Raising the Tabernacle

by David Ridley

The arched beams of the interior of the Maxwell Memorial Tabernacle at Three Hills are like those of another meeting place set in a prairie landscape- the hockey arena. The ambient noise in the "Tab," however, is not slapping sticks and the thud of pucks, but the rustling pages of marked and well-read bibles.

Here, those who come on Sundays for the pulpit message or arrive each autumn for the missions conference, have entered what might be called by anthropologists "rhetorical territory." There is a commonly shared and understood language that works as a centripetal force among those who gather.

For many Albertans, and others throughout Canada and around the world, the tabernacle at Prairie Bible Institute is a place where people hear the call to a particular vocation. It is here where the Great Commission in the Gospel of St. Matthew is preached, pondered and embraced: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

Words emblazoned on the Tabernacle's walls proclaim the evangelical vision of the gathered: Is there a soul who died, who died because of me, forever shut away from heaven and from Thee; because I tightly clutched my little earthly store nor sent Thy messengers unto some distant shore? The space serves as a tent of witness, where the worshippers present themselves to concentrate and sharpen the faculties, preparing to receive God's revelation.

Buildings speak and the Tab is no exception. Its interior is relatively unadorned. This austerity is generally the rule for meeting places linked to the evangelical renewal from the Great Awakening to the forums that shaped the Keswick movement. The functional simplicity and plainness speak of the concern for present use and stands in contrast to the "for all time" grandeur of cathedrals and temples. It affirms the pilgrim nature of God's people, that there is no permanent place here on earth and one awaits the heavenly city founded on God and illuminated for humankind in the birth, crucifixion, resurrection and anticipated second coming of Jesus.

There is not a bad seat in the house. The clear lines to the pulpit are surely a practical consideration, but it reinforces the teaching at PBI of the need for a personal and unmediated encounter between the believer and the Word, based on the Protestant ideal of solo scriptura.

In this age, most of us do not participate directly in construction of our homes, nor places where we gather and meet. The Tab is an oddity. Its very construction was an act of the community, a form of liturgy, public worship, resulting in a form in which to rekindle and refine the vision of the community.

The following excerpts and photographs recount this enactment, in the words of PBI's publication of the day, The Prairie Overcomer.

February 1953

The new Tabernacle... is becoming the talk of the campus, and it is a welcome subject to both students and visitors. The noble old [tabernacle] is due for retirement- ask the unfortunates in the balcony who crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the speaker. We have all shivered at times, for the present tabernacle is not built to facilitate proper heating. So we are happy about the prospects of a new building and would appreciate your praying with us about it.


Size- 180 feet by 100 feet
Seating- Some 3,200- without balconies

Service- To world missions- till He comes
To student-- year round;
To crowds- each Conference
April 1953

By Furnishing a Rafter
Special rafters built "according to plan" for our new tabernacle cost about $1,200 each.

Estimated Construction Cost this Summer:
$75, 000

August 1953

BUILDING... is still hampered by frequent heavy rains, and by non-arrival of the trusses for the Tabernacle roof. With the arrival of the pillars, the walls are going up steadily. If the roof cannot be put on, we shall have to wear hats during the services in the winter!

September 1953

BUILDING... no need for hats after all. The new tabernacle is now fully roofed over. We praise God that the 11 arches were raised and set in place without accident. Each unit, when fully assembled, weighs three tons. Now the men are busy completing the work, seeking to have the tabernacle usable by the time school starts, but from now on crews will be depleted with men taking holidays in rotation...


The first Sunday services were held in our new tabernacle on October 11. On the 25th we held a preliminary dedication service, in the course of which Mr. Sanford Hanson, as head of the building department, gave this report:

With mixed feelings we saw the old tabernacle collapse to the ground this spring, in a helpless and hopeless pile of old lumber and rubble- thus signifying its days of usefulness had forever come to an end. It illustrated in a new way to us that we too must some day put off this old tabernacle, as Peter mentioned in his epistle.

Many and precious had been the sights its crude rafters and unfinished walls had witnessed, sights which the angels rejoiced to see. We could but turn from the dismal scene with a lump in our throat for the passing of this old soul trap.

On the other hand, we faced the future with expectation of a bigger and better building. No longer were we to be plagued with the need of playing peekaboo around defiant posts, or craning weary necks in hope of catching a glimpse of the preacher- not to mention the bliss of forever forgetting stuffy balconies and drafty windows. All these deficiencies, our blueprints declared, would be forever done away with. Hence with hope and vision we began the tremendous task of building that which we are now enjoying and dedicating to God's glory today.

Almost from the beginning we were beset by most inclement weather. Our insurmountable task (faced by a mere handful of men) became more hopeless, it seemed, as the weeks went by, until we felt like Paul in II Corinthians 4:8: "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair"- though I am not so sure about the despair part! The job was so big, the crew so small, the weather so terrible, and time so limited. God, however, was with us through it all; and by means of winch truck and tractor, wading boots, a dugout to drain off the water, and willing hands, we were able to pour the foundation and erect the walls in readiness for the rafters, which in God's mercy arrived almost at the hour they were needed. From that time on everything seemed in our favour and we went forward at full speed. Hence, by God's grace, we were able to complete it to its present day condition. However, there is still much to be done as you can readily see.

Here are some approximate figures of material used in the building which might be of interest to you:

Lumber .......................... 233,000 board feet
Cement ....................................... 2,800 bags
Gravel and rock ........... 180 large truck loads
Roofing ........................................... 200 rolls
Asphalt ......................................... 35 barrels
Siding .............................. 25,000 board feet
Nails .................................................. Plenty!
COST .................................. $60,000 approx.
To those who have helped us in this task we want to express our appreciation. This spring we could not say with Churchill: "Give us the tools and we will finish the job." We had the tools, but needed someone to handle them. Our thanks to you summer workers and friends who stayed to use them, and thanks to those who through praying and giving have made this building possible.

Psalm 84:2 says, "My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God." May this be our attitude as we worship God in this tabernacle until Jesus comes.

April 1954


The public and formal dedication of the PRAIRIE TABERNACLE, possibly the largest auditorium in Canada solely for religious use, will be held on Tuesday, April 13, beginning at 7:00 p.m. An hour's broadcast from 7:30 to 8:30 over CFCN, Calgary, will bring the service to many who cannot attend. The program will include a resume of the growth of the school from its beginning in a small farmhouse, a dedicatory message by Evangelist Jim Vaus, and special musical numbers; the service should be a ringing doxology of praise to the Lord. Surely to Him belongs all the praise for His doing the impossible here on the Prairies.