The Little Evangelical Engine that Could

If anyone is interested in background to the Presbycast podcast with mmmmeeeeEEEE last night, you might want to look at this very good history on the early days of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In the 1940s, no one would likely have predicted that “evangelical” would become the word to explain most of American Protestantism:

The years following the first convention proved determinative for the fledgling organization. The first among many action items was the 1943 opening of an office in Washington, D.C., to help on a number of fronts, such as supporting evangelical chaplains, assisting mission agencies in dealings with the State Department, championing the cause of religious broadcasting to the Federal Communication Commission, and defending religious liberty. Because the demands were great, NAE called Clyde Taylor, a Baptist General Conference pastor in New England, to oversee the strategic office. Taylor, a former missionary to South America with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and part-time professor at Gordon College, was well suited for the post and for the NAE in general. While he served in a number of roles, Taylor would become the dominant figure in the NAE over the next 30 years.

Continued concern over radio prompted the NAE to form the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) at its 1944 convention in Columbus, Ohio. NRB was the first of many related service agencies the NAE would charter with a particular purpose in mind. Following the lead of CBS and NBC, the Mutual Radio Network had announced it would no longer sell time for religious broadcasting and turned the Protestant broadcasting slot over to the Federal Council of Churches. NRB, after holding its own constitutional convention later that year, responded to the challenge, eventually persuading the networks to reverse their policies.

In addition to NRB, the NAE created two task-specific commissions in 1944 — the Chaplains Commission, to assist evangelical chaplains in the military, and War Relief Commission, which would eventually become a subsidiary known as World Relief, NAE’s humanitarian assistance arm. The following year, the NAE created the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (later called the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies and now Missio Nexus, the largest missionary association in the world), chartered to handle the special needs of missionaries and their agencies.

By 1945 the NAE had also established regional offices in Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland and Los Angeles to promote the cause locally and foster communication with individuals, local churches, denominations and Christian organizations.

Some debate has focused on whether or not the NAE helped itself by founding new agencies rather than consolidating the functions under one centralized structure. Whatever the pros or cons, the arrangement was reflective of the evangelical mood at the time. While evangelicals sensed the value of some level of structure, the dynamic nature of their movement would only tolerate a limited amount of centralization.

Not only did they fear centralization, but they weren’t thinking New York City!!!!

By the 1960s, the NAE was still peripheral:

While NAE momentum was strong from its founding in 1942 through the late 50s, the next two decades would prove to be a time of testing for the organization, just as they were for the country as a whole. Not until the late 70s would any new initiatives galvanize the association into meaningful action. The 60s were particularly difficult. The NAE and most of its leadership were not at all encouraged with the prospect of the 1960 election of John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, to the presidency — a first in American history. The mood digressed as civil rights, the Vietnam War and a new counterculture divided the nation. Assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading political figures, shocked the populace. The state of the church was equally disturbing as liberal theologians proclaimed “God is dead” while some bishops experimented with psychedelic drugs. Young people were leaving churches seemingly as quickly as babies were being born in the 1950s.

NAE faced its own troubles as its executive leadership changed hands more often than did residents of the White House. While George L. Ford, the first permanent and resident executive director (1956-63), had brought needed stability to the organization, his ascendancy to the newly created position of general director in 1963 lasted only one year. Stanley Mooneyham, director of information at the time, was considered by many as heir apparent, but left NAE for a position with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The board then named Clyde Taylor, who was in charge of the Washington operation, to the top post of general director. Taylor would remain in the nation’s capital while the executive director handled administrative matters in the Wheaton, Illinois office. Arthur Climenhaga was named to the Wheaton post, but three years later, in 1967, returned to a post in his own denomination, the Brethren in Christ Church. Billy Melvin, a denominational official with the Free Will Baptists, was brought in to succeed Climenhaga, and following Taylor’s retirement in 1974, was given sole leadership responsibility for NAE.

But Ronald Reagan changed everything:

While President Jimmy Carter had distanced his administration from the expanded NAE office, the new phase of the NAE history swung into full gear with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan had come to power with the wide support of evangelicals. The NAE, increasingly consulted about administration appointments and policy, seized opportunities to influence government further and enjoyed unprecedented access to the White House. The Republican president courted evangelicals for support speaking at the 1983 and 1984 NAE conventions. This was the first time a U.S. president had ever visited an NAE function. At the 1983 convention in Orlando, Florida, Reagan delivered one of his most famous speeches referring to the Soviet Communist system as “the Evil Empire.”

The association was also gaining influence on Capitol Hill. The NAE’s efforts resulted in a number of legislative victories in the 1980s including the passage of bills on drunk driving, church audit procedures, and equal access to public school facilities for religious organizations. But the NAE did not just concern itself with domestic matters. In 1984, the NAE launched the highly-praised Peace, Freedom and Security Studies program in an effort to make a distinct contribution to the public debate.

With new visibility in Washington, Billy Melvin worked tirelessly to highlight the status and role of denominations in the NAE. At the 25th anniversary in 1967, some observers had noted that while denominations held membership in NAE, their role seemed to be minimized. Twenty-five years later the opposite was the case as NAE become more and more identified as a fellowship not just of evangelicals, but as a fellowship of evangelical denominations. Closely related to this change of identity was Melvin’s deliberate effort to persuade new denominations to join the NAE. In the mid-70s Melvin began building relationships with key officials in denominations outside the NAE’s fellowship. By the 1980s, his campaign had paid off as one denomination after another applied for membership in the NAE, enabling NAE’s membership to expand at a level not experienced since the 1940s. Between 1981 and 1990, 15 denominations joined NAE. Total NAE membership reflected in the combined categories of individuals, ministry organizations and constituent denominations reached nearly 4.5 million — a 74 percent increase since 1980. The gain during the decade was greater than the entire NAE membership as of 1960.

Meanwhile, no one knew what evangelicalism was. That was okay. It was apparently big and growing.

Is that why the PCA stays?

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