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Wheeler, Rob (1931- )

Mark Hutchinson

Southern Cross College

Wheeler, Rob, (b. Whakatane, New Zealand, 7 February 1931 - ), Pentecostal pastor, evangelist, teacher, denominational founder, missions promoter.

The second child of a family with two sisters and three brothers, Wheeler was born and raised in Whakatane, NZ, for the first five years of his life. In 1936 the Wheelers moved to Auckland, where they ‘moved from house to house’. He was to remember his childhood as being an unhappy one – a difficult relationship between his parents contributing to the suicidal condition of his mother, an overbearing father creating a sense of fear of men in his own life. Not long afterwards, his father left the family and moved to Australia, only returning for a short stint during the war years. The turmoil at home caused both Rob and his mother to seek for divine intervention, something which happened when his mother slipped in the back yard, injured her back, and by that means came to know a local pentecostal neighbour. An invitation to church, wrapped in community affection and help, brought them under the ministry of Alf Gracie, who ‘had a tremendous healing ministry’. A nervous chain smoker, Wheeler’s mother was healed of a stomach ulcer and of the desire to smoke. In this manner, Wheeler himself began to attend a church, and in 1937 had a deep experience with Christ at the age of 7. He found that many of his fears disappeared, and that school was attractive to him for the first time. They made the Devonport "Revival Fire Mission" their home. Difficulties in the church in 1939 led to the family moving on, however, following their Pentecostal neighbours into the founding of a moderately British Israel Pentecostal church.

From 1946, Wheeler’s family attended Ray Jackson’s Pentecostal Church in Auckland, and went with him when the Auckland church split over Jesus Name teaching in that year, to form the Bethel Chapel. ‘We had basically Pastor [William Henry] Offiler's teaching [from Bethel Temple, Seattle] through and through’, and the services were confrontational and dramatic. Jackson’s powerful style captured the young Wheeler:

Ray Jackson was a father to me, because I had no natural father around. I used to live in their home. And David Jackson, (who was Ray's oldest boy) and I were bosom buddies. We grew up together. [Wilkinson]

When Jackson and Edmondson went back to America (1947-9) to participate in the Latter Rain revival and the ministry of William Branham, the church sagged and became legalistic. Wheeler began attending Youth for Christ meetings, something he would hold as a valuable time in his establishment as a bible teacher, and the family moved to a local evangelical church. In 1947 he commenced studying to become an accountant. In 1948, he traveled to Sydney to attend Sydney Bible Training Institute (c1914-1957), due to the fact that he was still too young to attend the parallel institution established by C J Rolls in New Zealand. While he later claimed that he did well there, the institution ‘frowned’ on the Pentecostal tradition from which he came, and which he attended on weekends.

While he was in Australia, the Jacksons (finding the teaching unacceptable in Bethel Temple) returned to Auckland, bringing with them testimonies of amazing spiritual power associated with the Latter Rain Revival in Canada. ‘When the people heard’ (from Ruth Jackson) ‘what was happening in Canada, the Spirit of the Lord fell on that meeting, and we had in that service what they had in Canada. It was incredible.’ (Wilkinson) The new influence combined with the older Bethel teaching, and combined the long standing emphases on healing and spiritual gifts with those of the laying on of hands, fasting, prayer, prophecy, allegiance to the five-fold ministry, the importance of the Jewish feast of Pentecost and Tabernacles, distrust of denominations, the manifestations of the sons of God, and the returning of Jesus Christ in accordance with the outpouring of Gods spirit. Wheeler’s return to New Zealand over Christmas, 1949 created intense inner conflict: the content of the Tauranga conference preached by Jackson, and his growing affection for his future wife Beryl (whose family had been very early supporters of the Jacksons’ ministry), brought him to a point of crisis with the evangelical theology he had been studying. The worship and singing seemed all emotionalism to him, but at the same time he had a passion to ‘not miss’ the calling of God. He also knew that the price of adopting Pentecostalism would be ejection from Youth for Christ and SBTI, and closure on his plans to serve as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

He swallowed his pride, and, after 6 months of labouring work, Wheeler traveled with Ray Jackson to Sydney, Melbourne and Bendigo as his song leader in a campaign aimed at starting new churches in Australia. With Jackson having to return to Sydney in order to care for the new but troubled work there, David Jackson and Wheeler (only 19 years of age) found themselves pastoring the Melbourne church: ‘I was nineteen; I had three sermons. I was terrified of handling a church of about one hundred or one hundred twenty people, including ministers with years of experience.’ The coming of Kevin Conner, who, though only a few years older than Wheeler, already had pastoral experience in the Assemblies of God Church in Bendigo, helped significantly. Years later, Conner would still remember Wheeler’s stirring sermon on Gideon, “Where be all these miracles if God be with us?”, which he preached the night they met. Their experience taught them the necessity of training.

So it was that with Ron Coady, Kevin Conner, Peter Morrow and others, Wheeler attended Ray Jackson’s three month ‘bible school’ in Sydney, in 1951. ‘They called it Bible school, but really it wasn't. We had only two lectures in three months. It was virtually just waiting on the Lord.’ (Wilkinson) The intensity of the spiritual formation, however, would model for them the short term bible school model, and entrench in them the latter rain experientialism brought back by Jackson. It was sealed by the visit of David Schoch, Omar Bradley and Jack Opie, during which Schoch prophesied over him as to his future ministry. The 21 students at the school then went out and began looking for openings for church planting and ministry. Wheeler, Morrow and David Jackson hitchhiked up the Australian east coast attempting to engage in itinerant preaching, but ‘nothing was flowing.’

On his return to New Zealand in June 1953, Wheeler took over Jackson’s pastorate in Auckland, and then after a year established (with Ron Coady) the Upper Room Fellowship in Tauranga. In August that year, he and Beryl were married. Both short term pastorates, however, were short on support, and Wheeler returned to Whakatane to work in the Singer Sewing Machine Company (1953-4). The direct influence on his next decision was the visit of Tommy Hicks to New Zealand in 1957: "that was our first exposure to an evangelist, really....Ron Coady and myself got fired up on evangelism." Following the trajectory of the latter rain movement as it moved from Branham’s leadership to the broader charismatic evangelism of Oral Roberts, in late 1957 Wheeler took up itinerant tent-crusade evangelism under the name ‘Word of Faith Ministry’. His first campaign was at Mount Maunganui in November 1957, and results were relatively meagre. Through 1958, using a 36-foot by 18-foot ex-army tent as a mobile church, Wheeler ‘had some success among East Coast Maori’ [Knowles] with a campaign marked by the miraculous. His campaign expanded as churches came to hear of his success: ‘We finished up with three big tents, three big trucks, a team of about fifteen workers, and our own magazine, radio programs, the lot.’ Unexpectedly, however, he ran into regional opposition with the Assemblies of God in Queensland, who objected to his teaching on ‘The Name’ (see below). His rejection placed him in immediate financial problems, a spur to their return to pastor the divided Tauranga congregation. Better times were ahead however. A real "breakthrough" came in the South Island, with a highly successful campaign conducted in Timaru by an independent American evangelist, A.S. Worley,31 in June and July 1960. Avoiding Pentecostal distinctives, such as Baptism in the Spirit, the campaigns emphasized healing and salvation – a mechanism which sidestepped the denominational barriers which structured most postcolonial Western countries at that time. This interdenominationalism worked for some time, but the objectives of the mainline churches and the revivalists were so far apart that friction around key points of denominational distinctive – such as the sacraments – was inevitable. The latter rain practice of baptizing in Jesus Name thus became the centre for criticism – first, on the suspicion that the teaching was Unitarian or Oneness Pentecostalism, and secondly, on the generally belief among traditional churches that the sacrament of baptism could not be repeated. This opposition grew as Wheeler and others targeted the traditional churches in their preaching and publications as manifestations of the ‘Harlot Church’ predicted in the book of the Revelation, a metaphor that they associated in their endtimes thinking with the emerging ecumenical movement. In time it would not only build the New Life Churches, but would continue to divide the more mainstream AOG for years to come.

The other influence of Jackson’s Sydney Bible School was that it passed on the typical latter rain, Bethel Temple emphases on bible teaching:

It generated a characteristic style of Pentecostal Bible teaching, and provided the movement with an hermeneutical methodology which gave full rein to the imaginative use of allegory and typology. Consequently, many of the New Life Churches' characteristic doctrines, such as their emphasis on the Tabernacle of Moses, came directly from their Bethel Temple antecedents. (Knowles)

The evangelist and allegorizing bible teacher were fused categories in the New Life movement, in ways not seen in other movements. This made the bible school a basis for expansion rather than a potential by-way or subcultural point of resistance. Using the Tauranga fellowship as a base, Wheeler and Coady had formed an evening school which between 1959 and 1966 became the training ground for pastors who would supply the churches being founded on Worley’s coattails. After Jackson’s model, Wheeler would run many short term bible training schools which prepared people for practical charismatic ministry. The emphasis was on experience and narrative rather than scholastics and content. Ironically, given the imported nature of the theology and practice, and its reliance on visiting ministry, these churches came to be called the ‘Indigenous Churches of New Zealand’. By 1965, as Knowles notes, its early sawdust trail approach was giving way to a church planting approach, but by then the effectiveness of the approach had been demonstrated, causing a resurgence of similar activities in other Pentecostal traditions. No doubt, given the latter rain movement’s role as a renewer of renewal, the resultant culture shift in the Assemblies of God under Frank Houston was gratifying to Ray Jackson and others. Jackson’s home church in Seattle had been founded by Salvation Army people who had been renewed in Pentecostalism, and now half-a-century later, former Salvationist Houston would take it into the largest Pentecostal movement in New Zealand. In part, the issue was one of cultural identity: ‘the Assemblies were in the hands of British pastors, stiff and formal as could be.’ The younger pastors on the other hand wanted something that was their own, and were attracted both to the idea of ‘indigeneity’ and power distinct from tradition. While Houston and Ray Bloomfield began revivalist meetings among rural Maori at Waiomio, near Kawakawa in Northland in 1955-1956, it was the broader impact of New Life Churches which helped make Houston’s ‘new model’ acceptable to a fairly traditional AOG culture. As the early indigenous church revivals overlapped significantly with the work of the ‘National Revival Crusades’ in which Leo Harris and his family participated, the foundation of the CRC movement in South Australia was another way in which latter rain influence seeped back into Australia. Moreover, Wheeler’s short but impacting campaign in Queensland in 1960 impacted four students at Commonwealth Bible College in Brisbane in a way they did not easily forget: Andrew Evans, David Cartledge and Philip Hills would go on to have a substantial impact on the Assemblies of God in Australia. For them, Wheeler was a representative of the trend they already admired in the ministry of Oral Roberts. Not surprisingly, the church based ‘bible college’ – part of the ecclesiological reorientation which took place under David Cartledge and Andrew Evans - became a major contributor to church growth in Australia in ways which had escaped more centralized institutions in previous years.

To some degree, the choice of itinerant ministry was forced by the lack of access to broader means of communication. The emergence of the latter rain churches coincided with the postwar breakup of traditional relationships between mainline churches and the state, and so in a sense the emergence of Wheeler and others in the New Zealand secular and religious media is a marker of the progress of de-instutionalisation. As Knowles points out, radio in New Zealand largely remained closed to the latter rain churches until at least 1967, forcing them to seek alternative media. Most leaders published their own newsletters and papers – Wheeler’s emerging under the name ‘Bible Deliverance’ between April 1959 and March 1966.

In 1961 the National Revival Crusade Convention run by Rob and Beryl Wheeler became a site for conflict, and later that year the indigenous church pastors found themselves rejected by the Pentecostal pastorate in Christchurch. Wheeler, clearly fed up by AOG traditionalism and denominationalism, took on a more combative stance resulting in growth – through outright opposition to the larger Assemblies of God movement in particular – in both South Island and in the North. ‘We'd go into a town and (I say this with shame now) we'd pitch the tent right opposite the Assembly of God and preach “Come Out.''’ [Wilkinson] Wheeler observed that as a result of this, ‘at one stage, between Ron Coady and myself, we were opening a new church every two weeks.’ [Knowles] A series of national conferences saw the gradual emergence of a new denomination, which combined Wheeler's Bible Deliverance magazine with Ray Necklen's Church Bells in June 1966 to form a new national journal.

From 1964, Wheeler became pastor of the Auckland Christian Fellowship in Epsom. It was a good time, the Charismatic movement and the advance of the New Life Churches feeding into the church’s growth. In August 1964, Wheeler participated with Trevor Chandler and Frank Houston in a Massey University Conference, which became a foundation stone for the rising charismatic movement in the mainstream churches. Wheeler shared his testimony of how he had been baptised in the Holy Spirit. It was the beginning of a flow of people from traditional churches into the rising Pentecostal churches – a movement which Wheeler’s church also enjoyed.

By this time, Wheeler was having to hold in tension the interdenominational thrust of his revivalism and the charismatic movement, and the increasing organization and (partly rejection driven) need for identity among the latter rain network. More fundamentally, as his work grew he had to reconsider the legalism of his earlier convictions. In 1958 he was running a campaign when someone told him that a Mr Alf Gracie had asked for Wheeler to visit him in hospital. He did so, which led to Gracie being healed and restored. “That changed my ideas on ‘ the unpardonable sin'’ drastically.” [Wilkinson] Likewise, his softening towards the charismatic outpouring saw him grow in ecumenical understanding. The latter rain churches generally felt with Wheeler, that ‘you cannot place new wine in old bottles. That is, you cannot keep the outpouring of the Holy Spirit within the confines of Historic religion’, and that the result would be a ‘coming out’ of people to more renewed circumstances. Eventually, however, under constant pressure from Peter Morrow and the obvious delay of the parousia, Wheeler and others began to recognize that better relationships with the historical churches was a necessity. Wheeler would say, ‘I remember Peter rebuking the lot of us - we were becoming a cult of our own - and we always said `Peter, you're too "wide"!' But a couple of years later, we appraised the situation, and he did the right thing.’ [quoted in Knowles] This would be the beginning of a more open position which saw increasing cooperative action.

One of the first evidences of this was among the revival churches themselves. 1965 saw the first instance of united action on a national scale with the advertising campaign known as "Operation Gideon." This helped to foster a sense of corporate identity, and by 1967 some sections of the movement (particularly those associated with Rob Wheeler) had adopted the title "Indigenous Full Gospel Assemblies of New Zealand" as a collective label for the movement.

In 1972, Wheeler and his churches joined in the Jesus marches, which represented a conservative Christian "grass-roots" reaction to the increasing liberalization of moral standards in the 1960s. Following this, and fuelled by the experiential commonality of the Baptism in the Spirit, there was a proliferation of cross-denominational lobbying groups such as the Concerned Parents Association. David Arrowsmith, for example, summarises the issues of 1975 into four "debates," i.e. those on church schools, homosexual law reform, the role of women, and the "Clergy for Rowling" controversy. Through the 1970s, the charismatic churches began to establish institutions aimed at establishing a base to realize their dominion theology working out in the transformation of the nation. A foundation of this was the 1973 Snell’s Beach conference which resulted in the formation of a national Pentecostal ministers fraternal (the Associated Pentecostal Churches of New Zealand). It was a realization of the latter rain emphases on ecumenism and antidenominationalism. Increasingly, Wheeler and others worked to form ‘city elderships’ where the leaders of a city’s key churches would cooperate on a range of issues of mutual concern. In 1978, Wheeler was elected to chair the meetings of senior ministers to the nation, something he continued to do for some years. As this consolidated, the churches supported attempts at national transformation based on models seemingly gaining ground in the USA. With the backing of his church, in 1977 Wheeler founded Hebron Christian College on the ACE system, with Claude Warner as principal. The school celebrated its Silver Jubilee on 27th March 2004 . The school had the usual issues with state authorities, having to demonstrate its ability to sustain education before the Auckland City Council would lift its permissible student intake size (or ‘roll limit’). The school integrated its senior school activities with the Church’s interest in missions, taking Bible and Evangelism students on mission trips to the Philippines. National transformation went as far as politics, with Rob standing (unsuccessfully) for the seat of Mount Albert in the NZ general election of 1987.

As his active pastoral ministry came to an end, Rob and Beryl Wheeler were widely respected throughout the Pentecostal Churches in New Zealand and abroad. As early as 1987, Rob, long one of the apostolic leaders of the New Life Churches, had the title confirmed at the national New Life conference. While there was division over the implied ecclesiology, it recognized the radical impact that Wheeler had had on Pentecostalism in New Zealand and its region.

Sources:

Wheeler, Rob, An Interview With Jerry Wilkinson, July 21, 1980

Guy, Laurie, 'One of a Kind? The Auckland Ministry of A. H. Dallimore', Australasian Pentecostal Studies, 1 July 2004.

Knowles, B., ‘History of the New Life Churches in New Zealand’, Otago PhD, 2003.

Rudman, Brian. "For God and National." N.Z. Listener 115, no. 2457 (28 March) (1987): 28-29.

By Rob Wheeler:

Overcomer: the Bible formula for being in the glorious church as seen from the seven churches of the book of Revelation , Great Barrier Island, N.Z. : Orama Christian Fellowship Trust, 1980

Wisdom: as pictured by the ant, the coney, the locust, the spider, with two parables from the lips of Jesus , Great Barrier Island, N.Z.: Orama Christian Fellowship Trust, 1979