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Princeton Theological Seminary & Beyond
Connie asked, "Chuck, are you sure
this is the way Dwight L. Moody* started?"
I was on tiptoes on a chair hanging the
paper drapes she and I had bought at Woolworth's in downtown Princeton. We were
in the process of moving into "the Marrieds' Dorm" and she was seated
on the side of the bed resting from her labours. There hadn't been all that
much to move: the house we'd left in Toronto had been rented and furnished by
the church, so we had few possessions.
Our students quarters comprised a sitting-room with furniture that had
been used and abused by a long line of predecessors, but didn't include so much
as a kettle or a hot-plate; plus a Littiputian bedroom with a double bed jammed
into the far corner and hardly space for passage. The common bathrooms were at
the far end of the hall.
We were doing a bit of mutual
commiserating, Connie with her invariable good humour. It had not been without
a wrench that we had left family and friends and all our pleasant associations
in Toronto. We were without any assurance of income. Evangelical were, quite
properly, suspicious of my orthodoxy, and the old-line churches hadn't yet
taken a reading. Any romantic notions I might have had about the superior
charity of candidates for the Presbyterian ministry had been disabused earlier
that day when I was invited to join a game of touch football between returning
students and "the new guys". The word had been passed, "Get the
Youth for Christer," and the game quickly became a contact sport. This was
fine with me: I had played senior football and none of them had. When did jolt
me was the fact that I had been judge a priori.
I won't dwell on my three years at
Princeton except to say that they were among the happiest in my life. I began
the first semester filled with trepidation. I was thirty-three, ten years older
than most of my fellows, and hadn't done any formal study in fifteen years.
Would I be able to handle the discipline? Could I meet the requirements?
First-year subjects included Greek, hermeneutics, exegesis, homiletics, church
history and ecumenics. Happily, after the first term I found little
I was fascinated by the faculty, as
diverse a mixture of insecure and eccentric characters as I had ever
encountered. I became friends with a Scot who taught church history. He was a
very short man with a large head and a bird's quick fidgetiness. He began class
by waiting impatiently until the last student was in place. He would then say,
"Promptness is the politeness of kings," and begin. I was invited
often to his home, a one hundred-years-old, three-storey barn of a place with
heaven knows how many rooms, in which he and his wife lived alone. He would
offer a tiny glass of sherry or a cup of tea and reel off a series of witty and
fascinating stories. He seemed addicted to light, and moved like the wind about
the house on little short legs, turning on three- hundred-watt bulbs as he
entered each room. He taught me the most valuable thing I learned at Princeton:
"The world of learning isn't in the classroom; it's in the library."
There was a German who taught New
Testament, a near genius in his field; but he spoke such gutteral English that
he could barely be understood. There was a professor of Hebrew who lowered his
face into his dog-eared and crumbling notes and read from them for forty
minutes without a break, closing the book with a snap and leaving the room
without a word. There was a teaching-fellow in introductory Greek who fancied
himself a comic. He staudded his lectures with one-liners, but invariably got
the timing wrong, as invariably drawing groans from his class. There was a
Frechman, a theatrical sort, with a habit of shaking his great mane of grey
hair, chin thrust out. Unfortunately in doing so, he would sometimes lose the
thread of his discourse and needed to be reminded of what he'd been saying. As
his name was Calliet, the students naturally nicknamed him,
Albert Einstein lived in Princeton during
the three years I was there, teaching at the Institute For Advanced Study. His
home was three houses removed from the seminary campus so I saw him on the
street many times. I saw him first one cold, bright fall morning.
I was on my way into town and saw what I took to be an old bag-lady
shuffling along the wide sidewalk in front of me. She was wearing a shapeless
grey overcoat. Her trousers sagged over broken shoes. A wool toque was pulled
low over her head, and from beneath it rusty platinum-coloured hair pushed out
untidily. As I overtook her, she stopped, off the sidewalk, pulled off her hat
and bowed in a courtly, old-world way. I was so taken aback at recognizing the
great nuclear physicist that I hardly returned his ''Guten morgen.'' We often
passed on the street, and he was unfailingly courteous. Robert Oppenheimer, the
so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” was also a familiar sight. No one in the
town appeared to pay either ot them particular attention and all wear careful
not to intrude on their privacy.
Einstein was a sartorial spectacle. His
unlaced shoes some- times flapped as he walked. He wore no socks. His baggy
trousers were secured with a knotted rope. He usually wore thick sweater over a flannel shirt and, in cooler
weather, a woolen toque. When an interviewer asked why he wore no socks, he
replied that socks got holes in them. When asked why he removed his hat in the
rain, he said that it was easier to dry his hair than his hat.
In our first year at Princeton I had very
little income (only occasionally serving as a supply preacher in small
churches) and it was necessary for Connie to get a job - ''working on her
P.H.T.degree'' (Putting Hubby Through), as the working wives of students called
it. She was hired by the exclusive Chapin school, to teach English and music.
One day. a child defended not doing her
homework by admitting she didn't understand how to multiply or divide. Her exasperated teacher replied.
''Well, if you can't under-stand me, you'd better get Mr. Einstein to explain
it to you. ''Being his neighbor, the child did just that. Einstein invited the
child in and, lying on his stomach on the living-room floor, taught her her
''numbers.'' Afterwards, he signed the homework. Framed, it hangs in the
school, a prized possession.
I had gone to Princeton hoping to resolve
some of the questions that were eroding my faith. Paramount among them was the
question: Who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was he a moral and spiritual genius or was
he, as the Christian church has always held,
''very God of very God''?
The classroom work, especially a course in
Christology, was useful, as were conversations with some of the professors, but
more valuable was the library, where there were stacks or relevant material.
For all that, I knew that faith is more a mater of the sprit than of the mind,
and in my second year, in imitation of Mohandas Gandhi-who remains one of the
formative influences on my life-I decided to fast each Wednesday, eating
nothing and drinking only water. Seven nights a week, in all kinds of weather I
went walking on the golf course between the seminary and the Institute for
Advanced Study, not to pray so much as to articulate the almost intolerable
yearning I was feeling, some-times simply focusing all my faculties on the
infinite; straining to grasp what theologians like to call the ''mysterium
One night I went to the golf course rather
late. I had attended a movie and something in the film had set to vibrating an
obscure chord in my consciousness. Standing with my face to the heavens tears
streaming, I heard dog bark of in the distance and, from somewhere, faintly.
eerily, a baby crying. Suddenly I was caught up in a transport. It seemed that
the whole of creation-trees, flowers, clouds, the skied, the very heavens, all
of time and space and God Himself-was weeping. I knew somehow that they were
weeping for mankind: for our obduracy, our hatreds, our ten thousand cruelties,
our love of war and violence. And at the heart of this eternal sorrow I saw the
shadow of a cross, with the silhouetted figure on it...weeping.
When I became conscious of my surroundings
again, I was lying on the wet grass, convulsed by sobs. I had been outside
myself and didn't know for how long. Later, I couldn't sleep and trembled as thought
with a fever at the thought that I had caught a glimpse through the veil.
For the next few weeks I sought to repeat
the experience. It never recurred. I recognized it to be a mystical experience,
and in the library pored through books on the subject. The literature is not
extensive but I learned that what had happened to me was not unusual: it has
been a commonplace at various times in the history of the church. More
important, I learned that it was of no special significance. Mystical experience
has added no insight to our knowledge of God or to Christian doctrine. Indeed,
the experience is not uniquely religious: the poet Henry Wadworth Longfellow
could go into a transport at will merely by repeating his name aloud.
Nevertheless, I continued fasting and my
nightly hour on the golf course. During the day, I spent my spare time in the
library or in conversation, questing, searching. The foundation of Christianity
is the person of Jesus. If he was a man, however gifted, he could be no more
than a superlative teacher and a soaring example. If I was going to continue in the ministry, I would need to know
that Jesus Christ was enough.
By the end of my third year at Princeton I
had found a measure of certainty, not through enlightenment but through a
conscious act of commitment. It was enough.
In my last two years in Princeton l acted
as interim preacher, first at the Bala-Cynwood Presbyterian church in the Main
line section of Philadelphia and, in 1951, at the Ewing Presbyterian church in
Trenton, New Jersey. Ewing was an idyll. The old, ivy-covered stone church is
on the outskirts of the city and is an historic parish. George Washington's
army crossed the Delaware nearby and, in 1776, defeated the British on the
site. The Church Cemetery is filled with the graves of British and American
soldiers. Connie and I lived in the manse, a large, old-fashioned comfortable
place surrounded by enormous oaks and elms and maples. In the spring, the walls
and fences hung heavy with wisteria, great magnolia trees burgeoned with pink
blooms and the lawn glowed with the mauve of a million violets.
As my final year ended, both the
Presbyterian church and the National Council of the Churches of Christ
approached me: the Presbyterians offered to ordain me and the National Council
offered a job. I had already been ordained by the Church of the Nazarene; but
that was not sufficient for the Presbyterians, who require that their clergy
have a B.A. and a graduate theological degree. Princeton hadn't granted me a
degree, since I didn't have the prerequisites, but the Philadelphia Presbytery
moved to waive the academic-qualification rule. Shortly thereafter, Lafayette
College conferred on me an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree- "in recognition of his contribution to
a balance intellectually sound and theogically based evangelism."
The offer from the National Council
surprised and pleased me. The NCC
represents most of the "standard-brand". "American churches: the
Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and others. It had never
had anyone on staff with responsibility for running evangelistic campaigns.
Their offer to me was that I conduct, under their auspices, what they preferred
to call "preaching missions." I accepted, specifying three conditions:
that there be no interference in what I would say, that four months of each
year be spent preaching in my native Canada, and that my remuneration be a
salary of $150 per week.
I specified that I receive a salary in
order to remove from my campaigns the scandal of what is called the "love
offering." Traditionally the
evangelist is given all the money collected on the closing night of a campaign,
when the largest crowd is in attendance, after a special plea is mad on his
behalf. There might be anywhere between 5000 and 25000 people present on the
final night, and the love offering has made many evangelists wealthy. The practice has led to the saying:
"The reverend is more interested in the dollar sign than in the than in
the sign of cross." Connie's and my salary was fixed at$7500 dollars a
year less than we might normally receive in a single two-week campaign.
The announcement of the appointment made
news. Time magazine carried a feature story and used the opportunity to shaft
Billy Graham. He had just completed a campaign in Atlanta, and Time ran a
picture of him. Over his shoulder was a mail-sack bulging with the love
offering presented to him on closing night. Billy to his credit, immediately
put himself on salary at $15000 a year.
There were many fundamental differences in
Billy's and my campaigns. Billy is and "old-fashioned" evangelist
with a heavy emphasis on the judgmental aspects of the gospel. He speaks
much about heaven and hell reward and
punishments and ends each sermon with an appeal for converts to come forward. I
seldom spoke about heaven never preached on hell, and eschewed the traditional:
altar call." At the end of the sermon, deliberately avoiding any emotional
pressure, I would announce that an after-service would be held for nay who wanted
to make a commitment, and would dismiss the meeting. Those who wanted to remain
had to move against the flow of the thousands leaving. Each night, hundreds
chose to stay.
There was another difference between
Billy's any my campaigns south of the Mason-Dixon line; his were segregated,
mine were not.
In my early years preaching in the
southern United States- the 1930s and 1940s - I was shaken by the prejudice
against blacks. In Paris, Kentucky, where I first encountered it (and did
little about it) there were park benches in the town square with bold
ETHIOPIANS KEEP OFF!
There were segregated drinking fountains
and public urinals. Restaurants and
places of amusement were segregated, as were trains and buses. I hired a black teenager
to wash, clean and wax my car. It took most of a steamingly hot day. When I
asked him the charge, he wondered if two dollars would be too much. I paid him
ten, less than it would have cost me in Toronto. When I mentioned it to the
pastor of the church, he said crossly, "You've ruined that nigger."
I take pride in the fact that I conducted
the first integrated public meeting south of the Mason-Dixon line. The year was
1953. A letter came from the Ministerial Association of Richmond, Virginia,
inviting me to conduct a city-wide campaign.
Richmond is a lovely and cultivated city; during the American Civil War
it was the capital of the Confederacy. I accepted immediately, making mention
in my reply that the services would of course, have to be unsegregated.
There was an immediate response; the
Ministerial Association very much regretted that this was impossible; the city
by-laws forbade it. I replied, saying that, surely if they, the most prominent
and influential clergymen in the city, were to ask that the by-law be set aside
on this occasion they would not be refused. They responded that it was not
possible to do this. I wrote that, under the circumstances, I would have to
withdraw my acceptance.
Shortly thereafter I received a letter
stating that, after pressure had been brought to bear, the city council had
On the opening night of the campaign the
tension in the Agoga Temple was palpable. The ushers had been instructed not to
show people to their seats but simply to hand them a songbook. A few blacks arrived, and unsure of the
situation, climbed the stairs to the balcony. I called the head usher and the
chairman of the ministerial committee backstage. "Usher the people to
their seats," I said, "Whites and blacks. Otherwise they will
segregate themselves. "The head usher was not prepared to do this and was
But the battle was not
yet won. Few black attended. I asked for a meeting of all the black clergy and
their senior officials and specified that I be the only white man there. They
filled the auditorium of one of the larger African Methodist churches.
spoke bluntly. I reminded them that we had fought to have an integrated
campaign and that an historic first had been achieved. "But now," I
said, "after years of being segregated, you are segregating me. That's
your right. If you are free to attend, you are also free to stay away. Now that
the white man is prepared to say, after years of excluding you, 'Come on in,'
it is perfectly reasonable and understandable if you say, 'Thanks, but no
thanks.” But in doing so, realize that you are perpetuating the system you
then told them a story about Mohandas Gandhi. Addressing a meeting of blacks in
South Africa, Gandhi had said, "One of our problems as coloured people is
that we act as though we are a minority. The fact is, "he said," that
the coloured peoples of the world are a great majority. When we use the terms
'whites' and 'coloured,' we demonstrate inferiority feelings. We should speak
instead of coloured people and colourless people".
church rocked with shouts of "Amen" and "Hallelujah!" When
silence returned, I said, "As a member of a minority group, the colourless
people of the world, I want to plead with you to help me in this
was an immediate increase in the number of blacks in attendance. They sat in
every part of the auditorium, sang in the choir, worked as ushers and as
personal workers. There was not a single untoward incident.
and I moved across the United States, conducting preaching missions. We began
in Evansville, Indiana, where the largest auditorium in the city was filled on
the opening Sunday night; fifteen days later, on the closing Sunday, we had to
hold identical afternoon and evening services, and turned away hundreds from
each. It was a similar story in Youngstown, Ohio. In Canton, Ohio, the crowds
were even larger: the total attendance for the two weeks was 91,000. In each
city the problem was the same-to find accommodation large enough to house the
thousands who crowded at the doors.
was experimenting with something new. In addition to the evening meetings, I
conducted a noontime service, Monday through Friday, in the largest downtown
movie theatre. The meeting ran from 12:10 to 12:50. There were no
preliminaries; I would speak for thirty-five minutes on practical problems of
ethics and human relationships. Business people at every level came from their
offices, eating their lunch as they listened. Many had predicted failure:
"people won't listen to a preacher for forty minutes on a weekday on their
lunch hour. "But they did. Within two or three days, the theatre in each
city would be filled, and the doors would have to be closed to meet fire
regulations. I continued the practice through my years as an evangelist.
Canton, Ohio, to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Mobile,
Alabama, to Des Moines, lowa....
Texas I saw something of the unique lifestyle of the state.
was in Dallas to conduct Holy Week services at Highland park Presbyterian, a
magnificent stone church in the wealthiest section of Dallas. The pastor of the
church, Dr. William Elliott, Jr., invited me to play an early morning round of
golf with him, and as we were returning to the clubhouse, a man in a golf cart
hailed us and my partner went to talk to him. I saw paper change hands. Later,
as we were having lunch in the clubhouse, the minister removed something from
an envelope and passed it to me across the table. It was a cheque for one
million dollars made out to the Highland Park Presbyterian church of Dallas.
explanation was simple. The man who had stopped us on the golf course was a
member of the church (I'd seen him each night at the meeting) and believed in
"tithing" - giving 10 per cent of your harvest or your income to God.
So, having just completed an oil deal in which he had made a profit ot ten
million dollars, he gave one-tenth of it to the church.
was invited to speak to the Dallas Millionaires Club, a luncheon club, where a
condition of membership is a personal worth of more than a million dollars. The
club was exclusively male and the members were all Texas-gregarious.
Afterwards, my host, who was also a member of Highland Park, showed me about
the downtown section of the city. At one point we entered an exclusive men's
tailoring shop. I was introduced to the owner, who showed me some of his most
luxurious fabrics. Before I quite knew what was happening, I found my
measurements being taken. I asked what was happening. My host said in his best
aw-shucks manner, "I thought maybe as a goin’ away present I'd like to
give you half a dozen suits. "I thanked him but told him I couldn't accept
such a gift. He reacted to my refusal with a bemused shrug.
he wasn't through. Down the street he led me into a store specializing in Texas
boots. "Now," he said, "I can figure why you won't take the
suits, but surely there's nothin’ wrong with you takin' home a souvenir of
Texas. "I agreed, and was fitted with a magnificent pair of ornamented
Texas cowboy boots. He tried to put a ten-gallon Stetson on my head but I
managed to limit him to the boots.
the Monday morning he was with the group that came to the Dallas-Fort Worth
airport to see me off. As we said our goodbyes, I saw the porter who was
handling our bags put a new sixteen-millimetre Bolex movie camera and a
matching RCA sound-projector aboard the plane.
year, I spent four months holding missions in Canada. On the closing night in
Charlottetown, which then had a population of fourteen thousand, there were
some six thousand either in the hockey arena or listening to loudspeakers in
the streets. In the Sydney arena there were as many outside as within. In two
weeks, ten thousand attended; the population was thirty thousand. The meeting
in Fredericton was held in winter weather. The congregation huddled in coats
and hats and scarves; one night I preached wearing a topcoat. Portable furnaces
were rigged to push heat through vents cut in the arena walls. Regardless of
the inconvenience, every seat was filled each night and the ice area was
crammed with people huddled on improvised seating. In each city, all-time
attendance records were set for any event, secular or religious.
Loss of Faith
began to have a problem with my health. I was thirty-five and thought myself to
be in perfect physical condition, but I began to suffer frequent pains in the
chest. Oddly, the pain never troubled me while preaching, but mornings I would
find myself short of breath, with a tightness in my chest and a numbness
radiating to my forearms and hands. One morning in Cincinnati, I finally gave
in and went to see a doctor. Every test was applied; there was no evidence of a
problem with my heart.
the symptoms didn't go away. Indeed, they were exacerbated by difficulties I
was having with my faith. The old doubts were resurfacing. I would cover them
over with prayer and activity but soon there would be a wisp of smoke and a
flicker of flame and then a firestorm of doubt. I would banish them again only
to have them return. Part of the problem was that there was no one to talk to:
how does a man who, each night, tells five to ten thousand people how to find
faith confess that he is struggling with his own?
at the very moment I was trying to shore up my sagging faith, there was a
sudden flurry of interest by the media in me and in my campaigns. Even as I
wrestled with my doubts, I was reading about the certitude with which I
preached. People who had found strength or faith in the services shook my hand
and looked at me with shining eyes. Their gratitude added to my sense of
unworthiness but there was nothing I could do about it. It was not that I
disbelieved; it was simply that my mind was at war with my spirit.
about my campaigns were appearing in every quarter. We were cutting a new trail
through the tangled underbrush of mass evangelism and it was noted in magazine
articles and in wide coverage in the newspapers. The Golbe and Mail
Magazine, Maclean's, Time, the Chicago Sunday Tribune and
others carried features. NBC invited me to do a series of four half-hour
television programs from Chicago. In an article in American magazine
entitled "Religion's Super Salesman," Edward Boyd Wrote:
have just seen the man who's giving religion a brand-new look; a young Canadian
by the name of Charles B. Templeton. Passing up the old-style
hellfire-and-damnation oratorical fireworks, he uses instead a persuasive,
attractive approach that presents religion as a commodity as necessary to life
as salt, and in the doing, has set a new standard for evangelism.
Dispensing with such props as "the
sawdust trail," "the mourner's bench," and other tricks from the
old-time evangelist's repertoire, he is winning converts at an average of 150 a
night, and - what is something new in modern evangelism - they stat converted.
At a recent two week stay in Evansville, Indiana, for example, a count showed
that Templeton had drawn a total attendance of 91,000 out of a population of
128,000. A survey taken six months later showed that church attendance was 17 per cent higher than it
had been before he'd come.
He is booked two years ahead, a situation that the biggest Broadway hit
can't boast, and the demands for his service are ten times greater than can be
met. Moreover, observers who have closely
followed his progress say that Templeton has not yet begun to hit his stride...
read the article after a long night in which I had debated with myself whether
I should quit the ministry.
tempo of the work accelerated: in Winnipeg, we overflowed both sections of the
Auditorium twice on the closing Sunday. In Calgary, the new Corral wasn't large
enough. In Vancouver, Exhibition Stadium was jammed each night, as was the
Grand theatre at noonday. At the closing, we overflowed the Stadium and the
building next to it, with another fifteen hundred on the lawns outside. In
Edmonton, neither the hockey arena nor the historic Macdonald church (at noon)
were large enough, even through the campaign had been virtually boycotted by
the closing night, having expressed my thank-yous, I added:
the fifteen days we've been here, an unprecedented thing has happened. Your
monopoly newspaper has not carried a single story on the campaign. I ask you:
is it not news that, for the past two
weeks, the people of this community, of all churches and of none, have been
flocking to this building for a series of religious services? Never in the history
of your city have so many people
attended a similar event. And yet, the Journal, secure in its monopoly,
has in its arbitrary and crotchety way, decided to take no notice of it.
Leaving Edmonton tonight, I leave you
with one wish: that you get a second newspaper.
months later we were in Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, for what would
be the greatest meeting we had yet seen. The days were filled with excitement
and enthusiasm, but my nights were bedevilled by fear, by sudden sweats and by
a pounding of my heart that shook the bed. Mornings I endured the now familiar
pains in my chest and arms. In desperation I sought out the man reputed to be
the best coronary specialist in the state. He had attended the campaign and
took particular care in has examination.
expected to hear the counsel I'd been given in Cincinnati: "Ease up. Take
a vacation in the sun. Don't kill yourself." Instead, he said, "There
is nothing wrong with your heart. Nothing. The pains you get - let me put it in
layman's language - are the result of what I'll call heart spasm. But the
trouble isn't in your heart, it's in your head. There is something in your life
that is bothering you. Some conflict. Some unresolved problem. Whatever it is,
deal with it. Otherwise, you will probably continue to suffer the symptoms you
have described to me and will likely see other manifestations."
knew what the problem was but couldn't discuss it with him. It was my old
nemesis - doubt. And the increasing success of our campaigns was exacerbating
the difficulty. I realized that soon I would be unable to quit. I was becoming
more skilled with time, and the evidence of it was in our services. On my feet,
preaching, I would be carried on the tide of the moment (it has been said that
everyone preaches to the right of his or her beliefs); afterwards, that
certainty would pass and I would call myself a hypocrite.
the closing service - with what was described in the press as "the
greatest crowd ever to gather in the history of Harrisburg" - Connie and I
drove home to New York City. On the way, I told her part of the truth.
"I've decided to leave evangelism. All I'm doing is skimming the surface.
I deal in over-simplification. I feel like an ecclesiastical mountain goat;
leaping from one peak to another and never getting down on the slopes or in the
valleys where life is lived."
Presbyterian Church USA had been pressing me to take over its Department of
Evangelism, not to preach so much as to lead the denomination toward a program
of responsible evangelism. I had rejected their overtures, but now I accepted
and, as Director of Evangelism, took over a suite of offices at Presbyterian
headquarters on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
almost three years, I trained ministers and laymen, lectured in theological
seminaries and universities, wrote two books and did a weekly television show
on the CBS network. I continued to preach, but mostly on Sundays as a guest,
most frequently at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian.
I struggled with my faith.
is an annual custom at Yale University to bring in a prominent preacher for a
week of religious services. The guest speaks each weekday morning in chapel and
makes himself available through the day for interviews with students. In the
spring of 1956, I was invited. Each morning, I donned a black gown and my
Doctor of Divinity hood to preach from the ornate pulpit. Students filled the
pews, and stood in the aisles and doorways. I enjoyed myself: the audience was
sharp and missed no nuance. The afternoon interviews were interesting.
committee of students assigned to help me - most of them members of the Student
Christian Movement-came to me late in the week in great excitement. The
outstanding man in the senior class had asked for an appointment. He was an
honours student in political science, captain of the Yale debating team and,
since his sophomore year, had been quarterback of the football team. The
students were excited because, should he declare him- self a Christian, his
influence would be considerable. We met in the office assigned to me. I liked
him immediately. As we began our discussion, he said, "Before we start,
may we establish some ground rules? Otherwise we'll go around in circles."
course," I said.
let me suggest that, if at any time you say something I disagree with, I be
permitted to interrupt you without seeming to be discourteous. My reason is
this: if in making your argument you presume something I hold to be wrong and I
let it pass – and you then go on to build on that position - it makes it
difficult later on to take issue without going back to beginning. A lot of
time is wasted and a lot of confusion
entirely agree," I said, "so long as the rule works both ways."
he said. "Now, let me tell you why I'm here. I guess the place to begin is
to tell you that, although I was raised a Christian, it didn't take. If you ask
me what I am today, I'd have to say I'm an atheist. I'm interested in religion
but I don't find its propositions credible. I've read a lot and I've asked
around but i haven't been able to get satisfactory answers to my questions I've
been listening to you this week and you seem to come at the whole business
differently. Tell me why I shouldn't be an atheist and I'll tell you why I
talked for an hour, fencing at first, each of us trying to score debating
points, then we grew serious. He was a resourceful debater, but it was not
difficult to rebut his arguments; theology was my discipline and I'd heard most
of the points he made dozens of times.
the end of the allotted time, he rose to go. "I want to thank you,"
he said. "You make a hell of a
good case. I won't say you've convinced me, but at least what you say makes
sense." He put out his hand. "Thanks again. I promise you I'll think
the door closed behind him, my first reaction was one of elation-I'd beaten the
captain of the Yale debating team. I'd made my arguments with a facility
acquired in hundreds of such confrontations - not least, in confrontations with
myself. They were reasonable, intellectually respectable arguments, but
arguments that no longer convinced me. In the heat of discussion I believed
them, but now, alone, I knew that I had been role-playing.
elation was replaced by self-reproach. The student had seemed half convinced:
he was searching for meaning in his life and it was entirely possible that he
might go from our meeting to pray, perhaps even to commit himself. It was
possible that he might do as I had done when I was about his age, as a result
of which the entire direction of my life had been changed. What right did I
have to meddle in his life? What right
did I have to stand before the student body or the thousands of people I had
been preaching to nightly for years, using all my persuasive skills to win them
to something I was no longer convinced of myself? It was a reprehensible thing
to do and I must stop it.
long afterwards I gave up the ministry. The New York Presbytery, to which I belonged,
urged me to reconsider and moved not to accept my resignation for a year. To
add to the dilemma, representatives from the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian church
approached me about becoming their senior minister. The weekly television show
I was doing on the CBS network was renewed and I was asked to continue as host.
It seemed that, having made the decision to go, I was being tempted to stay.
suddenly, it was impossible to leave. Mother had been ill for months and now
the word came that she was dying of cancer. I flew to Toronto. As I sat by her
bed, shaken by the changes in her appearance and hearing her talk about how
close she felt to God, I felt unworthy. Mother's faith was as natural as
breathing. I knew that if I were to tell her that I was about to leave the
ministry she would be crushed. She drew strength from the reports of my
missions; she saved clippings and articles. If, in her declining months, she
had known that her eldest son had turned form the God she so fervently
worshipped, she might not have struggled as long as she did with the pain and
the despair. In the end, I didn't have the courage to tell her the truth, and
let her die ignorant of it.
and I had agreed to divorce. It was an amiable, even an affectionate parting,
and across the years we have remained friends. We hadn't been able to have
children together and very much wanted them. We were both young enough to begin
families, and in the years ahead, each of us would. Moreover, her faith
remained strong and she wanted to continue to express it in the church. Our
separating was an added sadness, I was losing a dear friend.
seemed that all of life was showing me its nether side. My faith was gone, my
marriage was dead, my mother was dying. I was cutting myself off from the
hundreds of friends I had made during nineteen years in the church. I was
abandoning people who looked to me, including thirty-six men and women who were
in the ministry or on mission fields because of my work. I felt like a
there was no real choice. I could stay in the ministry, paper over my doubts
and daily live a lie, or I could make the break. I packed my few possessions in
a rented trailer and started on the road back to Toronto.
The Fate of Evangelism
didn't realize it when I left the ministry in 1957, but itinerant mass
evangelism was about to die, done in by television. The only survivor is Billy
Graham, the last of the great evangelists.
mass evangelist was essentially an American phenomenon, although his
progenitors can be traced to England. In the early eighteenth century, John
Wesley and George Whitefield organized groups of itinerant preachers to carry
the gospel throughout the British Isles. Almost simultaneously, the Great
Awakening began in New England and soon the number of revivalists was legion.
They multiplied in the austere soil of New England and in the Bible Belt of the
South and proliferated as the population moved west.
few rose from among the ruck, most of the eccentric, flamboyant characters who
preached hellfire-and-damnation and "shook sinners over the middle kittles
of hell." The most effective were Charles G. Finney, a New York lawyer,
who eschewed emotionalism even as he engendered it, and that towering figure,
Dwight L. Moody, a Boston shoe salesman who, with little education and no
artifice, spoke to enormous audiences in the United States and Britain over a
period of twenty-five years. Later and more notorious were Billy Sunday, a
converted major-league baseball player, and the Canadian-born Aimee Semple McPherson,
the first internationally known faith healer.
knew many itinerant evangelists in my years in the ministry. They were as
varied as other people. Among them were rogues and saints, charlatans and
do-gooders. Most were simple men; strong on passion and deficient in education.
Some were selfless, avoiding "worldliness" and wealth with a zeal
that approached masochism. Others were dominated by avarice, consumed by pried
and sexually randy. There were few outright Elmer Gantrys.
his circumscribed world, the mass evangelist was a celebrity. In smaller
communities, the annual revival meeting he conducted was the event of the year.
His coming was advertised in the newspapers and proclaimed on banners and
signs. During a campaign he was housed, fed, transported and feted. He was
commonly praised as a great preacher- and some could indeed "bring the
heavens down" - but was usually little more than a leather-lunge exhorter
whose yellowed and spittle-stained sermon notes had been preached from hundreds
of times. Compared for his work, receiving a love offering rather than a
salary. Some grew expert at increasing the take and provided envelopes for the
collection, the face of each bearing a blank cheque made out to the evangelist
and lacking only the amount and a signature.
can catch something of the ambience of an old-fashioned revival meeting in a
Billy Graham crusade. In its time, there was nothing like it. The atmosphere at
the "meeting" vibrated with a special kind of excitement - an
emotional compost of curiosity, anticipation, reverence, aspiration and latent
guilt feelings. The sceptics were there with the zealots. Entire families
assembled, from octogenarians to nursing infants. Some went to learn, others to
confirm their biases. The sick went in hope of touching the hem of the garment,
the weary and heavy laden in hope of finding rest.
were changed - let it not be denied-some so radically as to seem new. Marriages
were repaired or shattered. An alcoholic might come to sobriety. The young
might have their feet set on paths of service that would lead them to the ends
of the earth or might be saddled with a guilt that would weigh on them to the
end of their days. But these were the exceptions; most of the time all that happened
was that indifferent church-goers got a booster-shot.
the magic left town, the prosaic moved to retake the lot ground. Studies showed
that a year later little had changed. Vows were forgotten. Few were added to
the church rolls. For most, the light burned lower and for some the darkness
was deeper. Often, in the aftermath, congregations fell into schism as the
newly anointed insisted that everyone march to their drummer's beat. In the
end, things were better, things were worse, things were much the same.
the itinerant evangelist is gone. In his place we have the television
evangelist. Nor is he merely new; he has a new message. His gospel is a pious
pablum offered in a form that renders the teachings of Jesus unrecognizable;
part superstition, part pious claptrap and as unlike New Testament Christianity
as a newspaper horoscope. Jesus said, "Take up your cross," and
promised persecution and ostracism. The man of God in the $500 suit says,
"only belive," and promises that God will make life easy.
electronic evangelist bears little resemblance to his pre-television
predecessors. Because Christians will no longer attend church weeknights, his
sanctuary is your TV set. His pulpit is a television screen. Your pew is the
easy chair in your living room. You make contact by putting your hands on the
set while the frequency-modulated voice of the two-dimensional man of God
offers forgiveness of sins, answers to prayers, instant happiness, financial
security and miracles of instant healing that would astound the Mayo Clinic.
itinerant evangelist pounded the pulpit and shouted himself hoarse; the
electronic evangelist seldom raises his voice. In lieu of sermons he delivers
brief chats, and wouldn't preach at all, but sit behind a Johnny Carson desk
and ramble on about God in a manner that reduces the mysterium tremendum to
little more than a Mr. Fixit in the sky. Prayer is a chummy conversation
conducted in terms of buddy-buddy intimacy in which the evangelist informs the
deity about what's going on in this wicked old world and presents a shopping
list. The hymns tend to be trendy, mostly country and western - God's-country
and western, of course.
Christianity is an undemanding faith; a media postacy that tells listeners
that, to become a Christian, all they have to do is "believe."
Standards of membership are so low that some so-called "television
ministries" are prepared to enroll as a believer anyone willing to say no
more than, "Thank God it quit raining."
one particular area, however, the traditional evangelist has been surpassed by
his electronic successor - in taking and offering. The former made a plea, said
a prayer and passed the plate. The latter offers "free gifts" and
flashes a mailing address on the screen. The respondent is automatically
enrolled as a full-fledged member in good standing of a mailing list, and
immediately becomes the recipient of computer-personalized mail surpassing in
its volume and entreaties the most energetic of book clubs. These mailings are the
television equivalent of the collection plate, which, having been passed, is
passed forever and ever, Amen.
offerings, mulcted mostly from the poor, the elderly and lonely women, amount
to millions of dollars annually. Few of these dollars are used to give succour
to the needy, to put food in empty bellies or to help the helpless and
dispossessed. Seldom is any of the money returned to the community from which
it came. Most of it is used to provide generous salaries and expensive perks,
to buy more broadcast time, to build larger broadcast studios, to modernize the
mailing system and to prepetuate the evangelist's name in a variety of
are, among the host of television evangelists, exceptions to those I have
described, but they are a minority and most of these preach a bastardized
version of the gospel. Some are not content merely to build their
"ministry," but lust for temporal power. Jesus rejected a move to
make him king ("My kingdom is not of this world") but the minority
that presumptuously describes itself as the "Moral Majority" covets
power, political power, here and now. They seek to influence presidents. They pressure legislators. And if they can't
achieve their goals through intimidation, they have made it clear they will
themselves seek to ascend to the seats of the mighty.
are dangerous men, for they are intolerant of those who don't accept their
premises. They claim to get their orders from God; thus, to oppose them is to
oppose Him. They do not believe in
freedom and, were they in positions of power, would undoubtedly forbid others
the right to follow their convictions. History bears record that the church in
power tends to be a tyrannizing institution.
have had some experience with evangelists.
Most of them, although not all, are relatively ignorant men with narrow
minds and narrow interests. They know almost nothing of the human psyche and
little of the effects of guilt on the human spirit. But that doesn't deter most
of these self-appointed spokesmen for the Almighty. They are like the old-fashioned medicine men; they live off
people’s fears. They are quacks practicing spiritual medicine without a
licence, offering remedies they neither understand nor have bothered to
examine. They are not evil men in the usual sense, not men of ill-will, not
malicious - indeed, they may be eminently personable - but in their zeal to
"do good" they often do great and lasting harm. They exploit guilt
and fear. They warp the mind. They may sometimes do good - at least temporarily
- but it usually happens by chance. On balance, I think the contemporary
television evangelist is deleterious to society.
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