|They hardly looked the part of future church leaders when they landed on campus in the fall of 1947. Into a sea of dark plain coats stepped Bill and Bob Detweiler, dressed lightly in double-breasted suits, with their trademark mischievous grins and prankster attitudes to rival David Letterman’s. “At 17, we were terribly immature, intent on waging a running battle with the establishment.”Their gift with words got an early workout when the dean of men opened their dorm door to find them surrounded in a blue haze of tobacco smoke. No, they had not been smoking, they could truthfully say. If only the hot iron pants presser, dusted with pipe tobacco, could speak.
The Shenandoah yearbooks from 1948 to 1951 are peppered with photos of the tall lanky identical twins who often dressed alike in public. “Towering in the confidence of 21” and “He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven” — quotes from Jonson and Shakespeare — describe the inseparable duo from Orrville, Ohio, as they graduated in 1951 with identical degrees in English.
The next chapter of their intertwined lives has its roots in Canton, Ohio, in the middle of the Great Depression. Their father originally had his heart set on the foreign mission field. But the rigors of India in the 1930s were beyond the health of his wife. So he accepted a mission assignment in working-class Canton. Here, William Detweiler “saw a lost soul for every streetlight” and resolved to reach them with the gospel message. His plan was bold and controversial.
Bill and Bob were one day shy of their seventh birthday when their father’s voice first crackled over the radio airwaves of WHBC on Nov. 28, 1936. He was perhaps the first Mennonite to ever preach on radio (15 years before The Mennonite Hour began broadcasting). In 1936, owning a radio was discouraged or prohibited in the conservative Mennonite heartland.
But William Detweiler was undeterred by the harsh criticism. Walking the city streets, he passed the open door of a Canton bar and heard his voice on the radio above the clink of beer glasses. He knew he was reaching people who would never hear the gospel message from his pulpit.
Growing up, the twins had to know that a radio microphone would probably find its way into their future. For Bill, that moment came when he was a green and nervous 25. He spent a good part of the summer of 1954 preparing for his first radio message.
Bill and his brother were enrolled in a Philadelphia seminary when their father asked whether they would continue the radio ministry if anything should happen to him. William was the strapping picture of good health in his early 50s; his tenure behind theCalvary Hour microphone was likely to stretch into the distant future. Answering yes to their father came easily.
A short two years later on a cold January day, the call from their mother rang in Philadelphia. Bill and Bob were planning to spend the day in the library, completing research on their final dissertation for a second theological degree. That work would remain lunfinished. They raced westward on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the wintry mountains a tear-streaked blur.
Four weeks after their father’s fatal heart attack, Bill and Bob made good on their promise. For the next 34 years, the twins shared the radio pulpit, alternating sermons and introductory announcements. Their easy banter, measured cadence, insightful stories and simple, biblical messages found a growing audience, from Arizona to New York, from Montana to the Caribbean.
It is Bill’s belief that “radio is ideally suited to the message of the gospel, even better suited than television. The face of the speaker is really not very important. But the message is all-important.”
If their radio sermons rang true, perhaps it was because they were grounded in their pastoral ministry in the real worlds of Kidron, Ohio (Bill), and Goshen, Indiana (Bob).
Bill and his wife Ruth live in the same house where they raised their three daughters, across the road from Central Christian High School and a short amble from Kidron Mennonite Church. He served the large congregation from 1957 to 1994. That’s 37 years, more than 350 weddings, about the same number of funerals and sermons numbering in the thousands.
How many pastors do you know who served one church for 37 years? Bill wears well. He laughs easily. He listens intently. He connects with people of all ages. He has spent a lifetime sharpening his native gift with words — striving to achieve what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the vivid precision of thoroughbred language” — in the service of God’s kingdom.
“This is where I grind it out.” The walk-up attic study is his upper-room sanctuary. Surrounded on all sides with solid walls of books, beneath a framed portrait of his father gazing into the future, Bill leans back in his swivel desk chair. His IBM Selectric typewriter waits for the next set of 5 x 8 cards outlining his next sermon or noting a relevant illustration from his voracious readings.
C.S. Lewis, current biographies, history, classic preachers with names like Joseph Parker and Alexander Maclaren, weekly news magazines — Bill has gleaned from them all. These provide the harmony notes, but the melody is scripture, the unchanging biblical themes.
“I am inspired by the substance of solid preaching of the past, in which the preacher is actually addressing the biblical theme, trying to make it relevant for today. Rather than start where we are today and then going to the Bible as a commentary, I would rather use what’s happening today as a commentary on what the Bible has said.”
Scripture speaking to culture. The eternal Word carried by a human voice. The high calling of preaching the gospel. On his business card, the title under Bill’s name reads simply, Minister of Jesus Christ. “Preaching is not a burden. I wish I could preach a hundred more years. I have not run out of sermons.”
In 1989, his brother Bob died of a sudden heart attack. He was two months away from reaching 60. In the next booklet of Calvary Hour sermons, Bill penned these simple words: “You are the very best brother God ever made. Because of the grace of our Lord Christ, I will love you and enjoy you all through eternity, because I, too, am on the happy road home! – Bill.”
Eternity is a recurring theme in Bill’s ministry. “When God made us, he started something which will never end. You and I are creatures of eternity.”
When his father started the radio ministry in 1936, the year 2001 would have seemed like an eternity away. Yet every week for 65 years, a Detweiler voice has gone out faithfully over the air waves, “a simple presentation of the whole-bodied gospel” scattered generously like seeds across the land.
One typewritten card thumb-tacked to Bill’s study wall reads, “How humble the tool when praised for what the hand has done.”
In Bill, as in his brother and father, God’s hand found a willing tool, sharpened and ready to serve.
Paul Souder promises to listen with keener interest to The Calvary Hour on two local radio stations. Paul is a communications consultant. His father was a college classmate of the Detweiler twins.