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The Life of Rev. E P Wahl
Written for the Dedication of the E P Wahl Centre at Taylor
June 11, 2010 | by Tim Willson
Between birth and death, each of us is given a certain number of days, and each of us is given freedom to use our days as we choose. Each choice leads to new choices, and in the case of one young American boy, his choices were matched with a dogged determination and sacrificial attitude. The results are in the roof above us and the floor under our feet, and more importantly in the lives of most people present, as well as the lives of thousands of others.
To German-speaking immigrant parents from Russia, Emil Peter Wahl was born in Plum Creek, South Dakota on June 18, 1892. (Yes, Dr. Wahl would have been 118 in 2010!) Raised by believing parents, Emil confessed Christ at age 9 and was baptized in a creek during an outdoor service. It was a happy childhood in a close-knit church community; an early memory was the visit to their church of Professor Walter Rauschenbusch. “Oncle Busch” made a deep and lasting impression in how he treated Emil and the other children, bending down to speak to them at their level, and teaching them a song in English, perhaps prophetically: I Will Make You Fishers of Men.
It would not be long before he suffered the first of numerous losses and challenges. He was not yet 13 when his older sister Carrie became ill and died, and a month later his mother died of pneumonia.
These tragedies so close together were compounded by his father’s decision to sell his retail store and move to North Dakota. Not long after arriving, his father married a young widow, and she entered Emil’s home with a young son of her own – as well as an invalid mother. As the young man worked through these challenges, he emerged with a stronger faith and a sense of calling to ministry. It took two years to gather the funds needed to enter Rochester Baptist Seminary, and then discovered that he needed three years of upgrading before his theological studies could begin; it would be a long road.
Emil Wahl loved Rochester Baptist Seminary, home of Professor Rauschenbusch. Alas, the respected professor was now a nationally known figure, the leader of the Social Gospel movement, and no longer taught at Rochester. However, Rauschenbusch was a frequent visitor to the campus and a speaker at the chapel services, and his writings became an essential part of Wahl’s thinking.
It was at Rochester that Wahl’s life took a new direction. He was working one night when a friend and fellow student named Philip Daum, a Canadian, invited him to join him as a summer pastoral worker. Wahl would later tell people, “I was on my knees in New York scrubbing the dining room floor when God called me to Canada.”
And so, in the summer of 1916, the young seminarian got off the train in Regina, said goodbye to his friend Philip, and travelled alone to Irvine, then by horse and buggy another 40 miles to a place called Germantown (a small southern Alberta town now called ‘Hilda’). He returned the next summer, and in the fall of that year, married his life-long friend Pauline Schatz.
The newly-married couple spent their first winter wrestling with their future. Emil was not yet finished his seminary training, but he was not sure about a lifetime of ministry with its attendant hardships and poor pay, and strongly considered law school: could he not advance the cause of the Social Gospel as a lawyer? In the end, he told his friends at the Germantown church that he would accept the call to become their full-time pastor.
He was ordained on May 14th, 1918, and the words of that Pentecost Sunday service were still ringing in his ears when the couple’s first child, Inez, was born in the fall.
Rev. Wahl quickly became a leading voice among the German Baptists of western Canada. In just his second year of ministry, he threw his weight behind an idea that was long overdue in his mind – a dream to establish a Bible training school. Pioneering Pastor Abraham Hagar of Rabbit Hill had proposed such a school years earlier, and Wahl told his fellow pastors in 1919 that the time had come. So many young people, and so little to do in the long winter months on the prairies! But the school he envisioned was not to be – not yet. Before that took place, there would be further heartaches.
Twin girls, born in October, died the next year – one in March, the other in July. His dear mentor, the great Walter Rauschenbusch, passed away. And then there was the Great War… so much death. The young preacher, in failing health from overwork, was now also overwhelmed with sorrow. Wahl resigned, and headed back to Rochester for his final two years of study.
Pastoral work south of Leduc, near his old friend Philip Daum.
Making music with a band of 24 musicians, which he directed.
Chairmanship of the Alberta German Baptist Association
Leadership of an annual Pastor's Gathering.
The introduction of week-long Bible Training Schools.
And a son, Ivan.
Later, a move to Winnipeg to work with immigrants, then a move back to Alberta to pastor in the Olds-Trochu area. Continuing to offer short-term Bible schools in various churches, Wahl still longed to develop a permanent Bible school, but the time was never right.
In 1933, the family moved to Portland, Oregon to accept a pastorate. Five years later, having grown the church, founded a mission to the Asian (esp. Chinese) community and launched a radio program, he was invited back to Canada by his friend Philip Daum to lead the growing Bible School movement and to lead the missionary church movement. He resigned from Second German Baptist Church, Portland, and made preparations to move to Edmonton, but weeks later, on June 17th, 1937, the day before his 45th birthday, a trolley slammed into their car, and 13-year old Ivan was killed. Ten weeks later, the family drove north with an empty seat in the family car, leaving behind a gravestone marked with another poignant father-son moment: “Thy will be done.” Perhaps it is no surprise that his favourite Psalm was Psalm 22.
The first winter back in Alberta saw a number of short-term Bible Schools organized, and 1938-39: seven more, with attendance of 250. On land near the University of Alberta, Rev. E.P. Wahl was finally building his long-awaited permanent Bible School – funded in part with insurance money from the accident that had claimed their son. Emil and Pauline had decided that every penny of the $2,000 settlement would go towards the new Christian Training Institute.
How does one compress all that happened next? How can one dignify the endless work and sacrifice that followed with a few meagre paragraphs? Perhaps, having shown the character of the man, I can summarize his life’s work this way:
Christian Training Institute, the long-delayed, seemingly-impossible dream, officially opened on January 2, 1940; 24 students were enrolled.
Over the next 70 years, over three thousand students would get some or all of their post-secondary training at the institution. It has changed locations (moving to the present campus in 1968), changed names (more than once), and added various courses and programs. In all that time, Dr. Wahl’s passion for training and equipping young people – men and women, from various church backgrounds – has remained alive and well.
Rev. Wahl served as president from 1940-1957, from age 48 to 65. He left the work utterly exhausted – so tired, he wrote in a letter to the board, that he found himself too tired to eat supper. Yet he remained an active supporter of the school after he resigned, teaching and spending time with students even as he returned to pastoral work. One of the churches he planted after that time was Capilano Baptist, now Hillview. Dr. Wahl established seven churches in his lifetime, and was a catalyst for numerous initiatives. He was given an honorary doctorate from CTI in 1962 in recognition of his many accomplishments.
He was deeply attached to his denomination – which is now the North American Baptist Conference – and attended every Triennial conference from 1913 in Madison, South Dakota to 1982 in Niagara Falls, and he chaired two of them (including the biggest one of all, here in Edmonton in 1958) – and yes, that was in the year after his resignation and the same year he planted a new church! Yet he was also fiercely determined, and sometimes butted heads with others in leadership. Perhaps that is a good way to lead into the remarkable final chapter of his life.
From his boyhood memories of his step-mother caring for her invalid mother in their home, Wahl had always been aware of the need for proper care for the elderly and ill. It also fit with Rauschenbusch’s notions of a faith in action, a faith that worked for justice and sought to meet social needs. So it should be no surprise that Dr. Wahl announced to his family that the time had come to act. Professor Ed Link’s biography of Dr. Wahl, You Who Have Dreams, provides the quote of that morning conversation:
“For years, our Baptist churches have been talking about building a home to care for the elderly with special needs. But a lot of ‘talk, talk, talk’ will not get it done! With the Lord’s guidance it’s time for us to do something about it!”
Wahl was 79 when he said that, and until age 88, he led the committee that raised funds and built Salem Manor in Leduc. Government approval was strangely difficult to get, but years of persistence – including a very direct letter to Premier Lougheed – finally produced results. One government worker was reported to have said, “Give that old man what he wants, then hopefully he’ll get off our backs!”
And, so, another group of people enjoy the legacy of Wahl’s work. He served both young people and the elderly, pouring his determined effort into building institutions that seemed so improbable. Yet here we are, and the new E P Wahl Centre at Taylor is a fitting tribute – a centre that captures his vision of training people for service, one that remains For God and Truth.
An impossible dream, in the midst of challenging circumstances, and yet with great needs to be met. I believe E.P. Wahl would remind us of one of the guiding principles of his life: Go with God’s strength, not your own.
Dr. Emil Peter Wahl died peacefully in Leduc in 1983 at the age of 91. His work lives on, to the glory of God.