This article appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue (Vol. 52, No. 3) of The Baptist Bible Tribune.
“There is no tangled skein of life too difficult for His divine fingers if we are willing to cast it into His lap.”1 That was the way Dr. Clearwaters began his autobiography. From a sharecropper’s home in the Kansas wilderness to a nationally known figure among fundamental Baptists, “it is God’s testimony He is protecting, and not you.”2 For those of us who sat under his ministry, there was never any doubt that he believed that with all of his heart.
Richard Volley Clearwaters was born in Wilmot, Kansas, on June 28, 1900, the fourth child of Guy and Hannah (Poe) Clearwaters. Four younger children were added to the family but the youngest son died in a farming accident at just ten years old. It was a hard land and a difficult life in turn-of-the-century Kansas. In 1901 the territory of Oklahoma was opened for homesteading and the Clearwaters family moved to 160 acres near Nellie. To qualify one had to be “free” and committed to staying at least five years. They lived in a dugout with boarded sides and a roof with drains to keep the water out. It was not until years later that a house was constructed over the existing structure.
Though very young, Clearwaters could recall the one-room schoolhouse with eight grades together, some of the farm boys being twenty years old. “I was naturally left handed. Professor Thomas was not satisfied with that, so he tied my left hand behind my back during that exercise, and sure enough, I got so I could write with my right hand. The trouble was, you couldn’t read either one, the left or the right.”3 Sundays were reserved for church meetings and sometimes “protracted” meetings in a large brush arbor. Each family brought one lantern for the night meetings and hung them on the poles that supported the roof. Family altars were expected and Guy always read to the family from the large family Bible. These things brought conviction, but no conversion would take place until many difficult years later.
In 1907 the Clearwaters family took an emigrant train to Spokane, Washington where they finally purchased an eighty-acre farm (for the sum of $3,000), which had a small house and barn. Purchasing a near-by sawmill, they were able to build the additional buildings they would need. After a few years of making the farm into a suitable home for a large family, Guy decided to advertise it for sale. But upon reviewing the lengthy description of the family farm he remarked to Hannah, “This is just the kind of place I have always wanted!” The farm is still owned by the Clearwaters family.
The Prodigal Son
When Richard was sixteen, being bored with school, he rolled up a few things in a mackinaw coat and hid them beside the road. The next morning, rather than going to school, he picked up his belongings and caught a train to Canada. He was there for five years as a prodigal son. He slept in flophouses, traveled in boxcars and worked in coal mines and paper mills until he injured his right arm and was hospitalized. Providentially, the nurse that took care of Richard recognized the family name, being a past friend of the family, and contacted Richard’s mother. Richard got a letter from his mother who included in the letter the words, “The way of the transgressors is hard” (Prov 13:15). The words convicted Richard who agreed to come home but only for a short time. “Prodigal sons form habits, acquire a vocabulary, do things that are not very fitting for a Christian environment.”4
During this time at home, circumstances worked on Richard to bring him to salvation. The first was a most tragic one. Richard was driving a large lumber wagon with a team of horses and Weldon, his brother, was riding on the seat next to him. When Richard stood up to urge the team of horses, Weldon fell off the side under the wagon wheel and was crushed. He died a day later. Richard went into a time of great depression as he saw the sorrow his life had brought his parents and family.
The second circumstance that God used to call Richard to salvation is described in the autobiography:
After this experience [the death of Weldon], when I would go back to my window to gaze out into the darkness, the only cheer I could get for my sorrowing soul was the song of the cricket singing in the night. There was a little brook of water that ran in front of the house, and the frogs and the crickets were the only sounds we heard in the night. I recall now as I look back at a line in the poem, The Acada by Huxley: “Oh, thou harper of the night. I heard thy voice and hoped again.” Imagine someone so depressed that the only joy they could think of was one of the most insignificant of God’s creatures singing in the darkness of the night! . . . To keep me reminded of these days, a metal cricket has adorned my desk for years. I’ve never killed a cricket since I was saved.5
The third and final circumstance in Richard’s conversion came a year later when a Holiness Methodist Preacher came to hold a two-week revival meeting at the Moran Prairie Methodist Church in Spokane, Washington. After two weeks no one had been saved and a snowstorm threatened to close the services. In spite of the difficulties, they decided to continue the meetings one more week. That week a teenaged girl named Wilma Goodrich and Richard Clearwaters were gloriously saved!
Surprised by Education
Though Richard always considered himself the poorest pupil of the family, his call to the ministry and its preparation was quick and definite. He heard his mother singing in the kitchen The Ninety and Nine. When she sang the verse, “I will go to the desert to find my sheep,” the Lord seemed to say to Richard, “Will you go?” Without hesitation his answer was “Yes!” He hurried to the cemetery where his brother Weldon was buried and knelt down and said, “Lord, I’m not very much, but what I have and what I am, I’m willing to give to you. Thank you for salvation.”6
Richard had a brother-in-law who had attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and after consultation with him he decided to go there to begin his training. He had only been a Christian six weeks and was advised to wait at least six months to determine if this was really God’s will. He recalls,
You know, there’s nothing more dangerous than for someone to wait when the Lord has talked to them. The devil can talk you out of it, and he can use born-again Christians to talk you out of it. He can use someone who loves you very dearly to talk you out of it. There wasn’t any chance in the world that I would wait six months. If I had waited six months, I perhaps would never have come into the ministry.7
With $17.20 in his pocket Richard landed at State and Madison streets, to that day, the busiest corner in the world. He became a dishwasher in the school kitchen and a busboy for about $6.00 a week, enough to make ends meet. His days at Moody were positive and challenging. During those years, thanks to R.A. Torrey’s book How To Work For Christ, Richard memorized one tenth of the New Testament. He learned that a Bible Institute stresses three things that are vital for building churches: the English Bible, gospel music and personal evangelism. He never forgot those foundational truths throughout the rest of his life as a pastor and educator. These foundations were strengthened by hearing great men preach such as Robert Dick Wilson, R.A. Torrey, G. Campbell Morgan, Griffith Thomas and Billy Sunday.
From Moody Clearwaters attended Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago when the school was only thirteen years old. There he heard A.H. Strong, A.T. Robertson, Robert Mantey, James Moffat and H.A. Ironside and graduated with a Th.B and B.D. degrees in 1928.. From there he earned a scholarship to Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan and graduated with a B.A. degree in 1929. He attended Chicago University and earned an M.A. degree in 1933 under E.J. Goodspeed in New Testament Greek and was a few hours short of a Ph.D when time and money became prohibitive. In addition, Clearwaters held three honorary doctorate degrees.
The Early Pastorates
Clearwaters always knew he was called of God to be a pastor. While a student at Moody he became the pastor of a Federated Church in Wilton Center, Illinois. He would leave after classes on Friday, have prayer meeting Friday night, visit on Saturday, hold services on Sunday and be back in Chicago for classes on Monday morning. When he moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Lawton for nine months and then Bethel Baptist Church in Kalamazoo.
While at Bethel Baptist Church he met an R.N. named Florence Welch who worked for the City Health Department. Clearwaters worked a lot with the indigents during the depression times, and that brought him in contact with many benevolent agencies. The two were introduced after a chance meeting during a hospital call. They were engaged but waited a year to marry due to the hard times and busy schedules. Florence became Mrs. Richard Clearwaters on April 17, 1935.
When schoolwork was done, Clearwaters sought the Lord’s will in finding a permanent pastorate. He describes how the Lord led him:
I had three opportunities, all were open pulpits. My covenant was, “Lord, whichever one of these offers me the first open door, that’s where I’ll take it as your will I should go.” I believe the Lord is more anxious to lead us than we are able to be led. And usually we miss the Lord’s leading because we are not absolutely surrendered. If we are surrendered, we are winning souls to Christ—that’s why He saved us, to serve . . . . Cedar Rapids, IA was the first offer. The church had a six thousand dollar mortgage on a wooden-frame building for which the wrecking company had offered them five hundred dollars . . . . We were immersed there, my wife and I, for four and a half years, in the ministry of preaching the Gospel and evangelism.8
That church was in the American Baptist Convention. Clearwaters was soon elected President of the Iowa Baptist State Convention. This gave him his first acquaintance with national leaders with whom he would be engaged in the future years. It was in 1939 that the pulpit committee of the Fourth Baptist Church of Minneapolis contacted Pastor Clearwaters. During this time Clearwaters had met opposition in the Cedar Rapids church over plans to build. He took this as God closing the door in Iowa and opening the door in Minnesota. They accepted the church’s call and moved to Minneapolis on January 1, 1940.
Fourth Baptist Church
The Fourth Baptist Church was organized in 1881 and moved to West Broadway Street in Minneapolis in 1918 where it remained until 1998 when its present pastor, Dr. Douglas McLachlan, relocated the church to the Northwest suburb of Plymouth. Dr. Clearwaters pastored the church from 1940 until his retirement in 1982.
Fourth Baptist is a member of the Minnesota Baptist Association, which, in 1940, was an adjunct of the Northern Baptist Convention, later to become the American Baptist Convention. By the 1940s, due to growing concerns of liberalism, a group of fundamentalists, including W.B. Riley, had organized a Fundamental Fellowship within the national convention. In 1943 the Conservative Baptist Association of America was formed with Dr. R.V. Clearwaters as its first President and Dr. B. Myron Cedarholm as its Executive Secretary.
During these years Clearwaters also served as a trustee of the Northwestern Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, which had been founded (as Northwestern Bible School) by W.B. Riley, pastor of First Baptist Church, in 1900. Clearwaters and Riley had a close relationship until Riley’s death in 1947 at which time Billy Graham became president of the school. In 1956 Northwestern discontinued the Seminary and Bible College, which were combined into Northwestern College.
Clearwaters still felt the need for a fundamental seminary and organized Central Baptist Theological Seminary in 1956 with thirty-one students. It remains today as a leading Fundamental Baptist school with new facilities in Plymouth, Minnesota and under the auspices of Fourth Baptist Church. Clearwaters also rescued Pillsbury Baptist Bible College from the liberal side of the Convention. In 1957, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the Minnesota Baptist Association could choose the trustees and officers of the school. Thus in the same year Clearwaters became President of the college, a position which he held until his retirement. In 1963, Clearwaters led the Minnesota Baptist Association to withdraw from the Conservative Baptist Association.
As pastor of Fourth Baptist Church, Clearwaters continued to build a large church with a broad ministry. A Bible Institute was added in 1958, a youth camp in 1963, an FM radio station in 1965, a Christian School in 1966, and in 1973 a 2400 seat auditorium was added to the Broadway Street location. Dr. Clearwaters simply called these ministries, “the lengthened shadows of a man.” Many of us in the ministry today benefited from those shadows.
It may be hard to visualize the influence great men of the faith had on fundamental, conservative Christianity. Speaking of the men who frequented his ministry Clearwaters wrote:
Lowell Thomas said once, “There were giants on the earth in those days.” I feel I have lived through an era when there were giants on the earth. One of the blessings I have had is that our home has been blessed with such people staying overnight and for dinner as Dr. Ironside, Gypsy Smith, Homer Rodeheaver, Louie Talbot, Bob Jones, Sr. and many others.9
The Last Years
Dr. Clearwaters retired as pastor of Fourth Baptist Church and as President of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in 1982. He retired as President of Central Baptist Seminary in 1987. Florence preceded him in death in 1989 and “Doc” went home to be with the Lord on September 30, 1996. Associate and friend, George Dollar wrote of him, he was an “able preacher; Baptist Fundamentalist and knowledgeable pastor.”10
W.B. Riley, in a personal note to Dr. Clearwaters in 1947, wrote, “This can be nothing but the last days. Your ministry will suffer more severe tests than mine has ever known. I know that you will be found faithful. I have never seen you waver.”11 May the Lord continue to give us such unwavering giants for the days still ahead.