By Rick Cherok
Bob Vernon may not have blazed trails through uncharted wilderness regions in the style of famous explorers like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, but there’s no doubt he was a genuine pioneer in the emerging frontier of Christian television broadcasting.
Innovations and infrastructures that made television broadcasting possible were developed in the late 1920s and 1930s, and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) became the first company to make regular telecasts in 1939. As early as 1940, the first religious television broadcasts were made on local stations when the Roman Catholic Easter Mass of Fulton J. Sheen and the Easter sermon of Dr. Henry McCrea Cavert of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America were broadcast in New York.
Not until 1949, however, did Fundamentalist preacher Percy Crawford create the first religious television program. Within the next few years, the so-called “televangelism” concept developed as Christian television programs were formed by Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen (1951) and Pentecostal preachers Rex Humbard (1952) and Oral Roberts (1954).
And it was in 1954, at station KOAM near Pittsburg, Kan., that Bob Vernon and his brothers—B.J., Bill, and Don—began their first television broadcasts as the Vernon Brothers.
Bob Vernon, who is now 96 and living in Los Angeles, recalls driving to the station and discussing the possibility of a religious broadcast with the station owner and program director, who invited him to sing that evening on a live program. For the next two years, the Vernon Brothers broadcast their half-hour television program over the KOAM airwaves each Friday evening.
The Vernon brothers grew up in Lebanon, Mo., where they were raised in a Christian family and graduated from Lebanon High School. Yet, it was while he was serving on a naval submarine in World War II, Bob recalls, that he became more serious than ever about his relationship with Jesus Christ. As a result, Bob and his brothers, B.J. and Bill, enrolled at Ozark Bible College in 1947 to prepare themselves for lives of Christian ministry.
After graduating, as the brothers married, started families, and began ministries, Bob was enamored with the possibilities of how the emerging technology of television might be used to benefit the church. Bob’s son, Gregg Vernon explains that his father seemed “driven to use this new medium” to communicate the gospel.
Eventually, Bob went to Hollywood, watched the filming of I Love Lucy, and began exploring the possibilities of ministry through television.
In 1955, Bob participated in the Radio and Television Conference on the campus of Cincinnati Bible Seminary; the conference was sponsored by the National Association of Christian Broadcasters and the Christian Radio Mission. In his address to the conference, Bob described television as a “mission field” in which the evangelist is invited into a person’s home as an honored guest. He explained,
[Television] is revolutionizing political campaigns and is affecting the entire social and economic structure of America and the world. Can we not see that in religion, as well, a new era of unparalleled success could be ushered in, as the restoration of New Testament Christianity is concerned!
The following year, Bob and his brothers formed the Christian Television Mission, which “was called into existence for the specific purpose of telecasting the plea of the Restoration Movement.”
While most Christian television programming at the time consisted of little more than the broadcast of a Sunday service or the filming of a preacher behind a pulpit, Bob and his brothers conceived of a different approach to religious telecasting. Using the concept of their Missouri home as the setting, they developed a program called Homestead USA. Filmed at Universal Studios in Hollywood with professional producers, directors, editors, and music, they combined drama with their Christian message.
“These programs,” Gregg Vernon observed, “were light years beyond anything else being done” in religious broadcasting and they were being broadcast weekly by over 200 stations in the United States and internationally.
Perhaps the capstone project of Bob’s television career was a nationally televised documentary entitled Back to Jerusalem.
In his memoir, As I Go, Bob wrote that he had long “held a very deep desire for a documentary movie made in color to be produced on the history of the Church, leading up to the Restoration Movement.”
By 1963, he and an impressive array of scholars were collaborating on a script and Bob began the process of filming in 1964.
“There was a burning passion in my heart,” Bob explains, “for this movie to be filmed in the Holy Land” so people could actually “see where Jesus walked.” And so, Bob put together a professional filming crew and made his journey to the Holy Land to set his long-cherished dream in motion.
What emerged from Bob’s efforts was a one-and-a-half-hour film—in color—that consisted of an exposé on the church’s history and an explanation of biblical Christianity. With dramatic Holy Land imagery and Bob’s narration, Back to Jerusalem offered an overview of the beginning and early growth of the church, followed by a drift from its early practices and principles during the Middle Ages.
In addition, the struggles of Martin Luther and others to reform the church were described, leading to the Restoration Movement’s plea for a return to the principles of New Testament Christianity. The latter half of the film includes an interview in which Bob discusses the principles of biblical Christianity and what it means to be a nondenominational Christian.
On Sunday evening, Aug. 15, 1965, Back to Jerusalem was given a prime-time airing across the United States on CBS television. Bob and his associates received rave reviews from many people who watched this program.
Pamela Ilott, director of all CBS religious telecasting at that time, wrote,
This film is the finest of its nature that I have ever screened. It presents in such good taste what the world needs, and is the answer, ecumenically speaking, to what modern religionists are searching. Many who rejected creedal authoritarianism would welcome this type of message, if only they knew about it. You owe it to yourselves and to the world to get the widest possible exposure of this production.
Today, more than 50 years since the original telecast of Back to Jerusalem, Bob Vernon, with the assistance of his son Gregg, is attempting to get this film professionally restored and digitized so that it might be a ministry tool for a whole new generation that is still searching for what it means to be simply a New Testament Christian.
THE VERNON FAMILY: (BACK ROW) BOB, BILL, DALLAS JR., AND BJ. (SEATED) J.P., DALLAS SR., BEULAH, WARD, AND DON (CENTER FRONT).