Encountering Evangelicalism

<< Chapter 3: Being “Born Again”

How did the Brethren in Christ first encounter the new evangelicalism? The following stories illustrate some of the ways that Brethren in Christ people — leaders and laity alike — formed relationships with figures and organizations at the heart of the new evangelical movement.

The National Association of Evangelicals

Listen to church historian E. Morris Sider
describe the context for the Brethren in
Christ Church’s affiliation with the
National Association of Evangelicals
(Brethren in Christ Church of North

Institutional ties between the Brethren in
Christ Church and the new evangelicalism were cemented in 1949, when the denomination voted to affiliate with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the public face of the emergent Christian movement. Prior to this time, the Brethren in Christ remained “an island unto themselves,” and refused to join ecumenical organizations. But changes in denominational life spurred church leaders to pursue affiliation with other like-minded religious groups, including the NAE.

Almost immediately, the Brethren in Christ began to feel the impact of NAE affiliation. Delegates to the NAE convention of 1950, held in Indianapolis, Indiana, were particularly affected by what they saw and heard. Gathering informally after a convention session, these Brethren in Christ leaders confessed that, in the presence of impassioned and success-oriented evangelicals, they felt confused and embarrassed by their denominational peculiarity. Were elements like plain dress inhibiting effective outreach? As Samuel Wolgemuth, one of the convention delegates, later reflected, “the spiritual depth and vision of NAE speakers and leaders [provoked Brethren in Christ attendees] to evaluate in depth, together, the . . . restrictions that the [church’s] ‘legalistic’ teachings and practices . . . placed on the church and its outreach program.”[1]

In subsequent years, church historian Carlton O. Wittlinger would characterize this late-night gathering as a “catalyst for change” in the Brethren in Christ Church. Convention participants would draw inspiration from the NAE as they instituted reforms in church doctrine, including abolition of a prescribed church uniform and of proscriptions on military service.[2]

Youth for Christ

Listen to Eber and Ruth Dourte
talk about their introduction to
Billy Graham, Youth for Christ,
and the larger evangelical

Of course, the NAE was not the only link
between the Brethren in Christ and the new evangelicalism. Informal connections with the movement — such as those forged by pastoral couples Sam and Grace Wolgemuth and Eber
and Ruth Dourte — “primed the pump” for denominational affiliation.

Ruth and Eber Dourte were the struggling pastoral couple of a rural, western Pennsylvania church when Eber’s brother-in-law, Samuel F. Wolgemuth, first introduced the couple to an organization called Youth for Christ in the late 1940s. Launched by Robert Cook and Torrey Johnson in Chicago in 1946, by the end of the decade this organization had chapters across the U.S., each holding a rally for local teenagers on Saturday night.

Wolgemuth first encountered the work when he attended a convention in Winona Lake, Indiana, in 1949. By the early 1950s, he had left his post as a Brethren in Christ bishop to become the organization’s overseas representative to Japan. By the 1960s, he was president of Youth for Christ International. Long before that, however, he introduced his in-laws to the group — and the wider evangelical movement.

Listen to Eber and Ruth Dourte talk about their introduction to Billy Graham, Youth for Christ, and the larger evangelical movement.

Billy Graham’s First Crusade – Los Angeles, 1949

Listen to an interview with Robert
and Eleanor Lehman, attendees at
Billy Graham’s first crusade in
Los Angeles in 1949.

Download a transcript of the interview.

While the Dourtes and Wolgemuths were
making their initial contacts with Youth for Christ on the East Coast, another group of Brethren in Christ — students at the denominationally sponsored Upland College in Southern California — made their way to a watershed event in new evangelical history: the inaugural crusade of evangelical icon Billy Graham.

Held under the “Canvas Cathedral with the Steeple of Light,” the crusade drew 350,000 people in a three-month period. Among those in attendance were Robert and Eleanor Lehman, students at the college. “[As Brethren in Christ,] we were accustomed to revival meetings,” Bob would later recollect. “And [the Los Angeles crusade] was just kind of the grand-daddy of them all—it was a much bigger crowd, it was about as big a crowd as we’d ever seen at one place at one time.”

Listen to an interview about the crusade with Bob and Eleanor Lehman, conducted by Devin Manzullo-Thomas.

Read Henry Ginder’s
account of the World
Congress on Evangelism.
(Evangelical Visitor, August
31, 1953, 3)

The Sixth World Congress on Evangelism – Tokyo,
Japan, 1953

Contacts with the new evangelical coalition continued into the 1950s. When Wolgemuth moved to Japan, he did not sever contacts with his home denomination. In 1952, he invited eight fellow ministers and laypeople to take part in a special event he was planning: the sixth World Congress on Evangelism.

Writing from the event, participant and Brethren in Christ bishop Henry Ginder mused, “Here one sees and hears Christians of different lands and languages uniting in earnest prayer, each in his own way.”

Another participant, Eber Dourte, remembers that the event had a major impact on his (and fellow travelers’) practice of Brethren in Christ doctrines like plain dress. According to Dourte, the desire to “fit in” with their fellow evangelical ministers compelled all but one of the Brethren in Christ participants to don neckties while preaching and attending seminars in Tokyo.

Chapter 5: Embracing Evangelicalism >>


6 thoughts on “Encountering Evangelicalism”

  1. The Morris Sider clip is a great introduction to this session. I was eager to hear what Eber and Ruth Dourte had to say, but struggled with the audio.

    The Lehman trip to the Graham Crusade is an example of opportunities available to students at Upland College. A review of the College”Annuals” demonstrates the openness to bringing speakers from a number of religious backgrounds to chapel sessions. This was happening during the 1930’s. My parent’s first date was a double date. The four young students went to hear “Gipsy” Smith. Beulah College board member Jesse R Eyster went to the Chino Holiness church on several occasions to hear E. E. Shelhamer. In addition to these specific individuals, there was much interaction with people of the Bible Institute on Hope Street in LA as well as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. This may have helped pave the way to interactions with the NAE.

  2. Alan & Beth said:

    I love this page. I agree that the Morris Sider clip is a very appropriate overview. Also, the transcript of the interview with the Lehmans is helpful. A couple thoughts/comments as I explored this page:

    -Political context . . . a couple times people mentioned the war being over and what a difference that made in the atmosphere allowing for the growth of this movement. This time period (moving into the Cold War) also saw a huge increase in “civil religion”–emphasizing the US as the God-fearing advocates of freedom as opposed to the godless Communists. I was reminded of this with your use of the clip of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the alignment of Billy Graham’s rhetoric with the political rhetoric of the day. It is interesting that this is moving into the Eisenhower years, when “In God we Trust” was adopted as the national motto, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Prayer Breakfast started, etc. This is all interconnected with the growth of new evangelicalism. As a side note, the BIC felt a strong connection with Eisenhower and I wonder if this was also in the background as changes were happening and people were deciding how much they wanted to assimilate into the larger political and social context.

    -Influence of Missions . . . this would be an entirely different thesis topic, but it is interesting to think about the ways the BIC in North America have been influenced (or in some cases, resisted influence) by brothers and sisters around the world. The discussion of the conference in Japan is one of the many examples of this happening.

  3. Elaine Reed said:

    I remember Youth for Christ, the Billy Graham films and attending the Billy Graham
    Crusade in LA in about 1962 . It was held at the LA Coliseum and even then there was not enough room for everyone on that Sunday night. I was also impressed and awed as a young farm girl at there being so many Chrisrians in one place!!! I think that we were wearing hats at that time, so were not quite so conspicuous.

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