“I talked to God … Yes I did—Actually and Literally … You too may experience that strange mystical power which comes from talking with God, and when you do, if there is poverty, unrest, unhappiness, ill-health or material lack in your life, well—the same Power is able to do for you what it did for me.” – Advertisement by Frank B. Robinson.
For all the sensation that Frank B. Robinson (1886-1948) created during the Great Depression, little is known about his possible influence on Adventist use of mail-order marketing, radio and religious correspondence courses as a method for evangelism. At the time, it seemed everywhere you looked there was Frank B. Robinson: THE MAN WHO TALKED WITH GOD. His pioneering media techniques, radio and well-attended speaking crusades would not have gone unnoticed. In less than 10 years, beginning in 1928, Robinson created the country’s eighth-largest religion, and the world’s largest mail order religion. This is a story of a New Thought religion attuned to the times that once swept America with an estimated 2 million subscription-based followers.
Perhaps, within the folds of this brief biography — besides being lively and entertaining — are some provocative imaginations about how to deliver the testimonies of the church to attract greater numbers of readers and listeners while endearing them to the gospel.
There is at least one important lesson here. When Robinson passed away in October 1948 his son stepped forward to carry on the ministry. But the son lacked the obsessive passion of his father and within a short time, the religion that Robinson called “Psychiana” closed. After the religion ceased in 1952, due in part to rising printing costs and postage, it fell into obscurity.
The religion by radio movement and the development of correspondence courses occurred about the same time that the Voice of Prophecy was launched by H. M. S. Richards, Sr. (1894-1985). Evidently, like Robinson’s religion, the Voice of Prophecy has never regained the stride it once had under Richards’ long leadership. At present, Adventist media leaders plan to “reboot” the Voice of Prophecy radio ministry in the hopes of reaching more people in the propagation of the Three Angels Message.
Many Adventists know the story of H. M. S. Richards, the founder of the Voice of Prophecy — whereas likely only a few have heard the Robinson story. Elder H. M. S. Richards Sr., began radio broadcasting in Los Angeles in 1929 on KNX in Los Angeles. By 1933 there were 3,820 religious programs using the seeming limitless potentialities of radio. At the time, some critics in the church said that Richards had succumbed to entertainment, using the “devil’s tool.” Others perceived radio as “nothing less than a miraculous gift, bestowed by God to speed the progress of worldwide evangelization.” Initially Richards’ religious radio broadcast was heard on only one radio station. By January 1937 the broadcast expanded over the Don Lee Broadcasting System, a network of several stations, and the name of the broadcast was changed to the Voice of Prophecy. Richards’ first coast-to-coast broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System was on Sunday, January 4, 1942.
Listeners wrote to Richards requesting copies of his sermons. So in February 1942 Voice of Prophecy introduced the Discover Bible School, a correspondence course. Over the years and from all over the world, many people enrolled in the correspondence program, resulting in scores of baptisms. Continuing to grow by donations, by 1980 the Voice of Prophecy had a budget of $6 million. By then the Voice of Prophecy broadcast was heard every Sunday on 700 stations.
Richards had been the speaker/director for 40 years when his son H.M.S. Richards, Jr., took over in 1969. But after Richards, Jr., passed away in 1992 it seems the Voice of Prophecy has fallen on hard times. The latest public financial information for the Voice of Prophecy shows annual revenues averaging $3,752,075 over the three years that appear on the Internal Revenue Service 990 (2008-2011), with operating losses outpacing income by $1,224,643 during this same time. It is not unusual for a charismatic religious program to flounder when the leader begins to decline, retires or passes away.
Returning to Frank Robinson, is it possible that his Psychiana religion might have survived had he attached himself to an outside organization, such as a church, as did Richards? Robinson did succeed from the standpoint that other larger religious movements copied his outreach methods and rose above a one-man operation.
Robinson was born in 1886 and his childhood and early life appears both harrowing and somewhat sketchy. For instance, was he born in New York, Halifax or Stratford-on-Avon? No one knows for sure. We know that after his mother passed away in 1894 his father remarried and a little while later forced young Robinson and his brother to join the British Navy when he was 12 or 13 years old. After a medical discharge he worked at various farm jobs and eventually found employment in a drug store in Belleville, Ontario in 1908. With an opportunity to enter a Bible Training College in Toronto, Canada, along with his expenses paid by a Baptist philanthropist he set out to become an evangelist. But Robinson soon became disillusioned and left before the end of the first term. During the next few years he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and was assigned to serve in Regina, Saskatchewan. Without going into too much more detail about his early life, after a short time with the United States Navy and Army (being involuntarily discharged in both cases) he found employment in drug stores on the west coast, either as a store clerk or pharmacist. In November, 1919 he married Pearl Leavitt. A few years later the couple had their first son Alfred.
By now Robinson was approaching his 40th birthday and still searching for a satisfying relationship with God. He had rejected the Baptist faith of his youth. Then one Sunday morning while attending a beautiful ornate Methodist church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, with only a few worshippers present, he pleaded to God to be shown something more — challenging God to reveal himself. Arriving home he decided something was wrong with mainstream religion.
After this it seemed to Robinson that the spirit of God “pulsed within him. . . filling his arteries and veins.” He conceived that with this holy power now installed it could become an unlimited resource — a kind of do-it-yourself profoundly American approach to religion that emphasized spiritual healing, material happiness and prosperity. With new imagination and the force of an unseen power he began to think how he could deliver “God’s Spiritual law” into the hands of ordinary people.
The solution came to him after Robinson accepted a new job at the Corner Drug Store in Moscow, Idaho. The store closed each day at 6pm, giving him more time in the evenings to reflect on where he wanted to go next. About three months later he borrowed a Corona typewriter one Saturday evening and began pecking out his concepts for a “new psychological religion.” By the time he stopped, 36 hours later, he had finished a set of lesson plans that could be mailed out to subscribers. But how could he get this course into people’s hands? It struck him that the perfect vehicle was to create a mail-order faith.
So he borrowed $500 from friends and visited an advertising agency in Spokane, Washington. They advised him not to waste his money. Undeterred, he took out a single ad in Psychology Magazine entitled: I TALKED WITH GOD — SO CAN YOU — IT’S EASY. This small notice produced 5,000 replies and netted $13,000 in earnings. Next he advertised in Physical Culture which brought over 10,000 replies. The Pathfinder returned 23,000 replies. Within the first decade, announcements of the gospel-according-to-Robinson made its way into an estimated 12 million homes through newspapers, magazines, radio and matchbooks and secured several hundred thousand paying subscribers. At the peak of Robinson’s advertising he appeared in 1,500 newspapers, 250 magazines (practically all pulps) and 60 radio stations. He called his religion Psychiana. There was no talk of organizing into churches or societies. Psychiana came as a course of twenty lessons that cost $28. Preachers confessed they used Robinson’s writings from their pulpits, but did not want it to get out.
Eventually the volume of Psychiana mailings was so large that Moscow’s post office had to move to a bigger building and was granted first class status, as it sent out 60,000 pieces of mail each day. Psychiana lessons rolled out of Moscow like cars off an assembly line. Robinson became known as the mail-order prophet. And he is probably the only religious evangelist to offer satisfaction or a money back guarantee. The detailed pamphlet-length Psychiana theology entered two to three million households a year. After two decades Robinson gained more “converts” to Psychiana than the Canadian Baptist denomination acquired after 200 years of evangelism.
This all occurred in the midst of a national depression where many people were in despair, suffering real economic hardships and lost hope. Robinson taught that you don’t have to wait for the afterlife to be successful. “Look at me. I pulled myself up by believing in positive thinking and you can too! The human mind is a source of power.” Observers argue that in the 1930s, Robinson’s heyday, people were ready for new religious thinking because of the Great Depression, which “made listening to the radio the only amusement people could afford,” and the promise of self-improvement was attractive through mail-order lessons. Even today it is still possible for sympathetic readers to get swept up into Robinson’s affirmations and key mantras: “I believe in the power of the living God.”
Robinson was always looking for new ways to communicate his ideas. The sheer volume of his writings attest to this passion. He published 23 books and produced thousands of pamphlets, flyers, and articles. While Psychiana never made millions (most of the assets flowed back into the business) a significant outcome depended on communication theory and practice which guided much of Robinson’s religious business. The mega churches of today abound in this same message using the power of positive thinking, marriage counseling, weight-loss programs, prosperity lessons and sharing with others the spiritual life of hope and how to “personalize the faith and make it serve the needs and wants of man.”
But not everyone appreciated the mail-order prophet.
Billy Sunday once wrote to Robinson. “For God’s sake, stop driving men and women out of the kingdom of God. Just as fast as I save them, you drive them away.” The proof of the pudding was in the eating. When Robinson was asked if he ever had a student return his course and demand the money back guarantee he replied “Never.”
There will always be conversation between the official religions and the marginal, the orthodox and the upstart. One’s orthodoxy is another man’s heresy. As long as people hope to know the intentions and purposes of God new religious communities and movements will emerge. This is because of a deep yearning for peace from suffering, an afterlife and knowing the future will reach beyond anything the institutional churches can offer. These new religious groups will arise claiming that they alone know or can talk to God. Despite fresh beginnings these new movements face the same questions about how to maintain fervor, organization and uniformity of belief and dissipation of doubt — just as the mainstream churches do.
Robinson’s society of believers testifies to the sheer force of his personality. He was charismatic, self-centered, even opinionated and conservative (he opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal). Most of all it was his drive and conviction that he was right that led to the formation of Psychiana. Whatever we may think of Robinson’s ideas or beliefs today, his capacity to create successful advertising, manage the distribution of his courses, dream up new ideas and convince people they could reach beyond their limitations was extraordinary.
1 Horowitz, M. Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation. New York, NY: Bantam Books. 2009. p. 100.
2 One can still obtain the Psychiania course for free on the Internet. http://frankrobinson.wwwhubs.com/.
3 A recent article in Adventist World (January 2014) stated that “Shawn Boonstra (speaker/director of the Voice of Prophecy) … hit the ground running with evangelism–focused plans that will take VOP’s current resources and use them to ‘reboot’ the ministry while remaining true to H. M. S. Richards’ original vision.” p. 39.
4 Dinwiddie, M. Religion by Radio. London: Allen & Unwin. 1968. p. 18-19.
5 Bendroth, M. Fundamentalism and the Media. 1930-1990. In D. A. Stout and J. M. Buddenbaum (ed). Religion and Mass Media: Audiences and Adaptations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 1996, p. 75.
6 Voice of Prophecy Appoints Shawn Boonstra as New Director. Adventist Today. May 2, 2013.
7 Financial data obtained from the IRS 990 Form filed by the VOP from 2008 through 2011, the latest data available.
8 Horowitz, M. p. 106.
9 A small town of 5,000 people and home to the University of Idaho.
10 Bach, M. They Found Faith. New York, NY: The Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1946. p. 284.
11 Bach, M. p. 255.
12 Horowitz, M. 115.
13 Bach, M. p. 283.