STORY BEHIND THE SONG: From cowboy/boxer to preacher/songwriter

Pam Griffin
Paul Rader

“Fear not, precious flock, from the cross to the throne

From death into life He went for His own

All power in earth, all power above

Is given to Him for the flock of His love.” (from Only Believe by Paul Rader)

Daniel Paul Rader was one of the most influential evangelists of the early 20th century, and the first to preach on radio.

Born in 1878 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Rader was the son of a conservative Methodist bishop. Raised in the wild west, the ex-cowboy, ex-football player, and ex-pugilist would become senior pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, leading residents during the Great Depression.

Rader testified during a 1930's sermon at Moody Church that he clearly remembered the night he was converted to Christ at the age of 9 in Cheyenne. He recalled a few soldiers were at the altar with other adults, but no children. God dealt with the boy in a mighty way, and later that evening his father led him to Christ.

While the father and son traveled to preach to the men of the plains, young Rader became a soloist at his father's meetings. It was during this time that he learned the simple gospel preached by his father and developed a desire to also preach.

Rader, a ranch hand in Wyoming and Colorado, then became a gifted college football player and boxer, eventually spending time as a sparring partner for world heavyweight champions Bob Fitzsimmons and Jim Jeffries. A big man, Rader stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 220 pounds. His athletic and cowboy tales would later become popular parts of his sermons with audiences.

Educated at the University of Colorado and other Methodist colleges including Hamline University, Rader was ordained into the Congregational ministry in 1904. However, when he began to doubt the literal truth of the Bible, he quit the ministry in 1909 because of a lack of faith.

Rader then worked as a boxing promoter and began an oil service company. It was while on a business trip to New York City in 1912 that he heard Christian and Missionary Alliance founder A.B. Simpson preach.

Rader experienced a powerful “re-conversion” experience. He then joined the ranks of the organization’s travelling revivalists as song leader and eventually evangelist, and while on a campaign in Chicago in 1914, he accepted an offer from Moody Church to become pastor, where he served until 1921. In his tenure there, the church attracted 2,000 people a night for meetings in a new wooden tabernacle at the corner of North and LaSalle.

Rader’s energy, lively preaching style, and unorthodox ways of bringing people into the church brought him nationwide attention. His achievements were many, including second president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (1920-1923); founder of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle in 1922, where he pastored for 11 years; gospel songwriter and composer; and a pioneer in Christian broadcasting.

In the early days of radio in the 1920s, station WBBM in Chicago closed on Sundays. Rader used the studios and ran a 14-hour Christian program every Sunday for many years. His station-within-a-station, WJBT — “Where Jesus Blesses Thousands” — was eventually picked up by 26 stations of the CBS network. Rader had a huge influence on Charles E. Fuller, whose "Old-Fashioned Revival Hour" became the most widely broadcast religious radio program in America from the late 1930's to the early 1970's.

As head of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, Rader created a center for Midwestern fundamentalists, complete with nightly services, programs for all age groups and an increasing presence in the new field of radio broadcasting. From 1925 to 1930 the Tabernacle was the largest religious presence on Chicago radio, relying almost totally on the financial gifts of listeners to purchase airtime, a plan that became the model for conservative religious broadcasters to this day.

With the beginning of the Depression and Rader’s plan to not cut back, his organization was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1933. Rader wandered from one venture to another until his death from cancer in 1938.

Rader helped shape the direction of the growing evangelical movement in the 1940's and beyond, not only in broadcasting but also in the shape and direction of the evangelical movement. He was responsible for sending missionaries to countries around the world and influencing young men to enter the ministry.

Only Believe

As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, Be not afraid, only believe. (Mark 5:36)

When the General Council of the Christian and Missionary Alliance met in Toccoa Falls in May 1919, the delegates, including Rader, were housed in tents supplied by Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Rader, elected president of the C&MA at that Council, was moved as he listened to the stories of the hardships and difficulties that the Toccoa Falls Institute family had endured since 1913. After being destroyed by fire, the students and faculty lived and worked in tents with wooden floors, wood stoves, and electricity — and still the students came.

It was here on the campus that Rader wrote "Only Believe," a song used by evangelical Christians since that time. It became a meaningful and moving song for Toccoa Falls because the “little flock” in the song is that family. Today Toccoa Falls College still believes that all things are possible with God.

"Only believe, only believe;

All things are possible, only believe;

Only believe, only believe;

All things are possible, only believe.”