Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we tell the curious story of Lester Roloff.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 2nd of November 2021 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Let me level with you at the start of the show. I don’t love talking about all the stupid, and bad, and sometimes evil stuff that Christians do in the name of Jesus. But there are a lot of tragic stories in the church and we don’t shy away from seeing sin in everything on this side of the New Heavens and Earth.

Sometimes we have a little fun with some of the more extreme and colorful characters by naming them to our Dr. Gene Scott All-Stars. Sometimes the characters are excessive and gaudy and sometimes we see their theology correlate to their sometimes bizarre lifestyles.

It can be tricky for me, and I think for many, on where to draw the line between salacious storytelling and a frank discussion of sin and evil (even when the evil comes dressed up as a preacher or a theologian). Perhaps the best thing I can do when I do tell a story that might be a little messy is to back up and ask the question: what does this mean for the church and how do we put it in context?

I tell you this because I am trying to process how to tell the story of Lester Roloff who died on this day in 1982 when the private plane he was flying to a church service in Oklahoma crashed into a field.

Lester Roloff was born in East Texas in 1914. He attended Baylor and then the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was a fiery fundamentalist preacher who began hosting a radio program in 1944 called the Family Table. In 1950 he was called on to replace a preacher at a revival and Roloff became a popular evangelist. He became a prominent name amongst Texas fundamentalists and soon left the Southern Baptist Convention for his own independent Baptist church. His radio ministry was a mixture of fire and brimstones sermons, some folksy southern self help, and a lot of the culture wars. The more he preached on the evils of liberalism and communism the more money he raised. At least twice he resigned from the pastorate to move about the country as an evangelist raising money for his, then amorphous, ministry.

In 1967 he started the People’s Baptist Church in Corpus Christi and would remain connected to that church until his death.

In 1968 he opened the Rebekah Home For Girls. This would lead to a number of reformatories under Roloff Ministries and it was these for which he would become infamous.

The homes were a smash hit and made Roloff a very wealthy man. He would continue to fly around the U.S. raising money for his homes that he claimed were saving ne’er-do-well children. In 1973 the Attorney General of Texas opened an investigation into these homes, most notably the Rebekah home, on account of complaints of physical abuse and ridiculously harsh conditions (girls could be whipped, handcuffed, or put in solitary confinement for offenses as small as not memorizing the daily scripture reading).

Roloff described his reformatories as places where “parent-hating, Satan-worshiping, dope-taking immoral boys and girls, were turned into faithful servants of the Lord.” While Roloff was raking in cash at these non-taxed religious reformatories he also refused to have them licensed through the state of Texas. This lead to a long legal fight and Roloff’s claims that he was fighting for religious freedom. In 1977 the state ordered the homes to be licensed and this led to what he called “the Christian Alamo”. He called on Christians from across the United States to join him in linking arms around his compound to keep the authorities out.

*dear listener, please know that this can not end well. Especially when you refer to something as similar to the Alamo. Go read a quick article on the Alamo and you’ll see why*

The homes were closed after Roloff’s death only to open up again briefly in the 90s to close again.

As I was thinking about this story I couldn’t help but think of Roloff as a seller of expensive, but cheap, penance. We see familiar scare tactics in his story from McCarthy-esque red-baiting to the always popular refrain “what about the children?” Roloff reminds me of a caricature of a late medieval seller of indulgences. Are you scared that your children aren’t ok? Maybe even that they will become non-Christians? Well, cut him a check and he’ll ensure that the kids turn out all right. If we can pay for something to get fixed, or for us to be made well, then it must work, right?

Luckily the news is better than we can imagine, and a whole lot cheaper. Today we remember the strange story of Lester Roloff whose plane crashed on this day in 1982, perhaps his story can help us see the human folly in the church against a background of grace that is powerful enough to save even Lester Roloff.

The last word for today comes from 1 Corinthians 2:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who is a pastor, but not the kind with a private plane. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who just got word that Von Miller is coming to the Rams. Hot dog! I’m Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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