A Heritage of Proclamation
For over 50 years, Salvation Army leaders have built on a strong heritage of producing high quality, audio programs designed to support the local corps in faithfully communicating the message of The Salvation Army and its mission to preach the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ.
That heritage was celebrated in 2005, a momentous year for The Salvation Army. In addition to being the 125th Anniversary of The Salvation Army in America, it also marked the 50th Anniversary of The Army’s national radio program, Wonderful Words of Life (WWOL). Through the innovation of Salvation Army officers working in partnership with radio station personnel, the program was first produced in 1955 and distributed to a handful of stations across the southeastern United States. Limited production continued until 1975, when it became a national project of The Salvation Army. Today this 15-minute weekly program of teaching and music is heard on over 300 broadcasting outlets worldwide, as well as on the Internet at OnePlace.com.
In commemoration of this achievement, The National Religious Broadcasters presented The Salvation Army with the Milestone Award at its annual convention and exposition in Anaheim, California, February 12-15, 2005. The Milestone Award is presented each year to honor pioneers in the industry who have demonstrated exemplary contributions in Christian broadcasting for 50 years.
NRB President, Dr. Frank Wright presented the award to Commissioner Philip Swyers, Territorial Commander USA West, who accepted the award on behalf of the National Commander. Swyers responded by saying “On behalf of a grateful Salvation Army, we are mindful of the Spirit of God that has blessed our ministry for 50 years. We lay this award at the feet of our loving, living Savior, who guides us on every action. Praise God!”
Wonderful Words of Life hosts Major Steve Hedgren and Jude Gotrich, and production team Regina and Michael McGraw were on hand for the presentation.
Since the beginning, Wonderful Words of Life has served as an outreach of The Salvation Army. The program supports The Salvation Army in communicating and fulfilling its mission as an evangelical part of the universal Christian church whose message is based on the Bible and whose ministry is motivated by the love of God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs in His name without discrimination.
The Early Years (1955-1974)
Wonderful Words of Life was first produced and distributed in 1955 in the USA Southern Territory of The Salvation Army. At that time, The Salvation Army had already established a tradition of involvement in radio in the 1930s and ‘40s.
By the early 1950′s, Salvation Army Officers at the School for Officers Training (SFOT) in Atlanta began broadcasting of their Sunday evening worship services live over WSB Radio in Atlanta. These early weekly programs laid important groundwork for Wonderful Words of Life.
In 1955, Sr. Major Carl Cone, Southern Territorial Public Relations Secretary and Captain Les Hall, General Secretary at the SFOT produced the first series of Wonderful Words of Life.
It contained 14 programs featuring the voices of Captain Hall and Major Ray Wortham and included music by the cadets at the SFOT. Later, other officers played key roles in developing the format of Wonderful Words of Life. Among these “founding fathers” were then Major John D. Needham, S/Major Arnold Brown, Brigadier William F. Pyke, Brigadier W.R.H. Goodier, Major James Osborne, Lt. Colonel William T. Powell, and Major Wallace Conrath. From the beginning, the program included the best available Salvation Army music in various styles and insightful Gospel messages. The programs were originally recorded by audio engineer, Phil Bangs. Later his sons, Ernie and Ed Bangs, followed their Dad and continued the production for over 40 years.
In the program’s humble beginning, a 14-week series was mastered, duplicated on 16-inch double-faced, red vinyl discs and hand-delivered by Salvation Army officers to radio stations across the southeastern United States. Over the course of the next two decades six additional series were produced, distributed, broadcast and rebroadcast over radio stations throughout the South.
The Growing Years (1975-1992)
In 1975, under the leadership of then Brigadier Rodolph Lanier, the production of Wonderful Words of Life expanded to 52 unique programs per year, released quarterly in four series. The speaker was then Major W. Edward Laity, Jr. and the announcer was Brigadier Lanier. Commenting on the program’s purpose, Brigadier Lanier said, “It is not the intent of this media exposure to simply generate a better Salvation Army image…but our main objective is to tell the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ to all people everywhere.” And people everywhere responded to the program. Letters were received from such listeners as a student in Africa, a US serviceman in Central America, a prisoner in Canada, shut-ins, and truck drivers, to name just a few.
By 1976, the program became a national project of The Salvation Army and was aired on 60 radio stations across the USA and on HCJB World Radio from Quito, Ecuador and the Far East Broadcasting Company. Over the next 15 years, the program continued to develop into a refined, relevant and respected production, offering listeners pertinent Christian teaching and the finest in Salvation Army music from around the world. Brigadier Hubert Rawlin served as executive producer/director from 1976 until 1985. Other officers who played vital supporting roles in developing the program were Major Harold Hinson, Major Jack T. Waters, and Major Leon Ferraez. Successive executive producers were Majors Paul Kellner and Jorge Booth, with Regina and Michael McGraw serving as production directors. During that period of time the speakers included Major W. Edward Laity Jr., Brigadier James Henry, and Major James Hylton; the announcers were Major Raymond Cooper, Steve Dick and Jerry Vandeventer. The growing years saw the number of stations airing the program rise from 46 to 235, and listener response increased 10-fold.
The Productive Years (1992-present)
By the providential blessing of God, this Salvation Army evangelistic radio ministry has maintained a tradition of presenting the eternal Good News of Jesus Christ with an ever-adapting format of contemporary music and biblical teaching. The speakers on the program have included Major James Hylton, Lt. Colonel Raymond Cooper, Major Danny Morrow, Major Steve Hedgren. The current speaker is Lt. Colonel Vern Jewett. The co-announcers have been and continue to be Major Willis Howell and Mrs. Jude Gotrich.
During this period, executive producers of Wonderful Words of Life have been Major Henry Arrowood, Major Vern Jewett, Lt. Colonel Harold J. Anderson, Major Michael Hawley, Major Bette Jo McDonald and Major John F. White. Major Otis Childs is the current Executive Producer. Throughout the period, Michael McGraw has been and remains the Director of Production and Regina McGraw continues as Director of Operations. The other outstanding radio ministries staff includes Major Abigail Diaz, Spanish Program Manager; Major Polly Elder, Audience Correspondent; Janet Kelly, Audience Correspondent; Frances McGuire, Administrative Assistant for Operations; Glenda White, Administrative Assistant for Broadcasters; and Luciano Goicochea, Spanish Program Assistant.
The Golden Anniversary of Wonderful Words of Life was celebrated at a special luncheon hosted by the Southern Territory and held in conjunction with its Family Conference in June 2005. The occasion provided a wonderful opportunity to remember and recognize those who have played important roles in the ministry over its fifty-year history on radio, including administrative leaders, speakers, announcers, musicians, writers, producers, directors, engineers, production assistants, audience correspondents, secretaries, and associate professionals.
Fifty years of corporate efforts by so many clearly shows the Holy Spirit’s working through the body of Christ.
Today this 15-minute weekly program of music and teaching is aired on nearly 300 broadcasting outlets worldwide and streamed on the Internet. The productivity of Wonderful Words of Life through the years has also spawned the development of three additional programs:
Maravillosas Palabras de Vida — the Spanish counterpart to Wonderful Words of Life was established in 1992. Originally produced in cooperation with Trans World Radio in Bonaire, the in-house version premiered in April 2003.
Heartbeat — a one-minute spot program established in 1996. It features contemporary Christian insights on real life issues and experiences.
Latido — the Spanish version of Heartbeat established in 2000.
Fifty-five years ago, The Salvation Army was producing one radio program, Wonderful Words of Life, and it was carried by a handful of radio stations. Today the Army is marching forward with four programs circling the globe over airwaves via more than 1600 radio transmitters and through cyberspace via the Internet. These Salvation Army ministries are touching the lives of potentially millions of listeners worldwide.
Remembering the past provides guidance in the present and inspiration for the future. As the Word of God itself is ancient yet timeless in its relevancy, The Salvation Army maintains a tradition of presenting the eternal Good News of Jesus Christ through Wonderful Words of Life.