By Darrin J. Rodgers
Until this week, I had never heard of Rev. Walter Evans, a pioneer black Assemblies of God evangelist who was a faithful, well-loved member of the Nebraska District Council for about 20 years until his death in 1959.
On Monday, when sorting through a collection of treasures recently deposited at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, I discovered a delightful advertising card for a black gospel musician and evangelist named Walter Evans (pictured here). Who was Evans? Was he a Pentecostal? Probably Church of God in Christ, I surmised.
A quick search on the Heritage Center website uncovered that Evans was a licensed Assemblies of God minister, and that he died in 1959. I located his ministerial file in the Heritage Center vault, but it contained only scant information, confirming that he was indeed a licensed minister in 1958 and 1959, that he last lived in Bridgeport, Nebraska, and that he died on February 3, 1959.
Evans’ brief ministerial file did not disclose his race. Since the earliest years of the Assemblies of God, applicants for ordination have been required to state their race on applications that were filed at the Assemblies of God national office. These applications, ultimately, find their way to the vault at the Heritage Center, where they are safely stored for posterity.
Because Evans was licensed, and not ordained, his application for credentials was not filed at the national office. Why was Evans licensed and not ordained?
It was not unusual for Assemblies of God ministers to remain licensed and not to progress to the level of ordination. In 1958, when the Assemblies of God started including licensed ministers in its national directory, there were over 9,300 ordained ministers and over 5,200 licensed ministers.
However, it is possible that Evans was a casualty of a national policy from 1939 to 1962 that disallowed black ministers from receiving ordination (which was given at the national level) from the Assemblies of God. Black ministers could still be licensed (which was given at the district level). This policy was adopted in 1939 as the societal tensions were emerging over the Civil Rights movement and was rescinded in 1962 when the Assemblies of God ordained Bob Harrison, a high-profile Assemblies of God evangelist who worked with Billy Graham.
This policy had the practical effect of obscuring the ministry of blacks in the Assemblies of God. Until 1958, the national office did not keep files on licensed ministers or include them in the national ministerial directories. Now, historians have difficulty accessing information about black Assemblies of God ministers. District ministerial lists, which included licensed ministers, do shed some light on these black ministers. However, these lists rarely identified the race of the ministers, making it difficult to systematically identify black ministers and to share their stories.
The Heritage Center holds an incomplete collection of the Nebraska District ministerial directories. I did some digging and found that Evans was not listed in the 1938 directory, but was in the 1939 directory, as well as in directories from the following years until his death. District directories gave Evans’ city of residence as Burton (1939, 1942, 1943, 1945) and Bridgeport (1948, 1953).
I contacted the Nebraska District office for more information about Evans, and Val helpfully responded with a number of references that she was able to find. She confirmed that Evans was credentialed with the Nebraska District from 1939 to 1959, and that he lived in Scottsbluff and Mullen, as well as in Burton and Bridgeport. It is unknown whether he transferred his credentials from another denomination or district to the Nebraska District, or whether the district granted him his first credentials.
Val also provided this “colorful” obituary of Evans in the March 1959 issue of the Nebraska Fellowship (the monthly district periodical):
Walter Evans Passes On
by Clyde King
During the last of January Brother Walter Evans suffered a stroke while living with his daughter, Mrs. Cecil Jones in Chicago. He lived for five days, during which time he was unable to talk. Your District Secr. treas sent a small bouquet for his funeral in the name of the Nebraska Dist. As an unsaved farmer boy I first heard Brother Evans sing in the country Coburg Church where I was converted. I liked the song entitled, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” But the one I remember best is, “What Are They Doing in Heaven.”
Our former District Superintendent, Brother A. M. Alber enjoyed introducing Brother Evans at one of our district meetings by adding, “Brother Evans always adds a lot of color to our meetings.” Brother Evans would get up, set a chair for his foot, strum his guitar and counter with the remark, “I’m just an Irishman turned wrong side out.” Brother Evans was still adding color to our District meetings as he attended our Lexington Camp last summer; but we won’t be seeing him anymore. He passed away Febr. 3rd.
Walter Evans and countless other unheralded black ministers have helped to build God’s Kingdom through the Assemblies of God. Since the ordination of the first black Assemblies of God minister (Ellsworth S. Thomas of Binghamton, New York) in 1915, blacks have become an important part of the Assemblies of God. In 2015, the Assemblies of God USA counted that 1.9% of its ministers were black (722), and nearly 10% of its adherents were black (308,520). The challenge, in years to come, is to uncover the testimonies of these and other socially marginalized Assemblies of God ministers, so that we can better tell the full story of the “Full Gospel.”
The author, Darrin J. Rodgers, M.A., J.D., serves as director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.
Dr. Byron Klaus, retired president of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (1999-2015), read this article and responded that his grandparents knew Walter Evans:
“I have pictures of Brother Evans staying on my grandparents farm in Whitney NE. He preached revivals all over Western Nebraska in the late 1930’s. He was a regular visitor to the churches in the area. He’d just show up and say the Lord had sent him. Though it was certainly unusual in these times to have a black man preaching in these churches, no body ever thought it was anything other than the Spirits guidance. This was also an era when the KKK was everywhere in the region railing against everything that wasn’t white. Jews, Asians, Native Americans, etc.“
Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.
Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200