Grace Triumphant - Chapter 23 - The Bible School of the Air

The Bible School of the Air

“Their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.” (Rom. 10:18)

The Apostle Paul was quoting from Psalm 19:4 the words of David of how God’s creation, visible in the heavens, declares the glory God. Through creation God speaks to all mankind. The apostle uses these words to describe the spread of the Gospel of Christ throughout the world. He himself had a large share in the dissemination of the Gospel. “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the Gospel of Christ.” As he wrote those words he had the urge to go on further to Spain. In the earliest of his epistles he described the far-reaching effect of the testimony of the Thessalonian Christians: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

Yet neither David nor Paul could have possibly imagined the modern means of universal communication. It is a challenging concept that by means of radio and television one man’s voice may reach around the world. One day we received a letter from a listener in what was then British Guiana, now Guyana, who had heard the program of Bible School of the Air. Looking at a globe we realized that was halfway round the world from Manila and wondered which way the signal traveled! What privilege to send the Gospel around the world—what a great responsibility.

At the Guelph Summer Bible School in Ontario in 1948, we had some talks with Dr. Edward Harlow regarding Bible schools. While a missionary in Africa, he sent a gift towards starting a Bible school in Canada. That was a seed that lay in the ground for some time. When he came home from Africa, the seed sprouted and with the help of other brethren led to the start of Emmaus Bible School. Dr. Harlow was interested in the formation of Bible schools on the mission fields as a means of training nationals for the Lord’s work. I too was interested since for several years I had taught at the Manila Evangelistic Institute.

Yet as we contemplated returning to the Philippines at that time, it did not seem feasible for us to start any such project then. There did seem to be a potential for a correspondence Bible school, however. Some feeble attempts had been made by others in this direction before World War II. These had failed, largely because they used correspondence courses from the United States and it took too long to return the test papers. There needed to be a closer contact between the staff and the students of a correspondence school. Also, such a venture needed to be adapted to the local situation.

On our return to Manila in August 1949, we were interested in resuming a radio ministry, since we had been involved in such before the war. In June 1948, the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) had set up their radio station and begun operations. Max Atienza who had been one of my students at the Manila Evangelistic Institute was then on the staff of FEBC. Knowing of my previous radio ministry, both he and Mr. Robert Bowman approached me about having a program on FEBC. This was attractive to me, but time and prayer were needed before making a decision. Just then other things had priority, such as getting settled and helping the church at San Juan get re-established. Another consideration was the relative value of a Christian program over the commercial station such as we had before. This would involve more expense in paying for airtime but would also mean a wider audience of unsaved people. On a Christian station the bulk of the listeners are those who have some interest in religious matters.

Another factor to be considered was what type or format the program should be. A largely musical program was definitely out; we didn’t have the resources for that within our own group. Early in 1950 we were still praying for the Lord’s guidance. We felt strongly inclined towards a radio ministry of Bible teaching. It was then that Emmaus Bible School sent us a copy of their new course “What The Bible Teaches.” In twelve simple lessons this course presents some basic Bible truths along with a clear presentation of the truth of the Gospel. Upon reading this course, the Lord’s leading seemed to crystallize. We would have a program of simple Bible teaching and offer this course for home study. We would combine the ideas of a radio program and a correspondence course.

Without losing any time, we wrote William MacDonald, then President of Emmaus in Chicago, to ask his permission to use the course and also asking for advice and suggestions. We envisioned printing the course locally in loose-leaf form so we could send out two lessons at a time. When students returned the first two tests, they would receive other lessons. Also, we looked forward to having the course translated, first into Tagalog and then later into other Philippine languages. We soon received the desired permission and some helpful advice from Emmaus.

Then we were ready to present our proposal to Robert Bowman of FEBC. His response was a striking confirmation that this project was the Lord’s will. He said their staff had recently reviewed the different types of program they already had. They felt there was a need for a program which would offer helps in Bible study. He was quite enthusiastic about our proposal of a weekly half-hour program. He offered to give us time on Monday evenings, which had been a part of his own nightly program, which was quite popular. Also he offered to help us with the first two or three programs to introduce our program. We discussed a name and ruled out “Emmaus” for two reasons. It was not a name which would be familiar to most hearers and it would probably not be pronounced correctly. We decided on “Bible School of the Air” and launched the program in April 1950.

When I told a Baptist missionary friend about this project, he remarked, “That sounds good! But it could turn out to be a full time job.” That proved to be true though we had thought of it as a sideline to our other work. Furthermore, we were not aware that we were sort of pioneering this type of evangelistic approach, though the Seventh-Day Adventists had been using a similar method. It has been a source of thanksgiving that others have been inspired to adopt this method in other places. While on furlough, a missionary from the West Indies said, “We would like to do something like that, but we couldn’t afford it.” I replied, “Neither could we when we started!” Blissfully ignorant of what this would amount to, we stepped out in faith. Had we known all that would be involved, we probably would not have had the faith to start. The Lord knew and He led us on step-by-step. He has not failed us but has supplied every need.

At the beginning all the requests for the free courses came from radio listeners. I still remember our thrill when we were able to tell Bob Bowman that we had received a thousand requests. When “What the Bible Teaches” had been translated into Tagalog, our friend Max Atienza used this one evening a week on his program “Bukas na Aklat” (Open Book). This added to the interest and to the number of enrollments. Later on, translations were made into three other Philippine languages. However, on an average 60% of the requests have been for the course in English. This is due to the fact that English has been the basis of education in the schools. For a time we offered this course in Spanish, but this was later discontinued. The few that asked for the course in Spanish were students trying to improve their skills in that language. Years ago Spanish was the means of communication among the upper classes, a hang-over from the Spanish regime. That is no longer the case.

Translation often presents many problems. On the lesson on “salvation” the word “deliver” is frequently used. Evidently the brother who translated into Tagalog must have been depending on his dictionary for this word. He used a word which means to deliver a package or a message. It was no problem for me to check over the Tagalog translation, but in other languages it was necessary to depend on others.

The Ilocano translation was done by a man who had an interesting story. During World War II he served as an officer in the guerilla movement opposing the Japanese. He attended a Methodist church and was the adult Bible class teacher. Some American G.I.’s went to this church after the Liberation. One of these later returned as a missionary and visited his former friends in that church, though he was a Baptist. Through his testimony the pastor was saved, after having been a pastor for 12 years. When he asked the missionary how he would help the members of his church, he was advised to write to the Bible School of the Air. A number of names were sent and God began a work of grace in many hearts. The pastor’s wife was saved, and also a high school teacher of literature. The two high schools in which she taught were private schools and the parish priest was on the school board. He became quite upset when he learned that this teacher was recommending reading the Bible as the best of English literature. She would tell her pupils, “If you want a correspondence course to help you understand the Bible, you can get it from the Bible School of the Air, free of charge.”

One Saturday evening, the former guerilla leader, Mr. Lamagna, was preparing his Sunday school lesson for the next morning. In his hand was a cigarette as he turned to a reference in the lesson. He read, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). At that moment, for the first time in his experience the Bible became a living Book. God spoke to him; the cigarette in his hand and the liquor in his cupboard were “filthiness of the flesh.” He went before his class the next morning a different man. He said, “Something happened to me last night. God spoke to me. His Word is alive.”

Shortly after he studied the lessons on the new birth in the Emmaus course, “This is what happened to me! I was born again and I didn’t know what it was.” He was often invited to speak at Methodist conferences and from then on his favorite topic was, you guessed it, the new birth. People would ask him where he learned that, and he would recommend the Bible School of the Air. After such conferences we would receive a list of names of a hundred or more asking for our course.

Mr. Lamagna wrote to ask for advice as he was starting a Bible class on Sunday afternoons (in addition to his regular classes). Could we recommend a topic or series of lessons? We suggested the course “Lessons for Christian Living” or “Guide to Christian Growth.” In the former is a lesson on baptism, and Mr. Lamagna asked us how to teach that under his circumstances. We replied that the lesson presented what we believe is the teaching of the New Testament. It would be his responsibility to decide if this was right or not. Soon after that he showed up at our home. When I inquired why he had come to Manila, he said that he wanted to be baptized by immersion. So we had the joy of baptizing him in Manila Bay.

There were about forty in his Bible class, so when they had finished the course he asked if we would be willing to go to San Nicolas and present the certificates in a sort of graduation. We drove up there on Saturday afternoon and I preached in the church service on Sunday morning. I was interested to see in the pastor’s study a set of J.N. Darby’s “Synopsis of the Bible.” That afternoon in a special service we presented the certificates. As we were about to leave Mr. Lamagna’s to return home, he brought out half a sack of rice and put it in our car. I remonstrated that we didn’t expect anything from them but were glad to serve freely. He related that the previous year he had decided to tithe his harvest. He reaped 75 sacks and gave seven and a half to the church. He said, “You know the pastor can preach better when he gets enough to eat!” The following year from the same rice land he reaped 175 sacks and after giving 17 to the church, he had the half-sack for me. He was the one who translated “What the Bible Teaches” into Ilocano.

When we commenced the Bible School of the Air, tape recorders were not available so each program was done live at the studios of FEBC. At first Anna had a part in reading letters or in asking questions. When Ken Engle arrived, having radio experience at WMBI, the Moody station, he helped in the program. He stayed with us until he was married and was very much like a son to us. Strangely, many people mistakenly supposed he was our son-in-law! A year later our own son Ken arrived and had a part in this ministry.

Answering the student’s questions with a personal letter was an important part of this ministry. Many of these related to matters in the lessons. Others perhaps were prompted by curiosity. My secretary used to be a bit disgusted with those who asked run-of-the-mill questions like “Where did Cain get his wife?” We tried to impress upon students the importance of reading and studying the Bible so they could answer their own questions. One man would send in lists of questions and I suppose over a few years I must have answered at least a thousand of his questions. At times I continued by trying to impress upon him the importance of salvation. I don’t know whether he ever came to know the Lord.

Over the years the radio program has had different formats. For a time the actual message took about seven minutes and then after a hymn we would have a forum time when three or four would sit around the mike and discuss some things in the lesson. Then it became possible to record the program ahead of time. This was much more convenient because we could select a recording time. In the early days we had to go out to the radio station each Monday evening. In those days there was a great deal of dissident unrest around Manila. We frequently heard rifle fire in the distance when we drove out to the station, a 13-mile drive each way. We were thankful for the Lord’s preserving care. With the opportunity to record in the daytime, we dropped the forum and had a longer message. In that way it was possible to prepare a month’s worth of programs in one morning. For a while we also had three 15-minute programs each week in English taking up different courses than those being used on the half-hour programs. Since 1981, one of the gifted Filipino missionaries has been reading scripts that I prepare. He is so occupied with other work he doesn’t have time to prepare scripts (though he is quite capable of doing so), and I was finding it too tiring to drive out to the station.

In recent years the direct response from the English radio program has been meager. However, there has been a good response from the Tagalog program carried on by Rey Cervantes, another of the national missionaries; but he too has been faced with the problems of finding time to prepare for the programs, especially since he has been finishing his studies in a Bible institute.

Soon after we started the Bible School of the Air we noticed that students would ask for the course to be sent to their friends or classmates. So to facilitate this we sent forms on which they could enroll six others when they sent in their test papers. We also occasionally put advertisements in local papers. These greatly boosted the numbers being enrolled. After enrolling a student’s friends, we would send the list back to them with a letter asking them to encourage their friends to respond. Soon we were getting as many as 3000 names a week. It was just a coincidence that we reached our peak of 4000 plus in the week Dr. and Mrs. Harlow visited us in 1962. In May 1967, we held a public rally and presented a Bible to five students from the Manila area who were enrolled when we reached a total of one million. In March 1976, the total enrollment reached one and a half million.

We were enrolling more than in any other Emmaus center around the world, but our percentage of completions was about the lowest. It was obvious that many who received the first two lessons did not proceed further. Our completion rate was only about 10%. Follow up letters were sent to those who had not responded, which brought a few results. At that time we were sending the first two lessons to anyone whose name and address was given to us. In recent years we have been sending a letter asking if they really want the course, along with some Gospel literature. While this method has reduced the number of enrollments, it has raised the percentage of completions. Another factor in this was the increasing cost of postage. When BSA began, a two-centavo stamp was sufficient to send a letter (one cent U.S.); now it takes forty centavos! While that is only five cents U.S. at the present exchange, it has added considerably to the postage bills.

It was soon evident that the course was an excellent means of evangelizing in all parts of the Philippines, from Batanes in the north to Tawi-tawi in the south. More than once some missionary would go into an area where he thought there had been no previous Gospel witness. Then in some home he would see a Certificate of Completion proudly displayed in a frame on the wall. Since there were those who did not return the first tests, it was important that they be given a clear presentation of the Gospel. At first, R.A. Laidlaw of New Zealand kindly sent us a supply of his excellent booklet, “The Reason Why.” Other booklets were used and we received some grants of “Here’s How” from Life Messengers in Seattle. There were other booklets that we preferred to this one, but we found that “Here’s How” seemed to be more effective. As we analyzed the reason for this, it was our conclusion that since it was written in the form of a dialog, the readers put themselves into the part of one in that dialog. This helped them in understanding the message.

As a result of this study, we came out with a booklet “What’s the Answer?” It presents a couple in a local setting asking this question. Through a Christian neighbor with a Bible, they learned the answer to a number of questions commonly raised here. The neighbor explains the way of salvation, and the story ends with the couple on their knees accepting Christ as their Lord and Savior. This was translated into the four languages in which our course is distributed locally. Our intuition proved correct for many have written to tell how they accepted Christ, even to getting down on their knees just as that couple did.

A man in the Visayan Islands wrote that one day he was visiting in the home of his relatives and saw a booklet on the table. Out of curiosity he started to read it, but as it made him feel uncomfortable, he put it down. The same thing happened on subsequent visits but the third time he decided to read all of the booklet. As he finished the booklet, he too accepted Christ as his Savior.

A missionary from the Far East Broadcasting Company told of visiting a tribe of Sea Gypsies in the remote southern islands, just a few miles north of Borneo. To his surprise he encountered a Christian in that part of the country, which is largely Moslem. When he inquired of this man how he became a believer, he was told it through courses from the Bible School of the Air.

During one of our visits to Baguio we visited a crippled Chinese girl in her home there. Her father was a businessman who had a large store in the city. She had been wonderfully saved through studying the course “What the Bible Teaches.” Though crippled and getting around in a wheelchair she had a radiant testimony for the Lord, even though most of the family were not sympathetic. On a subsequent visit to Baguio, we learned that she was then staying in a barrio up in the mountains where her parents had a business. We found out that there was a bus which went out that way in the morning and returned in the afternoon. Leaving Baguio about eight we arrived in the barrio about eleven and thus were able to have about two hours for visiting before the return trip. Most of the way the road was unpaved, winding alongside the mountains and deep in dust. When we boarded the bus we were the only white people, the rest were brown Filipinos. When we got off we were all the same color! Those buses have open sides and afford no protection from dust! At prayer meeting that evening, I remarked on God’s Word to Adam, “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” We didn’t particularly relish returning to dust in that way! Nevertheless, it was worthwhile to offer some encouragement to that girl. Later the Lord led her into full-time Christian service in spite of her physical handicap.

In earlier chapters, I have related how assemblies have been formed in Tarlac and in Bahay-pare, Pampanga as a result of contacts with the Bible School of the Air. From time to time we have heard of other groups formed into local churches through this contact. In a place called Nahapay in the province of Iloilo is a small assembly that came into being through some being saved through the courses. We have been able to have some fellowship with this group through visits of national workers. We could go on to tell about men and women now serving the Lord in various capacities who were helped or who were saved through their studies. Mr. Fred Magbanua, managing director of the Far East Broadcasting Company, is one of these.

For some years the half-hour English program was aired over several commercial stations. In some of these Back to the Bible Broadcast would sign a contract for air time seven days a week. We would take the Sunday time and reimburse them for it. When martial law was declared in September 1972, all radio stations were temporarily ordered to stop activities. The stations of the Far East Broadcasting Company were among the first permitted to resume activities, largely because of their non-political status. I think we only missed one week’s broadcast on that account. For some of the commercial stations, it took longer to resume broadcasting. When they did, most of them charged much higher rates than before. We re-evaluated the situation, and since the response from these stations was slim, we decided it was not worth the added expense.

Soon after commencing operations it was evident that we would need some clerical help. Miss Luz Lazaro from the San Juan assembly came to work for us and is still faithfully serving in the office after more than thirty years. A number of others over the years have worked with us for longer or shorter periods. Misses Letty and Nelly Licera have rendered valuable help for many years. When Mr. and Mrs. Glynn Dean left for the United States, brother Elino Aragon who had been working for Glynn came to the Bible School of the Air as office manager in 1974. He is an elder in the Binangonan assembly and is involved in many other activities in the Lord’s work, particularly in the camp work. Thus the entire operation of the office of BSA is now in the hands of these nationals. A committee of three missionaries and Brother Aragon meet occasionally to discuss major matters. The staff are on a salary basis.

This phase of the Lord’s work has been a venture of faith and we do praise the Lord for His faithfulness in supplying the needs. Some of the Filipino brethren and sisters give regularly, but the bulk of the finances come from abroad. Some years ago I was laying before the Lord the needs for this work. A rough calculation showed that $500 was needed particularly for printing and postage. As we sat down to breakfast after my devotions, Ken Engle stopped by. For some reason he had to be out early that morning and stopped by the post office to pick up our mail. To our delight (and amazement, I must confess) one letter contained a check for $500. The funds didn’t usually come in such a spectacular manner, but we can testify that God has not failed us.