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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.
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!