah. You couldn’t mix with others, you didn’t..we didn’t even mix with other Lutherans. That was complete separation on that.
SHUSTER: What did “not mixing” mean, you couldn’t talk to other people?
GESSWEIN: Because a lot of “doctrinal purity.” They would have felt they were the real successors of Martin Luther, whereas in years later, when you study Luther, many of them never studied him very far, they just like...like most of us, really, they take it as a hand-me-down thing, but Luther was a mountain of a man, and they didn’t quite get all of Luther, although not his prayer life. I say to my Lutheran brethren today, “Well, for Heaven’s sake, why don’t you preach about Luther’s prayer life for once?” He took on all Hell when he prayed, and he meant it. “Though Devil’s all the world should kill.” [unclear] But they don’t, as a rule. Now, lots of them do, and now, of course, later on, they’re jumping the gun, and they’ll probably never get back to this. Later, when I went to Norway, oh, yeah, that was different. There, they had revivals, strong powerful revivals in Lutheranism in Norway.
SHUSTER: The Lutherans in Norway.
GESSWEIN: Oh, and...and not in our system. They were real stuff, I’ll tell you. Martin Luther...Lutheranism, with conviction of sin, and real salvation, repentance, turning to God, not just...not just forgiveness without repentance, that’s too much of that preaching, “cheap grace.” Repentance and forgiveness of sins, like Billy Graham preaches. Like...like Walther and those men preached in those days. Walter Maier preached it over the radio.
SHUSTER: Of course, Luther also said, “They’re trying to make me into a fixed planet, and I’m a wandering star.” I meant “a fixed star, I’m a wandering planet.”
GESSWEIN: I get it. That’s...that’s very good. They couldn’t box him in. Not even the Pope. He had...“No.” I guess I’m a Martin Luther Lutheran in many ways, and I’m a...I’m...I don’t have any labels any more. [distortion on tape] I...I’ll tell you what, I’ve come to the point, and at my age, who cares, where I wouldn’t sell my soul for any man’s system of theology yet I love them all. It’s Christ, and the Word of God, I will lay down my life for the Word of God, but systems, all of them, need patchwork and help, in bridging over points. Every one of them, tell me one that doesn’t. And yet, we do love them all, and there’s no...no...no perfect system.
SHUSTER: They are finite maps of an infinite God.
GESSWEIN: Say, you’re a theologian, you’re a good man.
SHUSTER: [laughs] If we could maybe talk a little bit about your friendship with Walter Maier, and about his work.
SHUSTER: When did you first meet him?
GESSWEIN: Oh, dear, that was back in the time at the Odeon [?] Hall, New York, when as kid in knee britches I received the prize for Greek, first year...beginners’ Greek.
SHUSTER: Did he award that?
GESSWEIN: No, he was the speaker, the special speaker for that big day, at Odeon Hall. Big organ, [unclear] was the organist, he was the foremost Bach interpreter in this country, and he was a Missouri Synod Lutheran. And he was the organist for that day. And Walter Maier, just a young preacher, coming along, though, was the preacher for the occasion. I didn’t meet him there, well, I guess I got up close to him, but then, years later, of course, I studied under him, in St. Louis.
SHUSTER: What did he teach?
GESSWEIN: He taught...he didn’t teach one course in preaching. Would you believe it? Yet he was the greatest preacher in the Synod. He taught Old Testament Semitics. When I was in seminary, he got his degree from Harvard University in Semitics, and we celebrated it. And I took a course with him in Genesis, and in the Psalms, the second year. And when you had a course with Walter Maier in Genesis, I tell you, you not only went into the Hebrew, [laughs] you went into all this higher criticisms stuff, and he blasted all of it. He was a...he loved apologetics in the higher...in the classical way. He liked to really hit hard. [coughs] Anybody that would take away in any sense at all from the Bible being the inspired word of the Living God. He wouldn’t stand for that. Well, then, of course, he preached, he started the Lutheran Hour when I was there.
SHUSTER: Going back to him as a teacher, for a moment. How would you describe him as a teacher, how did he communicate with his students?
GESSWEIN: Well, he loved the students, he was a loving man, he was...he had the combination that Billy Graham as he..Billy Graham when he...at least when he first came forward was a judgement preacher with a heart of love. And Walter Maier had that in a superb manner. And Billy admired Walter Maier. I don’t know if he did for that, but for many reasons. And, he had these big rallies at that time, and he’d come back from them, and....
SHUSTER: Walter Maier did.
GESSWEIN: And come into his class, really almost groggy, on a Monday morning, for his class, but in his big rallies, he loved people. He’d preach hard, and yet...he’d embrace them, when they’d come up to see him. Now, that was no act, he was that way, Billy Graham’s that way. And so...
SHUSTER: He was that way with his students still?
GESSWEIN: Yeah, and Walter Maier and his wife, Hulda who only died a couple years ago, had students and others coming to their house, they were a beautiful couple, very, very, real role model couple. And they had the two boys that now became more prominent through the years, they’d play in the back yard [laughs] and I’d see them there, as I was going by, walking around. Now, he was a great man. And across from him lived Dr. Walter...William Arndt who was the New Testament Greek professor. He was my dear friend. He was a friend of my father, and my family, way back. I used to meet with him. And Maier, though, back to him, then when he preached, you see, he got...he already began to break the sound barrier, because he in these big rallies, he saw that other people, other than Lutherans were there, and many, many, many others, and actually in his news radio broadcast. Half, if not more than half, were non-Lutherans, listening and writing in, and commenting, and thanking him. And so his mind began to go wide in that regard, but his practice was very...he was very careful not to...to...to mingle too widely, but in his...in his broadcasts, or in his rallies, he was thrown in with everybody. And so that began to...he began to be a part of the breakthrough that was inevitable for the Synod, on how wide can we go in fellowship with others, who are not in agreement with us, particularly on the sacraments.
SHUSTER: Did you...I know he was your professor, of course, did you become friends with him or were you close...?
GESSWEIN: Oh yes, when I started, I found out later, at graduation time 1931, the presidents of the districts would meet in holy conclave somewhere around the seminary, and would consider all the graduates of the seminary as candidates for the ministry, and considered where would they fit, best be suited to be placed and I learned later that Walter Maier was influential in...in my call, that I got, was “missionary at large” which meant start or plant churches. He had come from Boston, and from the east, and he was evangelistic, he didn’t use the word, and it was...and I was interested in evangelism from the Paul Rader experience, and hey, that’s what I wanted, so I learned later he was instrumental in my getting that call to go to this Long Island town, or at least the Eastern district, who placed me in this town, “Here’s your town, go to work, start a church.” And then, from then on, we kept in touch from time to time, by correspondence, and personally, and I have letters in there, one big long one I was looking at a couple weeks ago, from Dr. Maier, because when I widened my fellowship to go with others, he was very concerned about that, and he wanted me to come to the seminary and have an interview on that, and I said, “I’d be glad to do it.”
SHUSTER: Why was he concerned?
GESSWEIN: Because I was no longer in good grace with the Synod, because I mingled with others, you see, in those days, then I was no longer in their books, but they never had a heresy trial on me, or never excommunicated me.
SHUSTER: What does “mingled with others” mean?
GESSWEIN: It meant that if I would kneel and have vital prayer fellowship with you as another minister from another church, that was one supreme example, anybody like that.
SHUSTER: Presbyterianism or...?
GESSWEIN: That was called “Unionism,” you don’t mix like that. You give the people the idea that there’s not any difference, and you confuse the people, that’s putting it mildly, they had a lot of other reasons for it. And now, ah, but when I then was widening already, through experiences on Long Island, he wanted me to come to seminary and I said, “I’d love to do that, come with you and Dr. Arndt and a few others, not many, and go over our differences...or our agreements and our differences on the basis of the Word of God, not the confessional writings, those are very great, I honor them, that’s not what I want though. We are Bible people, I want us to meet just on the Word of God, and do this.” And you know, he was going to do that, and I never heard from him about it, never got done, in the meantime, God led me on, and enlarged, and went on and on, and on, and through the years, and then we come back to where we...we love each other, and...and they...they I think they honor that I did, they didn’t understand it fully, maybe, and....
SHUSTER: So, he was willing to do that, but somehow or other, he just never....
GESSWEIN: He never...he never got around to it, or something, he was a very busy man.
SHUSTER: I can’t help but thinking about Luther at the Council of Worms, saying, you know, “Show it to me in the Bible.”
GESSWEIN: That’s exactly the position I took. In fact, in this work that I started on Long Island, that’s where I had my first revival. And in that revival, I had my call to revival, right there. Well, I had the slogan from seminary days, among other slogans, “What is truly Biblical is truly Lutheran.” So I followed that line, and I prayed, “Lord if you can show me more for my life, from plain scripture, and plenty of it, I want it.” That’s Lutheran. And I read the book of Acts, I’d never got into that, I’d only nibbled at that, at seminary, I never got into it, and there I began to see, here’s Jesus starting a church, The Church, the first church, and here I was starting a church, and wasn’t the same way. He started a prayer meeting. He built a prayer meeting. Boy, I tell you, my whole...everything changed with that discovery. In the book of Acts, began to open it up like never.... And it’s a whole story you haven’t the time for here, now, but in that, I began then to fellowship. We had revival, and fellowship with other Christians, prayer fellowship, and so on, and that wasn’t done, and so I met with my superiors on that, and we met in Brooklyn, and they wanted me to....alright, let’s not get into all that right now.
SHUSTER: Let me ask you about this, you mentioned that you were there when the Lutheran Hour started. What do you recall about the beginning? Did you, as a student, were you aware of why it began, or what Maier wanted to do with it, or [unclear]
GESSWEIN: Well, Maier had an inner dynamo from the Spirit of God, like a John the Baptist. He was that type.
SHUSTER: But why a radio program? Why...?
GESSWEIN: Well, that was young, and new, and “We gotta get into that.” You know, somebody, and he was the man for it. I’m sure it was...it was the work of God, certainly.
SHUSTER: How did that particular opportunity arise?
GESSWEIN: I don’t know the whole story of the background, I only pick it up when he was the first one into it from our angle, at the time, and I was singing in the choir.
SHUSTER: How did that come about?
GESSWEIN: I sang second bass, because there was no third bass.
GESSWEIN: And I played second base on the ball team, third base, and center field. Well, [pauses] I can’t...it was fa...it was fascinating. He was a...he was an orator, you know. Have you heard him?
SHUSTER: I’ve heard tapes of him.
GESSWEIN: He was a..he..he did powerful Biblical preaching, classically. They don’t do that now. I mean he really worked on those messages, and delivered them with spirit, and punch, and power, and sanity, and everything else. The Word of God, though, he relied on that to do the work of God, and that’s been all my basis ever since. That’s the only thing I go by. The Holy Spirit using the Word of God to do the work of God, and I’m...I’m thoroughly Lutheran in that way.
SHUSTER: The first broadcasts were from the seminary chapel?
GESSWEIN: Yeah, then he had a studio, the...down from the athletic field, they..they had their own radio stations, still do, and he went down there to preach on....
SHUSTER: You mean the Lutheran [unclear]
SHUSTER: The Lutheran Hour had their own studio.
GESSWEIN: Because the...the chorus choir, that was only for certain broadcasts, I can’t remember why, but he’d go down there to preach in the studio, Sundays, once a week, I could still see him through the window there, he’d take his...his...he’d be in his shirt sleeves, and go into almost a sweat, preaching strong. And I would say we were trained to be preachers. Seminary in my day, we didn’t have anybody else but preachers, studying to be preachers at seminary. Nobody else, no other courses. And they put a great emphasis on that, we had some good preachers in the Synod, but Maier was superior.
SHUSTER: Looking at you seminary training, what would you say was its strength and what was its weakness?
GESSWEIN: Oh, the strength, of course, was it’s emphasis on the Word of God, number one, and all courses, and then the dogmatic, theological courses were very strong, and very distinctively Lutheran. And of course looking back now, I could see a lot of things that we could have had, we could have benefitted greatly from the whole Jewish lore and background, we had very little of that. I mean the Jewish background of the New Testament, and the whole Jewish manner of thinking. Our...our training was reformation oriented, and that’s great, but that’s not great enough, but back of that was the Word of God, and that we hang...we hung onto as the big thing, and that really brought us through...brought me through to much more later. Much more going through the scriptures now, through the years, and I do that, I’m...I’m a Word of God preacher. Why the whole Jewish layer of truth, it was fascinating, we didn’t get any of that. In fact, didn’t have too high a regard for the Jews, and Luther himself needed help on that, point.
SHUSTER: Well, I think that’s probably as much as we can cover today. I hope very much that sometime, if you’re willing, that we can pick up from this point, and...
GESSWEIN: Be...be happy to do it.
SHUSTER: ...and talk about your....your first churches, and revival that you saw, and participated in Norway, and...and your ministry since then.
GESSWEIN: We’d love to do it.
SHUSTER: Thank you very much.
GESSWEIN: Thank you very much.
END OF TAPE