We trace our beginning back to 1937 when J. Lloyd Hunter organized Rural Bible Crusade in Wheaton, Illinois. But perhaps the true beginning of the ministry was in 1918 in a community in rural Minnesota where Hunter and his wife, Bertha, were inspired with the idea of the Bible Memory Contest. Or perhaps the beginning of the ministry was in 1913 in a mission near Joliet, Illinois, where Hunter was called to minister to children. Or the ministry could be said to have begun in 1896 when Hunter, as a small child, accepted Christ as his Savior. Or the ministry may be traced to thousands of years ago when a Man from Galilee told His disciples, "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven."
Regardless of the true beginning of the ministry, the history of Rural Bible Crusade is intricately tied to the history of one man - J. Lloyd Hunter. Hunter, a farm boy from Frankfort, Illinois, accepted Christ as his Savior when he was 6 years old, and surrendered his life to service for God at the age of 15. Hunter went on to schooling at Shurtleff College in Alton, Illinois, and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. During his last year at Moody, Hunter served as minister at the Ridgewood Baptist Church in Joliet, Illinois, and also preached at Pacific Garden Mission. It was at this mission that Hunter knelt with a ragged drunkard and led him into the family of God. This grown man, this drunkard saved by grace, was a picture of years of waste and futility Hunter would not forget. As Hunter knelt with this man, saw the filth, smelled the alcohol, and witnessed the changing power of God's grace and mercy, he thought to himself, "If only this man had been won to Christ as a boy, his whole life would have been saved." There in that mission, with that drunkard, Hunter felt the call of God to give his life to teaching children of Christ.
In 1937, while living in Wheaton, Illinois, Hunter, who was then in ill health, officially organized Rural Bible Crusade, a ministry using the Bible Memory Program to reach children throughout the states. The first advisory council of RBC consisted of great men of the faith such as J. Oliver Buswell Jr., V. Raymond Edman, J.D. Hall, John R. Rice, Bob Jones Sr., Wendell Loveless, Oscar Lowry, William McCarrell, Harry Rimmer, Paul Rood, George Strohm, Walter Wilson, and Louis T. Talbot.
On December 7, 1939, God called Mr. and Mrs. David Forsythe out of Chicago with all that their old Graham-Paige could hold to begin a Rural Bible Crusade in Wisconsin. God used Mr. Hunter to begin the work after he held a Gospel meeting in the Northwoods where a little farm girl from a broken home said to him, “I wish I could be a Christian like you,” so he opened the Scriptures and explained the plan of salvation. She was saved. As Mr. Hunter drove away he stopped at a lonely spot and cried to God for the thousands of children who had no way of getting the Gospel. Arrangements were made for Dave and Lila Forsythe to take a pastorate in a small church in Platteville, Wisconsin and also begin the Rural Bible Crusade Memory Program in rural schools. The church gave the Forsythes a place to live and a door of service to conduct the Bible Memory Program. In the first year, 1,300 children were enrolled in the Bible Memory Program, largely by mail.
From Platteville, they came to Marshfield, which was more centralized for a state work. A school friend of Dave's had just bought a building and he invited the Forsythes to occupy three rooms. They recognized God's provision. When Mae Heller came into the work in May 1942 to teach Bible school and later visit schools, this is where she also lived.
Under the leadership of Hunter and the council, about 10 or 12 full-time workers organized Scripture Memory Programs in rural schools in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and New England. When starting a new work, Hunter would visit a state and help local Christians organize the Bible Memory Contest, a chairman would be chosen, and missionaries would begin to work in that state. In the March 6, 1943, issue of the Sunday School Times, Hunter reported, "We have never seen rural children so eager for the Gospel . . . By November 15, in Iowa and Wisconsin alone we had nearly ten thousand children, besides hundreds of school teachers, memorizing Bible verses." Hunter went on to tell how the work of the Word of God in these children's lives was leading them to share this Word with others. He wrote, "We have never had so many reports of souls won by our children as we are getting this year." Hunter tells the story of a child who, within a week of her conversion, won five others to Christ in a single day.
In the spring of 1943, Hunter entered the hospital where he would do his last work for his Savior before meeting Him face to face. Even while deathly ill, Hunter led three nurses in a hospital in Rochester to Christ and also a patient who was his roommate at Elmhurst Hospital. On June 17, 1943, at 2:10 p.m., Mr. Hunter, at the age of 55, went home to be with the Lord he had served so faithfully. Hunter's obituary in the Wheaton newspaper stated, "His fervor for souls and great love for his Savior inspired many to give their whole life to Christian service. He was a staunch believer in child conversion and had great faith that they in turn could win others."
The work of RBC among children did not die with Mr. Hunter. Businessman C.H. Benware wrote of the ministry after Hunter's death, "Rural Bible Crusade was born because God laid on the heart of one man a passion for rural children lost without Christ. With RBC yet in its infancy, God took Mr. Hunter to be with Himself. The infant survived because Mrs. Hunter refused to let it die." Bertha Hunter assumed the duties of secretary, and Mr. David Forsythe became acting superintendent upon Hunter's death. In the annual bulletin sent out in December 1943, six months after Hunter's death, it was reported that 404 children in the states of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Missouri had completed the 500 Bible memory verses during the year between September 1942 and August 1943. A reported 669 souls had come to know Christ as their Savior during this year. At this time, RBC had nine full-time workers on the field. The bulletin also reported that RBC programs had been launched in the states of Kansas and Wyoming.
When the Forsythes left to take the place of Mr. Hunter, who was dying, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Erb were appointed the directors in Wisconsin to carry on the work which the Forsythes had started.
Bertha Hunter knew that her husband's goal had been to win souls, which he did daily, and not to organize. Mrs. Hunter realized that now the future course of action for RBC must be more plainly defined. "At his home-going my burdened heart cried to God day and night that the work would not die but continue to be used of God to reach rural youth," Mrs. Hunter said. She asked the members of the RBC Advisory Council to meet on November 18, 1943, at Moody Bible Institute to discuss the future of the ministry. Only Rev. Wendell Loveless, J.D. Hall, and William McCarrell were able to attend this meeting, with all other members of the council, with the exception of one, sending their regrets on not being able to attend. The present members decided to dissolve the advisory council, which consisted of 15 men from all parts of the country. The council had held no executive powers and had experienced difficulty in gathering together so many men from various parts of the country. It was also decided at the meeting that a committee be formed to draft a constitution for Rural Bible Crusade.
On December 20, 1943, this committee, made up of Elliot F. Gibbs, W.L. Graham, D.L. Forsythe, and C.H. Benware, met at Wheaton College. During this meeting the committee wrote the first five articles of a tentative constitution. This constitution defined the purpose of RBC as "to proclaim the Gospel primarily to spiritually neglected children." Work on the constitution continued for three months, and upon completion, copies were submitted to all state organizations for consideration.
A four-day conference was held August 3-6, 1944, with representatives from states interested in organizing into a national organization meeting for the following purposes:
From this convention, the Rev. J.H. Kornelson of rural Kansas was called to serve as executive secretary and Rural Bible Crusade National was formed. This convention united the work of Rural Bible Crusade across the nation under one national office. However, some states, such as Missouri, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Iowa, continued to work independently, choosing not to merge with RBC National. It was at this time that Wisconsin formed a board of their own to help lead as they carried on the work.
In 1947 the Erbs felt led to start an RBC work in northern Minnesota. So, in 1948, single and sold out for the Lord, Mae Heller was appointed the director by the board. Soon after, three other single ladies felt led to come and assist Mae as she desired to continue the effort to reach the children of Wisconsin with the Gospel. The Lord used these four faithful ladies for well over 40 years in the ministry of Rural Bible Crusade to impact thousands of lives for the Lord in the state of Wisconsin. The love and dedication that these four ladies had for the Lord, which played out in their burden to reach children for God, are still felt by many individuals in Wisconsin and all over the world. Mae came to Rural Bible Crusade in 1942, Evelyn in 1945, LaRue in 1949, and Signe in 1953. With the closing of the one room school houses in 1967, efforts and methods to reach the children of Wisconsin had to be focused into other areas such as the Vacation Bible Schools and visiting more churches.
In 1990, Allen and Ellen Thrall were appointed the directors to continue the work of RBC with the help of the board. Mr. Thrall had a unique way of relating to the children and the teens and was able to connect and build relationships with them for the purpose of seeing them saved and discipled. While under the leadership of Mr. Thrall, Rural Bible Crusade of Wisconsin began having teen retreats twice a year for the purpose of continuing to meet with the teens of RBC and discipling them over a weekend of food, fun, fellowship, and digging deeper into God’s Word. Mr. Thrall explained, "Through these retreats we try to encourage the teens to be a strong witness for the Lord, and to ground them in God's Word." The retreats proved to be very spiritually profitable and continue today with RBC teens bringing their friends to be evangelized and hear the Word.
In 2011, Joe and Debra Cable humbly accepted the position of directorship to carry on the burden and passion of all the directors before them that had started with J. Lloyd Hunter: to reach children with the Gospel through Bible verse memory. Our goal- which is very much the same as it has been for the past 70+ years (by the leading of the Lord) - is to present the Gospel to boys and girls through Bible verse memorization. Our goal is to lead boys and girls to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our program (which is entirely free) accomplishes this goal through Bible verse memorization and through Bible studies, sent through the mail.
We encourage children throughout Wisconsin to memorize Bible verses as we have outlined in the Bible Memory Program. We give awards to the children as they progress in the memorization of the Scriptures. We offer them a FREE week of summer camp after they have memorized 150 verses. After they have memorized another 150 verses, they receive another FREE week of camp, along with a nice new Bible with their name on it. After learning 300 verses, we begin them on the Mail Box Bible Lessons. They remain on this program, if they so desire, until they are 18 years old. In the Bible studies, emphasis is put on salvation, dedication, and Christian growth. After the young people graduate from high school, we continue our ministry to them by sending them the Our Daily Bread devotional booklet. We continue to do this as long as they desire.
Currently during the summer months, we attempt to reach more boys and girls with the Gospel and the Bible Memory Program through our Vacation Bible School (VBS) program which is conducted at different churches throughout Wisconsin. We send out VBS teachers to areas that have contacted us requesting a Bible school.
Rural Bible Crusade of Wisconsin has, without a doubt, seen the hand of God on the ministry! It is only by God's grace that this ministry has flourished and impacted so many for eternity, and it is only by God’s grace that it will continue to do so.
Through the years, RBC leaders realized that many children were memorizing 250-300 verses but were unable to complete the 500 verses required for camp. So they decided to reduce the required number of verses to 300, and eventually it was lowered to 200, and now 150 verses is the requirement for one week of camp. This gives more children an opportunity to attend summer camp free of charge.
The very first verse in the RBC Bible Memory Program leaflets is what Mr. Hunter called the "Golden Text of the Bible": "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son . . ." John 3:16 - the first verse children involved in Rural Bible Crusade learn today.