America’s Pastor among the “Quiet in the Land”: Billy Graham and North American Anabaptists, Part I

In the summer of 1951, two Mennonites from Virginia — brothers George and Lawrence Brunk — and a team of workers erected a large tent capable of seating 6,000 people in a field in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. For the next seven weeks, area Mennonites flocked to the tent to hear George preach and Lawrence lead the singing. The services featured all the trappings of had come to define the American revivalist tradition: expressive preaching, compelling music, modern methods of advertising and promotion, and invitations for listeners to leave their seats, walk down the aisle to the altar, and experience a religious conversion. According to reports, hundreds of people came forward at the Lancaster meetings to convert to Christianity for the first time, to renew their covenant as members of the Mennonite Church, or to make a deeper consecration as Christians.1

A man stands with his back facing the camera. He is preaching to a large crowd under a large white canvas tent.

George R. Brunk II speaks during a revival service in the 1950s. Note the large crowd sitting under the massive tent, as well as the signage at the front of the stage. Both of these elements, along with elements of Brunk’s preaching style, are borrowed from another mid-century revivalist: Billy Graham. (Source: Theron F. Schlabach Photograph Collection [HM4-378 Box 1 Folder 4 photo], Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana)

After closing the event in Lancaster, the Brunk brothers traveled east to Souderton, Pennsylvania, where they held a five-week series of meetings. An article in the Gospel Herald reported that 2,500 people attended the meetings on weekday evenings, an an additional ten to twelve thousand on weekends or closing nights. Those who came to the altar confessing sin and seeking a conversion experience were invited to share their testimony. And yet, attuned to Mennonite expectations about decorum, the Gospel Herald writer also made clear that the meetings were conducted appropriately and without excessive emotionalism.2 From Souderton, the Brunk brothers conducted campaigns in Orville, Ohio and Manheim, Pennsylvania, before the end of 1951. Their crusades continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s.3

The Brunks’ work inspired others. In 1952, after attending the Brunks’ services in Ohio the previous year, Mennonite preachers Myron Augsburger and Howard Hammer each began careers as evangelists, adopting a style cribbed from the Brunk Brothers.4 Also in 1952, a Brethren in Christ minister from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania — John Rosenberry — launched the Living Hope Gospel Campaign and began holding revival meetings in the local area. Rosenberry and his team borrowed the Brunks’ tent for their first series of meetings.5

A large crowd of people sit under a large canvas tent watching a preacher behind a podium. Large signs are posted behind him, proclaiming Christian messages.

A scene from one of John Rosenberry’s Living Hope Gospel Campaign tent meetings, probably in the early 1950s. Note the use of a large canvas tent (just like the Brunk brothers and, before them, Graham) and dramatic signage. (Source: Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pa.)

One scholar has noted that these revival meetings “were a dramatic change from traditional Mennonite experience.”6 While revivalism per se was not new to Anabaptists, the style of these mid-century meetings — massive tents, dramatic signage behind and in front of the pulpits, branded materials such as logos, the use of technology such as speakers, and more — were clearly different than those used by previous generations. Anabaptists in the mid-twentieth century were embodying a modern revival style.7

What inspired these Mennonites and Brethren in Christ to launch revival meetings? The answer, quite simply, is Billy Graham.

Today, in popular memory, Graham — who died last week at the age of 99 — is remembered as an evangelist, a presidential confidant, and an influential icon of American evangelicalism. As then-President George W. Bush noted in 2007, Graham was “America’s pastor.”

Moreover, in the historiography of American Christianity, Graham has come to symbolize conservative Protestantism’s move from fundamentalist isolationism to irenic neo-evangelicalism. Graham’s ascendance to the national stage in the late 1940s and early 1950s marked a public “resurgence” (to use the language of Joel A. Carpenter) in conservative Protestantism. Christians from various denominational backgrounds flocked to Graham’s rallies, subscribed to Graham’s periodicals, listened to Graham’s radio program, and watched Graham’s films. In a way, Graham served to unite those communities fragmented by sectarian differences and fundamentalist-modernist schisms.

Indeed, Graham was a symbol of this conservative Protestant resurgence after World War II. But he also modeled a style that characterized this resurgence — a style emulated by well-intentioned imitators such as the Brunks, Hammer, Augsburger, and Rosenberry. As his biographer, the Duke Divinity School historian Grant Wacker, has argued, Graham was a product of his age — an evangelist who rose to fame amid the midcentury rise of mass popular media, youth culture, and organizational efficiency. From the start of his ministry Graham delivered his sermons in a crisp, compelling, and direct manner that mirrored the style of contemporaries such as the news broadcaster Walter Winchell. His preaching was backed up by heartwarming testimonies and toe-tapping music. Moreover, Graham was tall and handsome, perfectly suited to captivate audiences and appear on newsprint pages and glossy magazine covers. And behind him stood the well-oiled Billy Graham Evangelistic Association machine, comprised of a small army of professionals and staffers who promoted Graham’s services through slick advertising, organized and streamlined his growing throng of volunteers, and armed his old-fashioned tent-style meetings with dramatic signage that grabbed the attention of the audience almost as much as Graham’s preaching.8

This period newsreel from Graham’s first revival crusade, held in a Los Angeles field under a big canvas tent in 1949, showcases some of the style that captivated audiences and inspired Anabaptist imitators.

Of course, these methods evolved over time: Graham’s first crusade, held in a Los Angeles field under a big canvas tent in 1949, was a far cry from the stadiums and amphitheaters he filled later in his career. But for midcentury Mennonites and other Anabaptists, this early style was simple enough — yet also sufficiently modern — that they believed they could borrow it, adapt it, and deploy it effectively in order to bring about what they saw as much-needed spiritual renewal in their churches.

Yet it was more than just the would-be Anabaptist evangelists who were drawn to Graham’s style. As the Goshen College historian John D. Roth recently observed in an article for The Mennonite, Graham influenced not only imitators within the Anabaptist fold but also directly inspired the many Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, and other Anabaptist laypeople that attended his crusades:

Long before Mennonites were comfortable with the “ecumenical movement,” they were participating fully in the Billy Graham revival crusades. Many of us were attracted by the biblicism, clarity and simplicity of Graham’s message, and the “altar call” fit well with our conviction that following Jesus should be a public decision. Not least, the Billy Graham crusades offered Mennonites a chance to enter alongside their neighbors into the evangelical mainstream. The long-term impact of Graham’s impact on the Mennonite community has been profound.

As Roth’s comments suggest, many Mennonites embraced Graham, his message, and his style. The work of the Brunks, Hammer, Augsburger, and Rosenberry reflects this positive assessment; they saw his success and the response to his message and style, and sought to emulate it. And the activities of these Anabaptist evangelists would make an important impact on mid-century North American Anabaptism, especially in terms of their relationship to the wider evangelical Protestant world.

But not all Mennonites held such a positive view of Graham or American evangelicalism — or their influence on North American Anabaptism. In my next post, I want to explore some of the negative reactions to America’s pastor. Then, in a final post, I want to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth century America. Stay tuned!


  1. Harold S. Bender and Sam Steiner, “Brunk Brothers Revival Campaign,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 2009, and Maurice E. Lehman, “The Lancaster Revival,” Gospel Herald, September 4, 1951, 852-853, cited in Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, American Mennonites and Protestant Movements: A Community Paradigm (Scotdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1978), 281-282. 
  2. Paul M. Lederach, “Revival in Franconia,” Gospel Herald, September 18, 1951, 902-903, cited in Hostetler, American Mennonites and Protestant Movements, 281-282. 
  3. Bender and Steiner, “Brunk Brothers Revival Campaign.” 
  4. James O. Lehman, Mennonite Tent Revivals: Howard Hammer and Myron Augsburger, 1952-1962 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2002). 
  5. E. Morris Sider, Called to Evangelism: The Life and Ministry of John L. Rosenberry (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1988), 90-92. 
  6. Sam Steiner, “Brunk, George Rowland (1911-2002),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 2016. 
  7. This point regarding revivalism is especially true of the Brethren in Christ, who were engaged in such religious activity as early as the late nineteenth century. See Morris N. Sherk, “Tent Evangelism Among the Brethren in Christ,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 11, no. 2 (August 1988): 157-204. 
  8. This assessment of Graham’s style comes from Grant Wacker, “Billy Graham’s America,” Church History 78, no. 3 (September 2009): 500-504. See also Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014). 

“Crossing the Line” Reflections

Wendy Urban-Mead


Two notable elements of the “Crossing the Line” conference come to mind: first, it was exceptionally well-planned, logistically, and flowed beautifully at a rich but manageable pace. Second, the offerings were refreshingly varied, ranging from serious academic work in the fields of history, sociology, literary analysis, and theology, but also offered memoirs and family histories, as well as a range of fine arts including dance, poetry, and visual arts. The tour to nearby notable Mennonite sites was truly beautiful and memorable. I would like to draw your attention to the photo I took of Mrs. Barbara Nkala, as she exited a church building we visited on the tour. This photo speaks to the question, “who is an Anabaptist today?” The image reaches from Old Order Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley to a Brethren in Christ Church Zimbabwean mother in the faith—who journeyed far and at significant expense, together with her sister, to participate in and lead at Crossing the Line.  The impact of this admirably well-thought-out and holistic program was to offer participants both spiritual and intellectual refreshment.


The long supper table and delicious-looking dessert comes from our meal at the home of Janet Shank.

I came to the conference in response to urging from Jan Bender Shetler that I send in a paper proposal, and at the invitation of Devin Manzullo-Thomas, to join a panel he was proposing on BICC women in leadership. I gave a talk about Sithembile Nkala, a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, Zimbabwe, who served as pastor of her BICC church during the 1970s. The story I shared centered around Pastor Nkala’s encounter with liberation war guerrillas. She drew on what I called “spiritual muscles” to find courage to confront the guerrillas, challenging them not to believe at face value the “sell-out” accusations they heard, in spite of the real possibility that they could have executed her for speaking out in this manner. This material is based on research I did for my dissertation in history at Columbia University and which in turn served as the basis for my book, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Ohio Univ Press, 2015.) Devin spoke about women of the BICC in North America in the post-WWII era during the BICC’s “evangelical turn.”  Also presenting on this panel was Lucille Marr, a historian from McGill University in Canada. Lucille spoke on the early life and calling of Hannah Frances Davidson, the BICC’s first foreign missionary. H. F. Davidson, Lucille’s own great-aunt, was a crucial leader of the BICC’s mission to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) See the photo of Lucille, Devin, and me—which Devin has also posted in his social media platforms.

19399675_10154676829305869_7987347151558697291_nBarbara Nkala’s talk on “Unsung Heroines” of the BICC Zimbabwe was delivered with clarity and authority. Based on her own and her sister Doris Dube’s extensive work of collecting stories of women of the BICC Zimbabwe, Barbara’s joyful spirit came through, as well as her well-honed teacher’s expertise.  A longtime secondary school teacher at the BICC’s Matopo Secondary School, she is now a publisher of Christian and Ndebele literature and serves as the southern Africa regional representative for MWC.  I had not seen Doris and Barbara since 1999; our reunion at Crossing the Line was poignant and joyful. See the photo of the three of us standing before EMU seminary’s gorgeous stained glass window. Note also the photo of the conference’s wrap-up panel, which includes Barbara Nkala seated at the far right.

19429639_10154676830320869_914360242205161917_nI may well have been one of the only (if not the only) participants in the conference who is not a member of an Anabaptist-derived church.  I felt welcome; I became more deeply acquainted with the Anabaptist tradition, and came to admire and appreciate my Anabaptist fellows in Christ and in scholarship all the more. Thank you to the conference planners who accepted my paper proposal, allowing me to partake of these riches.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Encounters with the Spirit: Anabaptists and Charismatic Renewal (Part 2)

In October 2016, I teased a multi-part series sharing some of my research into Anabaptist engagement with the late twentieth century charismatic renewal movement. In that post, I pointed to the dearth of writing on Anabaptist-charismatic influence and to the larger historiographical problem represented by that silence.

Today’s post picks up where that post left off. I want to share at least three reasons why I think this research matters for scholars of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.

First, engagement with the North American charismatic renewal movement represented one of Mennonites’ first ecumenical encounters. The last two decades have seen growing rates of participation by Anabaptists in ecumenical dialogue, mostly through Mennonite World Conference.1 For instance, Mennonite and other Anabaptist media gave significant coverage to the 2010 service in which the Lutheran World Federation formally asked Mennonite World Conference for forgiveness “for the violent persecution of Anabaptists in the sixteenth century and for the way negative portrayals of Anabaptists and Mennonites have been allowed to continue within their communities and theological institutions.” But these high-profile ecumenical encounters of recent decades tend to obscure earlier forms of interchurch engagement, including with the charismatic renewal movement — a movement that, as numerous scholars have pointed out, was often quite ecumenical.

For instance, when charismatic Christians from various denominations—including Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and many others—came together in 1977 for the Kansas City Charismatic Conference, Mennonites were highly involved. Retired (Old) Mennonite church missionary Nelson Litwiller sat on the organizing committee, and hundreds of Mennonite laypeople and leaders were among the 50,000 people who crowded into Arrowhead Stadium for the week-long event.2 Worshiping alongside and rubbing elbows with Christians across the denominational spectrum would have been anathema to (Old) Mennonites a generation or two beforehand. Yet by 1977, engagement with religious beliefs and practices from outside the Mennonite tradition had drawn these men and women into contact with other believers. As the historian Perry Bush has demonstrated, Mennonites engaged in ecumenical conversations before 1977.3 But the Kansas City conference had symbolic significance as an ecumenical encounter: Mennonites were known, active participants and partners in a widely-reported, transdenominational religious gathering.

Arrowhead Stadium, the site of the Kansas City Charismatic Conference in 1977 (Wikimedia Commons)

Arrowhead Stadium, the site of the Kansas City Charismatic Conference in 1977 (Wikimedia Commons)

Second, while some Anabaptists cut loose their denominational ties as a result of their encounters with the Spirit, other Mennonites and Brethren in Christ attempted to forge a distinctively Anabaptist variety of charismatic renewal. At the cutting edge of this endeavor was Mennonite Renewal Services, a grassroots denominational agency that formed in the mid-1970s by two Mennonite leaders sympathetic to charismatic expressions. The organization planned conferences and published a magazine, Empowered, in order to promote charismatic renewal within local congregations while simultaneously attempting to stop charismatic Mennonites from seeking fellowship with and guidance from non-Mennonite charismatics.

But perhaps their most enduring contribution emerged in their efforts to promote a distinctively Mennonite “brand” of charismatic renewal. For instance, in the inaugural issue of Empowered in 1983, one writer opined that the baptism of the Spirit was important, but that there were many signs or sets of signs—not just one singular sign—that could confirm it. He wrote that “difficulty, severe testing or spiritual challenge may be a more typical consequence of the baptism” than signs such as glossolalia or prophecy.4 The writer’s appeal to suffering and “spiritual challenge” spoke directly to the longstanding Anabaptist conviction that hardship and adversity are expected outcomes of Christian discipleship, beliefs that reflect a living memory even among twentieth­-century Anabaptists of their ancestors’ sixteenth­-century persecution.

The predominantly African-American congregation at Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Virginia, are more open to charismatic expressions than some of their fellow white Mennonites. With about 2,200 members, this congregation is the largest in Mennonite Church USA.

Third, the growing presence of African American, Latino/a, and Hispanic Anabaptists after 1980 helped to sustain charismatic expressions in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. Although pockets of resistance to charismatic beliefs and practices continued to exist within some segments of the Mennonite denominations and the Brethren in Christ Church into the 1980s and beyond, by the last decades of the twentieth century most denominational hierarchies relaxed their older, outright opposition to the movement. Such gradual embrace was a boon to Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in the 1980s, as both groups increasingly welcomed African Americans, Latino/as, and Hispanics into their church communities.5

For these Anabaptists, charismatic expressions did not necessarily conflict with the tradition’s other beliefs and practices. For instance, as the historians Steven Nolt and Royden Loewen have argued, Latino Mennonites “were [often] puzzled as to why so many white Mennonites seemed surprised by, or even opposed to, dramatic expressions of divine activity,” such as speaking in tongues or divine healing.6

A recent demographic study of Mennonite Church USA confirmed these dynamics. Only forty-four percent of white church members claimed that they had “ever personally experienced . . . gifts of the Spirit” such as casting out demons, speaking in tongues, prophesying, or receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, seventy percent of African-American, Latino/a, and Hispanic church members claimed those experiences.7

Since we scholars still have much to learn about African American, Latino/a, and Hispanic Anabaptists in North America, paying attention to the emergence of, ongoing presence of, and tensions resulting from charismatic beliefs and expressions within Anabaptist communities may help provide fresh insights into these late twentieth century developments.

Stay tuned for more posts on these “encounters with the Spirit,” as I continue to share insights from my ongoing research into Anabaptist engagement with the charismatic renewal movement.


  1. See, for instance, the recent collection by Fernando Enns and Jonathan Seiling, eds., Mennonites in Dialogue: Official Reports from International and National Ecumenical Encounters (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2015). 
  2. On the Kansas City Charismatic Conference, including Mennonite involvement, see Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 260-264. 
  3. Perry Bush, “”Anabaptism Born Again: Mennonites, New Evangelicals, and the Search for a Usable Past, 1950-1980,” Fides et Historia 25, no. 2 (Winter-Spring 1993): 26-47. 
  4. Daniel Yutzy, “The Baptism with the Spirit,” ​Empowered, Spring/Summer 1983, n.p. 
  5. Historians of North American Anabaptism are only beginning to understand how and why African Americans, Latino/as, and Hispanics became involved in groups such as the Old Mennonites and the Brethren in Christ, groups historically comprised of members with Swiss­-German ethnic heritages. For some early considerations of this development, see Tobin Miller Shearer, ​Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and Felipe Hinojosa, ​Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). 
  6. Steven M. Nolt and Royden Loewen, Seeking Places of Peace: A Global Mennonite History–Vol. 5: North America (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books; Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2012), 262. 
  7. Conrad L. Kanagy, Road Signs for the Journey: A Profile of Mennonite Church USA (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2007), 99. 

Encounters with the Spirit: Anabaptists in the Charismatic Movement (Part 1)

At the start of this year, I queried the Anabaptist-Mennonite scholars I follow on Twitter and Facebook:

My scholar friends suggested a few books — mostly theological/pastoral texts, rather than historical treatments. Fortunately, they weren’t the only ones to respond: my pastor friends (especially in Mennonite Church USA) offered lots of suggestions. They pointed me to groups such as the Hopewell Network, a group of formerly Mennonite churches born through charismatic outpourings that split off from Atlantic Coast Conference in 2001 after it developed a more “interdenominational vision” of ministry, as well as to specific Mennonite individuals and congregations influenced by the charismatic movement. They even offered to set up some oral history interviews for me! But they also couldn’t point to any historical treatments of the subject.

The whole interaction confirmed what I already suspected: Anabaptist-Mennonite historians have paid very little attention to charismatic expressions within the traditions they study. While much—though not enough—ink has been spilled trying to understand the roles played by Anabaptists in the post-World War II evangelical renewal movement, little to no scholarly effort has been directed toward Anabaptists’ role in charismatic renewal. But as my pastor-friends’ comments showed, the historiographical silence belies the reality that lots of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ have embraced and been influenced by charismatic beliefs and practices.

This silence is telling, because it reminds us of the problematic ways that Mennonite historians have typically framed the influence of renewal movements (especially post-World War II evangelical renewal) on Mennonites. Here’s how David R. Swartz has described the conventional historiography:

The usual narrative is one of declension, a story of evangelicalism’s insensitivity to the perils of militarism, of getting into bed with American culture, of more concern for theological particularities and not enough concern for ethics, of its easy denunciation of abortion and its defense of capital punishment. . . . Its logic assumes both a caricatured evangelicalism (pictured as fundamentalist vultures) and Mennonitism (pictured as pristine pacifists). 1

Historians will recognize that the declension mode frames other stories of Mennonite encounter, including the colonial-era encounter between North American Mennonite immigrants and radical Pietists.2 Yet as Swartz concludes, while there is truth in the declension narrative critique, this framework is too simplistic.3 Telling the story of Anabaptists in the charismatic movement offers historians an opportunity to move beyond the “simplistic” declension narratives and to explore alternative ways of talking about Mennonites and the broader Protestant world.

A conference held at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, UK

A conference held at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, UK

I’m still in the process of sorting out how and why Mennonites and Brethren in Christ took part in charismatic renewal, and what their involvement means for the story of North American Anabaptism in the twentieth century. I shared some of my initial thoughts at a conference in September — “Charismatic Renewal: Historical Perspectives, 1950-2000,” a two-day event at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University in the UK. In the next couple of posts in this series, I’ll draw on the paper I presented at that conference to set out a few tentative ideas about Anabaptist-Mennonites and the meaning of their encounters with the Spirit in the last half of the twentieth century. Stay tuned!

  1. David R. Swartz, “New Directions in North American Mennonite History,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 81 (January 2007): 72. 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. See, for instance, the first half of Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries: Its Genius and Its Literature (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1949). For a critique of the “Friedmann thesis” when it comes to Anabaptism and Pietism, see Chris Gehrz, “The Friedmann Thesis,” The Pietist Schoolman,