Jesse Overholtzer and Child Evangelism

Dan Graves, MSL

Jesse Overholtzer and Child Evangelism

Twelve-year-old Jesse Overholtzer was uneasy. He sensed that things were not right in himself. He knew he had done things that were wrong, and he felt guilty. His mom and dad were both Christians. He would ask them how to clear up his distress.

He went and asked his mother but she replied, "Son, you are too young." And so Jesse grew up and went off to college without the peace that is found in Christ. At college he finally heard the gospel story in a way he could understand.

"At twenty years of age I came to Christ. I had been a great sinner, and while I knew but little of the plan of salvation, I knew that Christ alone was the Savior and that I was so sinful that anything I had done or could do could not count toward my salvation. I threw myself on God's mercy, in Christ, and instantly received peace. This happy experience was short-lived."

Jesse would live for many years as an unhappy Christian before he became clear-headed enough to begin the work for which he is remembered. In fact, he was sixty before he founded Child Evangelism Fellowship. The reasons, as he saw it, were failure, temptation and a wrong notion of how one lives the Christian life. "Soon temptation came and sometimes I yielded, never deliberately, but through weakness and not knowing how to obtain victory. These sins I confessed to God and sought His forgiveness, but gradually Satan tempted me to question whether a sinning Christian was still saved. I began doubting my salvation, for I was now looking to my conduct instead of to the merits of Christ. This grieved the Holy Spirit and I soon lost His witness, not to return for sixteen long weary years."

"How miserable I was! But instead of casting myself on God's mercy in Christ again I thought my conduct was not pure enough and that He was grieved because of that. Perhaps I was not obeying His commandments sufficiently well. Perhaps He wanted me to make greater sacrifice in Christian service. I became more and more strict in every way, hoping to get back my joy. I was now preaching a gospel of works. Few responded to my message and these gave but little evidence of being born again."

A biography of Moody, the testimony of a mentally deficient man and the life of a thirteen year old girl helped him see that salvation is God's free gift. We cannot earn it or keep it by our works. "Here another great problem arose. If I should accept this truth, I was now sure I would regain my lost blessing; but how could I face my people and tell them I had been teaching them error all the years? I was afraid my church would repudiate me [cast him off] and I would be cast adrift with a large family and little means and no friends." He made the decision to tell his congregation the truth. This led to a hearing before other pastors. He was allowed to keep his pastorate but eventually resigned.

When Jesse was sixty, he read a sermon by Charles Spurgeon which said, "A child of five, if properly instructed can as truly believe and be regenerated as an adult." Remembering how he had been put on hold as a child, he wanted something better for other children and that helped motivate him to found Child Evangelism Fellowship.

He wasn't a great speaker--his voice faltered in the pulpit--but in spite of that, he stirred thousands to join him in winning children to Christ. By his death on this day, October 6, 1955, Child Evangelism Fellowship was at work in sixty countries.


  1. Child Evangelism Fellowship.
  2. Letter from Child Evangelism Fellowship to this author, confirming the date of Jesse's death.
  3. Overholtzer, Jesse. "Salvation by Grace." Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1998. Volume 11:21.
  4. Phone conversation with Jane Martz, a local CEF director.
  5. Various internet articles.

Last updated June, 2007

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