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Photo Friday: Flannelgraph on the Mission Field

Pearl and Howard Wolgemuth stand in the center of a small display area. Pearl is holding a hand puppet shaped like a cat. Behind them are various images of Bible scenes as well as a flannelgraph board.
Pearl and Howard Wolgemuth show off the various visual aids they used to teach Sunday school classes while Brethren in Christ missionaries in the 1950s and 1960s — innovative techniques for the still-sectarian Brethren in Christ. (Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Generations of Evangelical Sunday school students — including, I suspect, many readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience — are familiar with flannelgraph. As one of many “visual aids” used to illustrate Bible stories for children, flannelgraph involves a board covered with flannel fabric (usually resting on an easel) to which teachers can stick flannel-backed cutouts of people, animals, and other characters.

Though today’s media-saturated Sunday school classes would probably laugh at this low-tech effort at student engagement, historian Randall Balmer points out flannelgraph’s enduring significance: ” Although the flannelgraph is by no means the sole property of evangelicals, the extent of its use by evangelicals provides an indication of the importance they attach to biblical literacy” (Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, Baylor University Press, 2004, p. 265).

Flannelgraph and other visual aids entered into the Brethren in Christ historical memory through one woman: long-time missionary Pearl (Brehm) Wolgemuth. Her innovative-for-its-time efforts are the subject of today’s Photo Friday post.

After the jump: How one Brethren in Christ missionary gained Evangelicals’ recognition for her use of a Sunday school teaching aid.

Pearl Brehm (later Wolgemuth) grew up in Ramona, Kansas; her family attended the Rosebank Brethren in Christ Church. In the 1920s she moved east to attend Messiah Academy (a high school program) and later Messiah Bible College in the 1930s. It was in Grantham that she eventually met her husband, Howard Wolgemuth.

While at Messiah, Pearl worked as a housemaid in several wealthy Harrisburg homes. During that time she also served at the Messiah Home on Bailey Street, in what is today the Allison Hill neighborhood. There, Pearl responded to the congregations’ concern for neighborhood children by leading several children’s meetings — her first venture into children’s ministry.

The Wolgemuths’ biographer, Leslie Book, tells more of the story:

Later [Pearl’s] love of ministering to children led her to the State Hospital for Crippled Children in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where for seven years she taught two classes each week, under the direction of Child Evangelism [Fellowship, an evangelical para-church organization focused on converting boys and girls to Christian faith]. Through this contact she was asked to participate in Child Evangelism county and state conventions, where she demonstrated object lessons that she had developed for children.

She was extremely nervous at one of these state conventions because the speaker immediately before her had talked about the clothing of plain people, which was how Pearl was dressed. But people soon forgot her appearance as she began demonstrating her object lessons. She had five loaves of bread, each representing a different lifestyle. One loaf was decorated with pink icing but was empty on the inside. This loaf stood for the life of pleasure. When she cut open the final loaf, representing the Word of God, a small Bible appeared. She also showed the crowd a gift box, a small wooden box that when opened became a cross. After the meeting, many people came forward to compliment her on her object lessons. Following this convention she was in demand as a speaker at children’s meetings, Sunday schools, and Bible clubs. Among the highlights of her work were presentations at the state Sunday school convention and at the National Sunday School Association conventions in Minneapolis and Indianapolis. [1]

Pearl’s expertise in visual aids also carried over into her work in the Brethren in Christ Church. When she and her husband became missionaries in a new Brethren in Christ work in Cuba in the 1950s, she carried her “visual aids” with her. Again, Book tells the story:

Pearl found her object lessons and visual aids useful in their ministry. Some of her favorite object lessons included the Bread of Life (described earlier), the Red Umbrella, the Gift Box, and the Lota Bowl. The Red Umbrella represented the blood of Jesus; without it one was subject to the storms of life. But when one was covered with the red umbrella — the blood of Jesus — there was protection. The Lota Bowl was a magic bowl that kept refilling itself, the lesson being that as one is filled with God’s Spirit, love flows out of one’s life. Eduardo Llanes and his sister Alba came forward at an invitation given after an object lesson in Portugalete, a sugar mill. Eduardo was later to have a leadership role in the church in Cuba, as well as in the later Brethren in Christ church-planting work in Miami, Florida. [He recently retired from full-time ministry, after being appointed a bishop in early 2000s.] [2]

John Yeatts, a long-time professor at Messiah College and now pastor at the Grantham Church, recalls Pearl’s use of another innovative technique for children: the “sword drill.”

The time is the late 1950s. The place is the children’s tabernacle at Memorial Holiness Camp in Ohio.

Pearl Wolgemuth is standing in front of a room of children, all with Bibles closed on their laps. She announces Romans 8:28. The children frantically open their Bibles and rustle through the pages until many of them jump triumphantly to their feet. Sister Wolgemuth tries to judge who has jumped first, sometimes giving the edge to a child who has not jumped first before. That child reads the verse aloud. If it is the correct verse, she adds one point to either the girls’ or the boys’ team, depending on the gender of that child. Then she says, “Bibles closed,” for the next round. She is careful not to call a passage like John 3:16 or Psalm 23:1, lest students jump and recite the passage without looking it up. Some of you will recognize this practice as a sword drill, where students learn the important skill of knowing the books of the Bible in their correct order. [3]

Both the visual aids and the sword drill techniques underscore an important element of Brethren in Christ theology and practice: biblical literacy. Both techniques provide instruction in this aspect of Christian spiritual formation — a key aspect of spiritual formation for the Brethren in Christ, given their historically high view of Scripture. Yet by transforming this crucial process into a fun game or attention-grabbing demonstration, leaders like Pearl Wolgemuth found a more “relevant” way to meet children’s spiritual needs.

Flannelgraph — which Pearl also eventually adopted as a visual aid — provided yet another avenue for early children’s ministry leaders like Pearl Wolgemuth to share the gospel with young people in an accessible format.

Pearl’s initiatives — both in the Brethren in Christ mission field and in the larger conservative Protestant world, as represented by her involvement in both Child Evangelism Fellowship and the National Sunday School Association convention — reflect the denomination’s increasing familiarity with (and acceptance of) Evangelicalism in the years before, during, and after World War II. Pearl was an early adopter of Evangelical ministry techniques — techniques that, as I have described in a number of other projects, transformed the way that the Brethren in Christ did ministry in the last half of the twentieth century.


[1] Leslie Book, “Howard and Pearl Wolgemuth and the Beginning of the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba and Nicaragua,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 17, no. 3 (December 1994), pp. 244-245.

[2] Book, p. 255.

[3] John R. Yeatts, “A Response to Biblical Illiteracy: The Importance of Preaching and Teaching the Bible,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 33, no. 1 (April 2010), p. 222.