On September 3, 1939 most of the world was transfixed by the outbreak of World War II in Europe. But another event was playing itself out. William Edward Biederwolf, one of the best-known evangelists of his generation, was living his final hours after a long illness. Turning to his wife Ida, who he had known since growing up together in Monticello, Indiana, he looked up and whispered the words, “I am ready to exchange my cross for a crown,” and slipped into eternity. He would be buried in Monticello.
At least part of Biederwolf’s career was focused on what was called the Biederwolf Temple located in the 1200 block of Linden Street in Allentown. Here, now a large parking lot, in the early 20th century he preached to many from the across the Lehigh Valley who came to make a commitment to Christ.
Although in his early years he was known to use parades and other stunts to attract crowds, Biederwolf, especially in his later years, shunned the flamboyant theatrics and head-standing, furniture-smashing antics of evangelist Billy Sunday, characterized by poet Carl Sandburg as “a contemporary bunk shooter” and religious skeptic and professional cynic H.L. Menken called an “auctioneer of God.” But that was not Biederwolf. He was a strong, serious, well-educated person, a passionate believer in the Social Gospel as well, or as he would have phrased it, “winning souls for Christ.”
Biederwolf was born in Monticello in 1867. His parents were German immigrants. He was raised in a studious household. At age 18 as he was teaching in a public school he made a decision to devote his life to Christ. His first step was joining the local Presbyterian church. A year of religious education at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana followed in 1892 and led him to Princeton College. Biederwolf entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1895. An athletic young man while at Princeton, he played football, something his father deeply disapproved of. In the summer he worked at rescue missions in the Bowery in New York and Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1896 Biederwolf spent 18 months taking religious courses at the University of Berlin and University of Erlangen in Germany and the Sorbonne in Paris.
On his return to America Biederwolf served a year as pastor of a Presbyterian church in Indiana. At the outbreak of the Spanish American War he was commissioned as a chaplain with the 161st Indiana Volunteers in Cuba for six months. Photos taken of Biederwolf at the time show a handsome, clean-shaven young man who could have modeled in the fashion advertising of the period. After his service he wrote a history of the regiment. It consisted of 46 officers and 1,153 enlisted men. Eighteen died of disease, 1 by accident and 5 deserted. It was the first book that Biederwolf had written and according to one source “suggested how social service might be melded with evangelism.”
By 1910 Biederwolf had joined the ranks of evangelists that were making a name for themselves across the country. He had started out in 1906 apprenticing under Presbyterian evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman. Among others were Gypsy Smith and R.A. Torrey. It was a time of terrific change in America as industrialism and unrest led many to despair. Many sought hope in the messages of that evangelists preached. Biederwolf’s message was a combination of traditional gospel and social outreach. He preached on the virtues of temperance, praised patriotism and denounced socialism. “Purity” in the form of sexual abstinence was also a part of the message, one he directed primarily to young people. Personal salvation through accepting Christ as Lord and Savior, as it was for many evangelists, was at the heart of Biederwolf’s preaching and exhortation.
In the second decade of the 20th century Allentown was one of the many stops that Biederwolf made on the evangelist’s circuit. Apparently the 1200 block of Linden Street was used by religious groups seeking to preach who did not want to do so in a church. Evangelical groups had been meeting there since the late 19th century for revivals. A photograph from 1918 showing a tent like building in the center labeled Biederwolf’s Temple suggests it was a temporary structure. The 1918 city directory lists no buildings at all on that block.
Along with the traditional themes of Biederwolf’s preaching he was also an advocate of the Social Gospel. Christ had preached his message to the poor and said everyone must love his neighbor. This played a role in Biederwolf’s teaching. He promoted civic reforms and denounced saloon politicians. He had a prominent role in the Men and Religion Forward movement of 1911-12 which mingled soul winning with the Social Gospel. Biederwolf was a big supporter of family life. In 1909 he established the Family Altar League and served as its president. Long before it became a popular slogan in the 1950s, Biederwolf was advocating that “the family that prays together, stays together.”
Biederwolf was also a strong believer in education. He was to author at least 30 books himself and one of the first things people remembered after meeting Biederwolf is that he always seemed to have a book in his hands. His most popular book was a Bible commentary titled “The Millennium Bible.”
Although preaching was what he was best known for, Biederwolf had excellent executive skills. He served as president of the Interdenominational Association of Evangelists which he founded in 1904. From 1914 to 1917 he served as executive director of the Federal Council of Churches. When he was not preaching at home Biederwolf was taking the message of Christ abroad. In 1923 and 1924 he traveled to Australia and Asia, preaching his message. It was in Korea that he was moved by the sight of a group of Lepers and he established and supported a Leper colony and became the director of the American Mission to Lepers.
In his later years Biederwolf served as director of the Winona Lake School of Theology. He spent the last ten years of his life as seasonal pastor of the Royal Poinciana Chapel in Palm Beach, Florida. It had a nondenominal seasonal congregation of 1,500, largely made up of the well-to-do winter guests at the beach resorts’ fashionable hotels.
Perhaps because of the outbreak of the war eclipsing all other news, the Morning Call apparently did not carry an obituary for Biederwolf. But those who heard him in the Lehigh Valley must surely have not forgotten him.