Billy Graham, last major U.S. evangelist?

Written by Peter Smith on .


Tent revival during the Second Great Awakening


Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at 99, came from a centuries-old tradition of revivalism in America, when traveling evangelists drew thousands of people to open-air revivals.

But even as his son, daughter and other relatives are drawing sizable crowds as evangelists, Graham may be the last great champion of this style of evangelism.

In fact, his real successor may not be a person but a thing, mass media. And Graham himself represents that transition, using movies, TV specials and other outlets to spread his gospel message.

“The future of crusade evangelism is very much in question,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which houses a missions and evangelism school named for Graham.

“The spectacle mode of evangelism really fit a specific moment in American culture that does not appear to necessarily into the 21st century,” Mohler said. “People who download podcasts are not the type to go and sit in a stadium waiting for an event for hours.”

While stadium revivals remain popular in Africa and other developing regions, they’ve been eclipsed in North America by a media phenomenon that’s also affecting professional sports, the music industry and other arenas.

“Everything is now instantly available in every household, so getting a large crowd anywhere takes an incredible amount of motivation,” Mohler said.

In earlier centuries, religious revivals were among the most spectacular social events that an American could experience.

Thousands of 18th century colonists flocked to open fields to hear the booming voice of English preacher George Whitefield during the revival known as the First Great Awakening.

A Second Great Awakening crested in 1801, when thousands gathered for a frenzied week of revival at the Cane Ridge Meeting House in Kentucky.

Evangelists reaped new harvests of souls in later generations, such as Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday, and Kentucky native Mordecai Ham, whose converts included Graham himself.

Graham later recalled that Ham preached so vividly of secret sins that it “made you think your mother had been talking to him,” Graham later recalled, according to Martin’s biography, “A Prophet With Honor.”

Early 20th century preachers like Aimee Semple McPherson pioneered radio sermons and the mix of revivals with entertainment.

But Graham emerged in the late 1940s as an unprecedented superstar, inducing legions of churches in each city to prepare for his visits more than a year in advance and producing stadium spectacles that could be replicated nowhere else in that era of mainly small neighborhood churches.

For many years, evangelist Oral Roberts’ ministries closely tracked those of Graham as both moved from big tents to stadiums to television — although Roberts’ exuberant faith-healing services, complete with exuberant Pentecostal worship, contrasted with the relatively buttoned-down Graham crusades.

Scores of other evangelists followed suit, to varying degrees of success. And in time, Sunday worship came to resemble stadium-style crusades.

Many large, newer megachurches shed the stained-glass trappings of traditional worship. They began to take on more of the feel of an arena crusade, with video screens and concert-quality music.

“(Megachurch pastors) Joel Osteen and Rick Warren are both major admirers of Billy Graham, but they are not going to say, ‘We’ll drop everything for 18 months and support some evangelist,’” said William Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham story.”

Martin also cited the explosion of “para-church” organizations — evangelistic associations, broadcasters, music labels, advice peddlers and advocacy groups with no direct ties to a church or denomination.

“What it attests to is the strength and diversity of the evangelical movement,” he said.

Para-church groups are yet another of the evangelist's legacies. He did, after all, found the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

That remains controversial, and some people today say that church planting, and orienting evangelism around actual congregations, is the most effective outreach.



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Lawmaker gives up NRA rating for Lent

Written by Peter Smith on .


A Kentucky state representative tells why he has a change of heart on guns, and is giving up his top rating from the NRA for Lent. Prayer, he says, is not enough. "Faith apart from works is useless," he says, quoting from the book of James.



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Ashes trump hearts this Valentine's Day

Written by Peter Smith on .


When St. Patrick’s Day last year coincided with a normally meatless Friday in Lent, local Catholic bishops issued dispensations that allowed the faithful to partake in the Irish holiday meal with the traditional corned beef.

But there is no such dispensation forthcoming this year when Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday . For the first time in six decades, a holiday associated with love, tables for two and chocolate is landing on the same date as one connected with mortality, cutting back on food and, often, giving up chocolate for a while.

In 2017, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh and Bishop Edward Malesic of Greensburg joined numerous other American bishops in issuing the dispensation for St. Patrick’s Day fare, although some bishops elsewhere did not.

But this year’s combination is a different story. Neither bishop is issuing a dispensation, said officials from their dioceses.

It’s “because of the solemn nature of Ash Wednesday,” said the Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, executive director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Ash Wednesday is one of the most solemn days of the Catholic calendar, when the faithful receive ashes to remind them of their mortality. The date begins Lent — a season of self-denial, penance, reflection and self-improvement in the weeks leading up to the commemoration of Jesus’ death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter.

“For those who wish to celebrate Valentine’s Day, it would seem most appropriate to do so on another day,” Bishop Zubik wrote in a letter to priests. “Often times, when Valentine’s Day falls during the week, this is done out of convenience anyway. Also, since Ash Wednesday is both a day of abstinence from meat and a day of fasting, any Valentine’s Day meals on Feb. 14 should be considered in light of the penitential nature of the day.”

That requires some unpacking.

As for the fasting part: The Roman Catholic discipline calls for Ash Wednesday to be a fast day. That doesn’t mean a complete avoidance from food. Those between ages 18 and 59 should have just one regular-sized meal, plus two smaller ones that combined are less than one regular meal, according to church practice. And no snacking.

So a couple could still have a dinner date — just a simple one, and meatless.

As for chocolate: Technically, there’s no ban and nothing to issue dispensation about. One could decided to make chocolate part of a meal.

But it’s up to individuals to decide whether that’s really in the spirit of things, said Father Vaskov. Giving up chocolate is a tradition for many people, but not a requirement.

For the past 50 years or so, the church has eased up on many of its historic rules for penance during Lent and elsewhere. For example, it no longer calls for year-round meatless Fridays.

The idea is that faith “is something we have to take responsibility for individually,” Father Vaskov said. Whether it’s abstaining from food, adding a devotional activity or doing a good deed, the question is “what’s going to allow us to be able to focus our hearts on God more,” he said.

Of course, Valentine’s Day itself has religious origins, occurring on the Feb. 14 feast day of St. Valentine, an ancient Christian martyr (or possible more than one saint of the same name). He is considered the patron saint of love, as well as of happy marriages and engaged couples.

And speaking of which, there’s no rule prohibiting married couples from sexual activity on a fast day such as Ash Wednesday. That used to be the case in medieval times, but as with other activities, said Father Vaskov, the responsibility is on the individual to determine what makes for a good Lent.

Peter Smith: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.


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'I lost my church' over abuse

Written by Peter Smith on .

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander gave a powerful interview in Christianity Today. She is known for her eloquent statement of forgiveness toward her abuser, Dr. Larry Nassar, during the recent and dramatic series of victim-impact statements at Nassar's sentencing. More than 150 women said they were sexually abused by him under the guise of medical treatment.

While some in the evangelical press touted her forgiveness, there is much more to the story, as was evident in her statement and is even more evident in her interview.

Articles in evangelical press, she says, failed to emphasize also her call for "swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice" when there is abuse.

"I lost my church" for advocating for victims of sexual abuse, she added.

That's because, she said, she belonged to a church that was involved in restoring the leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries despite the scandal of coverup of sexual abuse in that small but influential church group. More on that here.

The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community. Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community, someone in the Sovereign Grace network, I would not only not have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.



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Heroic survivor of Holocaust recalled

Written by Peter Smith on .

reneeI was saddened to learn of the death of Renee Rothschild this past Saturday in Louisville, Ky., at age 98. 

Married for 75 years (!), Renee and John Rothschild were the only Holocaust survivors in their families, and the story of how they survived that catastrophe is as remarkable as the resilience and faith with which they forged new lives in America.

Renee was arrested in southern France and put in a concentration camp run by the Nazi-collaborationist French government. The prisoners there were destined to Auschwitz.

But her fiance, John, took action, abandoning his own safety in an act of amazing courage, and love.

The two had met during a summer in France when they were 19 years old, and were engaged within three weeks. While John returned to his native Switzerland to do his compulsory military service, she was eventually stranded in a France that had come under Nazi conquest.

History tells us, correctly, that Nazi-run concentration camps were all part of a one-way machinery toward death. So what happened next takes some explaining, but the Rothschilds kept the yellowed telegram, travel pass and other documents to corroborate it.

The camp that Renee was in was not run by the Nazis directly, and the French did have some limited discretion over their prisoners. And John had at least some hope of legal protection given that he had citizenship papers from neutral Switzerland.

Yet he still risked his life traveling into France and walking into that camp, hearing the gate clang behind him, carrying what little collateral he had. He met with the camp commander, presented him with a box of fine cigars and the business card of a local lawyer whom the commander owed a favor. 

Thankfully the commander admired the Swiss, and when John asked that he let his fiancee go, he did.

"I didn't even know he was coming," she later said of John, but he was "my knight in white armor."

There were more amazing feats that led to their escape into Switzerland, and their eventual relocation to America, where Renee became a French teacher. She is survived by John as well as by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Their story and video is here in this USA Today article, which I originally wrote for The Courier-Journal of Louisville back in 2013.

Rabbi Robert Slosberg of the couple's synagogue, Adath Jeshurun, said of the couple: "They're just an amazing blessing. They never became jaded by the terrible experience they went through."


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