Evangelicalism in the 1960s and 70s was marked by multiple events and movements as diverse as they were impactful. These were the years of the Billy Graham crusades, the Jesus movement, the rise of ecumenism, Christianity Today magazine, and the emerging influence of Francis Schaeffer with L’Abri and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel. In these years Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was begun (1963) with promising influence. It was the hey-day of dispensational eschatology—the Scofield Reference Bible sold millions, and Dallas Theological Seminary held a leading voice.
Theologically, Arminian theology reigned, but there was also the enormous popularity (and remarkable influence) of the writings of Calvinist A. W. Pink and the growing influence of The Banner of Truth Trust, with its landmark effort to promote historic Reformed theology. Similarly, there was the rise of evangelical feminism and a clamoring to acknowledge errors in Scripture, particularly with reference to creation. On the other hand there was the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI, 1978), the rise of Young Earth Creationism, and even the peak years of Baptist fundamentalism. It was a time of proliferation of new Bible translations, challenging the previously unquestioned place of the Authorized (King James) Version, but these years also saw the rising influence of Peter Ruckman and King James Onlyism.
More broadly in society, these were the years of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war, culture wars, riots, and of course Roe v. Wade. Traditional mores were embattled on all sides. And the church did not escape the challenge of this social unrest. Evangelicals were too slow to live up to their faith with regard to racial issues, and it took a societal push to bring about serious thinking on this level. But otherwise, particularly in terms of the sexual revolution and abortion, the faithful found themselves on the outside of a previously “Christian-esque” culture and having to raise a standard against it.
And yet the 1960s and 1970s also saw an increased influence of evangelicals on the national scene, as witnessed, for example, by the rise of the Moral Majority. Time magazine identified 1976 as “the year of the evangelical,” and “born again” came to describe everything from a presidential candidate (Jimmy Carter) to a revamped automobile manufacturer (Datsun-Nissan).
Learning from the Past
What shall we say about those years? All these examples that I have mentioned had their lasting impact—some good, some not so good. The lessons are many, too many for a brief article. But with even a brief glance back some observations stand out.
1. Despite some of history’s attempts to unite the two, the world has never been the church. Recent centuries in the West, and in America in particular, have witnessed a general Christian consensus in society and a culture that was much friendlier to the church than most in history. But over many decades this has been eroding, and the 1960s were a notable flashpoint. We have been driven increasingly to recognize the meaning and responsibility of a “Christian counter-culture.”
The sexual revolution of the 1960s has today morphed into the LGBTQ+ agenda, which is far more egregious than what we saw then. The public and cultural pressure placed on the church has grown more severe also. Today, we must address what the church had to address in the 1960s but now with greater urgency and resolve. Indeed, on LGBTQ+ issues the church has in the eyes of our current culture lost the moral high ground—it is now deemed immoral to oppose such things as homosexuality. And in the wake of it all we find professed evangelicals caving to such a point that the Christian counter-culture is being erased. The words of the Lord Jesus to Sardis are as relevant as ever: it is those who keep their garments unsoiled who will be counted worthy to walk with him in white (Rev. 3:4).
2. We might think also in terms of evangelical scholarship. There were giants in those days, to be sure. But compared to today their numbers were not strong. One anecdote will have to suffice here. A now-retired Old Testament scholar remarked to me that in his day he sensed the need for more evangelical (particularly Old Testament) scholars who were deeply informed and committed to the authority of Scripture. So he said he began to pray that God would raise up many. Surely, no one today could dispute that God has answered such prayers in a big way. In every field from Old Testament to Systematic Theology, the number of giants laboring on the side of the angels has increased exponentially. The number of pastor-theologians has multiplied also.
What was it that God used to bring about this rise of faithful biblical scholarship? Certainly ICBI had an outstanding role. The burgeoning of Reformed theology had a role also. Faithfulness on both of these fronts, and doubtless more, has borne obvious fruit. It is 2 Timothy 2:2 in action. We might learn from them to think more in terms of our impact on the next generation.
3. On a more negative side, the generally shallow nature of the Jesus movement brought about a massive impact on the songs we sing in our corporate worship. Whatever else we might say about the music produced in this period, it was not marked by the deep theological reflection of the church’s historic hymns. What does it say about the church of the 1960s and 1970s that we gravitated to songs that were of comparatively little substance? Thankfully, recent years have seen significant improvement on this score, but the negative impact of those decades on Contemporary Christian Music remains massive.
4. It is at least curious that these years witnessed the dramatic increase of two contrasting movements. On the one hand there was the Billy Graham crusade and all it symbolized—evangelism, yes, but also a broadening ecumenism. But at the same time it was in these years that Baptist fundamentalism, from which Graham emerged, enjoyed their greatest strength.
The Graham crusades drew unprecedented crowds, and fundamentalist churches and institutions saw their highest attendance and enrollments. The success of both was due at least in part to their efforts in evangelism, but their outlook differed greatly. Indeed, fundamentalists then would not have taken the evangelical label. Billy Graham was mentored in some degree by fundamentalist Monroe Parker who pled with him to reconsider his new inclusive direction, but Graham was resolved to broaden his exposure.
By contrast, coming out of their denominational battles and splits of the 1920s–1950s, fundamentalists, having contended valiantly for the faith, had in many instances developed a stance that was unnecessarily pugilistic and overly exclusive. We may learn from them in a negative way on this score. Still, it would be difficult to deny that Graham’s ecumenical practice was so inclusive as to muddy the very gospel he sought to preach. We may learn from him in a negative way also.
This problem of course has continued. Neither Martyn Lloyd-Jones nor R. C. Sproul would have wanted the fundamentalist label. And surely it is not hyper-fundamentalistic on our part to acknowledge that in such matters as the Lloyd-Jones–Stott controversy regarding the Graham crusades, and in the Sproul–Packer difference over Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Lloyd-Jones and Sproul saw things better. Contending for the faith (Jude 3) must have meaning and application somewhere.
Moreover, despite the gospel confusion caused by Graham’s inclusive practices, he continued to preach a gospel message whether or not his Roman Catholic supporters agreed with it. He set the agenda and invited others to join him. By contrast, many in the evangelical church today are less focused on gospel evangelism than commonalities of cultural and social interest, even cultural accommodation, as we’ve already mentioned. The drift continues downward.
5. Finally, we would be mistaken if we did not learn from the church of those years to be more alert to our responsibility in evangelism. There was with them a particularly keen awareness of the need for conversion and the corresponding responsibility of believers to press the claims of Christ to those around them. We may rejoice today in “gospel-centeredness,” and well we should, but this gospel-centeredness ought to keep us focused on God’s purpose in this age to take that gospel to all.
Faithfulness Remains the Standard
It would not be wise to look back either nostalgically or overly critically to any period of the church’s history. But it is always helpful for us to reflect on our history and learn from the successes and the shortcomings of our forebears so that we may serve Christ more faithfully in our own day, and pass along to the next generation in its wholeness and purity “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”