On the first Christmas three wise men looked skyward and began following a star to Bethlehem. This year three men looked earthward and followed a man-made course around the moon.


When reporter Fiske of the New York Times wrote the above lead for a Christmas 1968 review of religion, he meant it to depict the contrast of problems confronting Christians. The journey of the “modern magi” to the moon did not rate a listing among the top ten religious news stories of the year as seen by leading analysts. But particularly after the Apollo 8 astronauts read to their earthbound listeners the first ten verses of Genesis (see story following), the event took on considerable religious significance.

“This is an age when men are increasingly coming to view the universe not with the awe of the worshipper but with the curiosity of the scientist,” Fiske said. As it turned out, however, it was an act of worship and not a scientific discovery that was the most arresting feature of the spacemen’s communication back to earth.

The idea of reading the story of Creation was believed to have originated with Air Force Colonel Frank Borman, the Apollo 8 commander, who is an Episcopal lay reader. His wife said later, “It’s just what this small world was waiting for.” The astronauts reportedly received a number of requests before the flight proposing that they include some kind of religious expression in their radio-television transmissions to earth.* Radio preacher Carl McIntire, head of the International Council of Christian Churches, had asked that astronauts give credit to the living God and received a sympathetic acknowledgment from Air Force Major William Anders, the Roman Catholic crew member.

The reading of the passage (from the King James Version) was shared by Borman, Anders, and Navy Captain James S. Lovell, Jr. Time described Lovell as one “whom Borman converted to the Episcopal faith.”

The Apollo 8 flight, though so impressively historic, did not elicit much comment from religious leaders either before or after. Most American denominational leaders usually issue statements on events of overriding significance, but this time they did not so much as call for prayer in the astronauts’ behalf. One exception was Presiding Bishop John E. Hines of the Episcopal Church, who led in intercessory petition for the men’s safety.

Pope Paul VI also uttered prayer for “the three courageous astronauts,” whose mission he called a “millennial event.”

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There was world-wide reaction to the Scripture reading from Apollo 8. Evangelist Billy Graham hailed it as “a tremendous thing, showing to the world that man is more than a product of technology [and] is a spiritual being.” The New York Board of Rabbis sent an enthusiastic telegram:

“The New York Board of Rabbis, world’s largest representative rabbinic body, congratulates you on great scientific feat. We commend you even more for your profound spiritual quality. Your reading from Genesis evoked responsive chord in hearts of all spiritually attuned people throughout this good earth, even as it indicated depth of your own religious feeling and humility in presence of God’s majesty and his wondrous creation. In midst of magnificent technological accomplishment your message from the moon has redirected man’s focus to God.…”

Soviet Radio didn’t know quite what to think: “It would be interesting to know what this means. Is it a joke or a space attempt to strengthen the authority of religion which has been shaken by the flight itself?”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, professed atheist whose litigation prompted the U. S. Supreme Court to outlaw public-school devotional exercises, made a predictable complaint about the astronauts’ Scripture reading.

Borman’s pastor, the Rev. James C. Buchner of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in League City, Texas, said that originally an attempt was to be made to have the astronaut take part in the congregation’s Christmas Eve service via radio and television. This “live” participation plan proved unfeasible, so Borman offered a prayer that was taped and replayed in the church. The text of the prayer:

“Give us, O God, the vision which can see thy love in the world in spite of human failure. Give us the faith, the trust, the goodness, in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us can do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen.”

Borman addressed the prayer to “people at St. Christopher’s—actually to people everywhere.” The other lay readers had been jesting with Borman earlier last month, saying that he was “going out of town” just to avoid taking a turn at the services.

All three astronauts obviously take their religion seriously. Naturally, their reading of the creation account raised the question of how literally they believe it, and the answer is not likely to be made public.

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On the Sunday before blastoff, Borman and Lovell attended services at an Episcopal church in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Anders attended a private mass offered in a Roman Catholic church in the same community. A newsman stopped Anders and came away with perhaps the most apt quote of all: “The more I see of God’s universe, the deeper will be my belief in God.”

Message From The Moon

At the close of one of the television transmissions from Apollo 8, there was a brief pause in the audio, then the voice of Anders:

“We are now approaching a lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message they would like to send to you:

“ ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.’ ”

Lovell picked up the reading:

“ ‘And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.’ ”

Borman concluded the message:

“ ‘And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.’

“And from the crew of Apollo 8 we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good earth.”

New Synod Plan Rapped

With deadline this week for reactions to a proposed “Design for Mission” restructure for the United Presbyterian Church, the two biggest presbyteries in the denomination have registered opposition.

The biggest, the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, unanimously passed a declaration last month that committee proposals, if adopted, “will in reality destroy the Presbyterian Church as we know it.”

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To Pittsburgh, the presbytery is the “fountainhead” of Presbyterian government, and the proposal to put more power in the regional synods, which encompass several presbyteries, would “greatly impair” presbytery programs. The statement concludes that those who want to lead the UPC “should occasionally look behind them to make sure that those they would lead are following.…”

Days earlier, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, whose environs include denominational headquarters, approved 163–42 a more moderate, but definitely critical, response.

Philadelphia, like several other presbyteries, sent an overture to the May General Assembly, which will act on the committee’s redrafted version of the synod proposal. It proposes that the committee and staff be dismissed, a new committee be set up to continue the study of national agencies originally voted in 1966, and all synods and presbyteries review their operations to see if they can be improved under existing procedures.

The Philadelphia statement says the committee claims to “clarify” structure but in fact “redefines” it. It says the denominational committee advocates “the transfer of powers for the determination of mission strategy, program, development and allocation of resources, and the employment and assignment of administrative staff from presbyteries to synods.” This “transfer of powers” is called the “heart of the matter.”

No Executions In 1968

With the King and Kennedy murders and rising crime rates, violent death was a major factor in the year just ended. One exception: the government didn’t execute anybody. It was the first year on record (i.e., since 1930) without a single execution for major crime.

At the start of 1968, some 435 convicts waited in “death rows.” Legal challenges and appeals largely account for the fact that none were executed. American Civil Liberties Union staffer Melvin Wulf comments, “You might say that capital punishment has been de facto abolished—by court stays.”

Since 1930, a total of 3,859 Americans have been executed. The high point was 1935, with 199 executions; the total had dropped to two by 1967.


Evangelist Billy Graham spent five and a half days ministering to troops in Viet Nam during the Christmas holidays. He preached twenty-six times and for the first time in his life lost his voice. “It was not a case of laryngitis, but simply exhaustion,” Graham said.

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He nevertheless called it “a most rewarding experience.” At the close of each meeting he asked that those who wanted to make a commitment to Christ raise their hands. “From one-third to one-half of every group raised their hands,” he said.

Graham traveled as far north as Hue. He spent a night in Danang during which the Viet Cong shelled the city. From a helicopter a mile away he watched American and Viet Cong negotiators discuss prisoner release on a battleground fifty miles northwest of Saigon, near the Cambodian border. He visited the aircraft carrier “Ranger” and a hospital ship. He spoke to troops from Australia and New Zealand as well as those from the United States.

Graham’s largest service was a “congregation” of about 7,000. On Christmas Eve he and Roman Catholic Archbishop Terence Cooke were honored at a dinner in Saigon given by General Creighton W. Abrams, who had invited the two churchmen to Viet Nam. There was also a reception for Graham by evangelical pastors, missionaries, and chaplains.

The evangelist said the American forces are encouraged over the military progress in the last six months. He said he felt that it was an important factor in the presence of Hanoi in the peace talks in Paris.

Accompanying Graham were associate evangelist T. W. Wilson and musicians Tedd Smith and Jimmy McDonald. The group also spent five days ministering to American troops in Japan.

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