Review: The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism

The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism
The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism by Garth M. Rosell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Two friends, perhaps more than any others, were responsible for giving shape and direction to the kind of evangelicalism that took root in twentieth-century America and soon spread throughout the world. Despite their regional, cultural, and personal differences, Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham’s friendship and deep personal regard each had for the other helped forge a movement that continues to thrive in scores of countries around the world" (222).

This paragraph from its penultimate page makes a good thesis statement for The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. Author Garth Rosell is an evangelical, the son of a leading evangelical (mass evangelist Merv Rosell), and he sat at the feet of many evangelical leaders in his formative years. The younger Rosell is now an older man himself, an experienced teacher of church history at center-left evangelical schools (Bethel and Gordon-Conwell).

Rosell’s perspective in The Surprising Work of God (the title borrows self-consciously from Jonathan Edwards) is warmly appreciative but still fairly objective and straightforward. The author rarely (and mainly near the end) offers much in the way of explicit criticism or evaluation, but instead lets his characters tell their story in their own words. Rosell keeps the story moving—and has a moving story to tell.

Harold John Ockenga
The first half of the book is mostly a biography of Harold John Ockenga, the young and dynamic intellectual leader of the new evangelicalism. Ockenga’s early life will sound a great deal like that of many BJU students. He was a theologically conservative, spiritually earnest young man who took his sanctification very seriously, yearned for personal and church-wide revival—and had a bit of trouble figuring out how to get a good spouse! (He once presented flowers and a marriage proposal to a girl he’d never met simply because his pastor recommended her!) One of his attempts at spouse-location resulted in a six-year correspondence with a young lady in Virginia (whom he did not in the end marry) that has been preserved to this day. This correspondence, along with everything else in the Ockenga Papers, allowed Rosell to tell great swathes of Ockenga’s story in his own words.

The biography transitions a summary of Dr. Ockenga’s major theological emphases: the centrality of the cross, the church, the authority of the Bible, the necessity of conversion, the importance of spiritual renewal, the task of worldwide evangelization, and—something that may surprise some readers—the corrosive influence of modernism (every one of these emphases is worded verbatim as Rosell words them). Ockenga clearly stood in the evangelical tradition going back to Edwards and Whitefield—and these emphases are still alive, if not always well, in American evangelicalism.

This summary, in turn, transitions nicely into a description of Ockenga’s rise as a leader, preeminently in his role as head of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Every American Christian who cares about his brothers in Christ should read pages 101-106 of this book, because it describes Ockenga’s incredibly influential philosophy, the one underlying the NAE and so much else in contemporary American Christianity. Ockenga defined himself both in comparison to earlier fundamentalists (he revered Clarence Macartney and worked as his assistant for a time; he also treasured the influence of J. Gresham Machen) and in contradistinction to them. Ockenga said what nearly all evangelicals still say about fundamentalism, that its major problems were withdrawal, isolationism, separatism, and "come-outism." Rosell reports quite straightforwardly and in Ockenga’s own words that the “Park Street Prophet” advocated another strategy: infiltration (see es105, 162). The fundamentalists had failed to retain the major institutions of American Christianity; the evangelicals would go on the offensive and retake them. (Financier of evangelical works John Bolten called this philosophy of infiltration a "biblical principle," though I kept hoping for and never found Ockenga’s elaboration of the biblical rationale for it.)

The Band of Brothers
But none of these early evangelicals denied that individual conversions were necessary before real change could take place, and the next phase of Rosell’s story tells of the evangelists whose goal it was to work and preach hard for those individual conversions. Billy Graham is the focus here. Graham doesn’t get a biographical treatment like Ockenga; his life is already quite well known. Instead, Rosell zoom out a bit to the whole group of evangelists who formed a "band of brothers" during the last era of American city-wide crusades. (Bob Jones Sr appears several times as a senior evangelist who takes great interest in the success and progress of the younger ones.) These men—including Graham, Chuck Templeton, Torrey Johnson, Merv Rosell, and others—come off as earnest and energetic, if a bit naive. They worked hard to stay humble and prayerful, taking no credit for themselves for gathering the huge crowds they were seeing all across America and even in Britain. But they were still sometimes immature in their reaction to all the fervor they found themselves at the center of. They were all quite young, Rosell points out, and could get a little carried away: Graham told a group at Ockenga’s church that the next twelve months would "determine the destiny of America" (137), and Rosell at least records no awareness among them of the sad fact that not all professions at a public altar are genuine conversions. (It’s also very interesting to see the vintage advertisements for the rallies Rosell includes; they look impossibly hokey today because Graham and his compatriots were using then-cutting-edge Madison Avenue techniques—an example which evangelicalism still follows assiduously.) Graham and his fellows also united Christianity and patriotism in ways that might make contemporary Christians nervous. Graham, for example, declaimed that the U.S. "must maintain strong military power for defense" and "must strengthen organizations like the F.B.I. for internal protection" (145). Rosell points out that few Christians till the 1960s questioned the tight wedding of God and country.

The immense energy of those days, and preeminently the work of Billy Graham, launched a worldwide movement, so Rosell turns to the important evangelical institutions that arose out of that era—many of them founded and/or led by Graham and Ockenga. The National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Seminary are the two most prominent, but a vast subculture of parachurch organizations also developed. This is where Rosell does ask one question that is critical of his subjects: if Ockenga and Graham, et al., were so opposed to "come-outism," why did they invest so much energy in creating new, transdenominational evangelical institutions? Why not simply work within existing denominational machinery?  (see 178, 185-186).

The life of the mind was important to the early new-evangelicals. Rosell devotes a chapter to the topic, and he quotes Carl F. H. Henry and Ockenga saying several times that they hoped to bring intellectual respectability back to evangelicalism. Graham, Ockenga, and others even considered seriously the possibility of founding "Crusade University," an East-Coast institution that might rival the Ivies. (That name would of course be a public embarrassment today.)

Conclusion
Rosell’s story does a bit of rambling, perhaps. It’s unclear why the Ockenga biography takes up so much space, for example. But the rambling is appropriate, because the movement called new evangelicalism was, like any, a mixture of persons, occurrences, and institutions. (Rosell notes that by the late 50s, leaders such as Ockenga and Carnell had dropped the moniker they invented, "new evangelicalism," opting for "evangelicalism," "biblical Christianity," or "historic orthodoxy." [13 n.10].)

Fundamentalism plays a major role in this story. Ockenga, especially, but also leading thinkers like Carl F. H. Henry, defined themselves frequently in contradistinction to fundamentalism. They pointed specifically, of course, to separation (see 162). But not only separation. Henry wrote a few more criticisms in his landmark little book, The Uneasy Conscience of a Modern Fundamentalist. Rosell writes,

While affirming fundamentalism’s theological orthodoxy,realistic assessment of a fallen human nature, and commitment to the supernatural work of God, Henry criticized the movement for “its spirit of independent isolationism,” “overly-emotional type of revivalism,” “tendency to replace great church music by a barn-dance variety of semi-religious choruses,” and, most especially, “ethical irresponsibility." "It is not fair to say that the ethical platform of all conservative churches has clustered about such platitudes as ‘abstain from intoxicating beverages, movies, dancing, card-playing and smoking,’" Henry remarked, “but there are multitudes of Fundamentalist congregations in which these are the main points of reference for ethical speculation."

Almost 65 years on, some of Henry’s remarks still hit home—self-described fundamentalists now regularly hear the same criticisms from other self-described fundamentalists! And yet, of course, the movement Henry helped found is not immune to critique. Has success or failure come from the philosophy of infiltration that Ockenga explicitly recommended? Rosell is probably right in saying that evangelicals created their own subculture like the fundamentalists had; if that is the case, how has that fared? Rosell provides little in the way of evaluation; his is a historical book focusing on a limited time frame. But readers should not fail to ask these questions.

Rosell has written a valuable and interesting little book, one that is often edifying—and never fails to be instructive.

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Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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