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Evangelist Got Start in Broadcasting From Santa Ana Station With Bamboo Antenna

'Heavenly Sunshine' Filled the Air


Long before Billy Graham ascended to the pinnacle of the evangelical mountain, that spot was occupied by a onetime Placentia farmer, a smiling fundamentalist whose approach to Christianity drew 20 million radio listeners to his "Old Fashioned Revival Hour."

Charles E. Fuller, the pioneering broadcast evangelist and founder of a theological seminary he named for his father, left the orange-growing business to become the pastor of a worldwide radio congregation. Its size rivaled the audiences of some of the biggest radio hits of the day, "Amos 'n' Andy" and "Bob Hope."

For more than four decades, Fuller combined the once-popular crusader Dwight L. Moody's 19th-century approach to preaching with techniques of 20th-century communications, including a telephone installed at the pulpit and polished performances of various kinds of gospel music.

Fuller's contributions are being highlighted by Philip Goff, a history professor at Cal State L.A. who is writing a book, "Heavenly Sunshine: Charles E. Fuller and the Southern California Roots of Modern Evangelism."

Fuller eschewed theatrics for a low-key message, usually delivered with a smile. He didn't drive an ugly "devil" around the stage like Aimee Semple McPherson; nor did he lead campaigns to drive officials from office like "Fighting Bob" Shuler. Instead, he used Scripture and 525 radio stations to unite conservative Protestants across the country.

Nor was his reputation ever sullied by scandal, a hallmark of some of his contemporaries.

Worked as Soil Tester

Born in downtown Los Angeles in 1887, not far from the furniture store his father, Henry, owned at 3rd and Main streets, Charles was still a small boy when his father packed up the family and headed for a drier climate in Redlands, where he planted 70 acres of orange trees.

In 1911, the younger Fuller, who began his life's work as a soil tester, married his high school sweetheart, Grace Payton. They moved to Placentia, where Charles Fuller worked at a fruit packing company and soon bought an orange grove.

The Fullers' outward prosperity soon was overshadowed by personal tragedy. Their first baby was stillborn, and Grace Fuller was stricken with tuberculosis about the same time.

For four years, Grace's illness was a test of faith, but Fuller's real spiritual journey began in the back seat of his car after he left a revival meeting at the Church of the Open Door at 6th and Hope streets in Los Angeles.

On a sultry July morning in 1916, seeking comfort and salvation, Fuller gathered with thousands to hear boxer-turned-evangelist Paul Rader preach.

After hearing Rader, Fuller made a personal commitment to Christ and Christian service as he knelt in the back seat of his car at a nearby park and prayed.

But finding a new mission in life left Fuller without a way to earn a living. Three years later, however, an oil company paid Fuller $10,000 for drilling rights on his 20-acre orange grove. Money in hand, he headed for the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.

Continuing his religious education, he began teaching Bible classes from time to time on the Biola radio station KJS, while taking on the responsibilities of a pastor for the Placentia Bible Class, which soon became the Calvary Church.

After graduating in 1925, the newly ordained farmer-turned-traveling-missionary hit the road, making stops at lumber camps and other remote communities.

Five years later, Fuller got a shot at a radio show from a small station, KREG, in Santa Ana. Its bamboo antenna reached a 30-mile radius.

But his biggest hurdle had yet to be surmounted.

Disgruntled parishioners at Calvary Church fired him in 1933 because he was so frequently away preaching to others.

That same week, the churchless pastor's faith was tested even more. As the Long Beach earthquake leveled buildings, Fuller lost his $200,000 orange empire when President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed all the banks.

Despite his financial setbacks, Fuller forged ahead, moving to South Pasadena and supporting his family by preaching in a tiny studio above a Long Beach shoe store. The signal was beamed over three radio channels.

Opened Seminary

Totally dependent on 10,000 weekly letters that most often contained checks for $1 to $3, Fuller took radio evangelism to a new level, riding the airwaves with Mutual Broadcast's 14 stations, which soon became the country's third-largest radio network.

His greatest tribute came in 1938, when 75,000 worshipers, lit by the rays of a waning moon, came to see and hear him speak at the Easter sunrise service at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Adapting to new technology in 1941, Fuller preached the word of God via Angelenos' 200 television sets.

During the war years, the "Old Fashioned Revival Hour" hit the airwaves from the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. Thousands chose the Los Angeles area as their vacation spot--long before Disneyland--just to see and hear the man who delivered the heart-to-heart radio talks.

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