Welcome to the historical archive of Calvary Baptist Church. We have a rich history and invite you to learn about the events and people that have shaped Calvary.
The 1920s were the pioneer years for radio broadcasting in the U.S. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began broadcasting in 1926 and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began in 1927. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, was the first church to have its services broadcast on the medium on November 5, 1922. Calvary’s firebrand pastor John Roach Straton was always open to using non-traditional means to preach the gospel, and enthusiastically led the church to vote on October 25, 1922 to allocate $1000 from the Collegiate Church Memorial Fund for “the installation of a radio broadcasting plant for broadcasting sermons and music from the church.” (As a comparison, the church had recently spent $25,000 from the same fund to rebuild the organ.) It was said that the proposal was approved after a very lengthy discussion.
The church’s sexton and engineer George F. Koster, with help from others, worked swiftly to set up the first church-owned and operated radio station, with the first broadcast on March 4, 1923. A story about the innovation appeared on the front page of the brand new technical magazine Radio World in 1923. In the story, Straton was as quotable as ever:
"I am delighted with it. We have given the system a thorough test and it has proved very successful. I am a hearty believer in the use of radio for broadcasting the truths of religion. I believe that radio is destined to take a place second only to newspapers as a means for immediately and directly reaching the masses of people.
"The people will not get any doubts or negations or question marks from the Calvary pulpit. I shall try to continue to do my part, as the Bible expresses it, in ‘tearing down the strongholds of Satan’ and I hope that our radio system will prove so efficient that when I twist the devil’s tail in New York, his squawk will be heard across the continent!"
Calvary’s new station, WQAO, had a broadcasting range of up to 500 miles. All three services, including the Wednesday prayer meeting, were sent over the airwaves. Over time, “The Calvary Church Hour” migrated to other stations, such as WMGM, WMCA, and onto shortwave radio as well. In the 1950s, for example, the church purchased over 60 short wave receiving sets, sending them to the mission fields around the world. The National Religious Broadcasters (the NRB today, composed of 1000+ members) was formed in part due to the leadership efforts of Calvary’s Pastor William Ward Ayer in 1944, in response to a ban on paid religious broadcasting. Their efforts were successful in 1949 when the new ABC network reversed its ban on paid religious broadcasting, followed by the other networks shortly after. The NRB held a “William Ward Ayer Day” rally in 1983 to honor him as an inductee into their hall of fame.
When Pastor Stephen Olford arrived in 1959, the church was broadcasting “The Calvary Church Hour” locally on WABC and overseas on HCJB. At a considerable expense, Olford led the church to expand the broadcast to many more international stations and onto television. In addition to the “The Calvary Church Hour”, Olford’s program “Encounter” (1960-1975) also contained interviews with celebrities who were Christian believers, always with evangelism in mind.
From Straton on, every Calvary pastor through the years, has greatly emphasized the use of radio, shortwave, television, and now the internet and social media to spread the message of Jesus Christ. The forms of communication may change, but the message remains the same: “We preach Christ crucified, risen, and coming again.”
Contributed by Todd A. Williams, October 2020
“Church Profile: Calvary Baptist Church, New York City.” The King’s Business. October, 1953.
“Dancing in the Street.” The New York Times. 2010-02-12. (A short history of religious broadcasting in New York.)
De Plata, William R. (1997). Tell It From Calvary, 2nd Ed. New York: Calvary Baptist Church.
“History.” NRB Website. https://nrb.org/about/history. Retrieved 2020-10-16.
Larson, Mel. (1950). God’s Man in Manhattan. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.
Phillips, John (2006). The Life and Legacy of Stephen Olford. Olford Ministries International. An update and revision of Only One Life (1995).