dial-a-prayer, dial-a-devotion, dial-a-sermon

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The modern craze for futuristic prefixes such as “i” (as in iPhone, iMovie, etc.) and “e” (as in e-mail, e-filing, eHarmony) goes back farther than you might think. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the church was wild about the prefix “dial-a.” As in: dial-a-prayer, dial-a-sermon, dial-a-devotion!

definition of dial-a-prayer, dial-a-sermon, dial-a-devotionBy the mid-1950s, telephone technology had made it possible for a person to dial a number and listen to a tape recording of a message. The setup was basically a phone line that was connected to an answering machine that played a cassette tape and hung up when the recording was done. The outgoing message could be up to a few minutes long, which made it a perfect method for sharing information in a completely automated way. The first dial-a-prayer systems were installed in churches in 1955, and it was an immediate fad. Across the country in tye late 1950s and early 1960s, hundreds of churches ponied up the cash for an additional phone line and set up an answering machine systems of their own to bring dial-a-prayer and dial-a-sermon to life. Some churches updatedthe message on the cassette tape daily or even multiple times a day, so that every time listeners called in, they would hear a different prayer or inspirational message.

(By the way, if you’ve heard of the similar-sounding “dial-a-joke” service, you might be surprised to learn that dial-a-prayer and dial-a-sermon predate dial-a-joke by over a decade! The first Dial-a-Joke service didn’t get started until 1971.)

It’s not altogether clear who was the first person to coin the term dial-a-prayer, or who was the first person to actually set up a dial-a-prayer telephone service. My research revealed no fewer than four pastors who set up dial-a-prayer services out of their churches in 1955 and 1956, making them the fore-runners of the dial-a-prayer craze. In 1955, Richard R. Schwambach set up dial-a-prayer at Bethel Temple in Evansville, IN. Also in 1955, Robert Youngs started dial-a-prayer at Hitchcock Memorial Church in Scarsdale, NY. I strongly suspect that it was Schwambach who started the first dial-a-prayer service in history, but I don’t know for sure. In 1956, John Sutherland Bonnell of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City started a dial-a-prayer service. And also in 1956, Richard E. Pritchard of Westminister Presbyterian Church in Madison, WI, also started dial-a-prayer at his church. These are just four pioneers of what was to become hundreds of dial-a-prayer hotlines in individual churches and organizations across the country.

Based on the earliest citations, dial-a-prayer came first, followed by dial-a-devotion and the other “dial-a” combinations. There was even dial-a-hymn, where you could listen to a recording of someone singing a hymn, as well as dial-a-sermon and its little sibling dial-a-sermonette. If you have ever asked yourselves what people did for fun before YouTube, now you know: they called “dial-a” services and listened to prayers and sermons over the phone!

Nowadays people rarely call a special hotline to hear a prayer. Christians are more likely to hit up YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or church websites if they want to get information, read prayers, listen to a sermon, and get other spiritual nutrition. But dial-a-prayer and the other “dial-a” terms are still part of Christianese, though they’re more of a historical part than a contemporary part.

Have you ever called dial-a-prayer? Do you think something like that could still be useful today?


dial-a-devotion n. An automated telephone system that plays a short prerecorded religious message or prayer for anyone who calls a certain phone number.
1956 The New Christian Advocate 1/1–7 70 : Wesley Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis, Minn., was called that many times when it placed in operation an automatic “Dial-a-devotion” service some months ago. 1957 Michigan Christian Advocate vol. 84 28 : Trinity Methodist Church, Owosso, has installed a Dial-a-Devotion in the church office which, although in operation only a short time, has met with tremendous interest and success in the community. The system works as a second private telephone line run into the office with an electronic secretary (a tape recording device) at the end…. Each day a one- minute devotional, scripture based meditation is changed from the office. 1961 The Christian 99/26 504 : It is often said that women monopolize the telephone, but I confess that I have now been on the telephone, day and night, 24 hours a day, for the past five years! I refer to “Dial a Devotion,” our religious-inspirational telephone service in Bloomington, Ill. 1963 Marty, Peerman Pen-Ultimates: Comment on the Folk Religions of America 50 : Call Dial-a-Devotion. Phone 743-0424. 1965 The Methodist Woman XXVI. 464 : They called the plan “dial-a-devotion.” Members of the society and other interested persons called Mrs. Stanley E. Hill, spiritual life secretary, between 9 and 10 a.m. When she responded, they answered by saying, “Dial-a-devotion.” Mrs. Hill then proceeded to read from the Bible. 1967 Time LXXXIX. iss. 1–8 66 : They have also been working hard to spread their fundamentalist interpretation of the Gospel. They have placed ads in the local paper announcing their services. A “dial-a-devotion” telephone number (322-9559), sponsored by the church. 1972 Milwaukee vol. 17 311 : By calling numbers listed for Dial-a-Prayer or Dial-a-Devotion, one can receive spiritual inspiration in the form of a taped sermonette. 1991 Hesselgrave Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally: An Introduction to Missionary Communication 565 : Anyone who has watched numerous lights go on signaling that callers on a number of telephone lines are simultaneously listening to a recorded Christian message will be impressed as to the potential of “dial-a-devotion” and similar approaches to telephone ministries. 1997 Mathis Surviving and Thriving in Today’s Ministry 40 : Dial-a-devotion ministry has been very effective in my ministry. All this ministry takes is a phone line (an easy-to-remember number helps), an answering machine, inexpensive tapes, and a willingness to spend a little time. You can read a v erse of Scripture, share a few thoughts, a pray for the person who is listening.
dial-a-hymn n. An automated telephone system that plays a short prerecorded hymn for anyone who calls a certain phone number.
1971 The Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) cclii : One of the most popular programmes on B.B.C. local radio is “Dial a Hymn” in the Leeds area. This has a very high rating; the listeners simply dial into a central point which is near the main square in Leeds. They virtually lean out of the window and ask the Salvation Army to play the hymn over the microphone. 1975 Senior Music and Musicians vol. 24 47 : Frank Pagden, producer of religious programmes, has a highly popular “Dial a Hymn” programme. 1987 Hodgins The Honorary Patron 83 : A list of emergency telephone numbers allowed for every possibility: Dial-a-prayer; Dial-a-sermon; Dial-a-hymn.
dial-a-prayer n. [possibly coined in 1955 by Rev. Richard R. Schwambach of Bethel Temple in Evansville, Indiana] An automated telephone system that plays a short prerecorded prayer for anyone who calls a certain phone number.
1955 Newsweek XXXVI. 23 : Robert W. Youngs, pastor of the wealthy and fashionable Hitchcock Memorial Church (Presbyterian) in Scarsdale, N.Y., … In New York the tabloid Daily News ran a story about Dr. Youngs under the headline: “Dial a Prayer.” 1956 Telephony CL. 21 : During the past seven months, telephone number SCarsdale 3-4567 has become a symbol of hope, courage and comfort to thousands of people in Scarsdale, N.Y., and in neighboring suburbs of New York City. Reason: The answer they get when they dial is a 56-second recorded prayer. In a small mullion-windowed room of the Hitchcock Memorial Church in Scarsdale, three telephone-answering devices click steadily away to deliver their streamlined yet inspirational messages…. Clergy and congregation of the 42-year-old Presbyterian church marvel at the amazing response to the “dial-a-prayer” idea. When two machines operated at full capacity, calls were coming in at the rate of 1,600 a day. 1956 Time (10 Dec.) 000 : A few nights ago I was in the throes of a terrific battle against the impulse to drink. For me, it was a life-and-death struggle. I had picked up and put away a card passed to me by a friend which contained your Dial-a-Prayer number. I called the number, and this is what I heard: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is perfected in weakness. When we admit our weakness and call upon God for help, his divine power flows into our lives and turns defeat into victory.” 1957 Telephony CLII. 37 : This Dial-a-Prayer service is obtained by dialing Circle 6-4200 and is in use around the clock. The system has brought floods of mail to the minister, the Rev. Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell, during the two years that it has been in service. 1958 Rowland Land in Search of God 71 : Another is the gadgetry, epitomized in the dial-a-prayer; you call a number and listen to a one-minute recorded prayer. 1958 The Am. Lutheran vols. 41–42 96 : St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, Pa. reports that during the first year of its “Dial-A-Prayer” service more than 300,000 telephone calls were received for a daily Scripture, comment and prayer. 1963 Daily Telegraph (U.K.) (6 Sep.) 23/5 : Britain’s first “Dial-a-prayer” system comes into operation on Birmingham’s subscriber trunk dialling telephones next Tuesday. 1965 U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains Hist. Rev. 30 : This Office encouraged post chaplains to investigate further the possibility of inaugurating “dial-a-prayer” programs at their installations. 1966 Tradition vols. 7–8 108 : A good symbol of our Age of Religion is the Dial-a-Prayer-Service where a person can dial an advertised telephone number and hear a recorded prayer, inspirational reading, or sermonette lasting about one-half to one minute, and presumably walk away refreshed and inspired by the spiritual message. 1975 The Wittenburg Door (Dec.–Jan. 1976) 32 : Great all American contributions to the church: … dial-a-prayer. 1976 Brooks Telephone: The First Hundred Years 257 : Around 1955, a number of churches—notably the Hitchcock Memorial Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, New York—began broadcasting brief recorded prayers continuously by telephone. 1977 The Wittenburg Door (Aug.–Sep.) 5 : With drive-in churches, Dial-a-Prayer, and offerings by mail, one need never come into contact with people again. 1981 Madison Mag. XXIII. 10 : And let’s not forget Dial-A-Prayer—it was Pritchard’s idea, too. He is best known, however, for leading pickets and purveying petitions. 1983 The Congregationalist vols. 143–146 83 : Do you know who founded the first Dial-a-Prayer in the U.S.? It was Rev. Richard E. Pritchard of Heritage Congregational Church in Madison, WI. Rev. Pritchard founded the prayer service in 1956 while he was minister of the Westminster Presbyterian Church. 1986 Oakley God’s Country: American in the Fifties 320 : And in 1956, the Rev. John Sutherland Bonnell of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York introduced Dial-A-Prayer, taking out an ad in The New York Times promising that “for a spiritual life in a busy day, Dial-A-Prayer. Circle 6-4200. One Minute of Inspiration in Prayer.” 1990 J. of the Senate of the State of Indiana I. 810 : Pastor Schwambach is an innovator, initiating Dial-A-Prayer in 1955 and Television Church of the Air in 1962, both of which are among the longest-running ministries of their type in the world. 2008 Greenberg, et al. Social Hist. of the United States 297 : The Reverend Richard R. Schwambach started the nation’s first Dial-a-Prayer line on Thanksgiving eve in Evansville, Indiana, in 1955…. A similar service was initiated in New York in 1956 by John Sutherland Bonnell of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
dial-a-sermon n. An automated telephone system that plays a short prerecorded sermon for anyone who calls a certain phone number.
1964 Christianity Today vol. 9 101 : The large metropolitan directories, as well as those in many smaller communities, list either Dial-A-Prayer, the Roman Catholic Dial-A-Saint, or variations like Dial-A-Sermon and Dial-A-Devotional. 1968 The Am. Legion Mag. vol. 84 16 : “Dial-a” listings in the Manhattan phone book, two are “Dial-a-prayer” and “Dial-a-sermon.” Call the number opposite either one and you will hear a prayer or a sermon. 1970 Science Digest vol. 68 44 : For the less-distraught, there are the proliferating number of Dial-a-Prayer, Dial-a-Meditation, Dial-a-Sermon and similar services that offer a canned message of hope. 1986 Baer Moonglow 180 : Tracy laughed. “Dan says I’m beginning to sound like ‘Dial-A-Sermon.’” 2006 Byrne The Pastor as Church Leader and Educator 16 : More formal ideas providing teaching situations include the following: Dial-a-sermon.
dial-a-sermonette n. An automated telephone system that plays a short prerecorded sermon for anyone who calls a certain phone number.
1969 Proceedings of the First International Congress of Medical Librarianship 12 : You were overwhelmed to learn that in Washington, D.C., you could: Dial-A-Devotion, Dial-A-Dietician, Dial-A-Movie, Dial-A-Prayer, Dial-A-Saint, Dial-A-Satellite, Dial-A-Sermonette. 1973 The Washingtonian 8/5 14 : Now you can save your soul right at home by calling Dial-A-Sermonette at 338-1240 and getting the good word.
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