IN 1935, AT THE AGE of seventeen, Ray Stedman graduated from I high school. That fall, he and seventy-two other freshmen their college studies at Intermountain Union College in Helena, Montana.(Rocky Mountain College is the oldest college in Montana and represents the blending of three distinct religious traditions. In 1877, a small group of Methodists met in Bozeman to establish a school. After encountering roadblocks, another group from Deer Lodge, Montana, established the Montana Collegiate Institute in 1878. Four years later, the Presbyterian Church assumed control of the institute and chartered the College of Montana, with three brick buildings and a student population of 160. A few years later, in 1889, the Methodist Episcopal Church opened Montana Wesleyan University in Helena. In 1923 these institutions merged under the aegis of Intermountain Union College in Helena, which was renamed Rocky Mountain College in 1947. (College History & Heritage section, Web site of Rocky Mountain College, Billings, Montana.) College records reveal that Ray did not live in the men's dormitory, but rather at the Hotel Stevens, 213 1/2 Central Avenue, Room 12.
"That was a critical period in my life," Ray reflected years later. "Like so many young men facing college, I was not at all sure about what I was getting into. I had an outward appearance of confidence and the ability to handle anything that came, but within I had a deep sense of uncertainty. I was aware that I really did not know the ground rules of life. I pretended I did but I didn't, and inside I knew it. It was like trying to playa game when you didn't know the rules, but were trying to guess them as you went along. It was rough. I was baffled, as all young people are baffled, by the great questions of life." (See Ray's message God Is Light from September 18, 1966)
Earthquake at Intermountain
ON OCTOBER 17, 1935, soon after Ray entered college, a devastating earthquake struck Helena. The earthquake destroyed the buildings of Intermountain Union College, forcing the school to close for several weeks before relocating ninety miles north in Great Falls, where the Methodist church, the Presbyterian church, and the Deaconess Hospital all opened their doors to the institution. In those Depression years, college was a luxury. So although many students returned home until the school reopened, Ray decided to stay in Helena and work to earn some much-needed money.
The day after the earthquake Ray wrote to his aunt, describing the event and assuring his family that he was safe and sound. Although it is a long letter in which he marvels that no one at his school was hurt, Ray doesn't mention anything about God. Clearly his personal relationship with the Lord, though real, was not foremost on his mind at this period of his life. The letter closes with Ray asking his aunt to send the letter on to his mother.(Ray Stedman, letter to Beulah Sheets, October 18, 1935.)
The letter also reveals Ray's reckless, cowboy spirit. In one section he describes how, in the hours prior to the earthquake, a fight broke out after a football game. Ray and his six-foot-seven roommate (nicknamed "Tiny") stood in the door of Mill Hall with shovels to keep out the rioters. They even knocked down a couple of guys who threatened to wreck the hall.(Ibid.)
That same evening, as he and his classmates were celebrating at a school dance in the gymnasium, the earthquake struck. Ray tells how he and another fellow prevented panicked students from stampeding through the small doorway and organized other! to lead students two-by-two down the stairs by matchlight. Although the school newspaper does not mention Ray by name, it does attest to what Ray would later describe to his aunt: "The dance was well underway when a slight quiver caused everyone to stand still. As if it was gathering momentum the shake became harder and harder. Then the lights went out, and the west wall began to fall, leaving a big gaping hole and the students saw the dream of many years fall before their eyes. Under the sudden emotional stress the minds of the students were easily handled. Some cool person called, 'Take your time and go out one at a time.' In a few minutes everyone was outside and safe from the falling bricks." (Electric City Collegian, Great Falls, Montana, December 20,1935.) Whether this "cool person" was Ray Stedman we do not know, but he was certainly one of those students who kept his head and helped the others to safety. Later, he revealed more of his leadership qualities when he and five other students organized an emergency squad to deliver blankets to those without shelter, and for two hours, in the middle of the night, patrolled the damaged dorm area to keep people out.(Ibid.)
After the school was devastated with two aftershocks in the next few days, Intermountain Union College was forced to move its classes to nearby Great Falls. As a result, in January 1936, Ray evidenced his natural boldness and initiative when he wrote the following letter to Henry Ford at the Ford Motor Company in Michigan.
Mr. Henry Ford
On October 18 and 31, two major earthquakes struck the little city of Helena, Montana, and left it a mess of ruined buildings, its population with nerves shattered, already overtaxed by previous shocks. Among those buildings which were ruined beyond use were those of Intermountain Union College, a little college built at the foot of beautiful Mount Ascension and within two blocks of the imposing Montana State Capitol Building.
Due to this disaster, the college was forced to move to the neighboring city of Great Falls. They located in the different churches about the city. Classes were carried on but under severe handicaps. This year is destined to be the last in the history of Intermountain unless by some means or other over five hundred thousand dollars can be raised in order to establish new buildings and create a starting budget.
This college, started by the West's most beloved missionary, Brother Van, has faced and overcome many obstacles before. It had never reached anything near financial freedom until the year 1935. Everything was going fine, the budget was balanced, the buildings had been redecorated and the college was "on its feet." And then came the earthquake!
Now, unless the necessary money can be raised this college, the only Christian College in the West from Denver, Colorado to Spokane, Washington, and Jamestown, No. Dakota, must close its doors. Its standards have always been high; its students among the finest. In order to perpetuate the standards of this college we are calling on you, as a man interested in the future welfare of American youth, for any contribution which you would like to make a worthy cause.
It does not seem that a response was ever received from Mr. Ford. Nevertheless, the Intermountain Union College did survive and eventually relocated on the Billings Polytechnic Institute where the two institutions coexisted as affiliates. In 1947 the two institutions merged into a single college, which continues today on the same campus as Rocky Mountain College in Billings.
Ray finished out his freshman year at Intermountain Union College. The following summer, he worked at the Deaconess Hospital in Great Falls, still interested in pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor. During his entire time in Great Falls he lived with the Talcott family, who were active members of the Methodist church where the school had temporarily moved after the earthquake. This began his lifelong friendship with Burt Talcott, who later became a United States congressman from California.(Elaine Stedman, interview by author, July 15,2001, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.)
IN THE FALL, WITH Intermountain Union College still devastated by the earthquake, Ray transferred to Whitworth College, a Presbyterian-sponsored school in Spokane, Washington, for his sophomore year. During his year there, Ray gained a reputation for being wild. Years later, when he was speaking at The Firs conference center near Bellingham, Washington, Ray encountered the former Dean of Women at Whitworth. When she saw Ray and learned that he was the speaker for the conference, she announced to all, "Ray Stedman! We need to stand and sing, 'Amazing Grace!'" Another woman from Whitworth, when Ray met up with her several years later at Dallas Theological Seminary, told him that her prayer group at Whitworth had prayed for him because he was such a rebel on campus.(Ibid.)
In reflecting on these years, Ray described his spiritual condition: "I drifted away from that relationship with God, drifted into all kinds of ugly and shameful things-habits of thought and activity that I am ashamed of I even developed some liberal attitudes toward the Scriptures. I didn't believe in the inspiration of the Bible. I argued against it, and. . . was known as a skeptic." (See Ray's message The Sons of God Among Men from October 24, 1976)
Despite his drifting ways, however, Ray continued to be involved in a variety of worthwhile activities during his year at Whitworth, some of which were Christian in orientation. Ray and about fifteen of his Montana classmates formed a social group called the "Montana Club," which, as he told his family, "has the spirit of all Montanans." (. Ray Stedman, letter to his family, October 18,1936. He was involved with a volunteer fellowship group that held church services in small towns around Spokane, as well as a Christian Endeavor group. Ray also demonstrated an interest in writing and speaking; he had a column in the school newspaper and was a member of the debate team.(Ibid.)
Ray was a serious student at Whitworth. In keeping with his desire to become a doctor, he took courses in chemistry and biology. He also took courses in education and wrote to his uncle Fred about what was required to get a certificate for teaching in Montana.(Ray Stedman, letter to Fred Sheets, January 23,1937.)
As was so common with many in the Depression era, however, Ray struggled to make ends meet. He was forced to quit the football team and was prevented from playing basketball because of work. Initially he took a job as a janitor, but later worked about sixteen hours a week as both a stenographer and a general assistant in the business office of the school. By the middle of his sophomore year, Ray had decided to leave Whitworth at the end of the school year. On January 23, 1937, he wrote home and declared, "I don't have the slightest intention of coming here for another year. It cost more to go out here than it would have cost for me to attend the University of Montana. If I ever get this bill paid up out here, I'm going to attend college on a strictly cash basis. No more worrying all the time as to whether I will get my bill paid up or not. When I next go to school I will have the money to plunk right down on the desk for the whole year or else I won't go until I get it." (Ibid.)
From Disappointment to Appointment
IN THE SUMMER OF 1937, Ray returned to Montana to work in construction in a small town near Great Falls, where he met a young man named Hardy Thompson. Hardy had recently become a Christian and was excited about his newfound faith. As the two spent time together, Ray sensed his own need to turn his life over to the Lord, which began a period of sustained spiritual renewal when Ray's entire focus and direction changed.
Hardy Thompson was a member of the Assemblies of God church in Great Falls, and he insisted that Ray come to services with him. Although Ray would later reject most Pentecostal theology and practice, it was in this context that God brought reality and life to his Christian experience. It was also at this church that Ray met a girl named Elaine Smith. Elaine was several years younger than Ray, but this did not keep him from noticing her as she sang a solo.
"I visited a church in Montana and sat on a balcony one fateful Sunday evening, and from the Olympian heights from which I was seated, I saw a beautiful young girl with long, blonde hair, singing a solo. She had the most angelic voice I had ever heard. I said to myself, in the impetuosity of youth, 'There is the girl I want to marry.' But I felt a terrible sense of frustration, for I knew the next morning I was scheduled to leave for Chicago to make my residence there." (See Ray's message The True Lord's Prayer from April 26,1964)
Ray had to leave for Chicago in the fall of 1937 because he had obtained a job there through the intervention of a friend from Whitworth College and through his correspondence with the office of the Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church (USA). This position, which was temporary and would end in May of the following year, would allow Ray to payoff some debt and further develop his clerical skills-skills that would later serve him well.
It was the midst of the Great Depression and Ray was happy to have a job, even though at the age of twenty he was apprehensive about leaving family and friends for the big city. But it was on that bus ride that Ray felt God speak to him in his uncertainty and say, "I will be a Father to you." (Elaine Stedman, interview by author, July 15, 2001, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.)
"I had never before visited a city as large as Chicago," Ray said years later as he described his cross-country bus ride from Montana to Illinois. "I knew only one person in Chicago, my uncle. I didn't want to show it, but I was scared. I was leaving all my friends. The town I came from was so small you could locate it right between the second and third Burma Shave signs! It was a thousand-mile journey by bus to Chicago, but all through that long trip I was strengthened and comforted by the sense that Jesus was with me. Although I was heading into the unknown, I look back on that as one of the most joyful bus rides of my life."
The uncle Ray refers to was his mother's brother, a very successful businessman and a professed atheist, who was neither kind nor generous to Ray during his stay in Chicago. Immediately after Ray arrived in Chicago, the city was blanketed by a blizzard that shut down transportation and businesses. "I had to sit alone in a hotel room for the duration of the storm," Ray said. "Looking back, however, my memory of that period is one of fragrant companionship with One who was with me, strengthening me, and helping me throughout." (See Ray's message The Incredible Hope from April 7, 1985)
In fact, Ray's entire stay in Chicago, living in a spartan room at the YMCA, was a time of spiritual renewal. There, the Lord both assured him of His grace and began the process of revealing His call to ministry. Ray also taught a Sunday school class of high school boys, and he grew very close to several of the boys as they studied the Word and prayed together. (See Ray's message The Promise of Life from February 7, 1982)
"I shall never forget the day. . . when that truth burst upon me in all its fullness. . . . How vividly it all comes back to me-the joy, the untrammeled joy, that filled my heart as, lying on my bed in my room, it dawned upon me that if anything happened to me I had nothing to fear in the future. I was forgiven. God had already judged me in Christ and I was forgiven-set free. The joy of. . . this great fundamental truth of Christian faith-that in Jesus Christ, and in His work for us, God took away my sins. (See Ray's message The Death of Death from April 14, 1968
On Easter Sunday Ray arose before dawn to attend a sunrise service at Soldier Field. ''As I was dressing in the darkness of that early morning, my mind went back to the account of the resurrection of our Lord and the women who visited the tomb in the early hours. . .. I remember feeling for the first time something of the tremendous reality of this event. It really occurred! It actually happened! Those women did make their way to the tomb that morning, and they were amazed to find the stone rolled away, and with beating hearts and incredulous minds they went to tell the disciples. All the marvelous events of that wonderful, unforgettable day actually occurred! Immediately my mind took in . .. the meaning of this in my life at that moment, and there came flooding into my heart a great consciousness of the presence of a living Lord. I shall never forget that morning. I stood by my bed weeping tears of joy as the thought flooded my heart that Jesus Christ was alive. It was a fact, an eternal fact." (See Ray's message The Fact of Facts from Easter 1967)
This "great consciousness of the presence of a living Lord" also began to change the way Ray thought about his future, for at some point during that time in Chicago he surrendered to what he believed was the call of God to be a minister.
"When I was still a young, growing Christian, I wanted to be a surgeon.. . . Then quietly. .. I began to realize that God was moving in a different direction and that He was suggesting to me that I consider entering the ministry. At first I resented this and fought against it, resisting the insistent plea of the Spirit. But when the Spirit is after someone, He never gives up. Finally, in a moment of surrender and dedication, overwhelmed with the joy of what Christ meant to me, in my own room alone, I said to Him, 'All right, Lord, I'll be a minister, if that is what you want.''' (See Ray's message Soul and Spirit from March 17, 1963)
In a letter dated April 4, 1939, Ray wrote to his family, announcing his new direction in life.
"I am glad of this chance to come to Chicago away from all my friends and family for it has given me an opportunity to work some things out in my mind which have been bothering me for some time. In the first place I've decided to be a minister. This may seem like a rather sudden about-face from the study of medicine, but in reality it isn't, for it is something which I have been weighing and thinking about for a period of some years.... You will perhaps be surprised at the suddenness of all this-but it is sudden only because you have not known of it before, for I like to keep my thoughts to myself until such a time as I feel sure that they are what I want others to see in me and now that that time has come I am glad to let others know of my decision. The approaching crisis in world affairs demands men who have the courage of their convictions. Religion and morality are on the decline while paganism and immorality are on the upgrade. At such a time, those who would cleave to the time-tested truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ must make certain that their position is made unmistakably clear to all around them. Such is my desire, and so I have no hesitancy in making my decision known to, not only you, but to my other friends. . . . The world has yet to see what God can do with a man who is wholly consecrated to Him. By God's grace, I shall be that man."
In his candidness, Ray mentioned what he knew others might be thinking: "There are, undoubtedly, going to be those who will ridicule my position and point to things in my past life which are not commensurate with my present stand. To such I have no answer, other than that of Paul, who said 'putting all things behind me, I press on to the mark of the high calling of Jesus Christ.' It will be comforting to know that when folks make light of my decision, that you folks will be willing to 'take the stand in my defense,' as I feel sure you will do, but whether you do or not I can not retract for 'he that puts his hand to the plow, and looking back, is not fit for the kingdom of God.'
". . . This decision is no commendation to me, and God forbid that I boast in having taken such a stand, but rather it is 'my reasonable service,' to a Master who has done more for me than I could ever tell, and whose service, though it be hard, is yet the only thing left for me to do." (Ray Stedman, letter to his family, April 4, 1939.)
The Young Preacher
RAY'S JOB IN CHICAGO came to its appointed end, and in the summer of 1940, after spending some time in Montana, he moved to Denver to help support his mother and brothers. Ray's older brother, Alan, was living with his mother and studying engineering in Denver, and Ray's income would help his brother finish his degree.(Allen Stedman had changed the spelling of his name from Allen to Alan after an incident at the orphanage in Denver when he was mistakenly called Helen Stedman. (Letter from his son, Alan Stedman, to author, December 16, 2003.)) Despite Ray's efforts, his communication with Alan always remained awkward. Donald, five years younger than Ray, was presumably still at home. Ray and Donald maintained good rapport until 1945 when Donald was killed in battle in Germany.(Donald Stedman served with the 9th Armored Division, 52 Armored Infantry Battalion, A Company, Second Platoon of the US Army. He was killed on March 27,1945, near Limburgh, Germany. After the war, a fellow soldier/medic, Elmer M. Orr, wrote to Mrs. Stedman, explaining how Donald had died and expressing his own joy at finding a fellow believer in the midst of a war. Orr assured Mrs. Stedman that Donald had said that he was ready to meet the Lord should he be killed. (Letter from Ray's nephew, Alan Stedman, December 16,2003.)
The continuous financial pressure under which he lived during these years made Ray doubly conscientious. While still in Chicago, he had sent his family a detailed accounting of his budget, including comments on the dollar or so he could afford to send home each week. Once he was in Denver, he wrote to his aunt and uncle about his eagerness to payoff a debt he owed to Whitworth College. "I owe a small amount of money to Whitworth College in Spokane (about $150) and it may be the Lord would have me work here this winter and start out next spring with a clean slate in full-time evangelistic work. I know I could never go back to business permanently as I am spoiled for that. My heart is in the Lord's work." (Ray Stedman, letter to his family, April 4, 1939.)
In Denver, Ray found full-time employment in the office of the Rio Grande Railroad, but his real passion was his volunteer work at the Denver Revival Tabernacle, where his primary job was publishing the tabernacle paper. On occasion he also preached in evangelistic rallies, hoping for a revival among the young people who attended these meetings.
"I have an office now, in the Denver Revival Tabernacle," he wrote to a friend. "It looks as if the Lord will have me work here this winter. I'm quite enthusiastic about it as there is a tremendous work to be done. . . . This work here is in a new stage and the time is about ripe for a real revival. . . . We hope to hold a youth rally of all the Pentecostal youths in the city. Then among the young people here in the Tabernacle there is a tremendous work to be done. There is a great need for a deeper consecration and a more yielded life among them. I wish I had a few young folks from Great Falls to show them what real consecration is." (Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, September 24,1940.)
These rallies were not Ray's only opportunities to preach. Some of his first experiences in preaching were in a nearby prison. "Our meetings at the prison are coming along grand," he wrote in December. "There are several young men out there who have given every indication of having received genuine salvation. In our last meeting over 25 raised their hands for prayer. I preached on 'light out of darkness' and the Lord really blessed." (Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, December 30,1940.)
Ray's messages were steeped in the Pentecostalism that had marked him since his days at the Assemblies of God church in Great Falls, and the Denver Revival Tabernacle had the same Pentecostal roots. This resulted in certain pressures being placed upon Ray to amend what he called his "Full Gospel" message, especially by prison authorities. As he expressed in one letter, "Certain pressures are at work to get me to compromise my message in favor of a little more of the world and a little less of God but as God enables me I have sworn to do my very best in preaching the entire Full Gospel message." (Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, January 10, 1941.)
A Kindred Spirit
NOW THAT RAY HAD settled into a job and a ministry, he began to correspond with Elaine Smith, the young woman who had caught his eye at the Assemblies of God church in Great Falls in the summer of 1937. Ray had returned to Great Falls for a visit in the summer of 1940, and while he was there he met Elaine and asked her if she would allow him to write to her. Ray began writing to Elaine shortly after he returned to Denver in August 1940, finding in her a kindred spirit with whom he could share the details of his growing walk with God and his burgeoning ministry. In his first letter he explained why he had asked to write her:
"You are probably wondering why it was that I asked to write to you. I'll admit it did seem awfully peculiar. I hesitate to try to explain myself for fear you might think me girl-crazy, which I'm not at all. However, from the first time I saw you from before I went to Chicago I wanted to know you better and while I was in Chicago I often wished that I had known you long enough to write to you, so when I saw you again this summer I decided I wouldn't let this chance slip by even at the risk of making a fool of myself I never felt that way about anyone before but I sure am glad I did it. I hope you'll forgive me for being presumptuous and if you don't care to continue this correspondence any longer I won't feel hurt tho I will be disappointed." (Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, August 28, 1940.)
Over the next six months, Ray wrote Elaine four long letters to which she also responded. Despite their relative unfamiliarity with one another, they were often bluntly honest in their correspondence. For example, Elaine rebuked Ray for being too dependent on a mutual friend's estimation of him. "My head is bowed in meekness and shame over your rebuke about my dependency on Hardy's attitude towards me," he responded-and then proceeded to lecture Elaine for her similar dependency on another mutual friend!(Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, September 24,1940.) Three months later, Ray was once again candid: "Elaine, when you write to me why don't you break down a bit and be a little more friendly-not so cold and distant. I'd like to hear more about you, where you go, what you do, etc. Don't think I don't appreciate your letters but they are a little formal." (Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, December 30,1940.)
Ray was smitten with Elaine, but she was four years younger and not quite prepared to respond with similar affection. "I sure would like to see you again, Elaine," he wrote in December. "I wish I could have had more time this summer to get to know you better. I think you're well worth knowing." (Ibid.) The following month he wrote, "Last night I borrowed my friend's car and went up on Lookout Mountain where Buffalo Bill is buried and watched the lights of Denver. It really was a relaxation but I wish you could have been with me. Now, that's a funny thing to say, isn't it because you never have been here with me but really, that's what I thought." (Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, January 10, 1941.)
More than anything else, however, these letters reveal that Ray sensed a kindred spirit in Elaine when it came to the things of God. In one of his letters he shared lines from a favorite hymn which he kept in his scrapbook:
Oh, for a faith that will not shrink
Though pressed by every foe!
That will not totter at the brink
Of any earthly woe!
Lord, give me such a faith as this
And then, what e'er may come,
I'll taste e'en now, the blissful joys
Of an eternal home
(Ray Stedman, letter to Elaine Smith, September 24, 1940.)
Despite his growing affection for Elaine, Ray's letter of January 10,1941, was the last he would write to her for almost two years. Having been swept off his feet by romance, in the summer of 1942 he would be swept into life-altering events that involved the entire world. Later that year, the United States entered World War II and young men eagerly joined the war efforts. Ray was no exception.
But the Ray Stedman who entered the war efforts was a very different person than the one who had entered college. The Wild Mustang from Montana was being tamed by the living God, and his immense energies were being harnessed and directed for the work of God's kingdom.