Tag Archives: Billy Graham

The story of 20th-century evangelicalism–book note

The following appeared in Religious Studies Review a little while back:

The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. By Garth M. Rosell. Grand Rapids, MI, 2008. Pp. 268; plates. Paper, $19.99, ISBN 978-0-8010-3570-8.

To understand a past still so near that some of those involved are still alive, the best we may hope for is an “insider historian” who lived through the events, knew the players personally, and breathed in the mentalité—and also has the technical mastery and interpretive prudence to tell the story in a thorough, evenhanded way. In Garth Rosell, twentieth-century evangelicalism has just such a historian. His book narrates reliably and compellingly the emergence during the 1940s and 1950s of fundamentalism’s more irenic and culturally savvy child. Though this period has been discussed before in the context of Billy Graham’s life and ministry, this account draws also from a deep well of Ockenga material. From it, Rosell draws many insights on the ins, outs, and meanings of the evangelical movement in America. This is an insider account. It is marked by its author’s certainty that the growth of evangelicalism it describes was a good thing—that it was indeed “the surprising work of God.” It is also a model of critical history: meticulously researched, judiciously told, and gloriously footnoted. The generous bibliography only adds to its value for scholars and students of evangelicalism. An appropriate text for any course that deals with twentieth-century evangelicalism.

Chris R. Armstrong
Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN

Evangelicalism–a basic summary–part III

This is a continuation of this article and this article–all of which come from a talk I gave to a group of medical residents at a Twin Cities hospital. Portions of what follows are adapted from the essay on evangelicalism in the excellent Dictionary of American Christianity (Intervarsity Press). This part of the article sketches fundamentalism, the “neo-evangelical” movement of the 40s, and developments since then.

The Fundamentalist movement, 1920-1960

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, vast immigration of non-Evangelicals, including millions of Catholics and Jews, worked a demographic change, especially in America’s urban centers, where many of these immigrants settled. Political power, ethnic pluralism, industrial strength, media coverage, and liberal lifestyles were all concentrated in the cities.

Trends in scholarship and higher education also contributed to the social and intellectual dethronement of evangelicalism in America. The two chief trends here were the German historicist to biblical scholarship called “higher criticism” and Darwin’s naturalistic theory of evolution, that called into question God’s both designing providence and indeed the need for a personal, creating God at all. From interpreting their lives in Christian terms of creation, miracles, and new birth, millions of Americans began instead to see their place in the world in naturalistic terms of process, progress, and evolution.

This all came to a head famously in the clash between the old, rurally-concentrated evangelical order, and the new, urban secularized order at the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Here, battle lines were drawn over the teaching of evolution in America’s public schools. Continue reading

Billy Graham’s America–sneak peek of a new biography

Even better, check out this article on Billy Graham by my doctoral adviser at Duke University, Grant Wacker. Some day I hope to write as well as he does.

Evangelicalism’s decades of fire: the pivotal ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s

Few younger evangelicals today have much of a sense of the recent history of the movement. They know who Billy Graham is. They have a sense that there were big evangelical revivals in America and abroad in the 1700s and 1800s. They may even know a bit about Jonathan Edwards or John Wesley (probably the two best candidates for “founder” status). But the fact that the 50s, 60s, and 70s were decades of crucial growth and wide-ranging change in the movement has escaped them. After all, most were born after those decades, or as they were winding down. Well, back in ’02, a book came out that highlighted these “decades of fire” in evangelicalism, and I contributed a brief survey and review to www.christianhistory.net. Here it is:

Given the chance to survey evangelicalism’s growth and development through the twentieth century, Steve Rabey and Monte Unger did what any of us might have done. In preparing their new book, Milestones: 50 Events of the 20th Century that Shaped Evangelicals in America (Broadman and Holman), Rabey and Unger spent over 50 percent of their time looking at the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—over 40 percent in the latter two decades alone.

It seems clear from this book that the middle decades were, indeed, where the action was really at in 20th-century evangelicalism. From Billy Graham and the rise of mass evangelism in the 1950s to the ascension of evangelicals like Colson and Carter to political power in the 1970s, the movement again and again asserted itself—and reinvented itself—across many cultural arenas. Continue reading

“Tell Billy Graham: ‘The Jesus People love him.'” How evangelicalism’s senior statesman helped the hippies “tune in, turn on to God”

This is part II of the story of Billy Graham and the origins of Christian youth culture, first posted on Christianity Today’s website back in 2002.

Christian youth culture has become such a prominent, pervasive fixture on the American scene-witness the multi-million-dollar Christian contemporary music industry-that it may be hard to think of it as even having an origin. Yet, as we saw in last week’s newsletter, not only is the idea of a distinct, youthful way of “doing” Christianity now over half a century old, but it owes much to the energies and advocacy of the now-venerable Billy Graham.

Last week we caught a glimpse of Billy in the mid-1940s, with pastel suit and pomaded hair, delivering the gospel in between swing-band instrumentals and girl-trio numbers to crowds of bobby-soxed and zoot-suited teens. We also saw him as one of the central personalities and energetic promoters of the influential Youth for Christ organization.

This week we follow Graham into the late 1960s as, disguised in dark glasses, old clothes, ball cap, and a false beard, he joins with demonstrating youth at City University in New York. And as he sits with his wife, Ruth, at their family home in Montreat, listening intently to a collection of rock albums. And as (again disguised) he mingles and raps with the audience at a 1969 Miami rock concert, to the strains of the Grateful Dead and Santana. And as (undisguised) he takes that same stage, by invitation of the concert promoters, to tell the partying masses how to “get high without hang-ups and hangovers” on Jesus. Continue reading

Dig that Billy Graham Cat! How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era.

Since my Bethel Seminary presentation-service speech, posted recently, mentioned Billy Graham’s work with youth, I thought I’d post a bit more on that. What follows is the first of a pair of brief articles I posted to www.christianhistory.net back in 2002, when I was managing editor of Christian History & Biography. I need to note: everything I know about Billy Graham and youth culture I owe to Dr. Larry Eskridge. Here’s the first article:

Last Friday, the Church of England announced a new “national youth strategy.” This strategy, backed by a new fund, officially blesses “alternative forms of youth worship” in hopes of drawing back to Anglican churches some of the young people who are now staying away in droves. The church is now willing to sponsor such novel events as one cathedral’s “raves in the nave.” (Explains one online dictionary, a rave is “an all-night dance party, especially one where techno, house, or other electronically synthesized music is played.”)

In America, land of the open religious market, such efforts seem less surprising. Even an all-night dance party for the Lord would fail to raise many eyebrows in this country, where massive youth rallies focused around contemporary music have been standard methodology for more than a generation.

More eyebrow-raising, perhaps, is that the elder statesman of world evangelism, Billy Graham, played a part in creating this pop-culture style of youth ministry. Continue reading

Whose shoulders are you standing on?

I’ve been privileged to teach at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN since early in 2005. In January 2006, a “presentation service” was held to welcome me as a faculty member. As is the custom, I gave a talk. Here it is:

Standing before you today, I feel 1,000 feet tall.


Is it because of the joy and honor it is to teach these wonderful students and work with these wonderful colleagues? Well, this has certainly had me walking a little taller ever since I got here a year ago. But that’s not it.

No, I’m standing so tall today because I know . . . that I am standing on the shoulders of countless others who have come before me in the church. And I am reminded of this every day as I prepare to think, teach, write, counsel, and learn in this Bethel community.

I didn’t always know this. In fact, I’d guess that the majority of American Christians don’t really know it. Finding out about those whose shoulders I am standing on has been a long journey of discovery for me. Continue reading