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Charles Templeton: Religion's Super Salesman

This article on Charles Templeton appeared in the August, 1953 Edition of "American Magazine.  I have converted it with OCR so there may be some errors in the text below.  Because it is 51 years old, I believe this article is out of copyright.

Photo Caption: Before a service starts Chuck Templeton often gathers spiritual strength from listening to his wife play the organ.

Religion's Super Salesman

From across the Canadian border comes a handsome, athletic young evangelist with a brand-new look.   Replacing old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone with hard-hitting modern salesmanship, he not only converts his audiences, but keeps 'em converted!   His name is Chuck Templeton, and he's boosting church attendance wherever he goes.

by Edward Boyd

I've just seen the man who's giving religion a brand-new look. Dynamic, athletic, and handsome as a Hollywood actor, he's a young Canadian by the name of Charles B. Templeton who prefers to be called "Chuck." Passing up the old-style, hell-fire-and-damnation oratorical fireworks, he uses instead a persuasive, attractive sales approach that has set a new streamlined standard for evangelism. Apparently it not only converts the crowds but keeps them that way. Riding ever higher on the wave of religion sweeping the country, Chuck has been zooming church attendance wherever he appears.

The National Council of Churches, representing 35,000,000 Protestants in this country, has been so impressed with him that he has been named their one and only official evangelist. He's their standard bearer in an announced crusade to:

  • Exploit the current religious renaissance;
  • Eliminate the taint of commercialism, vaudeville, and overemotionalism often associated with wandering evangelists;
  • Restore the important business of soul-saving to the high place it enjoyed in the eras of such great practitioners as John Wesley and Dwight L. Moody.

This, obviously, is a man-sized task.

To it, Chuck brings man-sized assets. He wears a 17-inch collar and moves with the controlled grace of a football player, which, in fact, he once was. If you can imagine a combination of Rocky Marciano, Stewart Granger, and St. Paul, you will have a rough idea of his qualifications.

At the moment, he is preaching to people across the United States and Canada at the rate of about 1,500,000 a year, as well as to millions more on television. He converts an average of 150 people a night, and-what is something new in modern evangelism-figures of church attendance show they stay converted. He is being booked two years ahead, a situation that the biggest Broadway hit can't boast, and the demands for his services are ten times greater than can be met.

Observers who have closely followed his progress, moreover, say that he has not yet begun to hit his stride.

In a way, Templeton is a paradox. Unlike many evangelists, he works entirely within the framework of organized churches.

He has dispensed with such props as the "sawdust trail," the "mourners' bench," and other tricks from the old-time evangelist's repertory. In their place, he has substituted the quieter, more measured methods of modern salesmanship to convince his nightly prospects that religion is something they cannot afford to do without, any more than they can do without electricity, running water, or automobiles.

In selling this "super life-insurance policy," one of his most important assets has been-as it is with all salesmen-his own enthusiastic personality. Its impact on the cities he has visited in the last year and a half has been enormous. After a recent two-week stay in Evansville, Ind., for example, a count showed that Templeton had drawn a total attendance of 91,000 out of a population of 128,000.

On his last day in that city, incidentally, Templeton received an amusing tribute to his physical assets. A big-time sports promoter had been eying him for two weeks, and had noted with amazement the crowds which the 35-year-old evangelist had been drawing. The final Sunday, he sought out Mrs. Templeton. After inquiring her husband's weight (it's 206) and height (6 feet), he said that he'd been admiring the lithe way Chuck had been moving around the platform. Finally, he came to the point.

"Do you suppose," he asked, "that you could get the Reverend to stay over just one more day to do some wrestling? I could book him into the same auditorium, and we'd pack the house." Mrs. Templeton was too surprised to say anything for a moment, and the promoter added in a lower voice: "I'm sure you could use a little extra money."

Mrs. Templeton promised she would take the matter up with her husband. Like most of us, the Templetons could use a little extra money, but the offer was declined.

Though he used to be a football player as well as a sports cartoonist, Chuck is far more than a personality kid with more brawn than brains off on an evangelical kick. He is an articulate, intelligent ordained Presbyterian minister who abruptly stopped a successful church career for three years in order to attend Princeton University's theological seminary. The pause refreshed him, and gave him the boost to get into high gear. I've seen him deal effectively with searching questions hurled at him by persons of all denominations, from the most fundamental Baptists to the most sophisticated Episcopalians.

It was only recently that I learned of the role Chuck has been playing in the religious revival sweeping America. I first heard his name several years ago when he was still at Princeton. A young minister I know got into a discussion with me about evangelists. He said, "Watch out for a fellow called Chuck Templeton! He's going to be the outstanding evangelist of our time."

This seemed like an extravagant statement at the time, and I forgot all about it. Meanwhile, I watched the progress of such national figures as Billy Graham, the sensational young Southern revivalist, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, New York's Catholic cleric, whose conversions of famous people have made headlines.

It was not until several months ago that I again heard of Templeton. A newspaperman friend from Sydney, Nova Scotia, told me of an interesting thing that happened when "a fellow called Chuck Templeton" held a mission there a few weeks before. Although the population of Sydney is only 30,000, there were 10,000 people in the auditorium the last night he preached. Among them was the town's biggest bootlegger. He was so impressed by Chuck that he left the meeting, went down to the wharf, and pitched his entire stock of bootleg whiskey into the ocean. "From then on, the bootlegger, who'd been one of the town's 'characters,' engaged only in legitimate business enterprises," said my reporter friend. "And those who'd heard Templeton didn't seem particularly surprised at the result."

From then on I began to get reports of how Templeton's preaching was electrifying audiences wherever he went- New Jersey, Virginia, California, Ohio, Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, Oklahoma. I noticed that in one city an official had said: "Not in living memory has any event, secular or religious, so moved this community!"

In a front-page story, the Trenton, N. J., Times Advertiser declared: "If you could ask 30,000 people in Trenton what person has done most in the last week to influence their lives, they would quickly give you the name of Charles (Chuck) Templeton."

I still wondered, however, if this man might not be just another fiery and gifted orator, like many an evangelist before him, flashing across a city but leaving it emotionally and financially exhausted after his departure, with converts soon backsliding and church members becoming dissatisfied with their regular pastors.

I decided to check. And I was startled to learn, for example, that six months after Templeton had conducted a two-week mission in Evansville, Ind., church attendance was 17 per cent higher in the city than it had been before he'd come. Even the sale of church literature was up 25 per cent.

Naturally, I wanted to see this man in action. I found that he was preaching in Indianapolis, nearing the end of a two-week campaign there, and I was able to catch him before it ended.

My first look at him was in Cadle Tabernacle, where he was holding the usual evening meeting. In this, as in all his meetings, he was assisted by his wife, Constance, an attractive brunette of Mexican ancestry who comes from Pasadena, Calif. Possessing an unusual singing voice, she supplied the solos.

I arrived a few minutes early, and my first reaction, as I waited for the meeting to begin, was one of disappointment. The tabernacle was big and cold and impersonal with no atmosphere of religion. There were no comfortable seats, no stained-glass windows, no soft lighting to create a mood. I recognized Mr. Templeton, sitting on the platform, from his pictures. He was a good-looking fellow all right, in a dark-blue business suit with a figured tie, but he certainly didn't look like any great preacher. He looked more like a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Furthermore, I'd just read an article in a church magazine. It was headlined: Everybody loves Chuck Templeton, and it gave me pause. I guess I'm a little inclined by nature to be skeptical of anyone whom "everybody" loves.

The auditorium, however, was packed to the rafters: mothers holding babies, school children who'd come in groups, farmers in blue jeans, well-dressed city folk-plain, ordinary Americans. They'd all come, drawn by the word-of-mouth fame of this up-to-date revivalist.

We sat there waiting for the service to begin, feeling a little stiff and self-conscious. It wasn't until Chuck stepped up to the microphone that an over-all thaw set in.

One of the first things he said was: "Won't you please turn around and say 'Good Evening' to someone near you, and tell them how glad you are to see them?"

Most of the audience, like myself, were a little shy about doing this at first, but after we'd done it we felt better, as though we were among friends. The woman sitting next to me remarked: "The sun seems to have come out, doesn't it?"

The "climate" had changed. There was no corny folksiness about it; the big room had just become warm and friendly and informal.

There were no dramatics as Chuck started preaching. Instead, he talked as if he were conversing with friends reasonably, earnestly, in a down-to-earth, graphic way. His language was direct and simple and his ideas fell into vivid word pictures.

It wasn't long, however, before I sensed that his vitality, slow-burning, somehow was gradually engulfing the audience in a rising enthusiasm. After a while you realized that, in his quiet way, he had become an incandescent platform personality.

He was saying that because of rapid-fire changes in modern life, the overpreoccupation with material things, there is a tendency today to forget the endless resources to be found through reliance on God. "Money and savings offer a measure of security," he said, "but when the chips are down, God is the only real security. If you will take the time to be quiet and listen simply, God will enter your soul."

All around me I noticed that Chuck was "hitting home." That seemed to be one of his specialties-the single, telling phrase that finds its target. I heard a young man in a leather jacket and khaki trousers say almost inaudibly at one point: " You can say that again!" I knew Chuck had just hit him.

I also noticed, as Chuck talked, that there was an unmistakable element of hope and optimism in all he said. Religion was no longer a solemn, formal, worn-out thing with all the appeal of the graveyard. It was, on the contrary, happy, warm, and vital. He presented it as a challenge and an exciting way of life.

His dark-blue eyes smiled slightly as he talked, his brown, wavy hair gave him a handsome look, and more than once the wit of his Irish ancestors broke through. He used gestures sparingly, and he often held his arms behind his back., He seemed to concentrate on the words.

I noticed particularly that the element of fear had been left out of his "sales" talk. Although many evangelists use fear as a motive for conversion (the great Jonathan Edwards' listeners used to hold onto their pews during a sermon to keep from slipping into hell),Templeton used the opposite approach.

"It's dangerous," he said at one point, "to be converted through fear. To be lasting, it must come through love."

I also noticed that whenever Chuck talked about "love" (and he talked about it often), there was a melting look in the eyes of his female listeners. It was obvious that he wasn't deliberately using sex appeal in his preaching, but it was just as obviously there. To be honest, one would have to list it among his assets.

While he talked, I remembered once, as a boy, watching Billy Sunday preach in our school chapel. He wound up like a baseball pitcher on a mound before delivering a phrase. Later, I attended a meeting in Los Angeles, where I heard Aimee Semple McPherson. When she appeared on the stage, the spotlights picked her up, the choir started to chant, and she looked like an angel, with her long, white flowing robe, her carefully marcelled hair, and the dazzling American beauty roses she carried in her arms.

Each of these performers put on a great show. I was completely fascinated, but I wasn't moved.

With Chuck it was different. Since I represent a new generation, it may be that his appeal to me explains his success with so many others. His comparative simplicity of approach, his natural presentation of Christianity as a commodity as necessary to life as salt, and his overwhelming belief in its practical value "sold" me. And his little stories, anecdotes, and examples that followed each other in rapid succession delighted me. All in all, the hour he spoke was just about the fastest-moving 60 minutes I've ever sat through.

He ended his sermon that evening on a quiet note. He ended it, in fact, on a prayer, prefacing it with the remark: "No prayer is worth while unless half the time is spent in 'listening.' Prayer is a two-way intercommunication system, and God speaks only to those who take the time to be still and spend a few minutes a day in silence, listening."

For a few minutes, we all listened!

By that time, the audience was completely with the speaker. There was no cough, no rustle of a program, not even--mysteriously-the cry of a baby.

I felt I had witnessed a new kind of evangelism-twentieth-century style.

Chuck announced an "after service" for those who wished to stay. Hundreds remained, I among them. During this short session, there was prayer, meditation (the all-important "listening" again that Chuck always urged), and the distribution of cards for those who wished to sign them. These cards said, in effect, that the signer affirmed his faith in God and would try to become a part of the religious life of his community. I saw whole families sign them. These cards, I learned, were later forwarded to the church nearest that person's home, and the "follow-up" was left to the local minister.

At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I would say Chuck is to religion what Mickey Mantle is to baseball or Perry Como to his singing fans. He makes religion as enjoyable as these people make sports or music enjoyable.

I stayed in Indianapolis the last three days of the "mission," and each day the crowds grew. This, I found, was the usual pattern. During the early part of a campaign, attendance at all services might be 3,000 to 4,000 a day. Toward the end of the two-week period, the figure would be up to 10,000, and finally people would be turned away for lack of space.

I attended all meetings, and the reaction was the same. After one sermon I saw a woman shake Chuck's hand and say, "I just wanted to see if you were real." The woman had not meant to sound like a gushing bobby soxer. She had just never heard anyone like him before and wanted to tell him so.

I spent as much time with the Templetons as their busy schedule would permit, and I also spent some time with the people whom Chuck had converted. I wanted to know what had moved them.

One woman, an assistant postmistress in a Middle Western town, told me, "Until I went to hear Chuck I was one of the most miserable and frustrated people in the world. Had been for more than six years. I heard him say one thing that changed my life. It was: 'You know what you are. Have you ever glimpsed what, with God's help, you can be?' That sort of stopped me." Ten days later, Chuck received a letter I from that same woman saying: " I've I been so happy for the past ten days that I wonder it doesn't overflow my life, run down the streets, and flow up over the curb!"

In Chicago, later, I ran into a student in a theological seminary who had changed his school as a result of one of Chuck's sermons. A year and a half ago he had been taking a science major in the University of Chicago. "But hearing Templeton made me feel that the thing that really matters today is the spiritual values," he told me. He changed his course and now is getting a graduate degree in theology.

One of Chuck's most spectacular converts, I learned, was a former streetwalker and dope addict in Toronto. This young girl, several years ago, had just taken her-sick, illegitimate baby to a hospital. She went back to her room, and considered suicide. She switched on the radio, and heard Chuck say a few words announcing a meeting that night. In desperation, she went. After the service, she walked up to Chuck and said, "Is there any hope for a person like me?" He assured her there was, talked with her, and prayed with her. From that time forward, her life was changed. Her baby recovered and she was cured of dope addiction. At the moment, she is happily working in a Salvation Army home for delinquent girls, a job he helped her to get.

But perhaps the most touching example of Chuck's power was related to me by his wife, Constance, who witnessed it.

It concerned a young couple from Youngstown, Ohio, who had just filed their divorce papers. They came to a meeting together. After the service they left, and just as Chuck was gathering up his papers to go home they returned, walked up the aisle of the half-darkened auditorium, and stood shyly before Chuck. They seemed to want to say something but couldn't get the words out. Finally, Chuck said, "Can I do anything to help?" The young man then said, "We were halfway home when we decided to come back and see if you could do anything to save our marriage. It's on the rocks."

"If you want it saved, that's half the battle," suggested Chuck. He talked to them right there, and finally suggested that they pray together. The couple had been alienated for weeks, but, during that prayer, Constance Templeton noticed the young man hook his little finger around his wife's and slowly draw their hands together. During the rest of the prayer, they looked at each other. When it was finished, they walked out of the auditorium with their arms around each other.

"I won't say Chuck solved their problem," said Constance, "but I certainly think he set them on the right track."

Fom Constance, from Chuck, and from others, I pieced together the unusual story of Templeton's life.

Although born in Toronto, he spent 9 of his boyhood years in Saskatchewan, where the winter cold often hit 40 below. Like another famous evangelist before him-Billy Sunday-he was fascinated by sports. A strong artistic strain ran through his family, and he, his brother, and three sisters would sit around the kitchen table, drawing pictures and comparing them. One day, when he was 17 and living in Toronto again, he was casting around for some way to help support his family. Those were the dark, depression days of the early thirties.

Suddenly he got the idea of drawing "sports cartoons. He made two sketches and took them to the office of the Toronto Globe and Mail. The editor was interested and asked him to draw a picture of Bobby Pearce, the Australian oarsman who was world champion at the time.

On the strength of that cartoon, Chuck got a job. Soon he was doing a daily sports cartoon that was syndicated in 24 Canadian papers. In the next three years, he was not only the main support of his family, but he found himself a minor celebrity. He was invited everywhere. He enjoyed drawing. He was making lots of money.

Then one night a strange and inexplicable thing happened.

He came home from a party at 3 a.m., feeling an overwhelming sense of loneliness and inadequacy. He was only 20 then, but as he walked through the quiet streets, he felt a strong desire to commit himself to some kind of cause. He was startled to notice that he had been gently crying. Life had suddenly rolled in on him and was unaccountably heavy.

When he entered the house, he stopped by his mother's room. She said something about trying religion (he had not been going to church up to that time), but he was in no mood for that approach. He answered with a tirade.

Nevertheless, when he got to his room and had shut the door, he sank down and prayed for the first time. He didn't know exactly how to do it, but he remembers what he said.

"Lord, come down," he repeated several times. "Come down!"

He admits he didn't know exactly what he meant by that, or just what happened, but he suddenly felt better. Life had purpose. "After that," he said, "life has never been the same for me."

From then on, he went to church, joining a fundamentalist group known as the Church of the Nazarene, and was often asked to draw religious pictures in church meetings. One day, an itinerant evangelist asked him to go on a two-week mission to Lowville, N. Y., where he would make drawings and lead the singing. As a result of that trip, Chuck knew he definitely wanted to be a preacher.

He took a correspondence course in the ministry (he had never gone beyond the first year in high school) and he studied public speaking. He practiced by preaching in empty churches to empty pews. He talked to mirrors. He read omnivorously to make up for his lack of formal education.

His brother, meanwhile, had grown old enough to help support the family, and so Chuck now gave his full time to traveling as an artist-evangelist, drawing pictures and preaching.

On one of these trips, he met Constance. They were both attending a mission in Grand Rapids, Mich. Before they got interested in religion, she'd been an MGM starlet who'd studied voice for a film career. Twelve days after they met, Chuck proposed. Two months later they were married. They've been inseparable ever since.

When he took his bride back to Toronto they decided to start a church. Chuck found a huge, empty building, which had once been a church, on one of the city's main north-south arteries-the Avenue Road. The building had stood unused for 14 years. It was in a sad state of disrepair.

"But we both felt," said Chuck, "that it could be a force in the community again."

He had $600 left from his career as a syndicated cartoonist, and he rented the church for 6 months at $100 a month. His wife and his mother helped him clean it. They painted and swept and washed. They made collection plates out of pie tins, painting them brown and lining them with felt. They selected a name: Avenue Road Church. On the night before they opened, Chuck said, "We have a church but no money. We have pews but no parishioners. We have an organ but no music. But I have a feeling this church will come to life!"

It did. Gradually word got around that the Avenue Road Church had something special in the way of a preacher. A few came, and they told others. At last, after a year and a half of hard work, attendance began to snowball. By the second year, the church's capacity of 1,200 was being taxed. People even stood outside in zero weather waiting to get in for a second service.

The Templetons decided to build a gallery to the church to hold an additional 600 people. They went in debt to do it.

On the night before the opening of the new addition, the parishioners held a cleaning bee. When it was all finished, Chuck went home to bed at 1:30 a.m., tired but happy. At 3 a.m., his phone rang. "Your church-is on fire!" a voice told him.

Chuck threw on his clothes and ran to the church. He got there just in time to see the roof fall in.

As he watched his dream go up in flames, he remembers thinking bitterly: "If there is a God, how could he let this happen?"

But, almost simultaneously, he had another thought, a quotation from the Bible: "All things work together for good to them that love God."

He wandered around for hours in the icy night (the firemen's hose had left frozen cascades on the ruins) wondering what to do. Then he had an inspiration. He went to his old newspaper office and wrote out an advertisement that said,: "Our beautiful church is burned, but 'all things work together for good to them that love God.' Come to the Masonic Temple and hear the story of the fire."

Two thousand people came, and the collection, including pledges, totaled $24,000. More money began to pour in as the story got around Canada and the United States, and soon a more beautiful and more spacious church rose on the ashes of the old. Within five years, all obligations were paid off.

During those five years, most of which were war years, Chuck's fame as a preacher grew. He was frequently asked to speak elsewhere in the United States and in Canada. He spoke to 18,000 in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. He talked to crowds ranging from 20,000 to 70,000 in such places as Soldier Field, Chicago, and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. He took part in the far-reaching Youth-for-Christ movement which was started during the war. After the war, he and another rising evangelist, Billy Graham, teamed up and toured Europe. They spoke on alternate evenings to overflow crowds in ten countries. He and Billy are still warm friends.

Back in Toronto again, Chuck began to have doubts. After seven years there, he had a big church, a wide following, an attractive home, and a comfortable, assured future. But he began to sense more and more what he called "the inadequacy of my intellectual preparation. I felt," he said, "that I was getting by on my enthusiasm and a certain natural ability for speaking."

Although he doesn't like travel (both he and Constance are devoted 'to their home), he felt he could be most effective as an itinerant evangelist. He wanted to help return evangelism to the heart of the church. For further preparation, he decided to turn his church over to another pastor and apply for entrance to Princeton Theological Seminary and three years of quiet, intense study. He was turned down because of the inadequacy of scholastic preparation (a college degree is required to enter). Finally, however, Princeton agreed to take him as a "special student." He never got a degree, but when the course was finished, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

The Templetons had had to sell practically everything in Toronto to finance this new period in their lives, and in Princeton they lived on very little in an old dormitory. They worked hard, and soon began to love the charming old town.

During his last year at Princeton, Chuck was a regular preacher at the Ewing Presbyterian Church. As soon as he'd finished his course, the National Council of Churches, which had been watching him all along, tapped him as their only full-time evangelist. That was at the end of 1951. He has been preaching across the land with increasing momentum of success ever since.

Already, he has, of course, accomplished many things beyond winning people to the church. One of these has been to clean up certain questionable financial aspects of evangelism and eradicate the suspicion that it was largely a "racket."

Before Chuck began his touring, it had been customary for many evangelists to take up a collection called a "love offering" on the last day of the campaign in each town. This belonged traditionally to the evangelist. Chuck could have continued this practice. In his case, the final offering of each two-week mission currently runs between $4,000 and $6,000. This would make his "take" well over $100,000 a year at the present rate of his campaigning. Some evangelists have done even better. Although there have been and still are, of course, many earnest, sincere, and hard-working men in this field, the enormous profits of a few, plus their circus stunts, have made many people suspect the whole profession.

Determined not to profit in any way by religion, Chuck insisted that he be put on a salary-a comparatively modest one of $7,500 a year. This is paid by the National Council of Churches. Other funds collected during a missionary campaign go for the general evangelical work of all the churches. Since he has done this, other evangelists have followed suit.

When they are not traveling, Chuck and Constance live in Wheaton, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. There, on Saddle Road, is a 4-room, ranch-style house which they bought a year ago as a permanent home. They head for it eagerly whenever they can, because they are essentially "homebodies."

Between campaigns, they usually have about five days of rest. Constance confesses that she spends most of that time in the kitchen, because she loves to cook, especially the Mexican dishes whose recipes have been handed down in her family.

Chuck, when not working on sermons, is a skillful carpenter (he recently built a breezeway for their house with his own hands). He also likes to watch boxing on television. "I'm a boxing nut," he admitted. His wife accuses him of shaking hands rather hurriedly after Wednesday and Friday meetings so he can get back to their hotel room to watch the fights.

The Templetons told me they regret deeply that they have never had children of their own. Recently they "adopted" one under the Foster Parents Plan. His name is George, and he lives in Greece -an orphaned victim of the fighting against communist guerrillas. The Templetons send money for his support, as well as food and clothing. In return, they receive letters and photographs, the arrival of which is always a red-letter day in their household.

In his own words, Chuck engages in "side issues impetuously." Recently he took up flying, making him a "sky pilot" in a real sense. He learned to solo in two weeks.

According to his present schedule, Chuck preaches 7 months out of the year in the United States and 4 in Canada. The other month-August-is their vacation.

"Where do you go then?" I asked.

Chuck looked at me a moment and then laughed. " I go off and preach somewhere," he confessed with a grin.