Jazz Age Evangelism: Paul Rader and the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle

Advertisement announcing the Steel Tent, which became the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle,1922. (CN 38, Folder 1-52)

Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections holds the stories of many an unsung figure in the history of evangelism, people who made an impact in their own time but are little remembered today. Such a one is Daniel Paul Rader, more widely known by his middle name Paul. The Chicago Gospel Tabernacle he started in the 1920s was a center of innovation and excitement, launching the ministries of several significant evangelical Christian figures of the next generation.

Rader was the son and grandson of ministers and was one himself for a few years, before a loss of faith led him to resign his pastorate. After leaving the ministry, Rader worked as a boxing promoter and then as an oil company representative. Around 1912 Rader experienced a renewal of his Christian faith. He became active in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, eventually serving as an assistant to C&MA founder A. B. Simpson on Simpson’s evangelistic tours. The next year Rader became an evangelist himself and preached around the United States. In 1915, he accepted the pulpit of Moody Church in Chicago and in 1919, upon the death of Simpson, Rader became the second president of C&MA.

Advertising card for Moody Church (CN 38, Folder 4-8)

Like the well-known late 19th century evangelist Billy Sunday, Paul Rader’s ministry was characterized by his appeal to contemporary American life and technology. His experience in sports, education, business, and the pulpit equipped him to use every means of mass communications and every current topic to draw people into the church to hear a Gospel message. 

Poster for the adult Bible class Rader taught at Moody Church. The title refers to the hunt for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa by the United States army force led by General John Pershing, 1916. (Collection 330, Moody Scrapbook XI)

Paul Rader left Moody Church in 1921, planning to go back to full-time itinerant evangelistic work. He returned to Chicago in 1922 and had a temporary wooden tabernacle erected for a summer campaign.  The enthusiastic response to these meetings convinced him to stay. What had been built as the Steel Tent Evangelistic Campaign became the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle.

For the next decade the CGT provide the base for Rader’s efforts to preach, lead, innovate and inspire.  Although widely attended, the Tabernacle was never a church because there was no membership. Rather it served as the preaching platform and base for a wide range of ministries. Rader assembled a mostly young, talented staff that put on outstanding music programs each week. The Tabernacle also sent out and helped support missionaries across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Exterior of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, ca. 1928. WJBT was the call signal of the station Rader broadcasted from the in later half of the 1920s. He held a contest among his radio audience to determine a meaning for them. The winner was “Where Jesus Blesses Thousands.” (Accession 13-10)

Rader was the very model of a modern Evangelical evangelistic entrepreneur, using popular culture and current technology to transmit the Gospel. Rader’s evangelistic radio broadcasts, among the first of their kind, began the same time as the Tabernacle. By 1925 he was broadcasting sermons and music fifteen hours every Sunday. Listeners were encouraged to write in to receive giveaways such as phonograph records and calendars. Besides this Sunday morning programming, Rader also developed a weekday morning program.

Cartoon from the September 1931 issue of World-Wide Christian Courier
Listen to a brief sermon by Rader: “The Stone Age,’ based on John 8:2-11, ca. 1928. This recording is one of the few remaining examples of Rader’s radio programs. (CN 38, Tape 2)

Rader’s willingness to experiment with different methods for evangelism did not stop at the radio. He organized a Christian group patterned after popular fraternal societies such as the Masons and the Elks. The group was called the World Wide Christian Couriers and was intended to provide laypeople with Biblical training and social support. There were eventually fifty clubs around the country.

Cartoon from the December 1931 issue of World-Wide Christian Courier, showing the varied ministries of the Tabernacle. 

Rader also expanded into print mediums, producing a glossy monthly magazine, first called National Radio Chapel Announcer and then World Wide Christian Courier, which contained many photos and illustrations as well as sermons, stories, reports on events, and features for children. Recognizing the reach of his radio and print ministries beyond the Chicago area, Rader started a summer conference ground at Lake Harbor in Michigan (years later it became Maranatha) and drew visitors from all over the upper Midwest.

When the Great Depression hit and people became increasing desperate for help, he organized Paul Rader’s Pantry. It was an effort to get surplus, unsellable food from farmers and have it canned to be distributed to needy families. The smell of cabbage became so strong in the building that Rader became known as the Sauerkraut King of Chicago. Over the course of the first two years of the Depression, more than 36,400 families were fed by the Pantry.

Photo of the Lake Harbor campground bus, undated (Accession 21-21)

Although Rader’s various ministries engaged thousands and the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle was well attended every week, the CGT rested on a very narrow base of financial support. This precarious situation was only exacerbated by the Depression, when many attendees could no longer contribute what little they had given before. One man, Albert Johnson, a millionaire businessman, owned the land the Tabernacle was built on and had provided a large part of the funds that supported Rader’s ministries. When the Depression destroyed Johnson’s business, the CGT went deeply into debt. Eventually Rader had to personally assume the debt and was forced to resign as pastor in 1933. In future years he spoke at the Chicago World’s Fair, filled the pulpit of the Fort Wayne Gospel Tabernacle and led evangelistic campaigns in England and the United States. But he never recovered the energy of the CGT years before his death from cancer in 1937.

Rader preaching to Northwestern Railroad shop men as part of the 1922 Chicago campaign. (Photo File: Rader, Paul)

While Paul Rader’s entrepreneurial evangelism and dynamic leadership of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle lasted only a little over ten years, his impact on evangelism in the United States persisted far beyond his own generation.

Clipping of missionaries the Tabernacle sent to India in 1930. In the upper left hand corner is Peter Deyneka, who later founded the Slavic Gospel Association. (Accession 13-10)

Many leaders in the next generation were trained or inspired by him, including Torrey Johnson (first president of Youth for Christ and mentor to Billy Graham), Merrill Dunlop (hymn writer, song leader, evangelist), Clarence Jones (founder of radio station HCJB in Ecuador and a shortwave ministry around the world), Lance Latham (a founder of the AWANA youth clubs), Henrietta Mears (influential Bible teacher, evangelist, and publisher in Hollywood), Charles Fuller (who started The Old Fashioned Revival Hour radio program), Peter Deyneka Sr. (founder of Slavic Gospel Mission), and Oswald Smith (hymnwriter and first pastor of the People’s Church of Toronto).

Archives & Special Collections holds not only the records of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle (Collection 133), Moody Church (Collection 330), and a large collection of material about Paul Rader (Collection 38), but much more, including oral history interviews with people who describe their memories of Rader and the Tabernacle (CN 268, CN 273, and CN 602), as well as the papers of many of the individuals mentioned above. Across collections, generations, and medium, they tell the remarkable story of how one man was used by God.

Explore more photographs, stories, and artifacts from the ministry of Paul Rader and the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle on the digital exhibit: Jazz Age Evangelism.

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