Until the end—his death at age 95 on March 19—fundamentalist empire-builder Carl McIntire was a tireless opponent of theological liberalism and political totalitarianism. No other figure in 20th-century fundamentalism so defined himself by identifying his enemies. His worldview, like that of other fundamentalists and not a few evangelicals, was unrelievedly dualistic—good versus evil, conservative versus liberal—making it impossible to countenance ambiguity, theological or otherwise, or to discern shades of gray.
In an interview for Christianity Today just months before his death, I asked McIntire to identify his enemies. "The liberals," McIntire shot back. Then he sounded a note of defiance: "But they can't stop me!"
For nearly three-quarters of a century, the irrepressible McIntire used Collingswood, New Jersey, as a launch pad for firing opinions on matters ranging from the Westminster Confession of Faith to the Communist Manifesto. At the height of his influence during the Cold War, McIntire's empire extended from Collingswood, the home of his Bible Presbyterian Church and Faith Christian School, to Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (Faith Theological Seminary), Cape May, New Jersey (Shelton College), and Pasadena, California (Highlands College).
He ran a conference center in Florida and had designs for a theme park there that would have celebrated America's military campaign in Vietnam. McIntire's radio program, 20th Century Reformation Hour, reached homes throughout North America, until his bombast and blatant violation of the fairness doctrine prompted the Federal Communications Commission to force him off the air.
A Caper at Sea
McIntire's enigmatic, nearly century-long life suggests several interpretations, most of them contradictory and laced with irony. Born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and reared in Oklahoma, he aspired to attend Princeton Theological Seminary, yet walked away after two years as a student there. He formed his own competing institutions, then pined for recognition from the very seminary he spurned. He strove to build an empire—a denomination, colleges, a seminary, a council of churches—but those institutions that survived are fading. And he disowned his best and most famous student, Francis A. Schaeffer.
To his critics, and they were legion, McIntire was a disruptive force, a petulant and unrelenting separatist doing damage to the cause of Christian unity. At the slightest provocation he would unleash tirades against a variety of enemies—modernism, communism, evangelicals, the FCC, Christianity Today, the United Nations, the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches—all of which he regarded as the very embodiment of evil.
A consummate showman, McIntire did everything with a flourish. In 1937 he physically led his congregation in Collingswood out of its building to a new location across town. His protests at the assemblies of the World Council of Churches were so common that at the 1991 meeting in Canberra, Australia, church leaders whom he had reviled for decades came out to his solitary picket and greeted him like an old friend: "Hey, Carl, how ya doing?"
McIntire earned a reputation as the P.T. Barnum of American fundamentalism. When his radio station, WXUR, faced closure in 1973 for McIntire's defiance of the FCC's fairness doctrine, he dressed in costume as John Witherspoon. Playing the part of the early Presbyterian leader and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, McIntire conducted an elaborate "funeral" for WXUR and for freedom of speech—complete with a coffin—at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
The WXUR caper remains a masterpiece of McIntire's theatrics. After the FCC pulled the plug on his radio station on July 5, 1973, he set about to broadcast from another venue: international waters off the coast of his Christian Admiral hotel in Cape May, New Jersey.
"If there is not free speech any longer on the radio in the United States," McIntire declared, "it is still possible to have free speech out on the Atlantic Ocean." He obtained a World War II-era minesweeper from a scuba-diving outfit in Florida, rechristened it the Columbus, and equipped it with a radio transmitter. As a phalanx of reporters and tourists gathered in Cape May, McIntire repeatedly told them that Radio Free America would be "anti-communist and pro-American."
At 12:23 P.M. on September 19, 1973, McIntire announced, "This is Radio Free America. The silence of the sea is broken at 1160 on the AM dial."
Shortly thereafter a Coast Guard cutter from the Cape May station sliced through the water—"like a hawk or a buzzard," in McIntire's words—to monitor the Columbus. McIntire asked his listeners if they could hear him. They called the hotel from as far away as Cape Cod to confirm that he was coming across loud and clear.
Surrendering the microphone to a colleague, McIntire climbed to the deck and surveyed the sea around him. "We did it," he exulted to reporters. "It's going. It's working. We got our spiritual emphasis in, and our freedom emphasis. The Lord is giving us the opportunity we wanted. I've got a platform out here where we can really tear this country apart."
The FCC and the Coast Guard, however, were even then preparing to reel him in. Radio Free America's signal interfered with that of a station in Lakewood, New Jersey, and McIntire's pirate radio station was off the air shortly after ten o'clock that evening. The floating radio station had lasted less than 10 hours.
"I didn't know what a sensation it would be," McIntire told CT. "Then they killed it." He looked off into the middle distance. "I became a very famous man out of that."
When I remarked that, based on press accounts of the Radio Free America incident, McIntire seemed to have been enjoying himself, he replied emphatically, "I was!" He smiled. "People stood along the coast to see me. It was a crazy thing to do, but it was dramatic."
Degrees of Separation
No one could have predicted that McIntire's life would have been so full of drama. Born in 1906, he spent most of his childhood in Oklahoma. He received a teaching certificate from Southeastern State Teachers College in Oklahoma, graduated from Park College in Missouri, and studied at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1927 until 1929.
He followed J. Gresham Machen to Westminster Theological Seminary as part of the separatist movement among northern Presbyterians. After graduating from Westminster in 1931, McIntire soon formed his own denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church, which was more militantly fundamentalist than Machen's Orthodox Presbyterian Church. McIntire insisted on premillennialism, for example, and strictly proscribed any consumption of alcohol. He also formed Faith Theological Seminary as well as Shelton College and Highlands College.
In 1941 McIntire founded the American Council of Christian Churches as a counter to the Federal Council of Churches, which he considered too liberal. He also refused to join the National Association of Evangelicals, organized in 1942, deeming it too latitudinarian. In 1948 he organized the International Council of Christian Churches as a worldwide association of like-minded fundamentalists.
Throughout his career, McIntire was a tireless crusader against communists, whom he suspected of lurking everywhere, from mainline Protestantism to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS); he cooperated with the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Over the years, McIntire expanded his list of enemies to include Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Martin Luther King Jr., antiwar protesters, feminists, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, among many others.
To the end, McIntire reserved special fire for the ecumenical movement, especially as found in the NCC and the WCC. "They're starting a one-world religion," McIntire told CT.
One of the hallmarks of McIntire's career—and a defining tenet of his brand of orthodoxy—was separatism. McIntire proudly wore the fundamentalist label. Although most of U.S. fundamentalists felt compelled to separate from mainline Protestants in the 1920s and 1930s because they believed the denominations had fallen into liberalism or modernism, McIntire and some others took this separatism further. They became "second-degree separatists"—separating not only from liberals, but also from those who refused to separate completely from liberals.
John D. Woodbridge is professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the son of Charles Woodbridge, once one of McIntire's allies. "In particular years, his influence was rather extraordinary," Woodbridge says. "Purity of doctrine was something that he took seriously. There's something heroic about that concern, although some of the methods he used were counterproductive and made it easier to dismiss his ideas."
Although McIntire spoke highly of the late Charles Woodbridge, the two men had a falling out decades ago. It illustrated one of the perils of separatism among fundamentalists. As John Woodbridge puts it, "They often were so true to their views that they separated from other separatists."
McIntire was so prone to separatism that several years ago he separated from the very congregation he had formed 75 years earlier. His separatism recalled that of Roger Williams in the 17th century. A Puritan minister in Salem, Massachusetts, Williams parted ways with the Puritans in 1636, going away to Rhode Island, where in 1639 he formed the first congregation of Baptists in North America. Then he separated from them four years later. By the end of his life, Williams believed that only he and his wife were truly regenerate.
The conviction that theological liberalism had infected Princeton Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Church in the United States impelled McIntire, at the behest of two of his teachers, J. Gresham Machen and Robert Dick Wilson, to leave the denomination in 1929. Machen, having failed in his attempts to rescue Presbyterians from modernism, led a series of defections, which began with the formation of the Independent Board of Foreign Missions because the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions had become liberal.
McIntire pitched in with a broadside against the Presbyterian board and its leader, Robert E. Speer. He pulled the booklet from a stack of his books that he had prepared for my arrival. "He was an ecumenical," McIntire said of Speer.
He asked if I had been to the Speer Library at Princeton Seminary. "Well, I'm responsible for that being built for him," he said, implying that Presbyterians constructed the library to defend Speer's honor after McIntire's attack.
Machen's quarrel with the Presbyterians also led to his departure from the faculty to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. McIntire followed, and more than seven decades later he still grew misty-eyed when the name of Princeton came up. "Princeton Theological is gone," he said ruefully. "It's ecumenical."
When Princeton honored him as a distinguished alumnus several years ago, however, McIntire showed up for the occasion. And after Stephen Crocco, the librarian at Speer, organized a moving crew to rescue McIntire's papers from a dumpster, McIntire said he was proud to have his archives at Princeton.
My first encounter with McIntire occurred several years ago as I was preparing a documentary on the life of Billy Graham. For all of the adulation accruing to Graham, some fundamentalists like McIntire, Bob Jones Jr., and Jack Wyrtzen still regarded him as a flaming liberal.
Because Graham had attended Bob Jones University, I wrote to Bob Jones Jr. He replied tersely that he had no interest whatsoever in Graham. Then, after weeks of trying to contact McIntire by phone, I finally reached him and asked if he would be interested in being interviewed about Billy Graham. But I made the mistake of saying it was for a documentary on PBS. Cleverly avoiding mention of Graham, McIntire launched into a 20-minute tirade about how PBS was a tool of communism.
In our recent interview, I asked him about Graham again. McIntire remained uncharacteristically circumspect, perhaps recognizing that this was one battle he could not win. "Well, I don't want to express my thoughts on him," he said, although he made clear that Graham's besetting sin was his refusal to separate from those McIntire regarded as nonbelievers. "If you don't maintain obedience to separatism, you're no good," McIntire thundered. "Compromise is the easiest thing for these people."
He cited 2 Corinthians 6:17 from the King James Version, the only translation he found acceptable: "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you." The familiar words tripped off his tongue like a mantra. "And that's my position," he said, raising his voice. "These commands to be separate are without compromise!"
He extended his criticism to others, even to Francis Schaeffer, a venerated former student at McIntire's Faith Theological Seminary who went on to a distinguished career as a pastor, theologian, and apologist for the faith. When I asked if he had personally taught Schaeffer, McIntire shrugged indifferently and said, "I guess I did."
Their parting, he claimed, was due to Schaeffer having challenged McIntire for leadership of the International Council of Christian Churches. McIntire asserted that he turned aside the challenge, and that Schaeffer "was never even cordial or nice to me after that."
Many of McIntire's followers over the decades regarded the sage of Collingswood as a prophet. As often as not, he made a good case against the perils of communism, liberal theology, and the erosion of freedom. History may have vindicated some of McIntire's arguments, though he clearly did not enjoy the same stature as, say, Machen, his mentor, or Schaeffer, his student.
The reasons for this are complex, but they almost certainly include separatism itself. Unlike Schaeffer, McIntire seemed almost reckless in his invective—a shotgun approach that inflicted collateral damage, needlessly wounding those disposed to be his allies.
In his relentlessly dualistic approach to the world, McIntire may have allowed separatism to become its own end, more important than friendships or alliances, more important even than victory, more important than the communion of the saints.
Collingswood, where McIntire spent most of his life—from 1939 until his death he lived in a white house next to the town's high school—was founded in 1681. Clearly, it was once a lovely town with spacious parks, affluent residents, and distinguished architecture in its business district. Now the curbs are crumbling, the parks are neglected, and potholes pockmark the streets. There comes a point when a downtown has one too many nail salons and Chinese takeouts. Collingswood has reached that point.
Down Haddon Avenue and across from a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise stand Bible Presbyterian Church and Faith Christian School, two of the institutions that McIntire founded over the course of his long career. Once a hive of fundamentalist activity, the complex now is nearly deserted. The steps are chipping away, the doors in need of scraping and a coat of paint. A tall chain-link fence guards the parking lot.
Faith Christian School, which advertises itself as kindergarten through 12th grade, has 90 students, down from 200 just a couple of years ago. The school, founded by McIntire in 1968, graduated no seniors last year; it had four freshmen, seven sophomores, and one junior. The high school portrait section of the school's 1998 yearbook, The Patriot, calls these students "The Faithful Few."
Several years ago the members of the adjacent church finally asked McIntire, their pastor for 75 years, to retire, whereupon McIntire defiantly began conducting services in the living room of his home. "Speaking from God's Word, there wasn't anyone who could touch him," said Carol Elwell, the school's principal. "But things got large enough that, from a church member standpoint, he wasn't touching the needs within the church."
Elwell took me to the school's gymnasium, which served as the original sanctuary for the congregation. She pointed out the large photographs that encircle the room, each one showing McIntire in a heroic pose with a caption describing the event: "Leaving All to Follow Him, March 27, 1938"; "The Tent Was Erected, April 1, 1938"; "Church Groundbreaking Ceremony, July 1, 1956."
"He thrived on controversy," Elwell said. "The potential for the community was so great, but he didn't plan for the future. There was no master plan for things to continue, no thought for building a group to carry on the work."
I asked McIntire who would carry on his work. "I don't know," he said. "God will raise him up."
Whoever emerges will have his hands full. Highlands College closed long ago, as did Shelton College, after shuttling between Florida and New Jersey before the New Jersey government finally shut it down. The Christian Admiral hotel in Cape May was razed several years back to make way for a housing development. McIntire's "Gateway to the Stars" Bible Conference and Freedom Center collapsed long ago. His Faith Theological Seminary survives in a church basement in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
When I asked what his legacy would be, McIntire responded, "Everything!" The old warrior shifted his gaze to the window. "I defended the faith," he said, "and saved a lot of souls."
McIntire repeatedly told me that he was president of the International Council of Christian Churches. I had noticed a plaque on the front door of his home identifying it as the headquarters of the ICCC, and as we talked McIntire's wife tapped away on a typewriter in the ICCC office in the next room. "We've built an ICCC all over the world," McIntire boasted. "That will last."
He shifted in his chair and resumed shadowboxing with old enemies: "Old liberalism has come in with all its attempts to stop me. They thought they could stop me, but they didn't. We have free speech in this country, and I used all I could."
Warming up to his subject, he continued, "I'm just Carl McIntire. And the amazing thing is that people treat me with such respect and esteem. Billy Graham can't come near me. I've lived my own life for the glory of God."
Randall Balmer is a CT editor at large and author of Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (Westminster John Knox).
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today include:
'You're Right, Dr. McIntire!'In the world of ecumenical Protestantism, some owe Carl McIntire an apology for dismissing his warnings.
In his Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, Randall Balmer calls McIntire "the P.T. Barnum of American fundamentalism," a constant and colorful crusader against communism, ecumenism, and liberal theology—which he often saw as going hand-in-hand-in-hand.
Hear Carl McIntire sermons at Sermonaudio.com. Other resources and writings are available at the PCA Historical Center.
Obituaries for Carl McIntire include:
Fundamentalist radio evangelist—The Miami Herald (March 24, 2002)
Carl McIntire, 95, Evangelist and Patriot, Dies—The New York Times (March 22, 2002)
Carl McIntire, 95, firebrand pastor—The Philadelphia Inquirer (March 22, 2002)
Previous Christianity Today article about Carl McIntire include:
Weblog: Carl McIntire, 'P.T. Barnum of Fundamentalism,' Dies at 95During the fundamentalist-evangelical split of the post-World War II era, Carl McIntire wore the label proudly. (March 25, 2002)
McIntire at Center of New FeudAfter refusing a retirement request, 92-year-old Carl McIntire leaves the Bible Presbyterian Church and holds Sunday services at his home. (March 9, 1999)
Christianity Today Editor at large Randall Balmer has written several articles for CT including:
The Wireless GospelSixty-two years ago, Back to the Bible joined the radio revolution; now it is finding new media for its old message. A case study in evangelicals' love affair with communications technology. (Feb. 22, 2001)
The Kinkade Crusade"America's most collected artist" is a Christian who seeks to sabotage Modernism by painting beauty, sentiment, and the memory of Eden. (Dec. 8, 2000)
Hymns on MTVCombining mainstream appeal with spiritual depth, Jars of Clay is shaking up Contemporary Christian Music. (Nov. 15, 1999)
Hollywood's Renegade ApostleUnless films like The Apostle succeed, other worthy motion pictures stand little chance of being produced. (April 6, 1998)
Still Wrestling with the DevilA visit with Jimmy Swaggart ten years after his fall. (March 2, 1998)
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