When World Vision responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, it didn’t tell supporters. The work wasn’t secret, exactly, but the organization also didn’t publicize what it was doing. It didn’t know how to publicize it, how to get evangelical donors to care about this particular crisis, AIDS in Africa. AIDS meant sex. AIDS was icky. It was associated with homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and drug use, and to talk about AIDS, you had to talk about needles and condoms.
“We’re a G-rated ministry,” the marketing team told Rich Stearns when he became president of World Vision US in 1998, “involved in an R-rated issue.”
AIDS education and prevention also reminded evangelicals of liberal social programs. It made them suspicious that the gospel message was being replaced with social action. This was always the challenge for World Vision, the small missionary agency that grew to be the largest Christian humanitarian aid organization in the world: How do you convince evangelicals that caring about social issues is part of the gospel? How do you persuade them that tending the sick and caring for the poor isn’t in conflict with sharing the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection?
The answer is the subject of God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism, an insightful new book by David P. King, who directs the Lake Institute of Faith & Giving and teaches at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. King argues that the organization shows how American evangelicals came to understand themselves in a global context in the 20th century. Historians have been very interested in this subject in the last few years, looking at how missionaries, missionary-spies, religious media, the state of Israel, and cooperation with churches in the global south made American evangelicals into global thinkers. King’s history is a valuable contribution to this scholarship. It’s especially interesting because it focuses on this tension in evangelical life between evangelism and social action.
The Humanitarian Turn
King’s story starts in the 1940s with the end of World War II and the beginning of a boom of revivalism. Conservative American Protestants—who at the time used the words fundamentalist and evangelical interchangeably—felt a renewed optimism about the possibilities for preaching the gospel. With new energy, new technology, and a new political situation, they felt they could reach the whole world for Christ. A young Bob Pierce took the gospel to China with Youth for Christ, with funds raised by another young YFC minister, Billy Graham.
Pierce spent four months in China, preaching in the largest auditoriums he could find. He didn’t know the language, so he spoke through a translator. He hadn’t studied the culture, so he didn’t try to adapt the messages to the specific needs or concerns of the Chinese people. He was, nevertheless, quite successful. Pierce recorded 17,852 decisions for Christ in the flyleaf of his Bible.
His ignorance could cause problems, though. Pierce preached at a girls’ school run by Dutch Reformed missionaries and told the new converts to go home and tell their parents, “I’m a Christian now.” One girl named White Jade followed his instructions. Her father beat her and threw her out of the house. The missionaries took this story to Pierce, demanding to know how he was going to help this newborn Christian whose faith made her an orphan. Pierce gave them his last five dollars. He felt convicted, though, that it wasn’t enough.
On his second trip to China, Pierce brought funds for orphanages, leper colonies, and to buy food and medicine. He continued to hold revivalist rallies but paired them with concern for the physical conditions of the people he was trying to reach. King calls this “a new evangelical humanitarianism” that “tied evangelism and social concern together with insider evangelical language that completely avoided the language of a liberal social gospel that conservatives despised.”
Pierce set out on his own in 1950, founding World Vision with this idea of combining traditional missionary work with humanitarian aid. He said social action sent a message: “Yes, we care about your eternal destiny—but we also care about you now.”
World Vision was blocked from China when the Communist government closed the country to missionaries, so Pierce turned his attention to Korea right as the Korean War began. The war created some acute physical needs. Pierce was especially concerned about orphans. By the end of the 1950s, World Vision was committing 79 percent of its annual budget to orphans, spending more than $425,000 to care for about 13,000 children. Child sponsorships became a major part of World Vision’s fundraising and a core part of the organization’s identity.
Caring for Souls and Stomachs
American evangelicals supported this work, but many were skeptical of World Vision. There were concerns, according to King, about the organization’s disregard for evangelical boundaries. Pierce was a pragmatist. He was happy to partner with non-evangelical groups, ignoring theological differences. There were also concerns about Pierce himself. As King writes, Pierce was “quick to speak, prone to anger, blunt, and bull-headed, even as he was generous, loyal, and tender-hearted.” There were rumors of affairs and substance abuse. Pierce struggled with depression and was often estranged from his wife and children. “His general instability,” King writes, “was an open secret among fellow evangelical leaders.”
There were also continued conflicts about priorities. Shouldn’t souls come first, stomachs second? Pierce said no. “You can’t preach to people whose stomachs are empty,” he said. “First you have to give them food.”
He convinced a lot of Christians. Throughout the Korean War, World Vision funneled American evangelical money to Christian orphanages and shipments of food, medicine, and Bibles, as well as evangelistic crusades. When the United States got more involved in the war in Vietnam, World Vision was there, constructing refugee centers, hospitals, and a vocational training program for tribal people. The organization supplied wheelchairs and crutches to Vietnamese doctors and shipped thousands of pounds of relief aid into the country. When the conflict expanded into Laos and Cambodia, World Vision took aid to those countries too. Pierce’s successor, Stan Mooneyham, personally led a convoy carrying $100,000 of medical supplies from Saigon to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, in 1970. When they got there, Mooneyham preached about the love of God.
In the 1970s, the organization expanded operations from 8 to 40 countries, and its budget grew from $4.5 million to more than $100 million. World Vision also started to look beyond the front lines of the Cold War, responding to natural disasters in Bangladesh and Nicaragua and famines in India and Ethiopia. World Vision mobilized American evangelicals to become social activists, especially on the issue of world hunger. It developed youth group curricula for “planned famines,” where teenagers would fast for 40 hours to raise funds for World Vision. And it organized a “Love Loaf” campaign, asking families to skip one meal per week.
“World hunger resonated with evangelicals,” King writes, “and World Vision offered them acceptable ways to respond. It allowed them to act, indeed, to become social activists within limits.”
Mooneyham discovered two very sharp limits. The first was any criticism of American foreign policy. World Vision tried to help Vietnamese refugees in 1978, three years after US withdrew from the war. In the violence after America’s departure, more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees attempted to flee the country by boat. Mooneyham tried to get the US to take the “boat people,” but he was rejected. He then organized a ship to pull them out of the water, but the US refused to register the vessel. World Vision had to work with the government of Honduras instead. Eventually, President Jimmy Carter relented, ordering the Navy to assist the refugees and offering the boat people asylum in the US, but World Vision had learned the challenge of working against US interests.
The second limit was any criticism of middle-class American consumption. Mooneyham said committed Christians should reject consumerism, move toward simple living, and fast in solidarity with the poor. He said charity wasn’t enough. Evangelicals should work for systematic change, starting in their own homes.
It didn’t go over well. As King explains, evangelicals were moved by pleas to care for orphans and feed the hungry, but “critiques of American imperialism, demands for structural change, and appeals for simplicity of life” mostly fell on deaf ears.
Reconnecting with Evangelicals
This started a rift between World Vision and American evangelicals. The organization grew increasingly disconnected from supporting churches. In the 1980s, World Vision downsized its church-relations department. Instead of working with congregations and promoting missionary and humanitarian work in church services, the marketing team used direct mail and TV ads. By 1984, World Vision got 86 percent of its donors through television. The organization also turned more to government aid and shifted its focus to large-scale development projects. This meant more partnerships with groups such as the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization. In the process, World Vision became more professionalized. When it hired new people, there was increased emphasis on expertise and less concern about Christian commitment.
The organization became more international, too. World Vision developed a federalist model, which gave a lot of independence to international offices. They all shared administrative costs and signed on to World Vision’s Statement of Faith, Core Values, and Covenant of Partnership, but Latin American, Asian, and African offices could make decisions without regard for the sensibilities of American evangelicals. There were internal fights over the use of images of malnourished children, the value of child-sponsorship programs, and the differences between charity and development.
By the 1990s, World Vision was struggling to maintain a real connection to American evangelicalism. According to King, an internal study found that less than half of the organization’s offices considered the mission statement when screening potential employees, and only 40 percent asked for a written faith statement. “Religious talk” was often relegated to chapel talks and the occasional staff retreat. When World Vision started responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis, it didn’t try to convince evangelical supporters of the importance of the work.
This was a big concern when Rich Stearns became president of World Vision US in 1998. He pushed for a new outreach effort. When he did, he found that evangelicals were ready and open to World Vision’s brand of evangelical humanitarianism. An AIDS education effort saw immediate response. The number of evangelicals willing to support HIV/AIDS work jumped from 3 percent to 14 percent in a single year. Megachurch pastors, notably Rick Warren of Saddleback and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, were ready to partner with World Vision on big social action projects. From 1999 to 2006, the number of evangelical donors increased by 50 percent. Young evangelicals were especially responsive: When World Vision reached out to Christian colleges and campus ministries, 20,000 evangelical students on 400 campuses signed up to support the fight against AIDS, as well as sex trafficking, malaria, and global poverty.
“World Vision’s history,” King concludes, “sheds light on the evolving international outlook of American evangelicals from World War II to the present. … Whether retaining an American exceptionalism or recasting themselves as global citizens, they also incorporated a religious lens into their interpretation of the world and their place within it.”
God’s Internationalists is a fascinating new narrative about American evangelicals and politics in the 20th century. While King’s writing is probably too academic for some readers, this is an important new book that complicates our understanding of how evangelicals came to see social issues as a key part of their Christian witness.
Daniel Silliman is a US historian who writes about religion in American culture. He teaches writing and humanities at Milligan College in Tennessee.