Long before the Internet was a reality, publishing pioneer Robert Walker dreamed of a day when Christian magazines and books would be accessible to the mainstream.
The man who published the first national cover story about Billy Graham, propelled Pat Boone’s encounter with the Holy Spirit to best-seller status and inspired millions of Christian writers and readers alike is dead at age 95.
The editor emeritus of Charisma & Christian Life, Robert Walker died March 1 at a retirement community in Carol Stream, Illinois. Although a former athlete and avid weightlifter, Walker had suffered from Parkinson’s disease and dementia since 2005.
Friends, family and industry acquaintances remember the pioneering journalist as a giant whose legacy will outlive his years on earth. “He was one incredible man,” says Boone, the popular entertainer whose 1970 book, A New Song, sold 2.5 million copies after Walker helped him shape his story. “There was an Old Testament quality to him, like I was talking to a modern Gideon or one of the patriarchs.”
Among his many professional accolades was the first Magazine Publishers Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) in 1994. Former ECPA President Doug Ross says although Walker wasn’t involved with the publishers’ group, they honored him for his significant contribution to the magazine field by growing Christian Life into a national periodical.
Doug Trouten, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association, of which Walker was a founding member, says the publisher was “a giant in our industry” whose work touched countless lives. “The Christian journalism world has grown significantly since those early days, but only because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Bob Walker,” Trouten says.
Second wife Barbara—whom Walker married in 1995 after the death of his first wife, Jean—says their years together were the happiest of her life. “We had a marvelous relationship,” Barbara says. “Bob and I were on a great adventure together. We knew God had called us to this marriage.”
Barbara says they traveled to such places as London, Switzerland and Australia, the only continent her husband hadn’t previously visited during his worldwide journalistic travels. Their journeys included stops at discipleship conferences and other Christian meetings, a part of what she calls “carrying the [Spirit’s] fragrance.” Although they owned a home in Boca Raton, Florida, they sold it in 2001 to return to the state where Robert spent much of his life.
Barbara thinks her husband’s steadfast commitment to Christ will be his most enduring legacy, even though it meant “living on the edge” and enduring criticism for some of the subjects he wrote about. “It seems his whole ministry … was to explore what the Holy Spirit was doing,” she says. “He would hear about it, get there, check it out and report on it. He followed Billy Graham a number of times to report on crusades. He’s a part of all that history.”
Although none of his five children followed his professional footsteps nor adopted his charismatic beliefs, youngest son Kent says they all found a path to God. The Philadelphia resident’s favorite memory of his father comes from the weekend he visited after Kent’s first marriage dissolved.
“I was in a bad way emotionally, and he was very kind and accepting of where I was,” Kent recalls. “He was just good company for the weekend. We wandered around Philadelphia, mostly on foot, and went to see Chariots of Fire. I had a very good time, and I think he did too. It’s a very profound and good memory.”
Even in retirement, his wife says, Robert found time to encourage other writers. Alice Teisan, a former nurse who has struggled with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1993, began meeting with Walker in 1998 to discuss ways of sharing her story. Thanks to his tutoring, she has published about a dozen articles in various periodicals.
Teisan says Walker encouraged her to start His Wheels International, which provides bicycles to missionaries in Africa and other nations. “[Recently] I took over an article about His Wheels to him, and he said, ‘When are you writing your book?'” Teisan says. “I chuckled, and he said: ‘What are you laughing about? I’m serious.’
“I think the greatest aspect of what he’s left for me is when I’ve struggled with this disability … he’s challenged me to see there are still things I can do for Christ. When my book gets written, I will have to dedicate it to my professor.”
Born and Reborn
The son of Forrest and Lena (Orman) Walker, Robert was born April 30, 1912, in Syracuse, New York. Though originally a farmer, Forrest later joined his brother in a pattern-making shop that eventually fashioned the first electric dishwasher. After General Electric acquired the machine in 1930, Forrest became chief engineer of research at a Hotpoint appliances plant in Chicago.
Although he attended a boarding school in Massachusetts, Robert met a group of students from the Methodist Church his family attended the summer before his senior year and wound up visiting the University of Illinois in Champaign. Impressed by the school, Walker took an early enrollment test to gain entrance. But when he realized his football talents were better suited to a smaller school, he transferred to Wheaton College.
Despite Wheaton’s Christian environment, Walker wasn’t a believer until the day he picked up a Bible at a fishing camp. “I said, ‘People at Wheaton say this is God’s book, that He inspired it,'” Walker told Charisma’s publisher, Stephen Strang, during an interview marking his 60th anniversary in journalism.
“I said, ‘God, if this is Your book, You ought to be able to speak to me directly. I shouldn’t need an evangelist or preacher. If you are really God, you should be able to speak to me. If You do, I’ll respond.'”
Although Walker called that more of an offhand thought than a prayer, within a couple hours when he opened the Bible again the words seemed to leap off the pages. For the next week, he spent seven or eight hours a day studying Scripture.
The experience so impressed him that he wrote to the dean at Northwestern University, where he had planned to spend his senior year. Telling of his religious experience, Walker said he should probably enroll in seminary instead. “Don’t do anything ’til you come and see me,” the dean responded in a letter; he persuaded the young convert to continue in journalism.
After graduating from Northwestern, Walker worked at two newspapers in Michigan and for two years as a copywriter for a Chicago-based advertising agency. The latter stint led to an offer to start a journalism department at Wheaton.
While working as an associate professor there from 1941-51, Walker accepted an invitation to start a campus magazine with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship titled HIS. That would be the first of many publishing endeavors. He took over Church School Promoter in 1942 and renamed it Sunday. Then in 1948 he renamed the publication Christian Life after acquiring Christian Life & Times from a friend. Christian Life merged with Charisma in 1987.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, Robert Walker was the most powerful Christian journalist in evangelical circles,” says Elmer Towns, dean of Liberty University’s School of Religion and Christian Life’s Sunday school editor from 1966-82. “Robert Walker was always on the cutting edge, looking for the latest thing that God was doing in the world.”
To report on the then-fledgling Christian Booksellers Association in the mid-1950s, Walker started Christian Bookseller, renamed Christian Retailing after its acquisition by Strang Communications. Creation House Books followed in 1970; the company lives on as one of numerous imprints under the Strang book division’s flagship, Charisma House.
Walker’s vision didn’t stop with profitable enterprises. When he saw a need to help Christian writers, he started the Christian Writers Institute; when he saw a need for missions outreach, he helped missionaries and founded Christian Life Missions, a 501(c)(3) charity.
“Beyond all his accomplishments, Bob Walker was a deeply spiritual man who lived a life of utmost integrity,” Strang says. “He impacted the lives of millions and will continue to through the publications he founded. We believe we’re the heirs of his publishing legacy. His life deeply impacted me and my entire organization. He’ll be missed.”
Walker was present in 1942 when the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) held an organizing conference in Chicago. That brought his first exposure to Pentecostals, who stirred up controversy over whether they should even be considered part of the evangelical camp.
A few months later, Walker was invited to the Assemblies of God (AG) headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, to lead a seminar on communications. For the first time he saw men embracing men and heard people speaking in tongues.
“I said, ‘Lord, protect me; don’t let anybody embrace me,'” Walker recalled. “But I came away … with a good feeling about these people. I saw there was a love for one another that I didn’t see exhibited in most of the evangelical circles in which I traveled.”
That sparked a hunger in his heart for a closer walk with God too. Still, a decade passed before he met a Baptist missionary who had been baptized in the Holy Spirit. He in turn referred Walker to a Presbyterian minister. They met at a hotel and spent several hours discussing Walker’s questions. Afterward, they prayed, the minister advising Walker to respond to whatever the Spirit told him to do.
“I went through one of the most deeply spiritual, satisfying experiences wherein the Word of God, which had led to my conversion, seemed to fill me,” Walker said. “Now, here was the Word of God, the object of truth, and, on the other side of the coin, was the subject of truth, the witness and the Spirit of God with my spirit.”
The fact that a longtime evangelical had experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit was indicative of Walker’s pioneering nature. Among his advancements:
»Printing the first national cover story on evangelist Billy Graham in 1948
»Withstanding criticism from some evangelicals for first reporting on the AG’s Sunday school program
»Profiling a living cartoonist at a time when Christian magazines published such stories only about those who were dead.
Despite such efforts, Walker was quick to credit others, praising the late evangelist George Otis Sr. for persuading Boone to write A New Song and remembering the late Herbert Taylor—a leader in launching the NAE—as one of his mentors.
“I would like people to think that I was sort of the chap who responded to what God wanted done,” Walker said. “I sometimes kicked, and I often blew it by taking off in the wrong direction. [God] had to bring me back.”
Boone says he and Walker stayed in touch through the years, which gave him an admiration for the writer, editor and publisher’s prolific accomplishments.
“He was a champion of the Word,” Boone says. “Bob wielded the sword. He revered the Word, and not just God’s Word, but the word of testimony. That’s what he majored in. That’s what he drew from us and helped us with, the living epistles of our time.”
Ken Walker is a freelance writer based in Charleston, West Virginia. Although not related to Robert Walker, he drew inspiration and encouragement from his example.