Protestant Educators

Picture of Jack Wyrtzen

“Jack Wyrtzen, founder and director of Word of Life International, never graduated from high school, yet he became a pioneer in Christian radio, innovating youth evangelism, camping and training. Under his leadership, Word of Life’s distinctive blend of enthusiastic evangelism and committed edification has flourished to influence the world, from South America to the Ukraine (Wyrtzen, 1992, 169).”

Jack Wyrtzen proved to be a moving force in the early stages of Youth for Christ ministry to young people and military men. “With lightening-like speed, Youth for Christ spread from its beginning in the United States, becoming world-wide almost overnight. Its speed rivaled the fastest and most modern inventions; its sparks touched all corners of the globe, startling Christian leaders around the world…thousands…yes, tens of thousands…of young people have been converted…Evangelical and non-evangelical, leaders alike have labeled Youth for Christ “The Twentieth Century Wonder of the Religious World” (Larson, 1947, forward). Jack Wyrtzen was the pioneer in the forefront of that ragging tidal wave of conversions.

“Jack Wyrtzen, who began the longest-running series of radio rallies 10 years after [Percy] Crawford originated his broadcasts in Philadelphia, was said to have forbidden anyone on his broadcasts to speak longer than 45 seconds (Senter, 1992, 76).” Thus was born a new wave of evangelical preaching to youth – a blend of dynamic music, powerful testimonies from converted young adults and short concise preaching.

The setting changed for Jack Wyrtzen from city parks, to church pulpits, to river cruises, to church rallies, to stadium gatherings, to military establishments globally but the message was remained the same. A pioneer in mass evangelism on the radio and on TV, Jack Von Casper Wyrtzen rocked his world with the good news of Jesus Christ. Countless thousands of youth and young adults surrendered their lives to God as a result of his clear message of sin, salvation, and freely offered redemption through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wyrtzen’s Bible Institutes and Christian camps in now nearly forty countries of the world combine with the local church youth training organization to draw multitudes to Christ long after his promotion to Glory.

Biography

Family Heritage

Jack’s father, Harry M. Wyrtzen, and his wife occasionally attended the Unitarian Congregational Universalist church (Wheaton paper T1, 1). Jack went to church occasionally as a child but spent more Sundays in recreation. Swimming, pony rides, and trips to the amusement park were more frequent than trips to a house of worship (Wyrtzen, 1992, 169). At age 3, Casper sang “Jesus Loves Me” before his congregation without a personal relationship with God or any understanding of the song or its meaning (Wyrtzen, 1992, 170). His mother, Margaret Isabel, may have believed as a small girl when she attended a Reformed Episcopal Church where Bishop Culbertson, the President of Moody, was the cleric. Margaret drank beer and cocktails, smoked, and allowed Jack to do as he pleased. With that kind of freedom he learned to smoke, cuss and drink alcohol long before he learned to shave. She however, received very little teaching and did not begin to progress spiritually until after Jack was saved (Wheaton paper, T1, 3). She was baptized by Jack some years later in Schroon Lake, New York.

At age eleven, Casper persisted in his effort to get permission from his father to attend a woodworking and swimming classes at the local WMCA. Harry Wyrtzen feared having his son exposed to the “Billy Sunday” style of religious fanaticism and at first hesitated. After persistent requests from the young son, the father relented. Expecting instruction in the use of hand tools, the eleven-year-old stumbled into the wrong classroom where an old man taught about Job’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. Realizing he was in the wrong room, young Wyrtzen left but not before joining in with others who were mocking the teacher (Wyrtzen, 1992, 170).

Joining the Boy Scouts of America that met in a Baptist church exposed Wyrtzen to ethical standards of living, but turned out to be a disappointment when a scout leader ran off with all the money the boys had raised to attend the Boy Scout Jamboree in England canceling their long awaited and much prepared for trip. “I’d memorized the Scout laws…and I tried to live up to it, but I never did. It was like the Jews trying to live up to the commandments (Wheaton paper, T1, 9).” “I learned as much or more about sin in the Boy Scouts as I did in the Army…through dirty stories, filthy jokes and pictures of nude women…I didn’t like it and I wasn’t a Christian (Wheaton paper, T1, 8).”

There were other testing encounters with the Methodist Sunday school at age fifteen at the urging of his parents who themselves did not attend. Following a lost fist fight, Wyrtzen transferred across town to the Presbyterian Church (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 15).

At age sixteen, Wyrtzen remembers occasionally attending a Baptist church whose preacher was quite liberal, not believing in a literal hell. When the liberal preacher died, a younger man came to pastor the work that was much more evangelistic and challenged the young man that if indeed he did not believe in Christ, he would be lost and go to hell (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, pg 2).

A final switch to the Reformed church provided more attractive girls and finished out the religious mosaic of young Wyrtzen. The liberal pastor there informed Wyrtzen, who had placed gospel tracts in all the hymnals and followed in the text of Scripture the sermon, that he would be more comfortable in another church because that congregation did not check up on the pastor’s sermon text (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 16).

Even after his conversion, Wyrtzen received opposition from his father who told him if he was going to read the Bible to do so in his room upstairs with the door closed (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, pg 3). Henry is reported to have made his salvation public in his seventies but may have made a decision earlier but lived as a secret believer lest his son call him to a platform to give a testimony (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 4).

Musical interests

Much teasing by classmates prompted Casper to change his name in high school to Jack (Wyrtzen, 1992, 169). Music and athletics were very important to Wyrtzen as in high school. He could run the hundred-yard-dash in ten seconds and played the trombone in the high school orchestra (Larson, 1947, 43).

Wyrtzen organized his own dance band, Silver Moon Serenaders, which played in youth hangouts. During the Depression, Jack’s father lost his job as foreman in a glass factory, which led Jack to quit high school in 1929 to become an insurance salesman. He sold insurance by day from 1929 to 1940 (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 2). He earned additional monies as well from his band by playing for sorority and fraternity parties (Larson, 1947, 44). He joined the National Guard to play trombone on horseback with the Calvary. Drinking and other sin abounded in his young life. “He was young, good-looking, and full of fun… (Larson, 1947, 44).”

Conversion & Commitment

Wyrtzen’s conversion to Christ came through the investment of a close friend in the 101st Calvary band. Usually given too much drinking, and normally confused, George Schilling surrendered to Christ at Calvary Baptist Church of New York City and his life was changed (Bollback, 1972, 8-9).” Schilling returned to the unit determined to lead all his friends to Christ. Offered a gospel of John, Wyrtzen responded to Schilling with derision by ripping out pages. Several days later, George inquired how Jack was doing reading the gospel. “Read it? George, I threw it away before I got home (Bollback, 1972, 9).” Schiller gave him another copy and remained steadfast. Wyrtzen expected Schilling to be “back with the boys” (Larson, 1947, 44) when they went for their guard summer camp the next summer, but Schilling replaced his pranks and drinking with bedtime Bible reading and prayer (Bollback, 1972, 9).” Wyrtzen joined the others in cursing and throwing shoes at George while secretly admiring his courage (Wyrtzen, 1992, 170).

In October of 1932, George invited Jack to play a trombone solo at the YMCA. In addition to playing, Jack listened to the testimonies, the music, and the message (Larson, 1947, 44). Jack was angry over something the preacher told him in reply to his query of “Well, suppose I don’t believe any of this stuff you’re telling me? …You’ll be lost forever (Bollback, 1972, 10).” In spite of his religious exposure to Universalism, Methodism, Presbyterian and now Baptist churches, Wyrtzen realized that without Christ his future was unsure and he was without hope. He admitted his need and became a new man in Christ just like II Corinthians 5: 17 declared (Bollback, 1972, 11).

Wyrtzen described his conversion in these terms in an interview later in his life, “this is what I’ve looked for all my life that someone would give me the power to live the kind of life I kind of dreamed about as a kid. You know, people could have a clean mouth and they wouldn’t have to be swearing and telling dirty jokes and looking at filthy pictures…we’ve got a job to do. We’ve got to tell everybody about this… (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 9).”

So as to not lose his high society girlfriend, Margie Smith, Wyrtzen kept his conversion quiet through the winter and spring of that year. Margaret Smith was the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Sidney Smith. Margie’s mother was a Christian, though not strong in her faith or living consistently, and concerned with her daughter dating a dance band leader (Bollback, 1972, 11). Mrs. Smith developed the habit of listening to Percy Crawford’s “The Young People’s Church of the Air” program, especially enjoying the very personal testimonies of the young people on the program. Mrs. Smith invited Jack and Marge to come home early from dates and listen to the program with her. In spite of their efforts not to listen, occasionally they found themselves home in time to hear the program’s closing (Bollback, 1972, 12).

A summer vacation that Margie thought was planned in the Pocono Manor, an exclusive resort, instead ended at Crawford’s Pinebrook Bible Camp. Margie resisted this unforeseen change in plans. After much persuasion from her mom, she agreed to stay one night and then head for home. The meeting featured good music, testimonies and no sermon, a plus for Margie (Bollback, 1972, 13). When Margie met Mr. Crawford, he told her if she didn’t get saved during his sermon the next morning, she should go home so as to not develop a hard heart. Though initially resisting, she did respond to the public invitation receiving Christ, however she was not convinced her response was efficacious (Bollback, 1972, 14). Her mother insisted that she write Jack telling him of her decision and intention to find another boyfriend that was a Christian. Margie sent a letter telling of her new faith and requesting that Jack not get saved until she could get home and help him make the decision. Jack’s response telegram read, “Praise the Lord. I have been saved for the past few months but I’ve been afraid to tell you. I am so grateful that the Lord has saved you. Jack.” (Bollback, 1972, 15)

Total consecration of life came slowly as Jack and Margie realized there was more to Christianity than a salvation decision. A camp reunion at Pinebrook connected Wyrtzen with Stanley Kline, a sold out follower of Jesus in October 1933 (Bollback, 1972, 17-18). In answer to Jack’s question, “Do you think it’s alright for a Christian to play in a dance band and live for the Lord too?” Stanley replied “if you as a Christian can do it in the name of the Lord Jesus and be happy, then it’s one thing; but if you cannot, then you had better quit. (Bollback, 1972, 18)”

The next summer, again at Pinebrook Bible Camp, both surrendered their lives for service anywhere, willing to do anything for God. Leaving the Silver Moon Serenaders band was a much more difficult decision. Jack struggled until December 4, 1933 when a friend scolded him for not sharing the gospel before his brother was killed in an auto wreck and now was destined for eternity apart from Christ. Wyrtzen sent a telegram to Stanley, “Praise the Lord, dance band finished.”(Bollback, 1972, 22) As evidence of his total commitment to Christ, Jack prayed, “Lord, never again will someone that I know die without hearing the gospel (Wyrtzen, 1992, 171).”.

Wyrtzen realized there were twenty-five million people within twenty-five miles of Times Square – most of whom needed to be introduced to Christ, so he began preaching in the streets at lunch time, began rescue missions, and ministry in seventeen prisons (Wheaton paper, T1, 9).

Marriage

Born Grace Gunn, this little girl experienced much tragedy in her early life as her father died of tuberculosis and her mother was burned to death. Grace was adopted by the wealthy doctor Smith and his wife who changed her name to Margaret because they already had a daughter named Grace. Her adoptive family called her “Peggy” but Jack called her “Marge” (Wheaton paper, T1, 13). She was engaged when she met Wyrtzen but he quickly talked her out of that relationship.

On April 18, 1936, Wyrtzen and Marge were married in the Smith’s living room. The ceremony included an extended musical package from a member of their gospel team, George Beverly Shea over the objections from Marge’s physician father (Wyrtzen, 1992, 171). Ever the sportsman, Jack broke a tooth and lost a filling playing baseball the morning of his wedding day. A trip to the dentist caused him to arrive late to the service (Bollback, 1972, 34).

Their marriage endured long periods of separation as Jack traveled to establish the ministry in the early days. Marge suffered physically much. She experienced much loneliness but persevered in the relationship until her death in 1984.

Training Mentors

Sold out to his new faith, Wyrtzen determined to be knowledgeable regarding the Bible. In his bedroom he began a Bible study with George Schilling and another friend. The group soon grew to 21, a group he named Chi Beta Alpha (Christians Born Again) (Wyrtzen, 1992, 171). A parallel organization for women who were serious about studying the Bible was begun and dubbed Phi Gamma (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 3). J Arthur Reed and Alfred Kunz taught the hungry group doctrine and the names of God, for four years (Bollback, 1972, 24). Wyrtzen’s mother, an active Republican, acquired a room for the growing group of Bible student’s to meet in and continue their intensive study (Bollback, 1972, 24). Several carloads of young adults traveled weekly to New Jersey on Monday nights for teaching. Pastor Herman Braunlinn of the Hawthorn Gospel Tabernacle started the Hawthorn Evening Bible School, Hawthorn, New Jersey along with Kunz and Arthur Springer (Bollback, 1972, 24) which continued the instruction of the young believer, Wyrtzen, soon to be evangelist, and his friends.

In 1940 Chi Beta Alpha and Phi Gamma merged into a single organization to study the Word of God, taking the name Word of Life Fellowship. Itinerant ministry grew for the fledgling preacher, ultimately moving Wyrtzen to drop out of Hawthorn Evening Bible School. He was invited to give the commencement address in 1943 at which time he was awarded an honorary degree from the school (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 2).

For twenty-five years the Wyrtzen’s lived in a home rent free in Maplewood, New Jersey generously donated to their use by business executive, Charles Ballinger. Ballinger was Plymouth Brethren and so began a relationship that had significant influence on the life and ministry of Jack. “It gave us a real love for the Word of God and also it took all the commercialism out of us, because they don’t have any paid preachers, shared Wyrtzen in an interview in 1991 (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 2).

Dawson Trotman of the Navigators attended the first Wyrtzen rally at Madison Square Garden inquiring about the method of follow-up with those that responded to a salvation invitation. Learning that the new ministry had no system, Dawson spent a couple of weeks mentoring Wyrtzen in viable methods of discipling converts (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 10).

Ministry Mentor

A major influence in the development of both strategy and passion in ministry came in the person of Percy Crawford. Crawford directed the Young People’s Church of the Air radio program since 1931, which originated in Philadelphia every Sunday afternoon. Combining the power of the Mutual Broadcasting System and short-wave radio in ten stations it reached throughout the world. Crawford’s ministry included the direction of Pinebrook Bible Camp which played heavily in the conversion of Marge Wyrtzen and the total surrender of life of both Jack and Marge soon after their conversion.

Crawford sponsored the Pinebrook Book club, the most popular and extensive club of its kind in the Christian literary field. Wyrtzen bought every recommended book and read morning, noon and night to strengthen his new faith (Wheaton paper, T2, 4).

Crawford exposed Jack to the most evangelistic and powerful preachers of the day by hosting Ironside, Barnhouse, and Rimmer as Pinebrook Bible Camp speakers. Wyrtzen claimed, “that most of my gang came out of Percy Crawford’s ministry because he knew how to pull the net in, we didn’t (Wheaton papers, 1991, T2, 3).”

Much like his mentee Wyrtzen, Crawford was one of the top youth speakers in land, addressing 70,000 teens in Chicago land’s Youth for Christ in 1945, and 20,000 at the Hollywood Bowl in 1946 (Larson, 1947, 34). Crawford was a little older than Wyrtzen being converted ten years before at the Church of Open Door Los Angeles, CA. Highly interested in learning, Crawford earned degrees from UCLA, Wheaton College and Bible Institute of LA (BIOLA), before moving to Philadelphia to attend Westminster Seminary.

During Crawford’s second year his vision of “reaching youth with the truth” flamed. He like Wyrtzen after him, hosted youth rallies in large churches and broadcast the meetings on radio station. Like Wyrtzen, people jammed into churches to hear the youth evangelist, and hundreds turned away when there was no more room (Larson, 1947, 34-35). Like Wyrtzen, Crawford also ministered to military men. The highlight of his involvement with enlisted men came in San Diego when 1200 men at San Diego Naval station accepted Christ. Crawford’s frank, sincere, fearless delivery became the standard in this new evangelistic wave that swept America in the 1930’s and beyond. The central message was the old fashioned Gospel.

Philosophy of Ministry

Determining why one does ministry is critical to knowing how one will do ministry. Wyrtzen’s rationale of ministry significantly marked him as a man after God’s heart. His plan was to give people the gospel, plain and practical. Lamenting those who were watering down the gospel, especially in presenting the truth to young people, Mel Larson contrasts Wyrtzen’s approach compared with popular methods of the time.

“We’ve offered youth everything from Golden Gate Bridge to a fifteen-cent box of candy at Christmas, thinking we could bribe them with that. And still they leave us! We’re giving them milk bars, gymnasiums, summer camps, rumpus rooms, and picnics—and they want none of it and none of us. We’ve made it ridiculously easy to join the church, we’ve watered down the requirements and apologized for the requirements we have kept; we’ve made a lot of our churches ninety per cent country club and ten percent Gospel hall-and along comes Jack Wyrtzen and all the rest of the Youth for Christ leaders, offering nothing but the unvarnished Gospel we thought they didn’t want, asking them only that they change their whole way of living. And youth goes for it, not in dribbles, not by twos and threes, but by thousands!

…What all the denominations have not been able to do, with all their resources, organization, and highly trained experts, these men have done outside the church. They have cut clean across denominational lines; they laugh at sectarianism; they even disregard the old division lines of the Gospel that has made them fishers of youth without equal in our times (Larson, 1947, 42-43).”

Matters of ecclesiastical separation played a significant role in Wyrtzen’s ministry partnerships. “This stand cost him many friends, but Jack’s principles and convictions are based on God’s Word and are consistent (Bollback, 1972, 107).” On one occasion he refused an offering that came from a group of churches which he did not agree with. He did however, preach and give an invitation with an overwhelming response. Favorite topics of preaching included, “rock (music), short skirts, long hair, drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, and the sex revolution (Bollback, 1972, 107).” His biographer summarized Jack’s willingness to take a stand in these terms, “he had to decide if he was going to be popular or stand true to the Word of God. While many others have compromised and sold out for a few dollars and perhaps fame, Jack has stood his ground, many times alone. Some liberals hate him – he’s too dogmatic, over-simplified, and too fundamental. Some fundamentalists say he is not separated enough. But some evangelists say he is too separated and therefore unaware of the issues (Bollback, 1972, 109).”

Wyrtzen himself shared, “…as far as Word of Life is concerned, we are not in any way associated with the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, nor any Protestant Council of Churches who are connected with the Ecumenical Movement. We stand only with the evangelical Christians the world around who believe the Bible to be inerrant, verbally inspired Word of God…we will continue to preach the old-fashioned Gospel of Jesus Christ, how Christ died for our sins and is now risen from the grave for our justification (Bollback, 1972, 110).” While Wyrtzen would speak on any platform, he resolutely refused to invite unbelievers to speak on his platform.

Because of Wyrtzen’s involvement in the dawning of a new era of mass evangelism he often found himself groping about to discover the most efficacious methods for reaching people. One tidbit he shared in an oral history interview said, “And you never give a tract to someone as they are coming to the meeting, you give it to them as they leave…talk about some experience or talk about somebody in history…until you get a crowd and then you gradually work into the gospel (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 4).”

For the most part Wyrtzen resisted formal organizational structures favoring instead to have a more loosely organized style. Even though Word of Life grew in later years to be on six continents, each and every country was autonomous. Similarly, the thousand Bible clubs in the states were each independent clubs tied to local churches. The attempt was to keep Word of Life as a fellowship, a family with similar standards of conduct and the same doctrinal statement but without a strict ruling from the headquarters (Wheaton papers, 1991, T4, 6). Another caution of Wyrtzen was not to build the organization around one person, who was the founder or main leader as he felt it lent itself to more cultish interactions. Rather a more decentralized structure that empowered nationals following a discipleship pattern of always training up the one to come after you, and the one after that leader and so on (Wheaton papers, 1991, T5, 2-7).

Radio Ministry Pioneer

Mentor, and spiritual cheerleader, Percy Crawford’s radio ministry did much ground work in preparation for the radio evangelism of youth (Larson, 1947, 19). With Crawford’s advice and cooperation to use radio as his pulpit, Jack Wyrtzen launched his Tuesday morning radio ministry called Word of Life over WBBC in Brooklyn, NY in 1940 (Cannister, 2003, 177). A Christian business executive, Mortimer Bowen, instructed Wyrtzen to gather his quartet, the brass trio and meet at WBBC where he offered to pay the bill for a half hour on the air for one year, recognizing Wyrtzen’s ability as an evangelist (Wyrtzen, 1992, 171).

Wyrtzen began his preaching almost immediately following his conversion. His first audience was at noon in the City Hall Park and his audience included clerical workers, Bowery bums, and Wall Street broker. Crowds ranged in size from seventy-five to over two hundred, resulting in the conversion of many (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 3). He worked as a tag team with other believers working in that area of the city, staggering their lunch breaks to keep the meeting going for nearly three hours daily.

Later his audience shifted to churches, jails, missions, and Civilian Conservation Corp camps (Larson, 1947, 45). In conjunction with Charles Alexander and Reuben Torrey they approached a work crew on the Skyline Drive (a more than 100 mile road in Shenandoah National Park in VA), gain permission from the captain in charge to hold a meeting to play, sing, and preach and distribute Gospels. The audience comprised of teenagers out of work and school dropouts were very receptive yielding a lot of conversions (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 5). Bill Wiley, the first convert of Wyrtzen, approached the commissioners in New York City to gain access to all seventeen prisons in the city, Middleton, NY, the City Reformatory and Sing Sing to preach once a month, Saturdays, Sundays (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 6). Wyrtzen recapped that the prison population didn’t need much preaching on sin and that he preached all over the Bible following the Holy Spirit’s direction.

When the station went out of business, Wyrtzen pursued a larger venue of sports station WHN. His initial inquiry was rebuffed by the manager who wanted “no religion on my station” (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172). But God had other plans and the station’s young salesman signed Wyrtzen to a thirteen-week contract for a Saturday night broadcast for only $1,750 just two weeks later. A meeting place was secured in Times Square, the Old Alliance Gospel Tabernacle, and although only 250 attended the program rang out at 7:30 PM, October 25, 1941 with these words, “From Times Square, New York, Word of Life presents Jack Wyrtzen with words of life for the youth of America (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172).” When the station increased its transmission from 5,000-watts to 50,000-watts, the potential audience swelled to millions. With a larger radio audience the rally audience continued to grow as well averaging over 1000 a night (Larson, 1947, 46).

Youth Rallies

Many exciting revivals going on just “needed someone to start the fireworks…God has His man…young insurance salesman & ex-orchestra leader (Larson, 1947, 42)” Frank Mead writer for Christian Herald reported that “it was Wyrtzen that got the ball rolling” (Larson, 1947, 42).

Rallies of youth grew concurrently with the radio outreach. Beginning with two hundred in a Lutheran church in Brooklyn, the rallies quickly outgrew the space. Within less than three months, the crowds had outgrown the church venue, moving at first to Carnegie Hall, then to Madison Square Garden on April 1, 1944. Struggles were ever present as the day of the first rally at Madison Square approached. Wyrtzen’s five-year old son had a high fever, his wife’s third pregnancy was not going well, the War department had denied permission for military personnel to testify, and $6,000 was needed (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172). Prayer conquered all the obstacles! Twenty-thousand filled the stadium with an additional 10,000 outside listening by speakers. Wyrtzen himself reported that from that day on, April 1, 1944, “The movement seemed to spread like wildfire all around the country” (Larson, 1947, 46). The radio program was heard coast to coast and around the world on short-wave radio each Saturday night. During the weekdays, Jack and his Gospel teams traveled to nearby towns and cities holding evangelistic services (Larson, 1947, 19).

Another evangelistic method that worked effectively for Wyrtzen were Word of Life four hour cruises, at times attracting as many as 4,500. Men’s banquets drew 800 men to hotel Aster and Commodore (Larson, 1947, 47). Friday night’s were given to Word of Life Bible School and with no tuition charged attendance rose to 300 students. Offering free correspondence courses further extended his educational impact to radio listeners (Larson, 1947, 47).

The Madison Square Garden rallies continued to be effectual in bringing youth to salvation – over 1,400 responded in two rallies that over 67,000 attended (Larson, 1947, 47). A revival broke loose at a third rally in 1945 where 2,400 respondents claimed Christ as Savior. Follow-up materials were sent to every convert in an attempt to continue the educational impact of Wyrtzen’s ministry (Larson, 1947, 47). On the eighth anniversary of Word of Life, 40,000 attended a rally in the rain at Yankee Stadium and 1,100 salvation decisions were recorded (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172).

Television as evangelism tool

Wyrtzen was one of the first people to go on television and preach. This began in 1948 with a ten o’clock program on Sunday evenings on Channel 13 in New York City directed by Shorty Yeaworth (Shuster, 1991, 1). Setting up a living room scene with young people gathered around on the floor, the program included music from a gospel quartet and then a short sermon by Wyrtzen. Live broadcasts from Yankee Stadium became cost prohibitive and so the broadcasts were discontinued for a while until live television was done from the tabernacle in Times Square along with radio (Shuster, 1991, 2). Wyrtzen reported in a live interview that “a lot of souls” came as a result of the truth presented in this new format (Shuster, 1991, 3).

From the beginning with live television, Wyrtzen focused on TV specials by buying time on independent stations nationwide. The Passion play and Let Freedom Ring in 1976 were memorable specials produced and aired (Shuster, 1991, 2).

Shared Methodologies

Those that were saved through Wyrtzen’s meetings helped to kindle a fire for youth evangelism nationwide. Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago all felt the effects of Wyrtzen’s mass evangelism as each began its own Youth for Christ fellowship (Larson, 1947, 48). Long before there was intentional coordination of programming, these rising youth evangelists were making contact with Wyrtzen as to the best approaches to take when reaching youth for Christ in their communities.

First Oscar Gilian and later Ed Darling inaugurated programs fashioned after Word of Life hour in Detroit. Walter Smyth repeated the pattern in Philadelphia which grew in size and effectiveness. Wyrtzen was deluged with inquiries about starting rallies elsewhere. Because Youth for Christ was in its infancy it had no central organization and no accurate records. A young Christian Missionary and Alliance pastor, Roger Malsbary, launched a youth ministry of similar style in the heartland of America, Indianapolis in May 1943. God used Dick Harvey in St Louis, MO in 1944. George Wilson began a singspiration in Minneapolis. Torrey Johnson brought Wyrtzen, Harvey, Malsbary to Chicago land’s Orchestra Hall in May 1944 (Larson, 1947, 20). God’s chosen instrument for youth outreach in Toronto, Honolulu, and Bermuda was Charles Templeton (Larson, 1947, 20-21).

In each venue the ingredients were similar: music, testimonies from born again young people, and a God-centered short message geared to youth.

During World War II, some missionaries were recalled to the United States but God continued the work of youth evangelism through US servicemen. Many impacted through Wyrtzen’s rallies started rallies of their own in Germany, Japan, China, Guam, Okinawa, and Frankfurt (Larson, 1947, 22). Others started gatherings in England, Norway, Holland, Mexico, Australia, Greece, and Scandinavia. So successful were the rallies that they “caused more criticism than any other Christian movement in decades (Larson, 1947, 24).” Because they were interdenominational this youth revival was not supported by denominations, liberals, or Communists. Some were concerned that the outreaches were not church-centered but one thing that none could deny was that this was a major religious phenomena of twentieth century.

Missions: To go or stay?

God’s blessing on the ministry of Word of Life Fellowship in America was quite evident. However the matter than haunted Jack was whether he was doing all God intended for him. As the needs of various countries were presented, Jack was willing to go and felt the serious nature of the needs presented, from Africa, to Borneo, to New Tribes every need prompted his willing heart to respond. “I can’t take it any longer,” Jack told Marge, “I’m going up to the attic; I’m going to wait on the Lord until he shows me without a doubt what His will is for me (Bollback, 1972, 63).”

God made it very clear to him that he was to stay but to have a missionary vision. That vision began to unfold with one opportunity after another as he preached to crowds in Mexico City in 1945, the British Isles in 1946, in Korean during 1952 and again in 1972, in Sao Paulo, Brazil; in Africa, Russia, Poland, New Zealand at the Kiwi Ranch in 1947 (Bollback, 1972, 63-70). Thousands attended the rallies and thousands responded to the call of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The Word of Life ministry continues globally through eleven stations every week in Russian-speaking countries, throughout the Portuguese-speaking nations, and in Spanish in Argentina as of 1972 (Bollback, 1972, 69).

Word of Life International

Confident of God’s clear direction for Jack to stay in the United States, his heart continued to be enlarged as he considered the pressing needs around the globe. During the Korean War, 1951, Jack and Gil Dodds ministered in a rally to over five thousand military personnel at which time over 430 decisions were made for salvation (Word of celebration, 1989, 57). Pocket Testament League Gospels of John were distributed to over 250,000 Korean soldiers in another series of rallies. At one rally over 14,000 troops were marched into a drill field to hear Jack’s testimony of how he came to faith while in the Army, and over 8,000 men responded to the invitation for salvation (Word of celebration, 1989, 59).

Family Life

Early in his ministry, Jack traveled 60,000 miles a year by car, attempting to broadcast from New York on Saturday evenings but if unable, broadcasting from a major city on his travel path (Wyrtzen, 1992, 173). His time with family was limited to one evening per week which in time took its toll on his wife Marge whose weak physical condition resulted in an emotional breakdown as she tried to raise the children virtually alone (Wyrtzen, 1992, 173). Marge suffered with asthma and severe allergies, as well as enduring many minor and major surgeries (Bollback, 1972, 34). Much of the discipline and devotional life of the Wyrtzen children fell to Marge and she did so with courage and endurance (Bollback, 1972, 34).Wyrtzen traveled alone for most of 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Wyrtzen children recount memories with their dad emphasizing the consistency of his life at home and in the pulpit. When dad was home, the children recount his unselfishness in allowing them to choose the activities they enjoyed together (Bollback, 1972, 39). From the late sixties until her death in January of 1984, they enjoyed “the richest and tenderest times of their marriage reported their son, David (Wyrtzen, 1992, 173).” All five of Marge and Jack’s children attended a Christian High School in Florida which drew criticism (Bollback, 1972, 43). The oldest daughter, Mary Ann and her husband employed that experience as they launched a Bible Institute in Brazil. Madge died of a heart attack on New Year’s Day 1984, as she and Jack were visiting some friends.

Many friends expressed their love and comfort after Marge’s death, but the loss was great for Jack. Prayer for God’s leadership in this trial focused on either strength to carry on alone, or God’s provision of a special helpmate (Word of celebration, 1989, 127). At a mission’s conference in Bermuda, Dr. Wendell Kempton mentioned Joan Steiner who was also attending the conference to Jack but he was uninterested in meeting. That is until the providential encounter on the final day when they were seated on a shuttle bus next to each other. Joan’s smile, love, joy and compassion attracted Wyrtzen to her (Word of celebration, 1989, 128). Two years after Marge’s home going, in 1986, Joan Steiner married Wyrtzen. Joan traveled with him extensively home and abroad – in Canada, behind the Iron Curtain, Africa and every country in South America (Wyrtzen, 1992, 173).

Founder and Director

While the first President of the Word of Life ministry was George Schilling, the director of Word of Life ministries from 1941 until 1991 was Jack Wyrtzen. A Bible institute level program was inaugurated at Schroon Lake, NY in 1942.

Word of Life Camps

A real estate agent presented to Jack the possibility of purchasing a prime piece of real estate to begin a camp ministry. Wyrtzen expressed his lack of interest in such a venture only to have her persist in her presentation of information, photos, and offer to help in the transaction if there was interest. A visit sealed the matter for Jack and a group of friends in spite of the terrible state of disrepair of the property. With an asking price of $125,000 it would take a miracle for Miss Clark the owner to accept the $25,000 that Wyrtzen offered (Bollback, 1972, 72-73). And a miracle was what God provided when Miss Clark, independently wealthy, accepted the offer based on the report that the camp would be used to benefit countless thousands of teens from around the world (Bollback, 1972, 74).

Much work was required to ready the camp for useful service, so Jack and Marge jumped right in accomplishing much of the labor themselves. A serious aquaplane accident sidelined Wyrtzen with a broken hip that required serious surgery, and an anticipated four to six month recovery was reduced to two weeks with Jack back on the Island doing ministry with crutches (Bollback, 1972, 76). Schroon Lake purchase for Word of Life camp opened 1947 and served as a prototype for Christian camps all over the globe (Wheaton papers, 1991, T4, 3).

Word of Life International’s headquarters and point of origin in the Adirondack Mountains, 85 miles north of Albany, includes a 90-acre camp for young people and college-career young adults (Word of Life founder, 1996, …).

God’s next provision for the ministry was the Brown Swan Club on the shores of Schroon Lake whose original asking price was one million dollars. The teen camp had been successful and there was a need to minister to parents in the same vicinity if possible. After a year of intensive prayer a ridiculous offer of $125,000 was made for the property, its buildings, and the necessary resources to run an adult conference center by a Christian business man, Leon Sullivan, from Philadelphia (Bollback, 1972, 77-80). God’s timing was perfect as owner Mr. Greenberg recounted, “…the very day he came, my cook had quit, and I was sick and tired of all the problems of running the Brown Swan, so I said to my wife, ‘If anyone comes in and wants to buy the place, I’ll give it to them (Bollback, 1972, 80).” Word of Life Inn was purchased and opened for Bible Conference ministry in 1953 (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172).

Finally the Ranch for children was launched in 1955 (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172). This ministry tool included 135 acres of land, 28 modern buildings, a beach, a large theater, new dining room, several tennis courts, stables, canoes, rowboats, basketball court and baseball field all of which had cost its current owner $300,000 (Bollback, 1972, 81). The owner was willing to take $170,000 for it but that was way past the resources of Word of Life ministry. After council with the Board of Directors and prayer, Wyrtzen offered the man a mere $60,000 – to which he agreed (Bollback, 1972, 81).

Percy Crawford’s Pinebrook influence was again evident as both men were committed to “proclaim the gospel, to challenge believers to personal growth in godliness, and to obey Christ’s command to reach the world (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172).”

Harold Reimer and Harry Bollback were serving as missionaries to Brazilian Indians when Wyrtzen contacted them about the possibility of starting a Word of Life Camp for Brazil. In 1958, the camp became a reality and by 1972 was serving over five thousand campers each year (Bollback, 1972, 86). Under the leadership of Harold Reimer the camp Palavara da Vida had grown by 1989 to 13,000 campers per year, hundreds upon hundreds of whom have found Christ as their Savior (Word of celebration, 1989, 56).

The vision for international camps continued to grow as Word of Life camps were opened in Munich, West Germany in 1969; and later in Nairobi, West Africa; Quito, Ecuador; Mexico, Australia, Argentina, Philippine Islands and Israel (Bollback, 1972, 89-91).

By 1989, Word of Life Fellowship owned 33 Christian camps worldwide, seven of which were located in the United States (Zeff, 1989, June 5). A donor gave 450 acres in Shady Hills, Florida in Pasco County for a new Christian youth camp and adult retreat which cost about $15 million dollars to construct. The camp continued on the themes of Wyrtzen’s lifelong ministry – “a place where people can come and study the Bible for a week or more. But it’s also a place to relax and play sports or swim (Zeff, 1989, June 5).” Word of Life has built youth camps and conference centers in 38 countries of the world (Hayes, 1996, 3). In 1996, more than 10,000 guests visited the conference center and youth camp headquarters in Schroon Lake, New York (Hayes, 1996, 3).

Don Kelso, who served as overseas director from 1979-1987, attributed the fruitfulness of the overseas camp and Bible Institute ministries to its philosophy and methods stating, “In today’s world economy, people in every country are flocking to the cities-and that’s where Word of Life camps are located…nearly half of the staff overseas are nationals, not Americans. More than half of our Word of Life foreign ministries are directed by non-Americans…gaining acceptance is usually easier when Word of Life is not perceived as a totally American program directed from the United States (Word of celebration, 1989, 106).”

Word of Life Clubs

Wyrtzen was committed to the ministry of the local church believing that “organizations like Word of Life will come and go (history has proven this), but the local church, the true body of believers of Christ, will go on; therefore, we had better build into God’s program (Bollback, 1972, 92).”

When Paul Bubar first suggested the concept of local church junior and senior high Bible club program, Wyrtzen resisted feeling like the ministry was already overtaxed. But the concept of a grass-roots-level program working with teens that was a long-term local church centered made sense. God used Paul Bubar as the instrument to inaugurate the program in 1959 that incorporated daily time with God, dubbed a daily quiet-time. Structured Bible memory, local church service, and person-to-person evangelism completed the main components of the program (Bollback, 1972, 94). Word of Life Bible clubs are used in more than one thousand churches in the United States and youth ministries in 37 countries of the world (Word of Life founder, 1996, …). As the club program grew there developed a need for trained leaders to give direction to these clubs.

Youth ministry historian/researcher Mark Senter summarizes that “…church-based Word of Life clubs which have been better received by high school students in the church. The program has been most successful in churches where lay leadership needs a curriculum to follow and high schoolers want a youth group that reaches beyond the church’s youth club (Senter, 1992, 137-8).”

Bible Institutes

The first Bible Institute of Word of Life was started in Brazil dividing the program into three segments: academic, attitude, and practical (Bollback, 1972, 95). Started by Dave Cox, son-in-law to Wyrtzen founded the school growing it into a protype for other Bible Institutes around the world (Word of celebration, 1989, 98). A second Brazilian Bible institute was begun in Recife in 1980 was launched by George Theis.

In 1971 Wyrtzen co-founded a Bible Institute with Harry Bollback that enrolled more than 600 students at the time of his death in 1996 (Word of Life founder, 1996, …). Using the facilities of the winterized Ranch, the twelve month program that taught only the Bible was launched with 73 students (Bollback, 1972, 96). Paul Brownback, West Point cadet trained by Wyrtzen through Bible classes, provided the leadership for the new venture.

Written and Print Media

While not an extensive writer, Wyrtzen did publish two books that each sustained multiple printings. Sex and the Bible continued for 13 printings, while Sex is not Sinful enjoyed seven editions (Bollback, 1972, 116). Numerous articles, pamphlets and cassette recordings of chapel addresses are available through the Billy Graham Center Archives on John Von Casper “Jack” Wyrtzen.

With his intense love of music, it is no surprise that a quarter of a million Word of Life songbooks have been published and sold to assist young people in their praise of God (Bollback, 1972, 115).

Finally a youth oriented newspaper, Life Lines, was printed in English, Portuguese, and Spanish in an attempt to reach multitudes with a printed Gospel presentation (Bollback, 1972, 115).

Opposition to Ministry Style

Seasoned churchmen opposed Wyrtzen in the early days of mass rallies stating that the day of mass evangelism was over. Especially were the critics wary of youth gatherings noting that most gatherings of youth were a few youth in a side room of a church building.

Liberal preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, resisted the preaching of Wyrtzen as did the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. When several youth leaders and the song leader of Norman Vincent Peale’s church were converted and left his church because of the liberal preaching, the pastor’s ire was raised against Wyrtzen (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 12).

During the formational years of Youth for Christ, Wyrtzen championed the cause of forming a strong doctrinal position that included the security of the believers, no speaking in tongues or Pentecostalism, and the pre-tribulational rapture position. This position was not looked upon favorably by leading youth ministry figures at the time and provided opportunities for formal public debates. At the 1946 international convention of the Christian Business Men’s Committee, Torrey Johnson championed an “ecumenical evangelism” position and Wyrtzen the more doctrinally conservative approach. Wyrtzen claimed that the broadening of doctrinal positions and blurring of denominational lines led to Christian Endeavor and Student Volunteers becoming extinct (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 15).

During the Time Square rallies, the communist party in New York picketed the meetings but had no significant impact on the event. Additional opposition was generated when the New York Journal American printed Wyrtzen’s sermons in the late 1940’s. Word of Life’s ministry in Russia, Hungary, Poland, and Siberia through Bible distribution, rallies, conference centers and Bible institutes were misunderstood leading some to accuse Wyrtzen of working for the CIA (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 17-19).

Death and Descendents

Wyrtzen who lived in Schroon Lake, New York died on April 17, 1996, at Glens Falls Hospital having never recovered from emergency surgery the previous month to repair an aneurysm (AP, 1996, 4/19). Jack was survived by wife Joan, their eight children: Mary Ann Cox, Sao Paulo Brazil; Don John Wyrtzen, Brentwood, Tennessee; Betsy Lee Oris, Schroon Lake, NY; David Booth Wyrtzen, Midlothian, TX; Ron Wyrtzen, Milford, OH; Kathy Hahn, Claremore, OK; Don Steiner, Lakeland, FL; David Steiner, Rochester, NY and 55 grandchildren and great-grandchildren (http://www.wol.org/about/jack/).

People Influenced

It is literally impossible to name or number the number of individuals who have come to faith through the preaching ministry of Jack Wyrtzen. They spread literally around the globe.

Many who were converted because of Wyrtzen’s City Hall Park lunchtime street preaching have made significant contributions through their lay involvement in churches. Sophie Muller, converted writer for Harper & Row, who was converted in those street meeting invested her language skills in translating the Bible into nine of the twelve languages she speaks. Sophie led thirty-five thousand Indians to the Lord in Columbia as well as starting three hundred and fifty churches (Wheaton papers, 1991, T3, 3).

Notable individuals in Christendom include Billy Graham. Wyrtzen’s methods of evangelism served as a pattern for other evangelical para-church organizations, such as Youth for Christ. YFC’s first full-time evangelist Billy Graham employed many of the same methods (Word of Life founder, 1996, …). “Word of Life mass rallies in the forties influenced the establishment of other organizations such as Youth for Christ (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172).” Billy Graham was hired by Torrey Johnson as the first full-time evangelist of YFC. Graham was willing to serve with liberal Protestant Council of Churches. Wyrtzen was not willing to work with liberals to accomplish his evangelistic task and the two separated amicably (Wyrtzen, 1992, 172). Thus Jack Wyrtzen was not involved in the formation of the International organization of Youth for Christ explaining, “We have no direct tie-up with Youth for Christ International except through the blood of Jesus Christ. We believe in fellowship with all believers (Larson, 1947, 86).” While no official organizational tie existed, the two organization’s leaders, Graham from YFC spoke for Word of Life Hour and Wyrtzen for YFC rallies. Jack was included in YFC’s 1944 original organizational meeting in Winona Lake (Larson, 1947, 87).

Harry Bollback was deeply influenced by his lifelong friendship with Wyrtzen. As a Brooklyn teenager who loved to play the piano, Bollback met Wyrtzen at a youth meeting one night and found himself at the piano in a jail service the next morning with a new youth work called WORD OF LIFE. Bollback’s fifty years of ministry include five in Brazilian jungles, fourteen directing camps and Bible Institutes in Brazil, as co-Director of Word of Life fellowship, Inc in the United States and as the founder of Word of Life. Bollback is best known for his teaching musical dramas used throughout the United States to evangelize youth through presentations of “Revelation”, “Daniel”, “Genesis”, “Let Freedom Ring”, “Ring the Bells”, “God’s Portrait of Love”, “The Passion Play”, “Sights and Sounds of Christmas”, “America, I Still Can Hear Your Song” all of which have been effective tools of evangelism, and some of which have been produced for national television (http://wol.org/about/harry/).

Tom Mahairas, a Greek immigrant to America, lived the life of a hippie in New York City in the 1960’s. Mahairas came to faith in Christ in 1968, as a result of his encounter with Jack Wyrtzen at Word of Life Island as did his hippy girlfriend both of whom were high on LSD (Bollback, 1972, 1-4). In subsequent years, Mahairas pastored the Manhattan Bible Church in New York as well as directing many camps similar to the one where he found meaning for his life.

George Verwer serves as the founder and former International director of Operation Mobilization which is a ministry devoted to evangelism, discipleship training, and church planting. His conversion at age sixteen resulted from a Jack Wyrtzen meeting in which Billy Graham preached at Madison Square Garden, New York. Within one year George had lead over 200 of his high school classmates to faith in Jesus (Operation Mobilization, 2004, 1).

The relationship of Christianity and sports has fluctuated historically between “viewing sport and other leisure activities as devilish distractions or simply a waste of time…or as a religio-cultural ideal… (Mattisen, 1992,, 2).” Many assume that the values learned in athletics might transfer to later life experiences – including discipline, persistence, manliness, and patriotism (Mattisen, 1992, 2). Wyrtzen is credited with innovating nondenominational, para-church forms of ministry which lead to youth outreach, Christian education, and radio evangelism employing notable athletes. Wyrtzen formed a significant alliance with Gil Dodds who in 1943 was the reigning American mile-run champion. Dodds testified at the significant April 1st Madison Square Rally to testify regarding his Christian faith (Mattisen, 1992, 3). Sports evangelism gained notoriety with Wyrtzen and Dodds, contributing to the church’s evangelism and mission (Mattisen, 1992, 4). Wyrtzen’s enthusiastic style and energy gave impetus to the spread of Christian witness.

Don Wyrtzen, son of Jack and Marge, was deeply imprinted by his fathers love for souls and love of music. Don is recognized as one of the leading musicians and statesmen in Christian music, having graduated from Moody Bible Institute, The King’s College, and Dallas Theological Seminary. Don has arranged and composed over four hundred anthems and sacred songs, and resides in Brentwood, Tennessee (www.broadmanholman.com). He has recorded with the London Philharmonic, Indianapolis Symphony, as well as with Steve Green, Sandi Patti and others (Wheaton papers, 1991, T1, 14). In 1981 he received a Dove Award from Gospel Music Association for the musical, “The Love Story.” Two million of his musicals and cantatas have been sold.

Joe Jordan became a follower of Christ at Word of Life camp under the preaching of Wyrtzen in 1961 went on to graduate from Tennessee Temple University with a BA in Bible & Theology. Jordan continued his ministry preparation at Philadelphia College of Bible and Lynchburg College and holds a D.D. from Tennessee Temple. Jordan founded and directed the ministry of Word of Life in Argentina for 20 years including a Bible Institute, camps, and clubs throughout the country. Jordan served five years as Senior Vice-President of Ministries; in 1995 Jordan was appointed Director of Word of Life Fellowship International. In August of 1999, he was appointed Executive Director of worldwide ministries of Word of Life (http://ww/wol.org.about/joe/)

The measure of a man is often what happens to the ministries he begins when he passes off the scene. For Wyrtzen, this measure finds the man faithful and fruits that remain. The Word of Life website describes its present passion this way: “Strategically ministering in 46 countries, the Word of Life heartbeat is the life-changing truth of the Word of God to youth of the world. Mission teams follow a proven pattern of evangelism, local church Bible clubs, Christian camping, and Bible Institutes. At least 3.1 million people were exposed to the gospel over the past year (http://www.wol.org/worldwide/).” The target of the ministries is to double the current evangelistic efforts and by 2010 is to reach an additional 55 countries with the gospel (http://www/wol.org/worldwide/).”

Sources Cited

  • Bollback, Harry. (1972). The House that God built: The Jack Wyrtzen “Word of Life”story. Schroon Lake, New York: Word of Life Fellowship, Inc.
  • Borgman, Dean. (1987). A history of American youth ministry (pp.61-74). In Warren Benson & Mark Senter III (Ed.). The complete book of youth ministry. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
  • Cannister, Mark. (2003). Youth ministry pioneers of the 20th Century, Part II. Christian Education Journal. Series 3, 1 (1), 176-177.
  • Hayes, Suzanne. (1996, October 5).Word of Life center is retreat for relaxation, spiritual renewal series: Religion. St. Petersburg Times, p. 3.
  • Jack Wyrtzen founded Word of Life group. (1996, April 19). Record Bergen County, NJ. P. B7.
  • Larson, Mel. (1947). Youth for Christ: Twentieth century wonder. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Mattisen, James A. (1992, January 1). From muscular Christians to jocks for Jesus. The Christian Century. Chicago: 109 (1). p. 11, 5.
  • Operation Mobilization. Retrieved January 15, 2004. http://www.om.org/founder/ .
  • Senter, Mark III. (1992). The coming revolution in youth ministry: And its impact on the church. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  • Shuster, Robert. 1991. Many vices one story: Wyrtzen. From oral history collection 446T4. http://www/wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/exhibits/ohistory/oral20.htm
  • WCIF – Christian Radio: The Newsletters. (n.d.). Champion for God – with the Lord, Jack Wyrtzen. Retrieved December 29, 2003. from http://www/wcif.com/past/maynews.html#wyrtzen
  • What happened this day in church history: April 22, 1913, Jack Wyrtzen, future Founder of Word of Life. Retrieved December 29, 2003, from web site: http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/DAILYF/2002/04/daily-04-22-2002.shtml
  • Wheaton College, Papers of John Von Casper “Jack” Wyrtzen – Collection 446. Retrieved December 29, 2003, from The Billy Graham center archives on the Wheaton College web site: http//www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/446.htm. All documents were recorded on October 5, 1991 in the home of Jack Wyrtzen in Schroon Lake New York, T1 transcribed July 2001, pg 1-17; T2 transcribed July 2001, pg 1-9; T3 transcribed July 2002, pg 1-19; T4 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-8; T5 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-20; T6 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-10; T7 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-12. Retrieved January 15, 2004.
  • Word of celebration! Fifty faithful years. 1989. Schroon Lake, New York: Word of Life Fellowship Inc
  • Word of Life founder Wyrtzen dies. Obituary. (1996, June 17). Christianity Today, Vol. 40, 7.
  • Word of Life Fellowship: Harry Bollback, Reaching youth with the… (2002, 2003). Biographical sketch. Retrieved November 20, 2003, from Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://www.wol.org/about/harry/
  • Word of Life Fellowship: Jack Wyrtzen, Reaching youth with the gospel. (2002, 2003). Biographical sketch. Retrieved November 20, 2003, from the Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://www.wol.org/about/jack/
  • Word of Life Fellowship: Joe Jordan, reaching youth. (2002, 2003). Biographical sketch. Retrieved November 20, 2003, from Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://ww/wol.org.about/joe/
  • Word of Life Fellowship, Inc.: International ministries. (2002, 2003). Retrieved November 20, 2003, from Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://www.wol.org/worldwide/
  • Wyrtzen, David. (1992). Jack Wyrtzen and radio ministry: Words of Life (pp. 169-173). In John Woodbridge (Gen. Ed.). More than conquerors. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
  • Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Retrieved on January 15, 2004 from http:www.gospel.mcmail.com/v-z/yesterday_today_and_tomorrow.htm
  • Zeff, Joel. (1989, June 5). Camp is coming together//Adult section of Christian retreat is ahead of schedule. St. Petersburg Times, p. 1.3.
  • Zeff, Joel. (1989, June 7). Work on Christian camp in Pasco ahead of schedule. St. Petersburg Times, p. 5.

Contributions to Christian Education

“Jack Wyrtzen, founder and director of Word of Life International, never graduated from high school, yet he became a pioneer in Christian radio, innovating youth evangelism, camping and training. Under his leadership, Word of Life’s distinctive blend of enthusiastic evangelism and committed edification has flourished to influence the world, from South America to the Ukraine (Wyrtzen, 1992, 169).”

A 1960 biography of Wyrtzen by Moody Bible Institutes’ Chancellor George Sweeting compared Wyrtzen to D.L. Moody when he said, “Neither man was ordained, neither had the benefit of college or seminary, but they had a compassion for the lost and a gift for evangelism. (CT, 6/17/96).

Harry Bollback, lifelong ministry friend, described Wyrtzen as hard working, polite, man of great vision, enthusiastic, optimistic, insistent, and courageous, a complete trust in God and “constantly expects God to do the impossible.” (Bollback, 1972, 23)

Jack Wyrtzen proved to be a moving force in the early stages of Youth for Christ ministry to young people and military men. “With lightening-like speed, Youth for Christ spread from its beginning in the United States, becoming world-wide almost overnight. Its speed rivaled the fastest and most modern inventions; its sparks touched all corners of the globe, startling Christian leaders around the world…thousands…yes, tens of thousands…of young people have been converted…Evangelical and non-evangelical, leaders alike have labeled Youth for Christ “The Twentieth Century Wonder of the Religious World” (Larson, 1947, forward).

“Without any central co-coordinating organization at the beginning, without any extensive organizational plans, without any lengthy conferences on procedure, Youth for Christ sprouted simultaneously in cities, towns, villages and rural areas all over the world. (Larson, 1947, 18) “This is a major religious phenomenon of our day, stirring youth as youth has not been stirred for a generation. It is a completely spontaneous spiritual eruption…these men are getting decisions for Christ that the church failed to get. (Larson, 1947, 43).” Much of that force for good in its earliest days sprung from the personal life and ministry efforts of Jack Wyrtzen.

“Evangelist Jack Wyrtzen, founder of Word of Life religious organization that broadcast Christian programs on television and radio… began a Bible College and several camps for people of all ages throughout the United States and had facilities and organizations in 32 countries of the world” (AP, 4/19/96) at the time of his death.

“Jack Wyrtzen, who began the longest-running series of radio rallies 10 years after Crawford originated his broadcasts in Philadelphia, was said to have forbidden anyone on his broadcasts to speak longer than 45 seconds (Senter, 1992, 76).”

The setting changed for Jack Wyrtzen from city parks, to church pulpits, to river cruises, to church rallies, to stadium gatherings, to military establishments globally but the message was remained the same. A pioneer in mass evangelism on the radio and on TV, Jack Von Casper Wyrtzen rocked his world with the good news of Jesus Christ. Countless thousands of youth and young adults surrendered their lives to God as a result of his clear message of sin, salvation, and freely offered redemption through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wyrtzen’s Bible Institutes and Christian camps in now nearly forty countries of the world combine with the local church youth training organization to draw multitudes to Christ long after his promotion to Glory.


Bibliography

Publications by Jack Wyrtzen

  • Wyrtzen, Jack. (1954). Leaping flame; youth witnessing for Christ. Westwood, NJ: Revell.
  • Wyrtzen, Jack. (1957). Word of Life songs. Schroon Lake, New York: Word of Life Fellowship.
  • Wyrtzen, Jack. (1963?). Sex and the Bible [sound recording]. Waco, TX: Word.
  • Wyrtzen, Jack. (1970). Sex is not sinful? A biblical view of the sex revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Wyrtzen, Jack. (1973). Jesus talked with me; true stories of men and women whose lives were transformed by Jesus Christ. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Publications About Jack Wyrtzen and Word of Life

  • Bollback, Harry. (1972). The house that Jack God built: The Jack Wyrtzen “Word of Life” story. Schroon Lake, New York: Word of Life Fellowship, Inc.
  • Borgman, Dean. (1987). A history of American youth ministry (pp.61-74). In Warren Benson & Mark Senter III (Ed.). The complete book of youth ministry. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
  • Cannister, Mark. (2003). Youth ministry pioneers of the 20th Century, Part II. Christian Education Journal. Series 3, 1 (1), 176-177.
  • Carpenter, Joel A. (1988). The Youth for Christ movement and its pioneers. New York: Garland.
  • Hayes, Suzanne. (1996, October 5).Word of Life center is retreat for relaxation, spiritual renewal series: Religion. St. Petersburg Times, p. 3.
  • Hunter, Jack D. (1976). Jack Wyrtzen. New York: Simon and Schuster. Jack Wyrtzen founded Word of Life group. (1996, April 19). Record Bergen County, NJ. P. B7.
  • Larson, Mel. (1947). Youth for Christ: Twentieth century wonder. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Larson, Mel (1988). Young man on fire. In Joel Carpenter (Ed.).The Youth for Christ movement and its pioneers. New York: Garland.
  • Mattisen, James A. (1992, January 1). From muscular Christians to jocks for Jesus. The Christian Century. Chicago: 109 (1). p. 11, 5.
  • Senter, Mark III. (1992). The coming revolution in youth ministry: And its impact on the church. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  • Shuster, Robert. 1991. Many voices one story: Wyrtzen. From oral history collection 446T4. http://www/wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/exhibits/ohistory/oral20.htm
  • Sweeting, George. (1960). The Jack Wyrtzen story; the personal story of the man, his message, and his ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • WCIF – Christian Radio: The Newsletters. (n.d.). Champion for God – with the Lord, Jack Wyrtzen. Retrieved December 29, 2003. from http://www/wcif.com/past/maynews.html#wyrtzen
  • What happened this day in church history: April 22, 1913, Jack Wyrtzen, future Founder of Word of Life. Retrieved December 29, 2003, from web site: http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/DAILYF/2002/04/daily-04-22-2002.shtml
  • Wheaton College, Papers of John Von Casper “Jack” Wyrtzen – Collection 446. Retrieved December 29, 2003, from The Billy Graham center archives on the Wheaton College web site: http//www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/446.htm. All documents were recorded on October 5, 1991 in the home of Jack Wyrtzen in Schroon Lake New York, T1 transcribed July 2001, pg 1-17; T2 transcribed July 2001, pg 1-9; T3 transcribed July 2002, pg 1-19; T4 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-8; T5 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-20; T6 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-10; T7 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-12. Retrieved January 15, 2004.
  • Word of Celebration: Fifty faithful years. 1989. Word of Life Fellowship inc., Schroon Lake, New York.
  • Word of Life founder Wyrtzen dies. Obituary. (1996, June 17). Christianity Today, Vol. 40, 7.
  • Word of Life Fellowship: Jack Wyrtzen, Reaching youth with the gospel. (2002, 2003). Biographical sketch. Retrieved November 20, 2003, from the Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://www.wol.org/about/jack/
  • Word of Life Fellowship: Joe Jordan, reaching youth. (2002, 2003). Biographical sketch. Retrieved November 20, 2003, from Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://ww/wol.org.about/joe/
  • Word of Life Fellowship: Harry Bollback, reaching youth with the… (2002, 2003). Biographical sketch. Retrieved November 20, 2003, from Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://www.wol.org/about/harry/
  • Word of Life Fellowship, Inc.: International Ministries. (2002, 2003). Retrieved November 20, 2003, from Word of Life Fellowship web site: http://www.wol.org/worldwide/
  • Wyrtzen, David. (1992). Jack Wyrtzen and radio ministry: Words of Life (pp. 169-173). In John Woodbridge (Gen. Ed.). More than conquerors. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
  • Zeff, Joel. (1989, June 5). Camp is coming together//Adult section of Christian retreat is ahead of schedule. St. Petersburg Times, p. 1.3.
  • Zeff, Joel. (1989, June 7). Work on Christian camp in Pasco ahead of schedule. St. Petersburg Times, p. 5.

Excerpts from Publications

Forbes, Forrest Dale, (1948). God hath chosen: The story of Jack Wyrtzen and the Word of life hour. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. [Included in Forbes, Forrest. (1988). In Joel Carpenter (Ed.). The Youth for Christ Movement and its pioneers. New York: Garland.]

“Youth for Christ” was an evangelistic youth rally movement that sprang up during and just after World War II. It featured swing-tempo gospel music, patriotic pageantry, and fast-paced preaching. Led by a younger generation of evangelical (at first, mostly fundamentalist) pastors and business people who had grown up with the new entertainment media, Youth for Christ was a hit with many young people-and their elders-during the domestic upheavals of wartime and early postwar America. By 1947, there were over a thousand of these weekly rallies, which ranged from mid-town Manhattan to LaSalle, Illinois, and on to the “G.I. Hour,” held in Manila. Average weekly attendance at these meetings was estimated to be close to a million. The Youth for Christ movement featured some truly massive “Victory Rallies,” such as ones sponsored by Jack Wyrtzen’s Word of Life organization, which filled Madison Square Garden twice in the spring and fall of 1944… (Introduction)”

“(Youth for Christ) has received very little historical attention until just recently. This evangelistic movement should not be passed over lightly, however, for it was the first wave of the postwar evangelical resurgence (Introduction).”

“Forrest Forbes, God Hath Chosen: The story of Jack Wyrtzen and the Word of Life hour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1948), details the life of Casper John Van Wyrtzen (1913-), known to all as Jack, who was the high-spirited son of a Danish-American family that had settled in Brooklyn, New York. A popular, well-liked young man, Wyrtzen was an insurance salesman who went to church with his friends on Sunday, but hung out with them in bars and dance halls on weeknights. Wyrtzen was an avid pop musician; he played trombone in a twelve-piece orchestra he had organized for fraternity and sorority dances…this circle (group of converted friends) evolved into a self-supporting evangelistic squad, which formally organized in late 1939 as the Word of Life Fellowship, a ministry to young people. During the mid-to-late 1930’s Wyrtzen’s group played, sang, and preached in churches, in revival tents, on the street, in prisons and reformatories, over the radio, in C.C.C. camps- in short, anywhere they could get a hearing. They developed friendly relations with the network of fundamentalist Baptist, Presbyterian, independent, and Plymouth Brethren preachers who share their convictions; and they also befriended lay leaders of evangelistic groups such as the Gideons, the Christian Business Men’s Committee, and the Pocket Testament League….this work provides one of the most valuable records now available of grassroots activity and networking among East Coast fundamentalists in the 1930’s. (Introduction).”

In chapter 8 - Softening up and mopping up “Jack views radio Gospel broadcasts as aerial attacks, heavy bombing raids into the very kingdom of Satan. In that sense they soften up enemy citadels where imprisoned souls await release. These broadcasts are more powerful than a thousand planes dropping myriads of tons of high explosives upon enemy emplacements, for it is estimated that the network broadcasts alone reaches four to five million listeners every Saturday night… After much prayerful experimentation with broadcasting outlets over as many as sixty-five stations across the Untied States and its territories, the Word of Life Fellowship has focused its program on select Eastern and Midwestern stations and around-the-world short-wave from Quito, Ecuador (p. 70).”

Chapter 14 Yale and West Point – “Great opportunities for Bible ministry have come to Jack Wyrtzen in special services at leading Christian colleges in our land, among these being Dallas Seminary, Wheaton College, Eastern Baptist Seminary, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, King’s College and Houghton College…Providence Bible Institute, Providence; National Bible Institute, New York; Philadelphia School of the Bible; Pennsylvania Bible Institute; Columbia Bible College; Washington D.C. Bible Institute; Baltimore Bible Institute; Moody Bible Institute; Bible Institute of Los Angeles; and London Bible Institute, Ontario (p.125).” “This past week a group of Christians now attending Yale University invited me to speak in the Dwight Memorial Chapel…it was one of the biggest crowds that ever attended a religious service there in the chapel… (p.126).”

Wyrtzen, Casper John. (1947) Word of Life chorus-melodies; for your young people's meeting, conference, youth rally and Sunday school …Malverne, NY: Gospel Songs Inc.

Complied in collaboration with Carlton Booth, director of the music department at Providence Bible Institute, soloist on the Word of Life Hour and Normal Clayton, composer and author of many gospel songs, organist for Word of Life Hour. Cost $.35 each or 3 for $1.00. “In compiling this book we have endeavored to include as many as possible of those choruses which have been most popular during the last several years. The result is, we believe, the best chorus book available…” Includes 103 choruses most of which were penned by either Norman Clayton, Wendell Loveless, Stanton Gavitt, Ruth Crawford. Back cover advertises five other chorus books: Word of Life Melodies, No.1; Word of Life Melodies, No. 2; The All-girl trio & choir melodies of Life; Low Voice Melodies, No. 1; Murray’s Songs of Truth for Youth – all sold through the Word of Life Book Store in New York City.

Wyrtzen, Jack. (1958). Word of Life Songs No 2. Word of Life Fellowship, Inc.

Provides a one-page overview of the beginnings of Word of Life. Includes 60 plus hymns many of which were authored by Fanny Crosby and William Doane, and over 60 choruses many written by Norman Clayton and Wendell Loveless. Names other books written by Wyrtzen: Seven Steps to Success in the Christian Life – 10 cents; Youth’s Purity Problems – 25 cents; and What is Life – 25 cents – all available from Word of Life Bookstore, 140 Nassau Street, New York 38, New York. Also describes several 16 mm films: Born to Live (high school boy brought to Word of Life Island by his girl friend and comes face to face with the issue of life); Before the Harvest (story from Brazil and unreached Indian tribes); Mountain Miracles; A Wee Bit of Heaven; Living on the Mountain; and Teenager.

Wyrtzen, Jack. (1954). Leaping flame; youth witnessing for Christ. Westwood, NJ: Revell.

Eight chapters give brief biographies on military academy graduates, athletes, and musicians that were converted to Christ as a result of Wyrtzen’s ministry. Stories recount their sacrificial lives in service to God – most in missions. Class of 1950 from West Point suffered much loss of life in the Korean War including Johnny Green, Pete Monfore, Malcolm Chandler, and Baylor Eichelberger, John Richard Wasson whose valiant testimony for Christ resulted in many coming to faith. Harry Bollback’s decision to go to Brazil as missionary rather than stay as pianist at Word of Life Fellowship & Ed Tritt’s life in New Guinea is told. Forrest Forbes in China, Burma, and India is recounted. Jean “Scotty” Scott’s lifetime in the jungles of Brazil reaching Indians for Christ is given. Paul Clapp served God in Africa after his conversion. Glenn Wagner of the Pocket Testament League distributed one million gospels of John before the communist take over of China, and 10 million gospels for Japan.

Wyrtzen, Jack. (1970). Sex is not sinful? A biblical view of the sex revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co.

“It is evident that this message is deep on the author’s heart. He speaks as a burdened soul – burdened for young people and burdened for the Lord… (Introduction, William Culbertson).” “Permissiveness of every kind threatens the very foundation of our society. Voices from all sides have reported a new sexual freedom and many have promoted the idea of a sexual revolution…sometimes from the pulpits of our churches (p. 7).” Wyrtzen gives solid information regarding the sexual revolution from magazine, journals, newspaper articles demonstrating how the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s had provided wrong answers to right questions. Loaded with scriptural references, this volume exposes the lie behind the sexual revolution. “..let’s take a look at the new morality which offers no guide line except man’s lustful desires. The advocates of the new morality say, ‘It’s all right to do anything you want to do as long as you don’t hurt anyone (p.18).” Quoting from the Phillips and Living Letters paraphrases, Wyrtzen applies relevant scripture to the cultural problems of that day. “Many people think that sex and sin are synonymous. I’d like to prove to you that sex in itself is not sinful. It is the wrong use of sex that is sinful (p.25).” The book ends with a very clear call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the only possible way to live a clean moral life before God.

Wyrtzen, Jack. (1973). Jesus talked with me; true stories of men and women whose lives were transformed by Jesus Christ. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

This compilation includes 32 short biographies of individuals whose lives were transformed by faith in Jesus Christ. “A school dropout, a lonely GI in Indochina, a homeless child of divorce, unhappy married couples hooked on drugs or star study, a cynical rock musician singing words he didn’t feel-these and others share with the reader their experiences of hearing Jesus speak God’s message- a revolution of redemptive love(back cover copy).” Many included in the volume first heard the gospel through the ministry of Jack Wyrtzen. Each is told from first person perspective and ended with the name of the writer.


Recommended Readings

Books

Bollback, Harry. (1972). The House that Jack God built: The Jack Wyrtzen “Word of Life” story. Schroon Lake, New York: Word of Life Fellowship, Inc.

This volume written by Jack’s closest ministry colleague provides a multitude of personal anecdotes demonstrating the powerful God that worked through Jack Wyrtzen to reach multitudes for Christ worldwide. Tracing the life from birth to the early 1970’s, it is filled with photographs and data to support the claims made regarding the incredible impact of one man’s life.

Carpenter, Joel A. (1988). The Youth for Christ movement and its pioneers. New York: Garland.
Word of celebration! Fifty faithful years. (1989). Schroon Lake, New York: Word of Life Fellowship Inc.

An anniversary volume revisiting the beginning and continuing impact of the Word of Life International ministry highlights by the decades of the ministry the ever expanding impact of the organization that Wyrtzen started. This volume includes dozens of pictures of individuals associated with the ministry covering five decades. The index includes a timeline of historical highlights of Word of Life Fellowship from 1932 – 1988.

Senter, Mark III. (1992). The coming revolution in youth ministry: And its impact on the church. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

Traces the historical milieu in which the Youth for Christ movement began under Jack Wyrtzen. Gives the broader perspective of the historical backdrop in which the organization took root and how the methodology of Wyrtzen set new benchmarks for youth ministry.

Wheaton College, Papers of John Von Casper “Jack” Wyrtzen – Collection 446.

Retrieved December 29, 2003, from The Billy Graham Center Archives on the Wheaton College web site: http//www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/446.htm. All documents were recorded on October 5, 1991 in the home of Jack Wyrtzen in Schroon Lake New York, T1 transcribed July 2001, pg 1-17; T2 transcribed July 2001, pg 1-9; T3 transcribed July 2002, pg 1-19; T4 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-8; T5 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-20; T6 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-10; T7 transcribed November 2002 pg 1-12. Retrieved January 15, 2004. Provides intricate detail regarding the people, movements, and attitudes of Jack Wyrtzen in face to face interviews recorded five years before his death. Incredible insights into the times, the major players on the scene in America from an evangelically conservative perspective. Includes many descriptions of the personality and ministry style of individuals like Billy Graham, Torrey Johnson, Dawson Trotman, George Beverly Shea, Paul Fleming, Percy Crawford, Harry Ironside, Robert T. Ketcham, Donald Barnhouse, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and others.

Wyrtzen, David. (1992). Jack Wyrtzen and radio ministry: Words of Life (pp. 169-173). In John Woodbridge (Gen. Ed.). More than conquerors. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Very brief review of life accomplishments from an inside family member perspective. Helpful pictures.


Author Information

Cheryl L. Fawcett

Dr. Cheryl Fawcett is Professor of Christian Education at Christian Heritage College in El Cajon, CA where she teaches youth ministry, women’s ministry and inductive Bible study method courses. Both of her parents early spiritual formation was impacted by the ministry of Jack Wyrtzen. Her dad received Christ as Savior at one of the rallies, and her mother trained at the Hawthorn Bible Institute in New Jersey where Wyrtzen studied for several years. Her own personal exposure to the Word of Life Bible clubs came early in her local church ministry especially during her ministry in the finger lake region of New York State.

Melissa Kirscher

No information available.

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