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Making airwaves

BOOKS | Pioneer preachers found big audiences on radio

Making airwaves
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As radio grew into a dominant cultural force in the 1930s and 1940s, Fulton Sheen and Walter Maier became famous on-air preachers. They are forgotten now, but Wheaton College professor Kirk Farney has recaptured their influence in the solid new book Ministers of a New Medium: Broadcasting Theology in the Radio Ministries of Fulton J. Sheen and Walter A. Maier (IVP Academic, 2022).

What Farney shows is the depth of these two pioneer radio preachers, who were showing how a new medium could offer a big boost in the audience for sermons and Bible teaching.

Maier and Sheen were celebrities, as Farney reveals. One estimate for Sheen’s audience was 17.5 million. For Maier the number was 15 million. Sheen also wrote 66 books in 54 years.

Their fame never led to shallow messages. Both had earned doctorates and were top scholars. Sheen was Roman Catholic, defending Catholicism against modernist thinking on the Catholic Hour program. He was a church bishop and faculty member at Catholic University. Maier was a scholar in the conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, hosting the Lutheran Hour.

These “pastors of the airwaves,” as Farney labels them, reached well beyond their denominational homes to speak to large audiences hungry for something more than entertainment.

Sheen and Maier were gifted in teaching listeners how to be in the world but not of it. “Both preachers spoke of capital-T Truths, which they promised were apprehensible to all and enduring through time and eternity,” he writes. “They did this not by providing simple, cheery religious messages, but by relentlessly expounding on substantive theological concepts.”

Sheen lived longer than Maier, who died in 1950. Farney identifies Maier as the missing popular link between Billy Sunday and the ­later-emerging Billy Graham as the nation’s prominent evangelists. Sheen left radio in the 1950s to become an early television preacher. He lived until 1979.

Farney has done good work in showing readers the early history of an important form of media. Those were truly the good old days when listeners turned on the dial.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.


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