A Workman for Souls: Remembering William R. McCarrell

College Archives Photograph A1922

The influence of professors, students and administrators is often felt long after they are gone. A ministry might be deeply influential publicly or privately, but after the passage of years, memory of that work diminishes. Fortunately, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections offers an opportunity to revisit the particulars of hard-won contributions to the history of Wheaton College, local Chicago missions, and world evangelism. One such story is that of Dr. William R. McCarrell.

William R. “Billy” McCarrell was born on February 8, 1886, on DeKoven Street, just three blocks from the spot where Mrs. O’Leary’s legendary cow supposedly kicked over the lantern that ignited the disastrous Chicago fire of 1871. As his life unfolded on the streets of the Windy City and beyond, McCarrell would look to spread a different sort of fire.

A brawling, profane kid growing up among the roaming gangs of his Harlem neighborhood, McCarrell heard about “Pioneer Chapel,” a mission plant of the First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park. Attending a service in 1904, he heard the gospel and accepted Christ’s gift of eternal life. He wrote, “At the age of eighteen…possessing a mean tempter and a filthy tongue, I received Jesus Christ as my savior.” Developing new Spirit-led aspirations, he would now serve Jesus alone.

Church program, 1948. (Wheaton College Trustees Records, Box 4, Folder 9)

After graduating from Moody Bible institute in 1912, McCarrell was invited to fill the pulpit of a small, impoverished congregational church. Beginning with only twenty-five congregants, attendance blossomed under his preaching. By the time of his resignation from the pulpit more than forty years later in 1958, the rolls recorded over 1134 members.

Soon after McCarrell came on as pastor, the church changed its name to Cicero Bible Church. During the early 1920s, mob boss Al Capone operated his sprawling crime syndicate out of the Hawthorne Inn, just a few blocks away from the church. While the Great Depression and rampant crime were wreaking havoc on the citizens of Chicago, McCarrell and his army of workers attempted to offer hope in Christ to its diverse neighborhoods. Facing Capone’s and other’s terror on the streets of Cicero, McCarrell responded by opening the doors of his church as a safe zone. One man, converting to Christ under McCarrell’s Sunday evening preaching, pulled a gun from one pocket and a bottle of booze from the other, offering them to the pastor, declaring, “I’ve belonged to Capone. But now I want to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Dr. Charles Blanchard, second President of Wheaton College, who had moderated McCarrell’s ordination, quickly discerned his dedication as pastor and evangelist and asked him to join the Board of Trustees of Wheaton College in 1921. Five years later in 1926, McCarrell participated with President Blanchard and the Board of Trustees in adopting the College’s first official statement of faith. He was also an energetic supporter for a number of Wheaton building projects, including a significant addition to Blanchard Hall and Pierce Chapel. One of the longest serving trustees in Wheaton College history, McCarrell sat on the board for 46 years, retiring in 1967.

McCarrell (second from left) sits with some of the Board of Trustees, c. 1935. L to R: Edgar Dival, William R. McCarrell, J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., Herman Fisher, Jr., George V. Kirk, Foster Oury. (College Archive Photograph A0489)

Besides his work with Wheaton College and as a pastor, McCarrell was a strong presence in the greater Chicago evangelistic community. Seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, Cicero Bible Church supported missionaries positioned all over the world, and planted twenty churches in Chicago. Stressing the crucial need for evangelization, McCarrell oversaw radio broadcasts on WGN and WMBI, in addition to a fleet of buses operating throughout Chicagoland. While pastoring Cicero Bible Church, McCarrell taught at Moody Bible Institute as Professor of Local Church and Personal Evangelism; here Dr. George Sweeting, later pastor of Moody Church and president of Moody Bible Institute, learned how to build an evangelistic church. McCarrell also lectured at Dallas Theological Seminary and New Tribes Mission, and served on the Executive Board of Pacific Garden Mission.

Recognizing a need for fellowship among Bible-believing churches, he founded the Independent Fellowship of Churches (IFCA) in 1929, along with leaders such as Dr. J. Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College and Dr. M.R. DeHaan, founder and president of Radio Bible Class. The IFCA, a fellowship of conservative churches, professed the original five points of fundamentalism: 1) the literal truth of divinely inspired scripture; 2) the Virgin Birth and deity of Christ; 3) substitutionary atonement through Christ; 4) the Resurrection; 5) and the Second Coming of Christ. Perhaps the most immediately effective ministry implemented by McCarrell was the Fishermen’s Club, which, according to its constitution, sought “to win the lost and encourage and instruct the saved in service.” Members taught Sunday School classes, distributed tracts, conducted personal calls and witnessed for Christ in the community.

Dr. William R. McCarrell featured on the cover of Moody Magazine, April 1961. (Wheaton College Trustees Records, Box 4, Folder 9).

“Every contact is an opportunity,” said McCarrell. “If you want to keep fresh, fragrant and fruitful, you must never quit working for souls.” McCarrell’s wise, bold and evenhanded leadership provided guidance for Bryan College, Chicago Hebrew Mission and Pacific Garden Mission, among many other ministries in Chicago and beyond. As preacher, pastor and author, he diligently exhorted Christians to pursue personal and corporate sanctification, seeking to guard against corrupting influences and elevate evangelical Christian orthodoxy and discipleship.

McCarrell’s books include The Supremacy of Christ: Satisfaction, The Supremacy of the Savior: Savior, The Supremacy of Christ: Sufficient and Christ’s Seven Letters to His Church, available from Grace Acres Press. He and his wife, Minnie, were the parents of nine children, one of whom, Paul, was killed in WW II.

Dr. Hudson Armerding presents a plaque to Dr. William R. McCarrell, honoring his 46 years on the Board of Trustees, 1967.

Dr. Hudson Armerding delivered McCarrell’s funeral eulogy in 1979, remarking, “He became for me a model in his devotion to the Lord Jesus and in his uncompromising commitment to God’s Holy Word…He was also to me a father in the faith….With many of you I can say that I thank God upon every remembrance of him.”

Information for this entry is partially derived from Dorothy Martin’s The Story of Billy McCarrell.

Explore more of the many personalities who have helped shaped Wheaton College through correspondence, reports, photographs, audio tapes, films, and other documents held in the College Archives, including the records of Wheaton College presidents, board of trustees, deans, and academic departments.

Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections also holds several collections that document local Chicago evangelism projects and organizations in the 20th century. A few of these include Collection 20: Papers of Hebert J. Taylor, Collection 38: Ephemera of Paul Rader, Collection 133: Records of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, Collection 330: Records of Moody Church, Collection 397: Papers of Consuella York, and Collection 650: Records of Say Yes, Chicago.

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