This is a transcript of an interview conducted by telephone March 6, 1997. Robert Walker, then 84, spoke from his home in Florida. He is a founding member of the Evangelical Press Association and editor emeritus of the magazine Charisma and Christian Life.
Q: You were at the first meeting that led to the founding of the Evangelical Press Association. What happened to bring that meeting about?
Walker: About a half a dozen of us got together to discuss the possibility. I can't remember whether we actually voted at the time, but shortly after that first get-together we decided that there should be such an association, and so we agreed to form it.
If you'll remember, the National Association of Evangelicals had formed in 1939 or 40, and it had a publication, and the editor of that publication was the one who brought us together. He felt that NAE should have some sort of support from the Christian community. There were a number of magazines in the evangelical marketplace and he felt that they should join in their efforts to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in the best possible way. By getting together and encouraging one another, we might achieve that purpose.
Q: Were you aware of other religious press associations at the time?
Walker: There was such an association, I forget the name now, representing the general religious marketplace, mostly denominational.
Q: Mainline Protestant?
Walker: Yes, mainline Protestant.
Q: Had the National Religious Broadcasters formed yet?
Walker: I don't think so. I think the NRB came later, but not by much. There was a lot of activity as NAE began to gain strength and acceptance, a lot of activity among the groups. Radio was one, media and press was another, Sunday Schools.... The International Sunday School Association was formed, and maybe some others that I don't recall.
Q: Where was that first meeting where you talked about EPA?
Walker: I assume Chicago. I really don't recall. I assume Chicago because NAE was sort of based in the Midwest and Chicago was a good place to get together. We probably met at an NAE convention.
Q: Who were some of the people present at that first meeting?
Walker: Murch. He kicked it off. [James DeForest Murch]. There was a chap from-he's dead now-from the General Conference Baptist churches from Minneapolis. Another fellow from the Christian Reformed Church, and the Dutch Reformed Church. I think that Christian Life was probably the only independent publication. Another chap from the Assemblies of God in Springfield, Missouri-they were the first Pentecostal group recognized by the NAE.
Q: What was the agenda for that first meeting?
Walker: We sat around and said, hey, we can encourage one another and stimulate one another, and serve our constituencies better by coming together periodically. I don't know that we said when we'd get together again. We got together every year for conventions since then.
Q: And those meetings were held along with the NAE conventions?
Walker: At the outset. I don't know when we broke away and had our own convention. It wasn't very long. I was disappointed when that happened.
This was after Murch died. He was older than the rest of us. He was an important figure. He came from the Christian Church group in Cincinnati. There are several groups, and the Cincinnati group was evangelical. Several others had a more liberal approach.
I was disappointed that they decided to hold their conventions apart from NAE. That was a personal opinion. I felt we could contribute to them, and NAE to our association. We ran it a couple of days before or after the NAE convention for a number of years. Mel Larson, from up in Minneapolis, he was an early member of the executive committee.
Q: You were the editor of Christian Life, but what other jobs did you have with evangelical publications?
Walker: I started HIS magazine for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 1941. A couple of years after that I had the opportunity. Victor Cori, who was the president of Scripture Press, had a magazine he was having trouble with, and I was young and cocky and naive. He was a great admirer of HIS magazine, and I said, "If you did your magazine right I think it would fly." He said, "Bob, if you would be willing to take over the indebtedness of this magazine you can have it," and I was naive enough to do that. [Note: This probably became Christian Living, but this needs to be clarified.]
After that we started a trade magazine, called Christian Bookseller, now Christian Retailing. Strang Communications has done a very nice job with it, changed it to a tabloid format. It's a very important magazine now. (I understand CBA [the Christian Booksellers Association] is giving up their magazine. Christian Retailing will be the only magazine serving Christian trade.) Then I started Creation House Books in 1970.
Probably the thing I'm most grateful to the Lord for having gotten into was the Christian Writer's Institute. I was teaching journalism at Wheaton College when I was editing HIS magazine and Christian Life. I couldn't find editors, Christian writers. That's why I started the Christian Writer's Institute, to train people to write for me, and for other magazines as well. That was 1945.
Q: It sounds like the 1940s were a real boom time for evangelical organizations.
Walker: The 1940s, it was a curious phenomenon. NAE kicked it off and a whole host of them followed-Youth for Christ, Jim Rayburn in Dallas, Campus Crusade, Christian Service Brigade, Pioneer Girls. They were very exciting days. Tory Johnson, the first president of Youth for Christ, and I often get together and talk about it.
Q: Why do you suppose so many evangelical groups started in the 1940s?
Walker: It was the beginning of World War II, and many organizations were formed to minister to the growing number of servicemen, and through a combination of the war years and the need to evangelize young men who might not survive the war-whatever the Holy Spirit had in mind-he struck up a lot of us.
Q: Tell me a little about the state of the Christian journalism industry before EPA was formed.
Walker: In those days, there weren't any Christian journalists, no trained journalists. Most of the denominational publications were edited by chaps who were pastors, usually retired pastors, or men who couldn't cut it in the pulpit but who were good writers. Most of the articles that appeared in those denominational publications were excerpts from sermons. As a matter of fact I recall so well trying to get articles for HIS magazine from men who were authorities on the Scriptures, and they would send me sermons, whole sermons or excepts from sermons, and we had to rewrite them completely, and some of the men liked that and appreciated it, but some didn't.
Q: How did you get involved with Christian journalism?
Walker: I had come off of a newspaper up in Michigan, down to Chicago, and was working in an advertising agency writing copy. I discovered in writing for the newspaper that what the newspaper wanted was personalities. I was a sports editor, and I interviewed a lot of the local sports jocks, who were good at their sports but also had something to say about life in general.
When I got down to Chicago I was working in secular advertising agency. There was one fellow by the name of Vaughn Shoemaker who was a political cartoonist from the Chicago Daily News. He started a luncheon group for Christian businessmen, which was unheard of before. It was very popular, and men would come from all over the country to share the fellowship of that luncheon.
I said one day, "Vaughn, would you be willing to let me do a piece on you and on this luncheon?" He said, "If you think it would do any good, okay." I tried Moody Monthly, and they said "No, we don't take stories about people. We're interested in stories on Scripture, doctrine." So I tried the Sunday School Times, which had a circulation of about 300,000. I got a telegram from the editor, and he said he was going to be in Chicago and wanted to meet. I went to meet him and he said, "Mr. Walker, you're a young man and you don't understand some of the principles of publishing Christian magazines, but it's impossible to evaluate the contribution of a personality until he dies, so your article on a living personality is really not appropriate. But," he said, "I'm going to publish it." He said, "I'm taking a chance, I realize." Years later his nephew was staying in our home in Wheaton, and he said "Bob did my uncle ever tell you the result of that personality article you did on Vaughn Shoemaker? He said we had so many requests for reprints of that article that we had to go back on the press, and we published as many reprints as we did the original issue."
That sort of broke the ice in other publications. We did personality interviews in HIS, also Christian Life. Today it's standard fare for many thriving publications.
Many of the people who we interviewed in the early days, we had to caution them. We would say for instance, "We want this article about you to be believable, so our writers may not picture you as a perfect person." For instance, I remember particularly with Bob Jones Jr., the writer we assigned to do an interview with Bob Jones said, "He won't be willing to accept your editorial frankness." I forget what he said; we may have said, "He's an aggressive personality and some people may not appreciate that." I took the manuscript to the NAE conference, and I told Bob Jones, "I'd like to show it to you." But instead of showing it to him I said, "Let me read it to you." He made one correction, and that was of a date. But I'm sure that if he had been sitting and reading it with a pencil in his hand he would have made a lot of changes.
Q: So you were with EPA during a time when Christian journalism was developing as a profession.
Walker: I like to think that our Christian Writers' Institute made a contribution to that. Many writers and editors got their start taking our course.
Competition is a good motive too, because as some of these articles got out of interviews, well-written articles, meeting good journalistic standards, publications realized that they could no longer just toss in a sermon here and there. That sermon had to be edited and put into a format that would be interesting to read, as well as something that might be heard on radio or from the pulpit.
We used to have a format in the early days in Christian Life. Number one, we always had to have a news article on a hot subject of the day, and we also had to have a personality sketch, we called it. We had to have an article on mission outreach, outreach of the gospel through some individual--usually an individual, we didn't go for organizations. We wanted personalities-and a short story.
Q: Was it unusual to have a news article? Why did you do that?
Walker: I suppose my interest came from my own background. I graduated from Northwestern, the Medill School of Journalism. That probably was the reason I was interested in it. Also, there was a plethora of organizations that emerged in the 1940s. There was no other way the Christian public could keep up to date unless we had these news articles.
Remember also that Christian radio wasn't reporting news in those days. Today, there are many Christian news programs now. They weren't interested in news.
Q: Was there a sense in Christian publishing that you were competing with radio?
Walker: I don't recall that that was ever a concern to us. In the early days Christian radio had preachers, and they had a message to preach. Our function was a little more comprehensive.