100 years ago, live radio sermons began at Pittsburgh church

The Rev. Jonathon Jensen stands for a portrait in the pulpit at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. (Kristina Serafini/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP)

PITTSBURGH — Before Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Joel Osteen, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and famous radio evangelists such as Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson, there was Edwin Van Etten.

It was the Rev. Edwin Van Etten, far from a household name, who helped popularize the live radio sermon. It began Jan. 2, 1921, at Pittsburgh's Calvary Episcopal Church on fledgling KDKA radio and continued Sunday nights for decades. And as it happens, Van Etten, rector of the East Liberty church, initially shied away from the idea.

It was exactly two months after KDKA's historic first broadcast of the 1920 Harding-Cox presidential election results that the station put together the first live remote broadcast from Calvary.

Broadcast pioneer Harry P. Davis — a vice president of Westinghouse Electric, which owned KDKA — was looking to sell "radio sets," as they were called back then. In order to do that, he needed programming of all types to give people a reason to buy them.

"Davis wants to be successful. He wants this to be a major commercial enterprise for Westinghouse," said Anne Madarasz, chief historian at the Senator John Heinz History Center. "And the more quality programming and the more variety they can offer, the better opportunity he has to sell radio sets."

Plans were made to do all sorts of live, remote broadcasts, but the one from Calvary proved to be KDKA's test case, according to Madarasz.

"Two weeks later, Herbert Hoover does an address at the Duquesne Club, and they do a remote (broadcast) from there," Madarasz said. "By April, they're doing boxing, by August they're doing the Davis Cup and Pirates games, college football in October. So, they literally go right from the Calvary broadcast to this."

Calvary was chosen for that first church broadcast by an ancient tradition: Somebody knew somebody.

Davis wanted to do some type of religious broadcast on Sundays. A Westinghouse employee named Fletcher Hallock — a choir member at Calvary — suggested his own church.

Van Etten was open to the idea but expressed concern about how much of a distraction the broadcast would create. He and others also worried that people might be less inclined to attend church in person if they could just listen to it on the radio. However, he never suggested it shouldn't be tried.

"Calvary has always been easygoing and welcoming when it comes to embracing new things," said the Rev. Jonathon Jensen, the rector of Calvary since 2014.

Nevertheless, Van Etten decided radio was a passing fad and would just be "a fizzle." So he sat that first broadcast out and delegated the duty of giving radio's first sermon to his assistant, the Rev. Lewis Whittemore.

But a lot of planning and rehearsing had to be done at the church before Whittemore stepped up to that live microphone.

"The (engineers) practiced for two weeks moving the transmitters and microphones around to see how to get the best reception," Madarasz said. "They used three microphones — one with the organ, one with the choir and one with the pastor — and it takes two engineers.

"They had a Jewish engineer and a Catholic engineer, and they wore choir robes the first week so they blended in and didn't distract the congregants."

The sound was transmitted over telephone lines back to the KDKA studios and broadcast from there.

You would think all of this would have been a cause for great excitement among the Calvary faithful. Not so, according to Jensen.

"The service 100 years ago was almost a nonevent," Jensen said. "There's two little paragraphs in the bulletin about it. The first radio broadcast received slightly less attention than the basketball league scores."

In the church calendar, Van Etten announced that "interesting arrangements have been made for tonight's service. The International Radio Company (Westinghouse) has installed wireless telephone receiving apparatus in the chancel, and tonight's music, sermon and service will be flashed for a radius of 1,000 miles through space."

But at 7:45 that Sunday evening of Jan. 2, 1921, something magical happened. The sermon preached by Whittemore was titled "The Wood and the Sword."

"My friends, one would not lose an opportunity to speak and be heard by the radio congregation," Whittemore said. "He would want to say something that could be of use and of strength and of meaning to every one who might hear his word.

"He would want to point out with all earnestness that the real perils and dangers of life are never the outside ones. It is never the difficult tasks that prove fatal to life. The real dangers to life are always the inside uncertainty, the inside entanglements and the inside inability."

Jensen noted that Whittemore's address was long by today's standards.

But, more importantly, it was a huge hit with the radio audience.

"Apparently, that radio broadcast was reaching people a thousand miles away," Jensen said. "People started sending in letters thanking them. They were excited about it. They started sending in dimes and nickels, and that's eventually how we paid for the plaque on the front of the church" that commemorates the broadcast.

Van Etten was reported to have said radio should not be used to raise money for churches.

However, after seeing how well the broadcast was received, he decided to take on the lead role when the broadcasts became a weekly event on Sunday nights, thus becoming the first regularly heard radio evangelist. He gained a formidable following in the process.

Any concerns about radio keeping people away from church proved unfounded. To the contrary, people approached Van Etten to say they were coming to church because they had heard him on the radio.

"Shortly after KDKA's broadcast, other radio stations around the country start doing it," Madarasz said. "They recognized there's a market for this."

"By March, they've got the KDKA Chapel, as they called it, up and running. They're bringing a revolving series of churches in, and they're also doing other remote broadcasts.

"They're dedicating three broadcasts on Sundays to church services."

The following year, KDKA broadcast a guest sermon by William Jennings Bryan, the politician and popular orator, from Point Breeze Presbyterian Church. (The church building at Fifth and Penn avenues is now home to St. Paul Baptist.) It was Bryan's first-ever radio broadcast.

The weekly KDKA broadcasts from Calvary would continue until 1962.

On Sunday, Calvary was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first broadcast. Some of the music from the 1921 service — "The Angels and the Shepherds," "Carol of the Russian Children" and "Jesu Bambino" — was to be performed, along with one of the hymns.

A reproduction of the 1921 service bulletin appears at the end of Calvary's newsletter online.