first of a four-part series, part I part II part III part IV
A son of a Kansas farmer stepped off a train in 1918 to begin a business career in the Kanawha valley. He was a recent graduate of the Kansas Wesleylan Business college, and three-years married to a Huntington native by the name of Della Grass. Who would have thought that this 24 year old would be used of God to found one of the largest independent churches in the State of West Virginia. As we enter this year, which will mark the 60th year of Bible Center Church's history, it would be good to retell the story of Rolland Matthew Maxwell.
R.M. Maxwell was born and raised in Mentor, Kansas where his father owned two farms and a general story. He came to West Virginia to be involved in the operation of a store owned by his father-in-law in St. Albans, West Virginia. Reid Jepson, in his 1950 book entitled "In Business Serving the Lord," describes Maxwell's business career this way; "Two years after joining his father-in-law in business full ownership of The Maxwell Department story passed to him. He then acquired shares in the Peoples Store in the nearby capital city. Before many years, he rose to the position of President and General Manager." Around 1939 he was led to liquidate his sizable department store interests but was asked by the purchasers to remain as general manager, which he agreed to do so long as he could "give liberty to put the Lord's work first." After the purchase by the Stone and Thomas company of Wheeling, "Mr. Maxwell immediately deposited much of the proceeds into the hands of worthy 'soul-saving' institutions including foreign missions."
R.M. Maxwell was saved in the Mentor Methodist church as a young man at the same time as his nephew Leslie E. Maxwell. L. E. Maxwell was approximately the same age as his uncle and the two grew up together but more on L.E. Maxell later. While engaging in business in St. Albans, R.M. "served as a deacon of the Baptist Church." After a brush with death due to typhoid, this nominal Christian business man was confronted with the teaching of a man of God who presented "plainly the Gospel of grace. He later expressed it this way: 'there is the other half of my salvation.'"
From this point on, Mr. Maxwell began to grow in Christ and Jepson points out, "R.M. Maxwell acquired solemn convictions relative to a non-compromising position. He sensed that to be fully set apart to the Lord was to be separated completely from the world system of things, whether they be social or religious. He loved the souls of his fellow businessmen, respected church leaders; nevertheless, the time came when he felt he must sever many of his social involvements which he considered worldly connections. He realized too that he should have no part in those things not honoring to Christ in organized religion. He based his convictions on 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1."
In 1937 a group of Christian business men, including R.M. Maxwell sponsored a tent meeting in South Charleston with the speaker being R.M.'s Nephew, L.E. Maxwell who was now the President of Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada. Afterward, R.M. Maxwell conducted Bible classes to help establish the new believers. These Bible classes began about the same time as his separating from the Baptist convention. These bible classes met first in homes and then as interest grew, in the shoe department of the People's Store, in downtown Charleston. Folks who remember those days recall shoe racks being covered with sheets and dress racks being moved out of the way so a piano could be put in place and Mr. Maxell making the Bible come alive through his teaching. He had a desire to offer a place where the Bible could be taught, and where folks from any denominational background could gather to hear the Bible clearly presented without the encroaching compromise of liberal theology that was then sweeping through the main-line denominational churches. Mr. Maxwell's interest in missions was evident in those days as many missionary speakers were invited to address those meetings for Bible study.
In 1942, R.M. Maxwell corresponded with a young student at Prairie Bible Institute by the name of A. Reid Jepson. The two had met when Mr. Maxwell was invited by his nephew to bring a series of Bible messages at the school. Maxwell wrote of the need for a full-time minister in Charleston "to care for the Gospel testimony that had grown out of the weekly classes held in his department store." Jepson arrived in Charleston in the fall of 1942 and was quickly called by the leaders of the Bible class to be the first regular pastor of the Bible Center. The church was formally organized in April 1943 (more on that in next month's article).
The new church, like the bible classes before it, was viewed with suspicion by many at the time. Maxwell was also looked upon by many as a somewhat fanatical religious person. The group was looked upon as being outside the mainstream of Christian thought by those within the denominational framework. C.L Ferguson, writing in "Contact," a publication of the Christian Businessmen's Committee, recounted that "when a radio station was criticizing him for making a program his store sponsored 'too religious' and asking him "why he didn't run his church like a church, and his store like a store' he replied 'that's the way we think a store should be run. We know people are lost, and we want to get them saved."
It is likely R.M. Maxwell instituted the name "Bible Center". It was his desire that the church be a down-town church where the Bible can be learned and taught. The name is as much a reflection of the church being originally located in the "center of town" as it is of the Bible being the "center" of all we do. The original name of the church was "The City Bible Center."
R.M. Maxwell continued to teach a regular Bible class and serve as a leader in the new church as well as mentor to the new young pastor. Maxwell was diagnosed with cancer and went home to be with the Lord on June 13, 1945. In his 51 years he had raised a family, built a business and was used of God to help found a new church in the Kanawha valley..
I will let the final words of this brief recounting of the life of R.M. Maxwell be his. In a letter dated December 29, 1941, he wrote a letter to all for the employees of the People's Store, Inc. In addition to announcing a 10% bonus to all employees and urging them to buy war bonds he states:
"As we come to the close of another year, I want to again acknowledge my entire indebtedness to the Lord Jesus Christ. God has shown mercy to me and not to me only but to all who turn to Him in sincerity.
I rejoice in the truth that 'God is no respecter of persons,' so that I can be sure that the mercy He has shown to Abraham, or David or D.L. Moody and to thousands of others is also for me, and for all who trust in Him."
Part II >>
Much of this material comes from In Business Serving the Lord, by A. Reid Jepson and published by The City Bible Center in 1950. My thanks to personal recollections provided by Alice Hill Monk, Judith Gentry Tidball and others in the preparations of this article.
© 2002 Bible Center Church
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