An advertisement for evangelists launched a day of fascinating research.

by Hugh Gilmore

I run a business buying and selling old books and ephemera. In the yawning spaces of time between sales I often amuse myself by dipping into one of the unsorted boxes of ephemera I keep around.

This past Saturday, browsing among some old brochures, calendars, catalogs and such, I pulled out a postcard-size ad that caught my eye. Anything with facial photos of people tends to do that. Beside the pictures of the Rev. B. M. Rollins and Mrs. Rollins was the announcement that they would be holding evangelistic meetings in Dumont, Iowa, in June of 1937.

I have never attended an evangelistic meeting and have only a slight outsider’s knowledge of what goes on at them. That did not stop me from sort of mentally snickering at the two folks on the card. They seemed corny to me, and he looked Woodrow Wilsonish stiff. I was remembering “Elmer Gantry” and other books about preachers being frauds. The stereotype was that they’d dazzle the believers with their footwork, give ‘em smoke and mirrors, and pass the hat.

At second glance, though, my interest moved to other elements of the card, starting with their earnest, dedicated faces and then their being called “youthful” evangelists of West Virginia. And then, that they’d be offering rag paintings, stories, readings and Biblical tricks for the children. At 7:30 nightly, for two weeks.

I looked up rag paintings but found info only about its novelty use in house painting. “Biblical tricks” was easier. They’ve been a Sunday School staple for a long time. You can go on the Internet and buy magic trick kits suitable for teaching Christian parables. It was interesting though.

But I had to know more about the preacher and his wife. Eventually I found “A History of the Church of the Brethren in the First District of West Virginia,” by Foster Melvin Bittinger (1945). I skimmed the first half of the book until the author began offering capsule biographies of every ordained preacher he’d ever learned of. These slowed down my search for Rev. Rollins but were so interesting I gave over the afternoon to learning about the Church of the Brethren and its West Virginia, District One, pastors. Life was hard for the settlers of rugged West Virginia. And the Brethren among them had had to escape the dogma and warfare of 18th-century Europe in order to find religious freedom in America.

On page 158, I found two paragraphs about Rev. Rollins. He was born Bernard McClain Rollins in 1908 on March 27 (Wednesday this week will mark his 111th birthday), in Somerset County, Pa. He went to college at Potomac State in Keyser, W .Va. He received his religious calling and was licensed to preach in 1927. At the age of 21 (November, 1929 – as the Great Depression began) he married Eva Virginia Martin, a fellow graduate of Potomac State. Serving as a pastor of the church in Keyser, he and his wife entered evangelistic life in November, 1930.

Active evangelism is not easy. By the time they printed the card I’d found, they had already done 136 campaigns. From other sources I learned that daughters Bernadine (1943) and Nadine (1947) were born. By 1945, they’d conducted more than 250 revivals, traveling more than 300,000 miles in 36 states. The Rev. Rollins died in 1981 and is buried in Queens Meadow Point Cemetery in Keyser, West Virginia. I could not find an obituary for Mrs. Rollins. Nadine died in 2008. Bernadine lives on in another nearby state.

Finding some dates, places and an occupation to match a pair of old pictures is the easy part. I studied the card in my desk. What was life was like for them? Did they feel like they were celebrities, doing a road show the small-town folk couldn’t wait to see and hear? They must have, at times. But they must also have felt sometimes like weary sideshow carnies. All those miles. Through the Depression. They also probably felt the pinch of financial need.

I tried to picture them as “youthful evangelists,” (he was 29 then). I guessed the ad said that to distinguish them from the old timers. They seemed to want (need?) to make the revival child-oriented, with rag paintings, stories, readings and “Biblical tricks.” (Look up “Sunday School magic tricks” on the web). Their life had to be tiring mentally and emotionally. Pitch a show for children and the parents, too, will come. Like a Harry Potter festival.

I looked at them and wondered about them long enough that, at some magical point, the Rev. Rollins and his wife became just Mr. and Mrs. Rollins to me. A married couple trying to be partners together on life’s road. How many Biblical tricks can you perform without getting stale? What happened when enthusiasm tottered? When Bernadine or Nadine got sick? Who would hold up the props for the demos that always held a parable?

In the middle of those thoughts I was called to dinner. A friend who was coming over had arrived. I reluctantly left the Rollins card on my desk and went up. I felt by then a deep sympathy and admiration for the Rollinses. I hoped I’d get a chance at dinner to talk about them. I felt glad that I’d managed to get beneath the surface. I’d found a kinship with some people very different in time, place and beliefs from myself.

I felt converted.