Walter A. Maier (October 4, 1893 - January 11, 1950) was a noted radio personality, public speaker, prolific author, university professor, scholar of ancient Semitic languages and culture, Lutheran theologian and editor. He is best known as the speaker for The Lutheran Hour radio broadcast from 1930 - 1950.
Walter Arthur Maier was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 4, 1893, the fourth of five children to German immigrants Emil William and Anna Katherine 'Grossie' Maier. Walter grew up in Boston as an integral part of this large, close-knit, devoutly Christian family, spending his summers at the family farm near Canaan, New Hampshire. Walter planned to enter the ministry from an early age. His family supported his goals by arranging for him to attend the Concordia Collegiate Institute in New York, an academy combining both high school and junior college in the fashion of a European Gymnasium. Here, young Walter learned Greek, Latin, and German, along with other background materials suitable for an aspiring Lutheran minister. And here he first developed his love for studies in Hebrew, the language of the Christian Old Testament.
After graduating as valedictorian of the Concordia Institute, Walter obtained his B.A. from Boston University in 1913. From there, he went directly to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, where he supported himself by selling Oliver typewriters. Here, once again, it was the Hebrew language and Old Testament studies that engrossed Walter. And once again, his love for the subject caused him to excel in it. Upon graduation in 1916, and in recognition of his proficiency in the field, young Maier was awarded a graduate fellowship in Old Testament studies at Harvard Divinity School.
Due to the breadth of his academic goals, Walter studied at Harvard Divinity School from 1916-1918, and at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1918-1920. These four years saw the completion of course requirements for both Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees, as well as the creation of a first draft of his doctoral dissertation, Slavery in the Time of the Hammurabi Dynasty. His perspicacity concerning Biblical Hebrew led to the mastery of other Semitic languages such as Arabic, Assyrian, and Babylonian, as well as the Hittite and Sumerian languages; and included the ability to read ancient cuneiform. The study of Semitics also led to his deep understanding of the history, literature, and culture of the ancient societies associated with these languages. In 1917, Harvard Divinity School awarded Walter the Billings Prize for oratory. He received an M.A. in Semitic language, literature and history from Harvard University in 1920; and in 1929 became the twentieth person to ever receive his doctorate from Harvard in Semitics. Since America's oldest college had been founded in 1636, an average of one successful candidate every fifteen years had received this degree.
But academics were not Walter's only pursuit during these years at Harvard. Having been ordained into the holy ministry on May 20, 1917, Walter Arthur Maier also served as assistant pastor for the Zion Lutheran Church in Boston from 1917-1920. To these duties he added service as a United States Army chaplain from 1918 onward. Much of his work in the chaplain corps was spent working with German prisoners of World War I being held in the Boston area. For his ministry to these captured Germans, Chaplain Maier was eventually presented with a Lutheran Bible, 2nd edition, 1541.
Upon receipt of his M.A. degree in 1920, Walter was offered a number of university teaching positions which would have facilitated his preparation for the doctorate. Although the opportunity to continue his academic career obviously held great appeal, Walter chose to first answer the call of the church. Founded the year of Walter’s birth, the Lutheran young people’s organization known as the Walther League was in need of a national director. Among other responsibilities, this office included editorship of the organization’s monthly journal, The Walther League Messenger. Forsaking his cherished New England for this position in Milwaukee, Walter was installed as executive secretary on October 7, 1920.
One of the first tasks suggested to Secretary Maier by the League’s executive board was to discontinue funding of the Wheat Ridge Tuberculosis Sanatorium, an expensive facility maintained largely through League support. The young League executive visited the clinic himself, planning to deliver the bad news in person. But after seeing the need of the patients and the vision of the Wheat Ridge staff, and without consulting his board, Walter ended up pledging the League’s support for capital expansion of the hospital. Amazingly, the young people of the Walther League were able to raise more than $200,000 in the following months to keep this promise. Today the Sanatorium is no longer needed, but a viable Wheat Ridge Ministries is still about “Lutherans seeding new ministries of health and hope in the name of the healing Christ.”
The new editor of The Walther League Messenger also enhanced the publishing arm of the League. Editor Maier increased the size of the magazine, added features and pictures, wrote stirring editorials, and wrapped it all in a new, more appealing format. Through these improvements and the rapid growth of League membership under Maier’s direction, the circulation of the Messenger doubled in a few months.
One of these new readers was a young suburban Indianapolis teacher by the name of Hulda Augusta Eickhoff. Impressed by the solid message and zestful writing style of the articles signed only with the initials “W.A.M.”, Miss Eickhoff decided to join the Walther League and become a part of their vision. Soon Hulda was elected secretary of the Indianapolis chapter. Her program material had to be approved by “W.A.M.” in Milwaukee, who became as smitten with her writing as she was with his. It was just a matter of time before the handsome twenty-seven year old national secretary met the secretary of the Indianapolis chapter; a slender brunette with expressive brown eyes and sparkling smile who was destined to become his bride. Married in 1924, they eventually had two sons: Walter A. Maier II, born in 1925; and Paul L. Maier, born in 1929. Dr. Maier continued in his capacity as editor of the Messenger through 1945.
In 1922, Maier accepted the call to become Professor of Old Testament History and Interpretation at Concordia Theological Seminary. At 29 years of age he was the youngest person to hold the rank of full professor in the institution’s eighty-three year history. In order to take this post in St. Louis, Maier resigned as executive secretary of the Walther League, but retained the responsibility of editor for the Messenger. Here Maier was known as “a bear in the classroom, but a prince at home,” by the generation of young seminarians to whom he expounded the Hebrew language and Old Testament exegesis. The same Professor Maier who kept impeccably high standards in the classroom was also known for inviting entire classes of students – sometimes over 100 strong – into his home for meals and entertainment..
In 1926 Concordia Seminary moved from an inadequate campus in southern St. Louis into a newly constructed facility west of St. Louis in fashionable suburban Clayton. The new Seminary consisted of seventeen buildings of Tudor-Gothic architecture, designed by the firm of Day and Klauder, which had just completed a similar project for Princeton University. The predominately limestone construction, with pink Boulder stone, blue gray Zell stone, and bluish slate roofs, is a St. Louis tourist attraction even today. But of especial significance for the Maier family was the trim, two story house of vermillion and ochre brick with steeply slanted slate roof located at Eleven Seminary Terrace. This pleasant dwelling on the Concordia campus was to be Professor Maier’s residence for the rest of his life..
In March 1923 the Messenger featured a W.A.M. editorial entitled “Why not a Lutheran Broadcasting Station?” Its editor had long recognized the potential of radio to carry the gospel message to the masses, and dedicated numerous articles, editorials, conferences and addresses to the realization of this goal. Funded by appropriations from the Walther League, Lutheran Layman’s League, friends, and seminary students, a 500 watt transmitter was purchased and the first Christian radio station was born at Concordia Seminary. The new station, designated KFUO by the Federal Radio Commission, first proclaimed “The Gospel Voice” upon a 545.1 meter wavelength on Sunday, December 14, 1924 at 9:15 P.M. Professor Maier had two weekly programs on the fledgling station, but repeatedly promised, “This is only the beginning!”.
Although KFUO was well-received and well-supported, Walter Maier envisioned a broader audience than could be reached by constructing local radio stations. By 1929, with the goal of spreading the gospel from coast-to-coast, he was investigating the logistics of network broadcasting. At this time, the major radio networks donated air time to the Federal Council of Churches, but no single denomination had ever produced a nationwide radio show dedicated to spreading the gospel. Having persuaded the Missouri Synod of the validity of this project, Dr. Maier contacted the National Broadcasting Company early in 1930. He was disappointed to find that NBC would not donate air time to the Lutheran Church, or any other single denomination. Worse still, they would not even allow the Lutheran Church to purchase air time. NBC’s policy, Dr. Maier was told, precluded putting religious time on a commercial basis..
Walter Maier then approached the Columbia Broadcasting System. CBS accepted paid religious programs but would the charge full commercial rate of $4500 per half-hour to broadcast over its thirty-four city network. An expense of over $200,000 annually seeming too much for the Synod during the depths of the Great Depression, the project was turned over to the Lutheran Layman’s League. The L.L.L. had already shown enthusiasm for religious broadcasting, and had great respect for Dr. Maier. In the end, the L.L.L. and Walther League were able to raise commitments of $94,000 by late summer – enough to sign the contract with CBS and commence broadcasting. With Dr. Maier as Speaker, The Lutheran Hour premiered on Thursday, October 2, 1930 at 10:00 (Eastern) or 7:00 (Pacific); immediately following CBS’s hit mystery, The Shadow..
Polling systems for ratings had not yet been invented. The size of a listening audience was estimated by counting each program’s fan mail. 15,000 communications were received during the first few weeks of broadcasting. Within a few months, with the listening audience estimated at five million hearers, The Lutheran Hour was receiving more mail than such top secular shows as Amos ‘n’ Andy. The Lutheran Hour was featured in over eight-hundred newspapers nationwide and regularly selected by both the New York Herald Tribune and Post as a recommended program for Thursdays. The program ran for thirty-six weeks its first season, and received over 57,000 pieces of correspondence. Due to financial concerns, The Lutheran Hour was discontinued from June, 1931 through 1934..
Discontinuation of the Lutheran Hour merely caused W.A.M. to redouble speaking efforts. He still had access to KFUO for local broadcasting; several times he was invited to speak on The Lutheran Hour of Faith and Fellowship, a Detroit-based program which broadcast on a seven station network in Michigan and Indiana; he could reach the public through Messenger editorials; and he taught scores of young seminarians Semitic languages and culture, and how to apply this knowledge to a better understanding of Scripture. But Walter Maier could also reach vast audiences through public speaking. From the time that W.A.M. received the coveted Billings prize, he had received acclaim for remarkable gifts as a public speaker.
In 1917, whilst attending Harvard, young Walter’s addresses at Clinton, Massachusetts garnered glowing reviews from the local newspaper. By 1920, Executive Secretary Maier was addressing audiences numbering in the thousands. In 1925, he was keynote speaker before an audience of 10,000 for the Lutheran Day Festival at Ocean Grove, New Jersey. On Sunday, June 23, 1929, some 70,000 people attending the quadricentennial celebration of Luther’s Catechism listened attentively to the event’s featured speaker, Dr. Walter A. Maier. From this time onward, the eloquent Semitics Professor was destined to speak before audiences numbering in the tens of thousands..
Soon after the Lutheran Hour went off the air, Dr. Maier presented one of his most significant essays, “The Jeffersonian Ideals of Religious Liberty,” before the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. For this highly publicized conference on church-state relationships, W.A.M. was to share the rostrum with such notables as President Herbert Hoover and Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Professor Maier’s presentation was given a standing ovation, made headlines across the nation the next morning, and was later published..
Later in 1930, Dr. Maier was challenged by the Chicago Chapter of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism to a debate with the renowned atheist, Clarence Darrow. The matter reached the newspapers, igniting strong sentiments from both Atheists and Christians. Clarence Darrow issued a statement to the Associated Press: “I never issued any challenge of this nature and no one has been authorized to issue such a challenge on my behalf.” Despite further entreaty from the challenging institution, Darrow declined to enter the fray, much to the disappointment of Dr. Maier..
During this period, Walter Maier accepted speaking engagements nearly every weekend. Time Magazine featured articles on his “Seven Fatal Follies” and “Back to Luther!” addresses at Ocean Grove (July 27, 1931 and Sept. 4, 1933 respectively). In the fall of 1932, he and Michigan Governor Wilbur M. Brucker addressed 11,000 at the Motor City’s State Fair Coliseum to honor the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. Dr. Maier spoke before 16,000 at Olympia Stadium in Detroit in 1933, over 25,000 at Belle Isle in 1934. When the Lutheran Hour resumed in 1935, Dr. Maier continued to speak before capacity crowds, deeming the message more important than his own well-being..
Walter A. Maier became a chief spokesman for the vigorous reassertion of classic Christianity. A superb orator, with the educational background to support his positions, Dr. Maier possessed the ability to communicate traditional Christianity in an untraditional manner, (as one magazine writer quipped, “the soapbox delivery of a Harvard script”). His version of traditional Christianity was pure Protestant orthodoxy based on Scripture and mediated through the Lutheran confessional traditions. In 1948, when Eleanor Roosevelt labeled him as a "fanatic fundamentalist," he replied with a sermon entitled, "You, Too, Should be a Fundamentalist!" (Roosevelt later retracted her charge and apologized to W.A.M.)
From the time that The Lutheran Hour went off the national air in 1931, Walter Maier never stopped working for its return. To avoid the prohibitive costs associated with the first network season, Dr. Maier and the radio committee of The Detroit Lutheran Pastoral Conference decided to recommence operations on the newly formed Mutual Broadcasting System. Although the reinstituted Lutheran Hour would broadcast on only eight stations, it included heavyweight WLW of Cincinnati. Broadcasting at 500,000 watts, or ten times the maximum output allowed by the FCC today, WLW could be heard anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. Commencing on Sunday, February 10, 1935, the Lutheran Hour proclaimed its second season from Epiphany Church in Detroit. Brace Beemer, the voice of WLW’s original Lone Ranger, was the announcer and the noted Dr. Maier returned as Speaker. Over a thousand letters from sixteen states and Canada were received after the first broadcast, providing some gauge of the program’s reach. During the season, KFUO; WTJS, Jackson, Tenn.; and KLCN, Blytheville, Ark. joined the stations covering the Lutheran Hour. By the end of the fourteen broadcasts, over 16,000 letters had arrived from thirty-five states and several provinces of Canada..
From its third season onward, the Lutheran Hour originated from KFUO on the Concordia Campus, a welcome relief from the 450 mile weekly commute to Detroit endured by Dr. Maier during the second season. By the fourth season, the Lutheran Hour was reaching west of the Rockies again with the addition of nine stations of California’s Don Lee Network and KFEL in Denver. The total number of outlets was now thirty-one, almost as many as the original network contract provided for in 1930. This series received over 90,000 pieces of correspondence from every state of the Union as well as provinces of Canada and Mexico. The fifth season (1937/38) broadcast over sixty-two stations; the sixth (1938/39) sixty-six; and with the advent of electronic transcription, the seventh Lutheran Hour (1939/40) was aired on 171 radio stations. The Spanish Lutheran Hour was also added in 1939, originating with short-wave radio station HCJB (“The Voice of the Andes”) in Quito, Ecuador. Soon stations were added in Puerto Rico, Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, Bolivia, and the Philippines..
Freedom of Speech:
In 1938 the Federal Council of Churches petitioned the National Association of Broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission formally requesting that all paid religious programs be barred from the air. The major radio networks at this time donated time to the three major divisions of organized religion in the United States: Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Judaism. Protestant programming had been placed under exclusive direction of the Council, an organization which represented about thirty denominations but less than half of American Protestantism. Overtly liberal in its theology, the Federal Council would not sponsor a conservative, Christ-centered program such as the Lutheran Hour. Jealous of its privilege, the Council’s general secretary was on record as having said in 1929, “in the future, no denomination or individual church will be able to secure any time whatever on the air unless they are willing to pay prohibitively high prices…”
Having overcome the disadvantage of providing its own financing, the Lutheran Hour was now the largest religious broadcast in radio. But the Federal Council sought to end all such endeavours, allowing no viewpoint except its own. Championing the cause of religious freedom and freedom of speech, Walter A. Maier was a strong voice against such “totalitarian tendencies.” As portrayed in a 1938 article by Time magazine, Maier’s pulpit helped to preserve the heritage of liberty enjoyed by citizens of the United States..
By its eighth season (1940/41) fifty-two foreign stations brought the Lutheran Hour’s total to 310. This year the program received 200,000 communications, including as many as 5,000 items in a single day. The 1941/42 Lutheran Hour saw the entry of the United States into World War II. This year the Icelandic government granted the Lutheran Hour use of 100,000-watt Radio Reykjavic for programs in English and Icelandic. For the first time, the Lutheran Hour would be heard in Europe. A mail count of 260,000 corroborated other means of audience measurement in creating an estimate of 10,000,000 listeners worldwide..
The tenth season (1942/43) was the first to run for 52 weeks. The eleventh season (1943/44) was carried on 540 stations; the twelfth (1943/44) on 609; and the thirteenth (1944/45) on 809 stations. During the twelfth season the Mutual Broadcasting System enacted a new policy that prohibited solicitation of funds on the broadcast. Up to this time, contributions from radio listeners had supported about 75% of program costs, with Lutheran agencies and friends of the ministry providing the rest. Despite a cost which had risen to $29,000 per program, or $1,500,000 per season, listeners continued to support the majority of the broadcast without being asked..
These trends continued into Walter A. Maier’s last year as Speaker. In 1949, ABC announced that they had decided to accept paid religious broadcasting. With this addition, the Lutheran Hour was now heard on 1236 stations worldwide. ABC and CBS also offered television facilities for the program. Several such telecasts were produced beginning with a local show over St. Louis’ KSD-TV on New Year’s Day, 1948. By end of year, 1949, the Lutheran Hour was broadcast from 55 countries to a potential listening audience of 450,000,000 in 120 different lands. Programming was translated into thirty-six languages, and plans were in motion to raise that tally to fifty. An agreement had been reached to add a 111-station Japanese Lutheran Hour to ongoing broadcasts in Spanish, Afrikaans, German, Chinese, Arabic, Slovak, Italian, Greek, Estonian, Latvian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, and others. The broadcast could be heard in Australia, Latin America, throughout Africa, the Far East including much of Communist China, the South Pacific Islands and the West Indies, and all of Europe, including Soviet Eastern Europe and some of Asiatic Russia. The estimated weekly listening audience rose from 12,000,000 (Time, 1943), to 15,000,000 (Collier’s, 1944), to 20,000,000 people (Saturday Evening Post, 1948). Mail count continued to exceed the rate which had produced 450,000 items in the previous season, culminating in a record of 17,000 letters received in one day. All of this indicated success for Walter A. Maier’s vision of “Bringing Christ to the Nations.”.
Walter Maier was editor of the Walther League Messenger for twenty five years, from 1920 -1945. Once a month this magazine addressed timely issues, secular and religious, within an illustrated format which averaged sixty-four pages in length. Each issue included at least three editorials and articles authored by “W.A.M.” In over nine-hundred essays W.A.M. explored subjects ranging from archaeology, literature and education, music and the fine arts, science and medicine, society and entertainment, business and labor. His object was to provide thinking church people with spiritual insights into current topics, a perspective not addressed in secular periodicals. During the quarter century under Maier as Editor Messenger circulation grew from 7,000 to 80,000, indicating that his target audience appreciated this approach..
When the national Lutheran Hour went off the air in 1931, many listeners wrote to express interest in continuing its message. Its speaker’s first book, The Lutheran Hour, was a collection of broadcast sermons from that first season, intended to alleviate these concerns until a second season could be developed. When the Lutheran Hour broadcast resumed in 1935, the radio public continued to request sermons in printed form. This led to twenty volumes of published W.A.M. sermons during his years as Speaker. When Dr. Maier prepared a radio sermon, he dealt with each subject exhaustively. The pica transcripts of his message were typically twenty-two to twenty-four pages long, with far more detail than he could include in a twenty minute delivery. The complete messages were included in the published collections, which meant that a reader would get fresh information, even on a subject that he had already heard on the radio. The books averaged 350 - 400 pages each and served as resource materials for many Protestant ministers. The following excerpts are illustrative of the national reviews :
…sober, sensible, and fervent talks on religion…that have moved many people to serious thinking…–Boston Globe, January 23, 1932
…a clarity unusual in this day of foggy verbiage. – Dallas Times-Herald, January 24, 1932
…earnest, evangelical, and absolutely sound…–The Christian Century, XLIX, 258
In 1934 Dr. Maier published For Better, Not for Worse: A Manuel of Christian Matrimony. W.A.M. honestly believed that no one was more happily married than he, and the intentions of many supposed experts to redefine the institution troubled him. Walter Maier hoped that such a book, based upon a thorough study of the problem, would enable others to also obtain wedded bliss as a reality in their lives. ‘Thorough’ being the keyword, For Better, Not for Worse, included 504 pages of small type in its first edition. The book sold out five printings more quickly than expected, and each time the noted Professor added detail and clarification. By the sixth printing, the matrimonial tome had reached 598 pages in length. The consensus of newspaper and magazine reviews was overwhelmingly favourable, although the work was regarded as academic and “ponderous” by some. Time devoted half of a 1935 article towards its review, and the following excerpt from Christianity Today is indicative of the overall response :
This volume is a needed protest against the pagan, despiritualized conceptions of courtship, marriage and family relations that find such wide-spread expression today….It is more than a protest, however. It sets forth the constructive contributions which Christianity makes to married happiness.
In 1931, Walter Maier wrote the essay, “The Jeffersonian Ideals of Religious Liberty,” which was later published by Concordia. During World War II Dr. Maier wrote the well known Wartime Prayer Guide. The sixty-six page booklet measured less than 3 X 5 inches, and was designed to fit in the uniform pockets of those in service. Several hundred thousand of these were printed by Concordia and distributed to those engaged in the war. Ernst Kaufmann Publishers of New York approached the eminent Professor in 1940 to author the text of a new format of home devotional literature. The work consisted of calendar leaflets for each day of the year with a Scripture text, and a 200-word devotional printed on one side and a prayer and hymn verse on the other. W.A.M. produced twelve years of this series, entitled Day by Day; with sales eventually rising to 50,000 annually. Phonograph record albums entitled Day by Day were also produced, with Maier meditations and hymns by the Lutheran Hour Chorus. The Lutheran Hour offered a tuition-free Correspondence Course entitled, “The Fundamentals of the Christian Faith.” The materials for this study series were also written by Walter Maier – thirty lessons (with test sheets). In addition, Walter Maier published five paperback Lenten devotionals from 1945- 1949..
Culminating Walter A. Maier’s literary career was the long-researched The Book of Nahum. Published posthumously in 1959 from a manuscript whose text was completed before Dr. Maier’s death, The Book of Nahum was a return to Walter’s first love, Semitics. For many years, Professor Maier had worked on this project in his leisure time, often stating his intention to fill his later years with such academic pursuits, once he retired from the limelight. This last work was an examination of the Biblical book of Nahum from the scholar’s perspective. Dr. Maier’s main interest lay in the fact that Nahum predicted the fall of the Assyrian empire at around 650 BC, some forty years before the event actually occurred. Many modern higher-critical studies have assumed that Nahum must have been written after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, based upon the preconceived bias that prophecy is impossible or unscientific. Professor Maier’s work demonstrated that such predictions were in fact given many years in advance of the fulfillment. His work highlights twenty-two separate details in Nahum’s prophecies which were literally fulfilled in the fall of Nineveh. Prof. George V. Schick finished the bibliography and edited the manuscript for publication.
Dr. Walter A. Maier “returned to his Creator for entry into life everlasting” at 12:25 AM on January 11, 1950. He left behind a bereaved widow and two sons. But he also left a legacy to those of us that remain. At the time of his death, The Lutheran Hour that he founded had become the largest regular broadcast – secular or religious – in the history of radio. He had reached into parts of the world long deprived of the free exercise of religion or speech, and had provided a message of hope and freedom. Several million pieces of correspondence from across the inhabitable surface of the Earth bear witness to the impact of his radio broadcasts. His books and transcriptions of those sermons are available online today.
Walter Maier was one of the pioneers of international broadcasting, and arguably the model for all future international religious broadcasting. Men such as Dr. Billy Graham credit Maier’s work as inspirational for their own ministries.. Dr. Maier fought for religious freedom when bureaucratic excess threatened to extinguish it. But at the same time he fought for the fairness of Jeffersonian policies toward church-state relations. For those who adhere to the precepts of Christianity, Dr. Maier reached more people with a saving faith than any man before. Scholar, celebrity, devoted husband and father, visionary, and man of great faith, W.A.M. provides a true example of a balanced life to those of us today.