A Brief History of The Biblical Evangelist

This magazine was launched as an intended stimulus to evangelism in a particular group; it became a voice for Bible believers everywhere.

At the time, in the mid-1960s, I was on the Council of 14 (now Council of 18) of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. One of my duties with that group was chairman of the evangelism committee and, in that capacity, I took a survey of pastors/churches. I did was not happy with what I learned.

Previously, in 1959, I had organized a nonprofit religious corporation [501(c) (3)] to keep the federal government from taxing me on monies I neither claimed nor used for myself: book royalties, honorariums on my writings, and profits from books sold in my crusades. That charity corporation, con-trolled by a small board of directors (3), was called the Sumner Evangelistic Foundation. I decided to turn it over to a group of men who could and would help pro-mote evangelism in the GARBC.

First, I asked nine key men – two college presidents, 6 pastors and 1 other evangelist – to join me on the board (I was the only holdover from the original 3, which had included my wife and my pastor in Texas at the time of our in-corporation). Second, we changed the name from Sumner Evangelistic Foundation (which I never did like anyway) to Regular Baptist Evangelism, indicating where our initial emphases would be. Third, we invited three men to join me on the staff as evangelists: Robert W. Smith (former Baptist Mid-Missions missionary in Liberia); Russell W. Farrell, a pastor in Iowa who had moved into evangelism; and Dr. Reginald Lloyd Matthews, a Michigan pastor.

Dr. Matthews was to serve in the area of missionary evangelism, seeking to promote missions on the local church level; a field in which he proved so successful the Regular Baptist Press eventually published his book on the subject. We put these men on salary instead of letting them raise their own support as missionaries do, probably a mistake since we nearly went "belly up" before correcting that policy.

That was in 1965. The fourth thing we did was launch THE REGULAR BAPTIST EVANGELIST – which very shortly became THE BIBLICAL EVANGELIST – and our initial issue was dated May 1966. On the front page was an explanation of why we were publishing ("Oh, No! Not 'Another' Paper!") and a report of a very successful evangelism conference we had just conducted in Kansas City ("Echoes From Kansas City"). There was a sermon by the world famous evangelist, Dwight Lyman Moody, "Aggressive Revival Effort," and one from an evangelist not nearly as well known (talk about an understatement!), yours truly, titled, "New Testament Evangelism."

Permit me, to show the kind of magazine we wanted to produce, to quote the first paragraph of my message: "Evangelism is the hope of the Church, hence the hope of America, and therefore the hope of the world. The vital importance of New Testament evangelism is emphasized by the testimony of the centuries, namely: 'The church which ceases to be evangelistic will soon cease to be evangelical.' Doctrinal looseness begins with laxity in duty. As Dr. Bob Jones, Sr., a foremost leader in evangelistic fields for more than half a century, has expressed it: 'A teacher who does not put an evangelistic note in his ministry will have a deadening influence on the people he teaches. The deadest people I have ever known in my life have been some 'well-taught Christians.' Theology without fire always comes to a tragic end eventually" (emphasis in original).

Several features we still have were in that issue. On page two was my "Editorially 'Off the Cuff'" and "Book Re-views." The latter, since we were just starting, consisted of only one: Why Our Churches Do Not Win Souls by my long-time friend and fellow evangelist, Dr. John R. Rice. Also on page two was a report by the editor, "Evangelism in the Schools." The same page gave the itinerary of the four evangelists on our staff.

On page three was our "Letters We Love" column containing a kindly word from Missionary Bob Collins, director of the Regular Baptist Press in Brazil, regarding the editor's book, EVANGELISM: THE CHURCH ON FIRE, just released in Portuguese; a letter from a confused lady in Houston who had read Dr. Fred Barlow's sermon "Dead Men Tell Tales" and wanted spiritual help; a letter from a lady in Florida telling of receiving Christ after reading my sermon, "Hell Is No Joke!" (from the book by the same title); and a letter from a Michigan pastor telling of the blessing his church received from the missionary focus of our staff evangelist, R. L. Matthews.

Also on page three was a column that became very popular, "'Precious Promises' Powerhouse" (II Peter 1:4). We no longer have it, but the fruit remains in my book, POWERHOUSE: 95 "Precious Promises" (available from Biblical Evangelism, 5717 Pine Drive, Raleigh, NC 27606; $7.00, postage paid; it has a picture of the first atomic explosion on the cover to emphasize the power in the promises of God).

Our new magazine was off and running, or so we thought! Anyone who has ever tried to do anything knows how the critics come out of the woodwork before the paint on the "do it" sign is dry. Our opposition came from an unbelievable source, our fellow evangelists in the GARBC. They didn't like our name, saying it implied we were "exclusively" the evangelists in that group. (Note: it is interesting that another group of evangelists was later organized which eventually reached GARBC "approved" status; something we had not asked for and did not want!)

Being an exclusive group was farthest from our thoughts, of course. In fact, when discussing a name at our initial board meeting at Indianapolis – and leaning toward Regular Baptist Evangelism and THE REGULAR BAPTIST EVANGELIST – we took time out to call Dr. Paul Jackson, Dr. Robert T. Ketcham's successor as the GARBC National Representative, and ask if he saw a problem. He didn't. Alas, others did!

As a result, our organization was changed to Biblical Evangelism and the paper to THE BIBLICAL EVANGEL-IST; the February 1967 issue was the first one carrying the new name. Looking back, over a quarter of a century later, we can rejoice that this criticism came up and prompted the change. We were forced from a local kind of situation to a ministry that became worldwide, with readers in many divergent groups – including pastors and churches in the GARBC. God was in it!

Skipping a lot of history to hit the highlights, we were a 4-page paper (same page size as the present) for 3 years, then doubled to 8 pages in May 1969 (although we had previously released several 8-page issues on special occasions). Before that happened, Dr. Fred M. Barlow started his popular "Profiles in Evangelism" column (several books come out of it), writing his first one on "Jesus Christ, Soul-Winning Evangelist Supreme," and continuing to write it until his death in 1983. We often printed his sermons and early in 1971 honored him with the "Contributing Editor" title. He was a dear friend of this ministry and of this writer. Over the years we added other columns such as "Wood, Hay, Stubble," "Significant Trends in the World of Religion," "Salvation Stories," "Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver," "Reports of Revival Refreshing," Stan Best's cartoon, "It Happens All Too Often," and others (for example, who could forget, if he ever read it, our "Scratching the Itch: Where We Get Relief From the Things that 'Bug' Us!"?

Eventually the pressure of editing, raising funds (which we have always 'hated' with a passion), and holding one and two-week evangelistic crusades got heavier than we felt we wanted or needed. Dr. John R. Rice had been trying for years to get me to return to The Sword of the Lord and I decided to do so. Although he was still living and still the editor, he had already chosen his successor, Dr. Curtis Hutson, so before making a move we obtained the latter's approval. We intended to serve out our ministry doing what we could to promote that paper and continuing our evangelistic ministry.

Our final issue was dated November 1980 (it had, fans of our book reviews should note, reviews of 20 books). The final magazine had an item on the front page, "Farewell, Dear Friend!" explaining what we were doing. At the time, we had subscribers in all 50 States, the District of Columbia and more than 40 foreign countries.

The move was not a happy one. I had only met Dr. Hutson a few times but Dr. Rice had chosen him as his successor and that was good enough for me, even though his selection was a sudden, spur-of-the-moment thing. Dr. Hutson did not know me much better, I suppose, other than the fact I had been associated with Dr. Rice and The Sword for 26 or 27 years – with prize-winning sermons printed even earlier.

After a little over a year in that relationship, I received a phone call where I was holding meetings in South Carolina from Dr. Rice's former secretary saying, in effect, there was "trouble in River City." Dr. Al Byers, Dr. Ron English, Mr. Jerry Dryer and Mr. Jack Cornelius (all officers at the Sword of the Lord Foundation) had been, for some months, concerned about matters we will not discuss here. They were going to have a meeting with Dr. Hutson about the problems and wanted to know if I would meet with them if they waited until I returned. That was the first I knew anything was amiss.

When I arrived back in town they explained their concerns and asked what I thought. I replied that I wanted to hear Dr. Hutson's side before making any kind of statement. We had the meeting with Dr. Hutson and all those on the Sword board who worked in the office. After giving him opportunity to answer each of the charges and hearing his defense/explanations, I said we had different ideas of ethics and I could not remain with The Sword. We (others with me who said the would be leaving, too) were asked to wait until we could have an impartial advisor sit in with all of us to hear both sides. Dr. Lee Roberson and Dr. Jack Hyles were mentioned as possible choices and Mrs. John R. Rice, who knew of the problem, thought either man would be fine. Dr. Hutson insisted that it be Dr. Hyles so we agreed. At that time, none of us was aware of his problems.

Dr. Hyles did not act as an impartial advisor (he never did hear our side, at least from us; we assumed he got both sides from Dr. Hutson before our meeting). In fact, he had his "solutions" already written out regarding what should be done before he arrived in Murfreesboro, where the meeting was to take place. A more formal meeting of the full board was held later, but it was of no consequence. We severed our ties.

Finding myself without an editorial voice again, the first thought was that I would work with Dr. Ron English – who was taking over Dr. Rice's old "Voice of Revival" radio ministry – and we would publish a paper with the same name as the broadcast. Dr. English finally decided that trying to start two major projects simultaneously would be one too many, so I resurrected THE BIBLICAL EVANGELIST and he took over the radio work.

I sent out letters to former subscribers (where we could find addresses) and the response was an immediate success. Dr. English was using our post office box and he excitedly called me to say the post office couldn't get all the mail in the box and would I come at once and pick it up. The Biblical Evangelism board determined to publish 12 pages (same page size and format as before) every other week, 26 issues a year – both considerably more ambitious than when we quit 18 months earlier. We also started publishing on book stock paper, much nicer that the newsprint we formerly used.

The first issue was dated June 25, 1982. It featured one of my greatly-used evangelistic messages, "What Must You 'Understand' to Be Saved?" and a devotional message I had written, "Jesus Said, 'Lazarus Is Dead And I Am Glad'!" There was also a documentary by Dr. Ralph G. Colas, who had earlier written our "Significant Trends" column, "The American Baptist Churches," which should have alerted readers we intended to hit liberalism as hard as previously. Inside was a sermon by the 19th century British giant, Alexander Maclaren, on "Unpossessed Possessions!" and it expressed the indication we hoped to launch out by faith into the deep.

Columns featured previously that were in this start-up issue included "Profiles in Evangelism," "Off the Cuff," "Book Reviews," "Significant Trends" and Stan Best's cartoon, "It Happens All Too Often." New features were "Hints for A Heavenly Household" by Dr. and Mrs. Donald Tyler; "Tips on Church Planting" by veteran church planter Evangelist Grant Rice; an illustrated children's column, "The Adventures of Squirrelock Holmes," by my artist/writer son, Ron; a music column that spotlighted in alternate issues "A 'Bill Harvey' Original" song and "Notes & News on Church Music" by Danny M. Sweat. Also for the first time, although we had been writing it more than 25 years elsewhere, "Sumner's Incidents and Illustrations" began appearing in THE BIBLICAL EVANGELIST.

Nearly three years later, our March 1, 1985 issue represented a truly historical turnaround for us. On that date we dropped all subscription rates and adopted the policy, "Sent 'Free' in the United States, As the Lord Provides." Staggering overseas postal rates required the international limitation and we asked a contribution from them if they wanted to subscribe – although we have since provided it for many nationals and some missionaries without charge. We had felt that if the cults could publish their literature free, without God's help, we could do so with His help! It turned out to be a wonderful experience. At the same time, we dropped two issues a year, making it a semi-monthly, 24 issues annually.

This continued until May 1, 1986 when, after a series of huge postal raises, we determined to publish monthly and make the paper larger (we went from 12 pages to 16 – with occasional 20- and 24-page issues). At that time our circulation was 21,100.

Later, because of the same reasons outlined above regarding the merger with The Sword, we merged with Dr. Tim Lee's Target. Our last issue was April, 1973. By that time our circulation was approximately 27,000. God had been good! Far better than we deserved!

Alas and alack, this merger did not fare better than the previous one, although for entirely different reasons. Dr. Lee, a good man and a very effective evangelist, had trouble maintaining Target and ceased publishing after two years.

There were repeated requests for us to revive The Biblical Evangelist, like a Sphinx from the ashes, and finally we capitulated. My dear wife, whose health had been deteriorating, didn't think it was a good idea, but the Biblical Evangelism board agreed to give it a shot. I assured Mrs. Sumner that I would have others do the actual work and I would merely edit and write columns. That plan did not turn out very well and after a short time I assumed the full responsibility again. Mrs. Sumner, I am sorry to say, went to be with the Lord before our first issue was in the mail.

There are some ways publishing the magazine is easier today because we are in an electronic age. Our office – where records are kept, our book inventory is housed, our monetary accounts are handled, etc. – is in North Carolina. I, the editor, work out of my office in Florida. Our assistant editor is in South Carolina. Our pager, who puts the paper together, is in Massachusetts. The printer is in Alabama (and where, obviously, the paper is mailed). Our columnists are in Arizona, California, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Texas (two) and Kentucky (two). It is all handled electronically, something totally impossible a few decades back.

In addition to The Biblical Evangelist, we have a subsidiary that publishes a few books, Biblical Evangelism Press. Our latest titles are The Problems of the Afterlife (7 chapters, 91 pages) by missionary-educator Samuel Fisk, the author of a number of books, some of which we have also published; and HEBREWS: Streams of Living Water, my 37th book, a 37-chapter, 546-page expository-evangelistic commentary on the New Testament book of Hebrews.

We still send the paper free to all who request it.

– Robert L. Sumner, Founder/Editor

Dr. Sumner lived to see the fiftieth year of publishing The Biblical Evangelist in 2016. He continued writing and editing the paper until he died in December 2016 at age 94 in Lynchburg, Virginia. Since writing the history above, he wrote several additional titles, bringing the total of his books and pamphlets to over 50. The Board of Biblical Evangelism believed this ministry was his ministry and so they donated his inventory to another ministry and closed the office. Here is their motion to dissolve the corporation:

Whereas Evangelist Robert Leslie Sumner has departed his earthly home for his Heavenly reward, we, his duly selected board, meeting on this 9th day of May 2017, do officially terminate his ministry known as "Biblical Evangelism". And, whereas his ministry was focused on preaching the redeeming grace of the Gospel for nearly 75 years, encompassing all 50 states as well as all five continents, we believe Heaven has benefited from those who came to Christ through his ministry. His ministry also included many books, pamphlets, and a national paper to promote evangelism. We hereby offer this motion to terminate the ministry of "Biblical Evangelism" and all its related ministries on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, as a fitting tribute to Sumner's significant life work and contributions to the Kingdom.