George Whitefield (1714-1770) is arguably America’s first media star. In Colonial America, when Whitefield came to town, people came as far away as 100 miles to hear him! Why so? Well, first of all America was in a period of spiritual revival which meant that the Holy Spirit was drawing many and many more had a renewed hunger for the Word of God. But certainly not far behind this was the extraordinary speaking powers of Whitefield himself. He spoke extemporaneously and had such a keen sense of timing and presence that people were utterly spellbound by him. Our favorite founder Ben Franklin, a lapsed Christian of sorts, was actually Whitefield’s literary agent and promoter. He once said that just to hear Whitefield say the word “Mesopotamia” would bring tears to his eyes. Apart from his ministry of evangelism, Whitefield changed forever in America the way parishioners related to their pastors. Prior to this, the town pastor was the spiritual authority and he corrected the wayward as a means of keeping the spiritual temperature of the community where it should be. Whitefield proclaimed that the sorry state of affairs in Christian living was not the people’s fault but because their pastors were not in tune with the spirit and unfaithful to preach the word. The solution to the problem is to reform the pastors and make sure they are preaching and teaching faithfully. This was to be done by congregations voting with their feet. In some cases this was a true problem, in many others it wasn’t, but the idea gained traction and while it caused a lot of controversy and hard feelings at the time, it did stick. Although it would be inaccurate to suggest Whitefield alone set the trend of America’s more egalitarian and independent churches, he was definitely one of the strong trendsetters in that direction.
Dwight Lyman (D.L.) Moody (1837-1899) was the great crusade evangelist of America’s “Gilded Age” preaching to the masses in the large cities of America and Great Britain. Moody was not a clergyman but a lay minister who came from a business background. He was converted as a teenager but as a young man he had set his sights on making a fortune. This brought him to Chicago, which at the time was a place of growing opportunities for the young . In the midst of his pursuits, he had a spiritual encounter with the Lord and shortly thereafter became a man dedicated to Kingdom business. Moody started with a Sunday School class that reached out to poor immigrant children and their parents and this soon exploded into many other outreaches and enterprises. Eventually Moody met a musician named Ira Sankey and the two paired their ministries to great effect to do mass evangelism. Moody, dressed not as a preacher but as a business man and preached not with soaring rhetoric but as a common man to the common man and Sankey, setting the mood of the crusade with memorable and easy to sing melodies played on a portable organ. Moody was a great success in this enterprise and by his death he is said to have preached to more people than anyone else in history prior to the invention of the microphone. But Moody also shaped the American church in a very profound way. His example and his energies were devoted to developing the Christian personal worker. This was not to denigrate in any way the pastoral profession, but Moody and many others who were like minded, knew that the reach and scope of an army of lay ministers and evangelists were what was needed if the Kingdom of God is to expand. Moody is known for starting the Moody Bible Institute (although it was not so-called until after his death) which was not a seminary, but a lay training center for men and women seeking greater effectiveness in service to the Lord. This idea worked and inspired many others throughout America and even around the world to do the same. Since this time, the values and efforts of the lay minister have been prominent especially in the evangelical Bible churches of our nation.
Little needs to be said about William Franklin “Billy” Graham (b. 1918) as his story is well-known and is still in progress (Graham is now in his mid-nineties). Graham is the model of the modern evangelist using every means of mass communication to amplify his message preached live before stadiums of people. Graham’s honesty, character, and frankly his modesty have made many respect him and the Gospel of Christ even if they don’t necessarily agree with it. The book, Preacher and the Presidents, highlights his relationship with every American president since Harry Truman. I found it fascinating how Billy had access to this power and sometimes used it and most of the time was used by it, but really never was corrupted by it. Few ministers can come into contact with the corrosive effect of that much power unscathed which is a tribute to the greatness of God and the keeping power of the Holy Spirit. When I think of the Graham legacy on the American church, I think of the words cooperative effort. Few people realize that all along Billy Graham never sought to be the star player, but to train others in any way he could to be soul winners. Graham not only taught evangelists, but sponsored retreats and camps for pastors to encourage Biblical and gospel preaching in America’s pulpits. Not only this, but the Billy Graham association has been at the forefront of world missions bringing together some of the largest gatherings of evangelists from around the world to cooperate to finish the Great Commission. And at a time when most Bible-believing churches would hardly talk to one another much less cooperate, Billy Graham, was at the forefront including all Christian denominations in his crusades and encouraging them to come together for the sake of reaching the lost. Several years ago I had the privilege of visiting the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College (Billy’s Alma Mater) and the marvelous museum dedicated to his work. What was telling about the museum was that while it certainly did tell the story of his life and work, it featured in equal portions quite a bit of information of all the great people that came before him in this task and then ended with an admonition that the work of sharing Christ is all our work. As America is clearly moving in the direction of being a post-Christian nation, the church in America must stand together like never before. In that, Billy Graham, has set the pace by encouraging us to set aside the things that don't need to divide us and come together to give testimony to the living Christ.