Blair Neatby on “Bible Bill” Aberhart’s talent for radio and Alberta exceptionalism

“The most significant step, however, came when Aberhart was persuaded to broadcast his Sunday afternoon sermons over a pioneer radio station in Calgary. Aberhart proved to be a phenomenally successful broadcaster. He had a clear, sonorous voice, a pleasant voice which he used almost instrumentally, with a wide range of volume and mood to convey his message.

The message was biblical prophecy. Aberhart was a fundamentalist, preaching the revealed word of God. Like other religious sects, Aberhart and his adherents used the Bible to protest against the evils of the modern, materialists world: the evils of sophisticated academics and their biblical criticism, the cold formality of middle-class congregations, the vices of dancing and movies and drink. The old-fashioned, traditional Christian rejected these evils, rejected the material world with its pride and its temptations, and gave himself completely and enthusiastically to God. Basically it was a simple and appealing message: the world is sinful but Jesus saves.

In the 1920s Aberhart was only one of many fundamentalist preachers in Alberta. Indeed, one sociologist describes the province as being unique in Canada for its bewildering mixture of non-conformist religions. Alberta has its pockets of old-world sects, such as Mennonites and Hutterites. Immigrants from the United States brought with them or later imported an astonishing variety of Apostolic and Pentecostal sects. Aberhart with his Prophetic Bible Institute was only one of thirty or forty sects, with each congregation upholding variations of the same fundamentalist faith, and each prospering or declining according to the effectiveness or popularity of its leader.

Radio was a new and significant instrument in enlarging the congregation of an evangelist. By the end of the 1920s the isolation of most farm homes had been pierced by crystal radio sets. There were no networks but in Alberta local stations could reach most of the province and were spared competition from British Columbia stations because of the Rockies and from eastern Canadian stations because of distance. Aberhart was a talented preacher and Alberta was fertile soil for his message. Radio provided the ideal medium to cultivate a provincial congregation.”

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