The Hows and Whys of the Founding of Wichita Baptist Tabernacle (By Dr. Art Wilson, August 1988)
"Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it" (Psalms 127:1). Without a doubt, God wanted just such a church. Draw your own conclusions from the facts here set forth.
I was a Colorado-born and raised, young man. My ministry grew swiftly after preaching my first two sermons, back to back. The first was on a street meeting at the corner of 18th and Larimer Streets in Denver, the second, in the Denver Rescue Mission, just a half block away. That was September, 1933.
Much of my early ministry included leading the congregational singing, training choirs, and singing solos. That was because of two things: (1) music was all my service for Christ for two years previous, and (2) music men were very scarce. Remember, we are talking of the great depression days.
From September of 1933, until February of 1937, I was kept busy in meetings throughout Colorado. That month, I received an invitation from the College Hill Baptist Church (Central at Erie) to come for a meeting in the Fall. It commenced in Mid-November and concluded the week following Thanksgiving (3 weeks).
The Pastor had expressly requested that I would speak to the church on the evils of the old Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist) and show them how to get out and to become Wichita's first "Independent Baptist Church".
That night I spoke on the subject. The Pastor and Board of Deacons of the Faith Baptist Church (1400 South Broadway - now Immanuel) attended at the Pastor's invitation, specifically to hear what I would say because that church, too, was a convention-controlled church.
After the service, that pastor and those deacons stayed to talk with me. God had moved and challenged their hearts. The result: they invited me to hold a meeting at their church and during it to preach that same sermon and give the same instructions to their congregation (about five times larger than College Hill's).
When the night came, God gave a packed house and a powerful meeting. I could not, as a visiting preacher, preside over the business of a church vote on the matter in either church, but as God's preacher, I could and did say, "Now that you know the truth, how many believe that your church should stop supporting Bible-denying schools and professors and get out of the Convention and that when your pastor brings it up at a business meeting, you'll vote for withdrawal?" At College Hill, the vote was unanimous (about 93-0). At Faith, there was one loud dissenter against over 500 who stood for the truth.
Summarily the two pastors were overjoyed, and stated that at their next church business meeting, they would take the official vote. They declared that they looked forward to the joy and liberty of an independent church.
Before leaving to return to Colorado, both pastors and their deacons, knowing I had a large tent (60x120), asked me if I would come back to Wichita for a tent meeting that the two churches would sponsor. A date was set - about Mid-August.
In the meanwhile, we were corresponding on the coming meeting. I returned to Wichita for three days in May to search for a location. It was at that time I leased and paid for the use of a city block in Mathewson pasture, between Central and 3rd Streets and two blocks east of Cleveland. I also made contracts for radio time and newspaper advertising. It's a good thing I did, as you'll see momentarily.
By Mid-June, I received letters from some families in each church, telling me that they did not know what happened, but that their pastor did not bring the convention matter to the floor for a vote at their recent business meeting and were acting "strange" when approached on the matter.
Because I was in a battle with the School Board, Chamber of Commerce, and a few prominent citizens in the city of Ft Morgan, Colorado, over banishing the Bible from the school (mind you, this was 1938) and could see my meeting there would need to be extended, I wrote both pastors to tell them. I also said that I would be starting the Wichita meeting on Labor Day Sunday night; that I would arrive Thursday and needed much manpower to get the tent up, seats and platform built, etc.
Soon I got the shock of my life when I received a registered, special delivery letter from both of them the same day. They said the same thing. "If you can't start when you first said, the surely the meeting is not of God, so we will not sponsor the meeting either financially or in attendance of our people. In fact, if you come, we are convinced that the meeting will be of the Devil and utterly fail."
I laid the letters on a chair and got down to pray, asking the Lord what to do. He did not delay His answer, but assured my heart that I should go to Wichita anyhow, and that He would be with me and see me through. He also said, "Just pray for those men, but do not mention the matter at any time."
I obeyed God and kept His promise. For seven and one-half weeks, the meeting was glorious, but it became so cold we had to stop. So on Thursday night, October 27th, I announced, "The meeting closes tonight, but we are going to begin the first 'Independent Baptist Church' in Wichita on Sunday morning."
In December, the 3rd and Cleveland property was purchased. On January 1, 1939, a ground (and snow) breaking service was held. On May 14, 1939, we moved into the Tabernacle.
There are a thousand other details, but I'm convinced God wanted to do it like He did.
Then came the Second World War and people flocked to church in great numbers. Hearts were heavy and sad as nearly everyone had a loved one on the battlefield and they were seeking help and comfort. At almost every service, the Tabernacle was packed and it was not unusual to see anywhere from 6 to 15 or even 20 people accept Christ at each service. The summer campaigns in the mammoth tent were filled to capacity. I can remember on special occasions when the children had to sit on the platform and a number of people stood around the tent on the outside because all the seats were filled. God gave Brother Wilson many sermon topics that were especially appropriate for that time such as: "The End of the OPA". The Gold Star in God's Window", "The World's Greatest Blood Donor", "What Kind of Death Will Adolph Hitler Die"", "Is Roosevelt Our Last President?", and scores of others.
On April 9, 1944, a Sunrise Easter Service was held at 6:00AM at Linwood Park. At 3:00 in the afternoon, the Corner Stone was laid for a new Sunday School Building. This additional space was desperately needed.
In May of 1944, the Gospel was taken to Plainview with the "Christ for Plainville Campaign" just across from Plainview on Oliver. Assisting Rev. Wilson with song leading was Revis McGrew.
September of the same year brought the "Back to Christ and the Bible" campaign in the big tent at Mathewson and the first with Evangelist Art Wilson and the famous Chicago Jubilee Gospel Singers.
On November 5, 1944, the church sponsored a great Christian rally at the Wichita Forum. Four thousand to forty-five hundred turned out to hear Rev. Wilson speak on "Who Does God Want For President?"
The year, 1946, brought the "Downtown Gospel Crusade" with the Myers Evangelistic Quartet in the big tent at Waco and Douglas. It was during this meeting that Bud Dickson was saved. He presently pastors a large church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The members of the church under the leadership of Bro. Wilson were always ready to get the Gospel out to the people regardless of the cost. This has been manifest by the many meetings that have been held in the City Forum, which had a seating capacity of approximately 20,000.
From August 26 through September 16, 1945, the church sponsored the "Christ For Greater Wichita" campaign at the City Forum with Rev. Wilson doing the preaching and Cy and Susie Ramseyer furnishing the music. It was during this meeting that Rev. Wilson brought many wonderful illustrated sermons with the final one being, "The Great Judgment Morning".
At the close of one of those Forum meetings (and let me say here, that those meetings usually lasted until 10:30 or 11:00 at night. Getting out at 9:00 was unheard of in those days.) Well anyway, at the close of the meeting, Rev. Wilson announced that he would like to see all the friends and members of the church at a special meeting at the Tabernacle as soon as everyone would have time to get over there. Now, I ask you, what other kind of a meeting could Brother Wilson have that late at night and in the midst of a revival meeting, except to raise money. Such was the opinion of many people who went on home. Can you imagine our astonishment and great disappointment when we found out the next day that it was not a meeting to take up a special offering as we had supposed, but the wedding of Brother Art Wilson and Elaine Sweet.
On March 28, 1948, the City Forum was again the site chosen for the giant Easter service - three of them, in fact: 10:30am, 6:00pm and 7:30pm. Let me say here, the City Fathers didn't invite our pastor and church to hold meetings in the City Forum. To the contrary, those meetings had to be booked in advance and at a pretty steep price too. But where there is no vision, the people perish and our people had a vision to get the Gospel out to as many people of Wichita as they could.
Also in 1948, Ike Foster and Olson Hodges were sent to the Mission Fields. In June, 6 men were ordained as preachers: Homer Ritchie, Bert Rudder, Bill Williams, A.V. Callaway, Clyde Billingsley, and Charles Chaney.
Then in August, we had our first church-wide picnic with games, contests, races and surprises. This turned out to be such a success that we have made it an annual affair.
The Tenth Anniversary in 1948, was celebrated by a Bible School. This was not unusual as most of our anniversaries were celebrated by an eight-day Bible School, with preachers coming in from mall over the state. There were usually six or eight speakers during the day and two or three at night. But the 1948 Bible School was unique in that all the speakers, singers, etc., who were to take part on the Program were those who began their Christian work in the local church. Nearly 50 Gospel Workers had gone from this church into full-time fields in the first ten years.
The year 1949 brought many blessings. In March, our pastor held a revival in Salina. On Wichita night, large continental buses transported our choir and people to the meeting. Besides being a help in the meeting, much good fellowship was had by everyone. In May our church held a Mission Conference with Bill and Lois Logan from China. Jacob Rosenthal, the Jewish friend of our pastor, put on the Passover Feast. Then in July, came five weeks of "The Heaven and Home Campaign" at George Washington Blvd., and Lincoln and Estelle, with Heaven, itself, as its only roof for it was the first out of doors revival the City had ever known. Five of America's great Gospel preachers shared the speaking role: Rev. Wilson spoke the first week, followed by Curtis Thorpe of Odessa, Texas; Bill Dowell of Springfield, Missouri; Charles Dyer from Arizona; and Harvey Springer of Denver, Colorado.
In January and February of 1951, we had another citywide meeting in the Forum. Bill Frerking led the singing, Art Barr, a Gospel Artist from Denver, drew beautiful pictures that kept the audience spellbound, and Emil Aanderud, a trumpeter, furnished the special music, along with Raymond Miller, the nine year old boy who played 15 different musical instruments. Over 100 souls were saved and many were baptized and came into the church.
Our Easter services were again held in the Forum Arcadia with the Chicago Jubilee Singers furnishing the music. Then in April, Art Wilson went to prison. This was snot just an ordinary prison, but the famous Folson Prison in San Francisco Bay which is a United States Federal Prison especially for dangerous criminals. Rest assured, Rev. Wilson wasn't sent there; he was invited to speak to the prisoners. What a great opportunity that was to be able tell those people who have no hope in this world that they can have hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Northeast Campaign at 13th and Oliver was held for three weeks during August of 1949. Elmer Manor from Houston, Texas; DA Cabin from Fort Worth, Texas; and Captain Edgar Band with the Intelligence Department, each spoke a week during the meeting.
On the 13th Birthday, new hymn books were presented by the members' special offering.
The year, 1952 started out with "Back to God" rallies in the City Forum for 8 consecutive Sunday nights. This was followed by 15 nightly meetings in the Forum Arcadia in February. In March, a new $4,600 organ was presented to the church by 11 individuals.
In August, 1953, groundbreaking services for an addition to the Sunday School building was held. The Junior Department had to move to the Washington School building because they had outgrown their present quarters.
A citywide "Special Dedication" revival campaign, with Evangelist George Hodges from Jacksonville, Florida, was held at the Tabernacle in April, 1956.
In 1963, our 25th Great Silver Anniversary was observed by an eight-day Homecoming, Statewide Bible Conference with some 35 of our preacher boys doing the speaking. What a joy it was to hear and see those who had been called out of our church so many years before. Dr. D.A> Cavin, who surrendered to preach before the church was a year old, was the main speaker and Gary Smith, who was still attending Bible Seminary, was the youngest of the group. It was at this conference that the money was raised to send Brother Wilson to the Holy Land.
The boys and girls had a great time in August, 1964, during our daily vacation Bible School which was conducted by Ray Wilson, in the form of a big top Bible circus. A large tend was erected behind the Tabernacle and what went on under that tent was positively fabulous. Stories were acted out each day as children sat in awe. The boy who brought the most new ones that week (over 40) won an airplane trip over Wichita. Everyone, including the adult workers, had a wonderful time.
In October, 1965, Brother Wilson was honored by being nominated the President of the Bible Baptist Fellowship International. He had led the Fellowship in that capacity three years straight - 1959-1962. The Lord used him in a mighty way and gave him the physical and spiritual strength he needed to uphold this office.
In December, 1965, our church was honored with the presence of the "World's Biggest Christian". Standing 7'8" tall and towering over everyone, Max Palmer gave his testimony as to how the Lord had saved him. We were all amazed at his size and thankful the Devil had lost a real "Goliath".
Our Music Department made a sacred music record in the year 1966. Much time and work went into this record but all were pleased when the record finally came back in its colorful folder. New hymn books were also purchased this year. Then in August of 1966, we bid farewell to the Dwight Billingsley family, missionaries to Lebanon. A fellowship was held and the short program included a speech from John Stevens, the Wichita Mayor who was in Lebanon and who had a special interest in those people in that country. Brother Wilson then presented the Billingsleys with a check for $2,200 from the church to care for their fares and freight.
The Church's Annual Missionary Conference in 1967 brought besides several missionaries and their families, a singer by the name of Richard Miller. The unusual thing about this musician was that he was born without arms or legs. Nevertheless he played his own organ and guitar and accompanied himself while he sang. He was a real blessing to everyone and certainly a challenge to those of us who have all our facilities, showing the Lord can use anyone who is willing to use their talents for him.
February, 1968 brought a contest between Brother Wilson and his wife. He threatened to "beat her" each week and succeeded several times. Although Mrs. Wilson spent the last four weeks of the contest sick in bed, her side accumulated a 70-point margin of victory. All the preacher could say was, "I hate to go home now".
In March, 1968, we were privileged to have a former Circuit Riding Preacher, G. N. Stratton of Louisville, Colorado, to speak. Thirty-five years previous, he had placed confidence in a young preacher and opened his pulpit to him. That is how Rev. Wilson was encouraged and got his start.
On August 17, 1969, Ray Melugin became the 2nd pastor of this great church. Dr. Wilson going into full-time evangelistic work. Under the leadership of "Bro. Ray" as he is affectionately called, the church grew to an average of nearly 800 during the late 70's and 80's, with a high day of 1,307. The bus ministry grew to be the largest in the state of Kansas with over 400 riders on 9 buses. The church missionary outreach includes the support of over 70 missionaries in over 330 foreign fields.
In 1971, the three four-plexes, north of the church parking lot, were purchased for $60,000. Later they were used for Sunday school rooms and elective classes for the school. Also one was used as a Missionary Guest House for a few years.
In the spring of 1973, Brother Ray felt a burden for Christian education. He shared this burden with the church and led them in voting to start a Christian school which served Kindergarten thorough 12th Grade. Classes started in the Fall of 1973 with an enrollment of approximately 58.
As our bus ministry grew under Brother Ray's leadership, a large three-bay bus barn was erected in 1979 for the purpose of servicing and maintaining church buses. On row of four-plexes were removed so that the bus barn could be built.
As students graduated form Baptist Tabernacle School and were seeking college entrance, Brother Ray again was burdened for college education for the young people of our church. In the Fall of 1980, Heritage Baptist University of Wichita was born. Dr Michael Schepis, who has pastored for over 40 years, now serves as Administrator of the College and Clyde S. Billingsley, Jr. serves as Director of Development. Both of these men were saved at the Tabernacle and called to preach in the 40's.
In 1978, Brother Ray received his Doctor of Divinity Degree. He was serve don the Missions Committee at Baptist bible College for several years and has also been Trustee of Baptist Bible College. He served for several years as Moral Majority President for the State of Kansas. He has also been involved with Concerned Citizens for Community Standards. For the past several years, Brother Ray has been the Regional Representative for Accelerated Christian Education for the State of Kansas. This involves visiting every A.C.E. School at least once a year.
In 1968, Dr Melugin saw the need for church relocation. After much prayer, seeking the Lord's direction and fasting, Brother Ray led the church in voting to relocate as the Lord opened doors. During the next year, the church continued to pray for direction. Also, during the next year, God was leading another church toward a common pathway between the two. Two great churches found two great needs met as God led them together to continue the Gospel ministry at 2209 East Pawnee, former location of the Gideon Baptist Church. This is an ideal location adjacent to I-35 Bypass on Pawnee Street. This location ha high visibility and excellent accessibility from all four directions, and not more than 15 minutes from any location in the city limits. Gideon Baptist Church was founded by Dr. Martin Ralstin who was saved, baptized, called to preach, and ordained in the Wichita Baptist Tabernacle. He founded the Gideon Baptist Church in 1954.
We have tried to bring you some of the highlights in the Tabernacle's history, but it has not all been moutain-top experiences as we might have led you to believe here. There have been many valleys of sorrow, disappointments and heartaches too. There came times when we had to say good-bye to many of our faithful brothers and sisters in the Lord. Some of them moved to other parts of this country, while others moved on to that Heavenly country.
Our present goals are the same as our original goals: Preach the Gospel to every creature. Baptize believers. Help start new churches. Meet the needs of God's people. Train young people to turn out right for our Lord.
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