The Humble Coach Behind Celebrity Christianity

Remembering the tenacity and ironies of Fellowship of Christian Athletes founder Don McClanen.
The Humble Coach Behind Celebrity Christianity
Image: FCA

On Tuesday this week I spent the day hunched over a desk, reading letters that Don McClanen had written 60 years ago as he agonized over whether or not he should leave the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organization he had founded in 1954.

On Thursday I saw the news on my Twitter timeline that McClanen had died.

A historian is supposed to keep a critical distance from his or her subjects of study, and I like to think that I follow that standard. Yet when I saw the news, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of loss for a man I never met, a man I know only through dusty letters written long ago.

When I first began my research on the early history of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I had no affinity for McClanen—I barely knew who he was. At first he seemed too earnest, too persistent. In his letters he badgered, he pestered, he shared too much information too soon. Yet the more that I encountered McClanen in the archives, the more I grew intrigued by his combination of intensity, sincerity, and humility. There is a trace of irony in the latter, for McClanen’s fame today (such as it is) rests on the fact that he founded an organization explicitly built around the idea of celebrity, salesmanship, and publicity.

“If athletes can endorse shaving cream, razor blades, and cigarettes,” he said. “Surely they can endorse the Lord.”

Yet McClanen always played a background role, never promoting himself. His departure from FCA in 1961 barely made a ripple outside of internal FCA circles. One year after submitting his resignation letter, he could be found living on a church-owned farm in Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C., contemplating whether he should be a cab driver or a substitute teacher ...

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