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Campus Crusader for Christ

Bill Bright is a compelling, flawed figure in John Turner's historical analysis of postwar evangelicalism.
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Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America
by John G. Turner
University of North Carolina Press
304 pp., $19.95 (paperback)

"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." Probably no slogan outside the Bible is so familiar to evangelicals as Bill Bright's first spiritual law. More than a few non-Christians have heard this line as well, thanks to tireless evangelism by Bright and staff for Campus Crusade for Christ, which he founded in 1951. Since then, Crusade has become the largest non-philanthropic evangelical parachurch organization, collecting about $500 million in annual revenues. Nearly 30,000 staff around the world share Bright's Four Spiritual Laws tract. These staff members raise their own financial support, a practice pioneered by Crusade that has become standard among missionaries.

In short, Crusade has grown into an evangelical powerhouse, the point of first contact for many college students who moved away from the churches that reared them. Crusade was overdue for the new critical, scholarly evaluation written by John G. Turner, assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama. His book, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, has already rankled some of the late Bright's family and colleagues. Indeed, Turner admits in the introduction that some Crusade insiders who reviewed the manuscript "in some cases vehemently disagreed" with his conclusions. But Turner's book succeeds precisely because he recorded the first-hand observations of so many Crusade insiders.

Turner composes a compelling narrative of Crusade's development, and it's the story of postwar American evangelicalism. Bright started Crusade at UCLA during the revivals that followed World War II. He sided with Billy Graham over Bob Jones during the split between evangelicals and fundamentalists in the 1950s. Crusaders counter-protested radical youth on college campuses in the 1960s even as they simultaneously embraced Jesus hippies and their music. Bright developed ties with conservative politicians in the 1970s and 1980s, and organized support for traditional family structures in the 1990s.

Turner's analysis follows the experience and perspective he admits in the introduction. He was involved with Young Life and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship while growing up. He admires Bright's personal piety but rejects other characteristics of Crusade and the evangelical movement.

"While I respect Campus Crusade for boldly and aggressively pursuing its objectives," Turner writes, "I also highlight the ministry's period anti-intellectualism, its infatuation with large crowds and statistics, and the messy ways Bright connected his mission to partisan politics."

Bright emerges as a compelling figure in Turner's book. For many years, Bright and his wife, Vonette, lived with Henrietta Mears, the famed Sunday school teacher at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. This pocket of Southern California became a waypoint for numerous evangelical superstars, including Billy Graham. Evangelicalism was a small world in those early days after World War II. Turner shows how these leaders were united by conservative theology, fear of Communism, and resolve to defeat the Red Menace with evangelism and American military might.

Before long, cracks began to show in the conservative Protestant alliance. Much has been written about Graham's break with Jones after the 1957 New York City crusade, but Bright's split with fundamentalism was similarly painful. Bright joined Graham on the platform for his 1958 crusade in San Francisco. Vonette declined the invitation, still unsure about whether to support Graham. Afterward, Bob Jones Sr. wrote all alumni from his school who worked for Crusade and told them to choose between Bright and their alma mater. The crisis was enough to threaten the viability of Crusade, which drew heavily from Bob Jones University. Turner observes that Jones and Bright both cared about evangelism and doctrinal purity. But Jones cared more about purity, and Bright cared more about evangelism.

Evangelism almost always trumped theology under Bright's leadership. Turner says he only confronted a theological problem when absolutely necessary. When Bright decided that speaking in tongues distracted from evangelism, he barred staff from this practice. Yet when Crusade branched out overseas and began to cooperate with Pentecostal churches for evangelism, the organization reversed its ban. Turner reveals another factor at work in Bright's decision-making: His son, Zachary, began speaking in tongues under the influence of Greg Laurie and Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.

Turner's book alternates between a biography of Bright, an institutional history of Crusade, and a movement history of evangelicalism. The book is most colorful when he describes Bright, whom Turner calls a "hard-nosed autocrat and a tenderhearted evangelist." He was not shy about speaking his mind. Visiting friend Dan Fuller, in Basel Switzerland, Bright asked, "How on earth can you stay in this room and study theology when all Switzerland and Europe is going to hell?"

Personal anecdotes such as this illuminate Crusade's philosophy. Bright worried about colleges because they generate ideas that undermine Christianity. He raised money by sharing tales of Communism run amuck on campus. His response was to evangelize college students, not to intellectually confront these ideas. His approach to politics was similar. If you convert the politicians, you will change the system. In Crusade's successes and failures, we see the strength and limitations of evangelical individualism. Indeed, God has used Crusade to transform thousands of college students. Bill Armstrong, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, was converted through Crusade's Christian Embassy in Washington, D.C. (He's now the president of Colorado Christian University.) Yet it is evident in retrospect that individual conversions have not transformed college campuses or national politics.

Even if this bigger goal hasn't been achieved, Crusade has carved out space for a thriving Christian subculture on U.S. campuses. Evangelicals join their fellow students by cheering on sports teams, listening to popular music, and surfing Facebook. But they stand apart from that culture by standing firm in their conviction that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone. They forsake sins such as drunkenness and premarital sex to follow him. Turner argues that this is no small accomplishment.

"Partly due to the creative and persistent efforts of organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, however, it is no longer reasonable to conceive of American higher education as moving inexorably toward a secular, or post-Christian, future," he writes.

With thorough research and careful analysis, Turner has produced a worthwhile read for thousands of Crusade alumni and anyone else who wants to learn from the fits and starts of evangelical history. He quotes a number of former Crusade staff who share concerns about the ministry and Bright's leadership. But seeing these flaws can only help us learn from Bright's mistakes. We rejoice in how God used a man who transparently loved Christ and wanted everyone he met to know Jesus personally.

"You were either saved," Bright friend Tim LaHaye told Turner, "or a prospect for Bill Bright."

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.



Related Elsewhere:

An excerpt from the book on tensions between Campus Crusade and InterVarsity in CCC's early years is also new on our site today.

Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.

Our previous articles about Bill Bright include:

Weblog: Campus Crusade for Christ Founder Bill Bright Dies at 81 | Former "happy pagan" went on to form one of the largest and most efficient parachurch ministries in the world. (July 1, 2003)
Bill Bright's Benediction | "As long as I have breath, I will praise and serve the Lord," the evangelist wrote earlier this month. (July 1, 2003)
Bill Bright's Wonderful Plan for the World | Evangelicalism's power couple closes in on their radical mission. (July 14, 1997)
Bright Unto the End | In the face of retirement and death, the founder of Campus Crusade says his spirit still soars. (October 1, 2001)
CT Classic: 'I'm Only Doing What God Told Me to Do' | The founder of Campus Crusade for Christ talks about America's moral disintegration, Christians in politics, and his hopes for the "greatest spiritual awakening in the history of the world." (September 24, 1976)
CT Classic: Campus Crusade Into All the World | Bill Bright leads a spiritual revolution. (June 9, 1972)

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