Child Evangelism Fellowship was founded in 1937 by Reverend Jesse Irvin Overholtzer who was born on July 20, 1877. The organisation was established out of a deep conviction of the founder that children are lost and are in need of the Saviour, Jesus Christ. His own childhood experiences strengthened his conviction.
Prior to his conversion Jesse had realised his own sinfulness and guilt before God. From the age of 4 he sought to find answers to the many questions which were bothering him. Unfortunately, the usual answer he had was: ‘’you aren’t old enough to understand.’’
At age 12, he had become so much convicted of sin that he longed to be right with God. Jesse writes, ‘’ Everyday conviction of sin became greater… I lost interest in play. I would lie awake at night thinking of how bad I was. I even lost appetite! What should I do? What could I do?’’
One day, thinking that church membership was synonymous with salvation, he blurted out to his mother, ‘’I want to join the church.’’ But all that his mother could say was, ‘’Son you are too young.’’ Dissatisfied and discouraged, Jesse gave up hope being of saved, and for the 8 years that followed he resorted to a life of rebellion, waywardness and sinful living.
In 1897, whilst in college, he received Jesus as Lord and Saviour. He later became a pastor and it was during that time that he made a discovery – an experience that was change the course of his entire lifetime. It happened this way:
One day, as Reverend Overholtzer read through one of the 24 volumes of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons, he came across a statement that jolted him. In the sermon the preacher had stated:
A child of five, if properly instructed, can as readily believe and be regenerated as anyone.A child of five, if properly instructed, can as readily believe and be regenerated as anyone.
‘’Spurgeon is wrong,’’ Overholtzer told himself. Strangely, he could not put the statement off him mind. It haunted him for many days until he decided to put it to a test. So one day, when he had the opportunity, he shared the gospel (as simply as he can) with a nine-year old boy. To his surprise, the boy received Christ as saviour. This was soon followed by Ruby, a 10-year old girl. Within a short time Mr Overholtzer had led 21 children to Christ. But not convinced of the genuineness of their profession he asked each of them not to tell anyone. Something happened later, however, that settled the issue once and for all.
Among the children he had secretly witnessed to were two sisters aged 9 and 11. For nine years Mr O had tried and failed to win the mother of the two girls to Christ. Sometime after the children’s conversion, the woman attended an evangelistic meeting organised by Mr O and other pastors. On the first day, during the invitation, she stepped forward to accept Christ as saviour.
Curious to know why she came to accept Christ, Rev. Overholtzer accosted the lady. Her reply was, ‘’ I came because of the changed lives of my two girls.’’
‘’ If little girls, dealt with in secret and even forbidden to publicly confess Christ, could give evidence of salvation, then child evangelism is real… Spurgeon was right.’’
This happened in 1916. Now fully convinced Jesse Irvin Overholtzer devoted himself more and more to child evangelism. By 1918, he had given up his ordination credentials and relocated to Berkeley, California to begin fulltime child evangelism work.
Inspired by D. L. Moody’s statement that, “It is better to train ten men to do the work than to do the work of ten men,” Mr O started teacher training classes to equip them to teach children in Home Bible Classes. As time went on and encouraged by the overwhelming number of child conversions, he founded the Christian Teachers Association (the forerunner of Child Evangelism Fellowship) on Mach 23, 1922.
From 1933 Mr O moved eastwards, starting with Chicago. On May 20, 1937, having visited and established local works in many cities, Child Evangelism Fellowship was incorporated in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
In March, 1939 Mr O went to Mexico to organise CEF work there. He continued to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica before returning in May.
By the time Mr Overholtzer died in 1955, CEF had been established in over 1,000 US cities and 60 other countries. Today CEF is working in 205 out of the 207 countries of the world.
In Ghana, CEF work was started by Miss Beryl Christian, a Jamaican missionary. She arrived in the country in December, 1970 and started work in January, 1971.