Evangelicalism in the 1940s and 1950s

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For the month of November, the Banner of Truth has graciously allowed our readers a free download of The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church by David Wells. This was a prophetic address to the National Association of Evangelicals that holds great pertinence for Christians today.

Fundamentalism, as a movement, began to germinate within Protestantism by the end of the nineteenth century, seeking to reclaim the ground lost to theological liberalism. By the 1920s fundamentalism was in full bloom. It resulted not in the reclamation of denominations plagued by doctrinal heterodoxy but their fragmentation over the fundamentals and other lesser important theological issues. Younger men who had been raised in the stagnating air of fundamentalism wished for a different approach to engaging the urgent doctrinal issues of the today.

J. Elwin Wright (1890–1973) was a leader who organized these efforts to seek a new approach to theological engagement. Educated at Nyack in 1921, Wright had formed the New England Fellowship in 1929. On April 7–9, 1942, Wright and 146 other leaders (among them staunch fundamentalists like Bob Jones Sr., John R. Rice, and Charles Woodbridge) met together for a meeting called United Action among Evangelicals. This meeting served the purpose of coming up with a collaborative approach to evangelical engagement to resist the strong fundamentalist separatism then dividing fellowships. Drawing the lines of what was to come, the hardline fundamentalists abandoned the effort while other evangelicals favored the approach.

Harold John Ockenga (1905–1985), pastor of Park Street Church of Boston, was elected president. The organization became the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). It rejected a strong appeal from Carl McIntire’s American Council of Christian Churches that had adopted a stark separatist platform just over six months earlier. The goal of the NAE would be “cooperation without compromise.”

In 1944, the NAE formed the National Association of Religious Broadcasters (NRB) as a united effort to resist the hegemony created in the new field of religious broadcasting after the Federal Council of Churches pressured American broadcast companies like CBS and NBC to remove evangelical broadcasters from their airwaves because of their perceived lack of accountability to denominational structures. Among the early leaders in the NRB was Charles E. Fuller, a radio evangelist of Pasadena, CA. His very influential Old Fashioned Revival Hour would eventually be carried on more than 650 stations across the country. The philosophy of cooperation without compromise continued apace in the broad evangelical world and eventually saw Pentecostal groups added to the NAE family when the Assemblies of God was admitted to membership in 1943.[1]

1. If one wonders how and where Pentecostals began to find a place among evangelicals, it begins here. See Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, 209–11.

At least four issues drove the new evangelical coalition—unity vs. separation, social action, scholarly engagement, and evangelism. The new evangelicalism, as the movement would come to be called, argued that fundamentalism in each of these areas hindered the Christian witness of the churches over its narrow views. Several period books contained the language of the New Evangelicalism, as their works explicated the basis of the effort.[2]

2. Edward J Carnell, The Case for Orthodoxy Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959) and Ronald H. Nash, The New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963)

Among the cadre of young fundamentalists who wished for a different identity were men like Harold Ockenga (1905–1985), Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003), and Edward John Carnell (1919–1967). Henry, a newspaper man by early vocation, eventually became an ordained Baptist minister and participated in the formation of the NAE. He embraced the ethos of the NAE, writing his most famous work The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) that rejected both the liberal approach to social action and the strident fundamentalist approach. Earning a Ph.D. in 1949 from Boston University, he and Ockenga had become fast friends.

A third member of this important evangelical triumvirate was Edward John Carnell, also an ordained Baptist minister, who along with Ockenga and Henry, taught at the newly formed Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Fuller was formally founded in 1947 with the financial backing of Fuller and Ockenga. The latter became the school’s first president, even as he remained the pastor of the influential Park Street Church. All three men had serious Ph.Ds; Henry and Carnell both had doctorates from Boston University, while Ockenga had a degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Founding faculty members includes Wilbur M. Smith (1894–1976) who taught apologetics, Harold Lindsell (1913–1998) who taught missions and church history, and Everett F. Harrison (1902–1999) who taught New Testament.

As the 1940s were coming to an end, a rising Youth for Christ evangelist, William Franklin Graham, Jr. (1918–2018) was garnering national attention. Thanks to media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s instructions to “Puff Graham,” Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaign in Los Angeles ignited his multi-generational ministry. Indeed, the eight weeks Graham preached in Los Angeles became a turning point in his career, and he became a national and later an international religious figure. Graham would subsequently appear of the covers of national magazines like Time and Newsweek. Graham’s father-in-law was L. Nelson Bell (1894–1973), a former medical missionary to China. Bell helped to guide his son-in-law and exerted his influence over Billy, particularly in 1956, a banner year for the new evangelicalism.

By the early 1950s, Graham was inviting liberal Protestants to serve on his evangelistic platforms which raised the issue of cooperative evangelism. Subsequently, Graham would send convert referrals to all the cooperating churches, including liberal ones. The new evangelical approach began to divide hard core fundamentalists from the new evangelicals, a split that reinforced the earlier divide caused by the NAE. In 1956, Graham resigned his board membership on the fundamentalist paper The Sword of the Lord, edited by Rice. Graham defended his methods in an essay in Christian Life.

In the same pivotal year, Henry, Bell, and Graham collaborated together to found a new periodical that would stand against the liberalism of the Christian Century, while at the same time exemplifying and reinforcing the softer, less confrontational approach of neo-evangelicalism’s theological engagement. Christianity Today began as a bi-monthly magazine. Henry served as its first editor, Bell as the executive editor, and Ockenga became chairman of the board for its first quarter century. Funding for the periodical came from Harold Pew of Sun Oil and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Also in 1956, Vernon Grounds of Denver Seminary published an essay in the February issue Eternity, entitled “The Nature of Evangelicalism.” This was followed by an essay in Christian Life in March, “Is Evangelical Theology Changing” which listed eight areas modification.

  1. “A friendly attitude toward science”
  2. “A willingness to reexamine beliefs concerning the work of the Holy Spirit”
  3. “A shift away from so-called extreme dispensationalism”
  4. “An increased emphasis on scholarship”
  5. “A more definite recognition of social responsibility”
  6. “A re-opening of the subject of biblical inspiration”
  7. “A more tolerant attitude to varying views of eschatology”
  8. “A growing willingness of evangelical theologians to converse with liberal theologians”

One evidence of the change came in 1955, when Bernard Ramm published The Christian View of Science and Scripture showing a sympathy with organic evolution. Changes were also evident at Fuller in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some new evangelicals became enamored with neo- orthodoxy and especially with opening the inerrancy debate. Daniel P. Fuller, son of Charles, became dean at Fuller in 1963. He was progressive, and along with others he began to question whether inerrancy ought be a litmus test for orthodoxy. David Hubbard eventually became president and inerrancy was removed as a test of orthodoxy.

As we reflect on the Christian landscape of the 1940s and 1950s, two brief lessons are apparent. First, the broader the coalition, the greater the doctrinal compromise. Billy Graham was able to reach more people, but only at the cost of partnering with liberal churches and Roman Catholics. Christian unity is good—but only to the point where the core of a movement becomes so watered down as to lose its potency. Second, the evangelistic desire to appeal to the world can result in becoming indistinguishable from the world. A new Evangelicalism shed its conservative fundamentalist roots in part to become less separatist and a greater witness to society. While many resulting institutions faithfully carried the gospel torch for a time, many of those institutions drifted so far away from their roots that they become something else entirely today. A Christian desire to win over the secular world is good—up until that desire transforms the “Christian” to “secular” from one degree of compromise to another.

“Wisdom is justified by all her children,” and folly is likewise clearly seen by what she eventually produces (Luke 7:35). The decisions of evangelical leaders seventy and eighty years ago can be more accurately judged today by the current trajectory of the institutions and movements they led. As Christians in our present time face many of the same questions regarding unity without compromise and cultural engagement without assimilation, we need the Lord’s help to pursue a resilient faithfulness to his word—even if this wisdom is not clearly recognized until decades later.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Jeff Straub

    Jeff Straub is an independent scholar. He has taught at institutes, colleges, and seminaries in the US, Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, India, Canada, Kenya, Zambia and Asia for more than twenty years . He has been a pastor and a church planter in Canada, and was a minister among the Ojibwe Indians in Manitoba. His articles have been published in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and the American Baptist Quarterly as well as in Frontline Magazine and the Baptist Bulletin. He is a member of Berean Baptist Church in Brooklyn Center, MN.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub is an independent scholar. He has taught at institutes, colleges, and seminaries in the US, Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, India, Canada, Kenya, Zambia and Asia for more than twenty years . He has been a pastor and a church planter in Canada, and was a minister among the Ojibwe Indians in Manitoba. His articles have been published in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and the American Baptist Quarterly as well as in Frontline Magazine and the Baptist Bulletin. He is a member of Berean Baptist Church in Brooklyn Center, MN.