Finding “A Clear Voice”: 65 Years of Christianity Today

On October 15, 1956, 65 years ago today, Christianity Today published their first issue. Explaining the place of the new magazine in an editorial titled “Why Christianity Today?“, the editors stated simply, “evangelical Christianity needs a clear voice, to speak with conviction, and love, and to state its true position and its relevance to the world crisis.” Employing that clear voice to wide effect, this first printing was sent to more than 250,000 pastors, seminary students, and evangelical Christian leaders across the world.

An autographed copy of this first issue, as well as correspondence, board meeting minutes, financial reports, memos, photographs, audio tapes, and other material mostly relating to the founding of the magazine and a wide range of religious, social, and political issues can be found in Collection 8: Records of Christianity Today, held here at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives.  

A copy of the first issue autographed by four of the magazine’s original five editors (CN8, Folder 14-1)

While these records are a significant resource, the full history of Christianity Today involves not only the institution but also the many figures that shaped, funded, and championed its existence. Reflecting the close interplay between the institutional and the personal, archival research often requires the exploration of a broad cast of characters. This may be especially true of the founding and development of Christianity Today, which arose out of the impassioned efforts of a multitude of figures with wide ranging backgrounds, denominations, and professional talents.

Preparations for what became Christianity Today originated in 1954 when Billy Graham and his father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, began discussing the need for a professional publication that would present faithfully the evangelical Christian viewpoint in an intellectually rigorous fashion, both to the world and to pastors of all shades of theological belief.

Marcellus Kirk, Carl F.H. Henry, and L. Nelson Bell
Marcellus Kik, Carl F.H. Henry, and L. Nelson Bell. Photo File: Bell, L. Nelson

Their correspondence in Collection 74: Ephemera of Billy Graham and Collection 318: Papers of L. Nelson Bell, provides a rich resource of the many discussions between Bell and Graham regarding the essential character and place of the magazine, the role of editor in chief, and their efforts to rouse interest and support for the project in the wider evangelical community.

Soon joining Graham and Bell in these discussions was Harold Lindsell, a professor of missions at Fuller Seminary and close friend and advisor to Graham, as well as the future editor for the magazine in the late 1960s. In Collection 192: Papers of Harold Lindsell, Graham and Lindsell correspond frequently on the early days of Christianity Today, including a substantial letter from Billy Graham imparting his and others feedback on the inaugural issue of the magazine (A copy of which can be found in Folder 6-2).

Larry Ward, managing editor; L. Nelson Bell, executive editor; Carl F. H. Henry, editor and theologian; J. Marcellus Kik, associate editor; and George Burnham, news editor.
Larry Ward, managing editor; L. Nelson Bell, executive editor; Carl F. H. Henry, editor; J. Marcellus Kik, associate editor; and George Burnham, news editor. Photo file: Christianity Today

As these discussions turned into concrete plans, L. Nelson Bell retired from his medical practice in 1955 to take on the role of executive editor, while Carl F. H. Henry, a leading Evangelical theologian, became editor. Also joining the editorial board were J. Marcellus Kik, George Burnham and Dr. Larry Ward.

Beyond these founding editors, Billy Graham and L. Nelson Bell approached a wide range of Christian leaders to provide support for the project, such as the Bishop of Barking, James Stewart, and even C.S. Lewis.

Eventually, 51 contributing editors were presented for the first issue, from John Stott in London to Harold John Ockenga at Fuller Seminary and Samuel Moffett in Korea, Gordon Clark at Butler, and F.F. Bruce in England, and of course, Billy Graham. The evolution of this expansive list can be found in the records of its first editor Collection 628: Papers of Carl F. H. Henry. Like the contributing editors, news writers were also sought from missionaries and Christian leaders across both the globe and mission affiliations.

L. Nelson Bell reviews CT's first issue
L. Nelson Bell reviews CT’s first issue. Photo file: Christianity Today
Marcellus Kik in the CT offices
Marcellus Kik in the CT offices. Photo file: Christianity Today

Exploring the web of relationships, papers, and personalities involved in the creation of Christianity Today, reveals how one the central principles of the new magazine – its broad invitation to what many at the time saw as a scattered and divided evangelical world – was built into its very foundation. As Graham and Bell discussed with each other and with those from whom they were soliciting support, if Christianity Today was to serve as the clear evangelical voice, it must both reflect and seriously engage the breadth of theological positions, ministries, and issues present in evangelical Christianity worldwide, while also presenting a unified and uniquely evangelical perspective.

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