Peter H. Eldersveld (1911-1965)

October 14, 1965, marked the passing of the Reverend Dr. Peter Eldersveld, radio minister of the Christian Reformed Church. Reverend Eldersveld had held that post since his Synodical appointment in 1946.

His passing was an untold personal loss to his faithful wife and devoted family, to his aged mother and surviving brothers and sisters, and to his intimate friends, of whom the writer was one. Nearly twenty-five years of personal friendship, including two decades of close association with him in our denominational radio ministry have come to a close.

It all began in Holland, Iowa, when Peter was serving his first church and I was teaching at the State College of Iowa in nearby Cedar Falls. His keen sense of humor, his reputation as a good story-teller, his love for a good time with his family and friends, and hours of serious conversation on matters particularly pertaining to the current problems of church and state were highlights of our social relations with him there.

The tiny country church soon felt the impact of his unique sermons and his vigorous personal touch. I n five years, the thirteen-family congregation more than tripled its size. In addition, it was here that he did his first radio work, a fifteen-minute weekly stint, taking turns with fellow ministers in his classis over KFJB, Marshalltown, Iowa. Later, a male quartet in the community organized a half-hour weekly program over the 50,000 watt KXEL Waterloo station, called the CALL OF THE CROSS, and invited Peter to be the regular speaker. He accepted, and spoke weekly until he left Iowa for South Holland, lllinois, two years later. The last public speech that Peter Eldersveld made before his death was in Springfield, Illinois. It was in response to an invitation from a former quartet member, now a pastor in Springfield, who testified at the meeting that it was Reverend Eldersveld who had influenced him into going into the ministry during those Iowa years.

Soon after Reverend Eldersveld assumed his second pastorate in South Holland, his church, at his suggestion, began broadcasting the evening service over a local station. At about the same time, in response to a request from the Radio Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, Reverend Eldersveld became the script writer and announcer for the 1943–1944 broadcasting season. This was his first contact with our denominational broadcast. Synod had just authorized the Committee to sign a 52-week contract with independent stations. The broadcast which had started four years earlier with a single Chicago station for 16 weeks had been expanded to 9 stations for 26 weeks. However, it had become increasingly clear to the Committee that the broadcast had to remain continuously on the air if it wished to build up a reliable chain of stations and a continuing listening audience.

In June of 1944 Synod appointed Reverend Eldersveld to membership on its Radio Committee. During the following broadcast season, he served as one of six speakers on the program. He continued to function as part~time speaker, announcer and committee member until his appointment as full time speaker in 1946. A year later we became colleagues. he in the ministry of the Word, I in the ministry of music as director of the newly formed Calvin College Radio Choir.

The late radio minister was surely a man of vision with respect to the broadcast he now headed for his beloved church. He saw in this modern miracle of radio, superceded only by the greater miracle of God’s Word made flesh sent to save this world, an opportunity for our church, small in size, to embrace the whole world in its mission arms. The fact that on December 7, 1947, the Back to God Hour was heard for the first time over the Mutual Broadcasting System was due largely to the efforts of Reverend Eldersveld. In August of that year, while contacting a sales manager of a Los Angeles Station, he learned that station policy forbade selling time apart from the Mutual network. On asking what it would cost to buy time for a haH-hour weekly Sunday broadcast on the net, the manager named a price intimating that it would undoubtedly be financially prohibitive for his small church. To which Eldersveld immediately replied that his denomination would be able to do so if it really wanted to. He wired Chicago and started negotiations between the Radio Committee and Mutual officials there. He re-called later that he left the Los Angeles office with mixed feelings of fear and elation. Had he done the right thing? In brief, the Committee in special session authorized the signing of a contract with the Mutual System. By spring 242 stations were carrying the pro4 gram. Since then, the National Broadcasting Company as well as numerous independent and short4wave stations literally cover the globe with the program. All this was a dream come true for one who loved his church but who also had compassion for the world and knew his church had the Truth for its teeming millions.

From the outset, it was Reverend Eldersveld’s purpose to present a program that would be organically one. The format of the program was constantly studied and necessary changes made for its possible greater effectiveness, smooth4 ness, and inner unity. Every effort was made to correlate the music with the spoken word, as, e.g., this anthem, that hymn or psalm, or even a particular stanza. The opening and closing themes have remained unchanged since the choir made its debut on December 7, 1947. They lend stability to the program, making it easily recognizable to former listeners, and appealing to new ones. An anthem of praise before the message seeks to bring listeners into a worshipful frame of mind and ready for the spoken word to follow. The psalm or hymn at the close re-emphasize the theme of the sermon in a heart warming way. One ventures to say that there is no religious program on the air that gives a greater concern to both content and form of its script.

But the greatest care, of course, was lavished upon the spoken word. Recognition as one of the most prominent spokesmen for orthodox Christianity did not come to him undeservedly. He possessed unusual God-given gifts, to be sure. These plus excellent training and hard work made him an extremely effective public speaker. Reverend Eldersveld often spoke of the value of his graduate work in speech at the University of Michigan. It was there that he learned that the secret of successful speaking lay in the preparation of the speech. It was at the university, too, that he began to relate speech to the ministry. He was taught to write a sermon in the language and style in which one wished to speak it. Destroy this copy, he would write it again in a different form. This was done as often as was necessary, eight times if need be! After the final copy was destroyed, he was ready to preach it extemporaneously, i.e., without a manuscript before him. This way a speaker was able to express himself in a variety of ways. Practice and experience convinced him that this method, although necessitating hard work, is the right one for successful extemporaneous preaching. On radio he was compelled to use a manuscript. Yet he always tried to write and read it as if he were delivering it extemporaneously before a live audience. His smooth effortless style was always clear and convincing. But it was the result of hours of painstaking effort trying to find just the right word, and the best inflection for saying it. He was a master craftsman when it came to writing and speaking.

All this would have been in vain, however, if it were not the means by which he reached and influenced the souls of men, from the prisoner awaiting execution in murderer’s row to despairing minds contemplating taking their own life, from teen-agers to those beyond three score and ten, from humble farmers to doctors, lawyers, and congressmen, from Chicago to West Germany, from soldiers overseas to the Chief of Army Chaplains in the nation’s capitol, from the north pole to South Africa, from Catholics and Protestants to atheists, from Hollywood to “Jerusalem,” from sinners to saints.

I cannot close this manuscript without affirming what my readers must have known all this time, that Peter Eldersveld was a man of prayer. Only one who communed oft in secret with his Lord could have uttered such public prayers as did he. No matter where or when he prayed, one listened intently for he felt drawn into an intimate circle of spiritual kinship with him and his God.

Peter Eldersveld has left permanent imprints of his work upon this earth. He has gone to meet his Lord, Who it seems certain, greeted him with the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant! Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”