Walter Battle of North Central University meets Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Walter Battle’s unexpected journey to North Central

As part of our celebration of Black History Month and North Central University’s 90th Anniversary, this entry in our history blog series introduces readers to the story behind North Central’s first African-American student, Walter L. Battle ’50.

In 1946, Walter Battle of Clarksdale, Mississippi, drove his pastor, Bishop B.S. Lyles, to Minneapolis to visit the bishop’s son. A military veteran, Battle was himself interested in moving to Minneapolis.

Hart Reid Armstrong recounts the beginning of Battle’s North Central journey like this:

“Walter was praying to find a good Bible School, for he wanted to become a qualified and educated minister or a chaplain. He had just looked at a Vocational High School, located at 4th and Grant Streets, in Minneapolis. As he was standing in front of this Vocational School, he said aloud, ‘I wish I could find a Bible School. I don’t need a Vocational School.’ Then he told me, ‘It seems like the minute I said that I was suddenly standing at 9th and Elliot Street—twelve blocks away! I will never know how I got there.'”

‘Why not?’

Battle’s sister Thelma Battle Buckner is now 85 and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. She and Dwight Buckner, one of her sons, recently shared their recollections about their brother’s and uncle’s connection to North Central University. Thelma recalled what happened after Battle found himself standing in front of a large building with a sign that read, “North Central Bible Institute”:

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Battle moved to Minnesota with his wife, Willa Grant Battle, and on January 20, 1947, he enrolled in North Central’s three-year course and began his studies.

Dwight Buckner pointed out how unusual it was for a black man from Mississippi to enroll in a Minnesota Bible college. “Keep in mind, this is was before the civil rights movement or anything like that,” Dwight said. “And for a college to accept an African- American without any hesitation, had to be directed by God.”

Thriving in Minnesota

Battle was the eldest child in his family, the son of a pastor. Thelma recounted how their family learned of Walter’s experiences at school:

“He wrote letters back home all the time to my parents, and of course all of us read what he said because first of all, he’s our oldest brother and everybody looked up to him. And when you say, ‘Bible college,’ being born in a family where the father was a pastor and minister already, it just excited us. And he would tell us about his classes, all of his studies … we just enjoyed him telling us about his studies of the Bible. And every now and then, he’d run into something new in the Bible that my dad hadn’t taught him, that he had never learned before, and he’d express that and explained it to my dad in the letter. And boom! We had that. We felt like we were going to college with him because every time he got something new, he would share it with the family.”

Planting a church

While he was a senior, Battle felt the call of God to plant a church and enlisted the help of his North Central peers to do so. Thelma recalled that Walter said to the student body that God had told him to start a church, and he needed help. “Ten of those North Central students raised their hands and said, ‘We’ll go with you.'”

Gospel Temple Church of God in Christ began on the corner of Milton and Rondo in St. Paul, Minnesota. In two years, it outgrew that location, and they bought a former Mormon church that was for sale several blocks away. The same 10 North Central students stepped up again.

“What was amazing,” Thelma said, “was that when they got ready to buy the church, [Walter] again said, ‘I need some help. We’ve got to raise some money.'” Each one of those students donated a thousand dollars.

One of the students who helped start the church was Alberta Hershiser, just a freshman in the 1949–50 school year. Hershiser stayed as the church grew and became a missionary for the St. Paul congregation’s mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she spent most of her life following her graduation from North Central.

Church and community leader

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Dwight Buckner believes his uncle’s compassion for youth became a hallmark of Walter Battle’s ministry and formed him into a highly respected member of the community. “He always developed programs that would involve young people,” Dwight said. “We had a program called the Action Workshop … that would hire all the young kids in the neighborhood and all over the Twin Cities to keep them off the streets and give them something to do.”

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Battle’s compassion for youth was not just for those in his city. Between 1979 and 1981, there were a series of murders of African-American youth and adults in Atlanta that caused the community to be in a state of fear. Walter Battle went to Atlanta and invited 26 boys back to his church in St. Paul, and provided the opportunity for the boys to attend the church’s summer camp, away from the difficulties in their city.

As the Civil Rights movement grew in the 1960s and 1970s, Battle took his role as a leader in the church and community seriously. “Every time there was something that would happen,” Dwight recalled of his uncle, “he was the person out there to help calm the crowd down, and they always relied on Reverend Battle.” When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak at the University of Minnesota in 1967, Dr. King got in touch with Reverend Battle because of his work in the Twin Cities.

Ministry growth through churches and media

Several years after founding Gospel Temple, Battle was prompted by the Lord to start a second church in Minneapolis. Thelma said that he resisted the initial prompting, and it took Walter wrestling with God through a health crisis to make it happen. “When the Lord’s got something for you to do,” Thelma declared, “if it’s your purpose to get it done, trust me—He’s going to make you do it!”

Walter and Willa Battle started Grace Temple Deliverance Center, and Willa has served as the pastor for more than 60 years.

The Minneapolis church served as the site for Walter Battle’s radio program, Hour of Deliverance. Dwight recalls that Rev. Frank Lindquist and his wife, Irene, often attended the services where the recording was taking place.

The Hubbard Broadcasting Company offered Battle television airtime and for 25 years Battle was known by television audiences in the Twin Cities and around the country as the pastor of “Your Church of the Air.”

The legacy of ‘Why not?’

When Reverend Frank J. Lindquist died in October 1989. As plans for a memorial service unfolded, Walter Battle was invited to speak at the service. Battle was teaching at a conference in California at the time and paused to think about the disruption his departure would cause. In his book, Hart Armstrong shared, “Walter stopped a minute to think. He had promised to conduct meetings. How could he break his promise and cancel his appointment? But then he remembered, and he turned back to the phone and sent these words over the wires: ‘Why not?'”

In December of 1995, Walter Battle passed away at the age of 74. Last October, Gospel Temple celebrated 70 years and the ongoing legacy of Walter Battle, and hundreds who had been impacted by his ministry over the years came together to celebrate.

Upon his death, then Minnesota Congressman Bruce Vento entered a testimonial of Walter Battle’s contributions to the community and Minnesota into the Congressional Record.

Vento said, by way of introduction, “Mr. Speaker, I rise to celebrate a fellow Minnesotan, and a friend, who devoted his life to the children of the Twin Cities and the world, Rev. Walter L. Battle. Reverend Battle was the head of a proud family, most of whom I have come to know personally because of their positive activities in our St. Paul community, especially Bob Battle, who is a friend and civic activist. Reverend Battle’s interest and commitment to family extended to the greater neighborhood and community of St. Paul.”

In recalling the number of churches that were started by students of Walter Battle, the ministry in Haiti that includes 30 churches, a school, and a hospital, and the impact Battle had on his church members and the Twin Cities throughout the years, Thelma Battle Buckner believes that North Central played a key role. “We give credit back to North Central,” she said. “Had he not gotten prepared and educated at North Central, he would not have had the courage … to do this, to train these people.”

Dwight Buckner recalls many stories told by his uncle Walter, about the Lindquists and his experiences at North Central Bible Institute. But most of all, he recalls “that one [story] where Dr. Lindquist said, ‘Why not?'”

It was a response that changed everything for Walter L. Battle.

 

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Bibliography

Armstrong, H. R. (1993). Why Not? The life and ministry of Frank J. Lindquist. Wichita: Christian Communications, Inc.
Buckner, T. B., & Buckner, D. (2019, October 16). History Interview. (N. C. Zugschwert, Interviewer)
MSR News Online. (2018, November 9). Dr. Willa Grant Battle Celebrates 60 Years on the Pulpit. Retrieved from Spokesmen-Recorder: //spokesman-recorder.com/2018/11/09/dr-willa-grant-battle-celebrates-60-years-on-the-pulpit/
Vento, H. B. (1995, December 21). ST. PAUL, MN SAYS GOODBYE TO REV. WALTER BATTLE; Congressional Record Vol. 141, No. 206. Retrieved from Congressional Record: //www.congress.gov/congressional-record/1995/12/21/extensions-of-remarks-section/article/E2435-1

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