Buswell Library Archives and Special Collections holds the records of many national evangelical organizations – From Youth for Christ (CN 48) and Christianity Today (CN 08) to Christians for Social Action (CN 37) and Prison Fellowship Ministries (CN 274). These collections provide valuable and fascinating insights into the history of evangelical Christianity in the United States. But few offer as broad a view of American evangelicalism in the last half of the 20th century as the National Association of Evangelicals (SC 113), which celebrates the 80th anniversary of its founding conference this month.
Meeting on April 7th 1942, the group of 147 evangelical pastors, leaders, and educators gathered together in St. Louis to answer the question: Who could speak for evangelical Protestantism in America?
Concerned by the national effects of the separatism and sectionalism of conservative Christianity, legacy of the Modernist-Fundamentalist conflicts of the 1920s, evangelical leaders like J. Elwin Wright (New England Fellowship) and Ralph T. Davis (General Secretary for Africa Inland Mission) began to advocate throughout the 1930s for the creation of a central body or committee that could adequately represent evangelical Christianity in the public sphere. While a Federal Council of Churches had been established in 1908, the FCC was seen by many conservative denominations as emblematic of a Christian liberalism that failed to represent the voice and beliefs of American evangelicalism. One of the major points of contention for evangelicals was the FCC’s lack of a concrete statement of faith, including the explicit confirmation of the infallibility of scripture. Indeed, this issue was so central that the proto-NAE pointedly described themselves as ‘a fellowship of Bible-believing Christians’ in much of their early literature.
Plans for a national organization that could counteract the perception that the liberal FCC was the only voice for Protestantism in the United States and foster greater cooperation between conservative denominations and parachurch agencies crystallized at a 1941 round table discussion in Chicago attended by small group of evangelical leaders, including Wheaton College president Dr. Raymand Edman, Moody Church pastor Harry Ironside, J. Elwin Wright, and Christian radio evangelist, Charles Fuller, among others. These discussions resulted in the creation of the Temporary Committee for United Action among Evangelicals and a national conference planned for the following April.
After an extensive mail campaign organized by Wright, representatives from across evangelical Christianity convened in St. Louis. At the end of the three-day conference, the delegates agreed on a preliminary doctrinal statement and constitution, as well as elected a temporary executive council and advisory council, headed by Dr. Harold Ockenga as president and J. Elwin Wright as program director.
Outlining the objectives of the new organization, they identified eight areas of primary concern: (1) Relations with Government (2) National Use of Radio (3) Public Relations (4) Evangelism (5) Preservation of the Principle of Separation of Church and State (6) Home and Foreign Missions (7) United Efforts of Evangelical Churches within the local Communities (8) Christian Education.
To spread the message of the newly formed NAE, the council distributed the booklet “Constitution and Policy,” declaring in the introduction their call to action:
“The paramount need of evangelicals is for an organization by which their convictions may be expressed, and their actions unified. ‘One shall chase a thousand, but two shall chase ten thousand.’ Totalitarianism has taught us that we must have a new technique in action or we will be liquidated. We have been speaking, acting, and working independently of one another. As a result we have had no means of influencing the great national trends. This is a call to unity, to action, and to aggressive work for evangelicals.”Constitution and Policy, 1942 (SC113, Folder 1-7)
In every stage of development – from correspondence, to round table, to conference – the new organization’s leaders emphasized the importance of a democratic and collaborative process. The distribution of the “Constitution and Policy” booklet, as well as the organization of more than 49 regional councils, actively invited Christian leaders to consider the purpose and direction of the NAE and prepare for the upcoming National Constitutional Convention, planned for May 1943. The executive council of the NAE pledged that all interested denominations or Christian organizations would have proportional representation at the convention and underscored in the distributed literature that “any evangelical may yet have his say in the final form of the national association.” Their care to invite conversation demonstrated many of the organizers’ conviction that a body for united evangelical action must arise from the consensus of the evangelical community.
After a year of robust outreach efforts, the Constitutional Convention for the National Association of Evangelicals for United Action convened in Chicago on May 1943, attended by 600 delegates comprised of 65 denominations, independent churches, and other Christian organizations. Reflecting many of the NAE’s future aims and projects, the conference offered study groups on evangelism, foreign missions, education, war services, public relations, separation of church and state, and radio.
By the close of the conference, a constitution and doctrinal statement were confirmed and the official name of the new organization was shortened to the National Association of Evangelicals. The delegates also approved the election of Rev. Harold Ockenga as the first president of the NAE, with Bishop Leslie R. Marston as Vice President and Elwin J. Wright as Executive Secretary.
Although not without criticism – both internal and external to the evangelical Christian community – many reports on the Constitutional Convention published in denominational circulars displayed an enthusiastic positivity:
“The spirit of the convention was excellent. A most tolerant attitude was exhibited throughout. Much emphasis was placed upon prayer and the necessity of having the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The unity of the convention was seen in the unanimous adoption of the statement of belief acceptable to the many present, representing varying shades of theological beliefs from extreme Calvinists on the one hand to Pentecostal and holiness groups on the other. The basic attitude of the association is not negative but positive”Herald of Holiness, May 1943 (SC113, Box 101)
“I was very greatly impressed with the utter sincerity of these church leaders, as well as with their great regard one for the other. Their great desire to humbly cooperate to the fullest possible extent in a unified effort to preserve liberty of action for the true Church of Jesus Christ, was very apparent.”LeRoy Knopp, United Fundamentalist Advocate, May/June 1943 (SC113, Box 101)
“Again and again, acknowledgement of the leading of the Holy Spirit was expressed both from the speaker’s stand and from the floor. Kindly consideration was given to all, irrespective of denominational affiliation, background, or intellectual attainment. Calvinists, Armenians, Holiness, and Pentecostals alike found a common bond in their love for the Lord Jesus and their belief in the fundamentals of the Christian faith.J. Roswell Flower, Pentecostal Evangel, May 1943 (SC113, Box 101)
By the second conference in 1944, the NAE claimed about 400,000 members. Fifteen years later, the number had risen to more than 1.5 million and has only continued to grow. Embodying their founding call for “evangelicals united in action,” NAE has supported or led a wide variety of initiatives, including advocacy with the Federal Communications Commission for religious radio programs, assistance to missionaries in passport and visa applications, and the development of the aid agency World Relief, to name just a few.
More information about the history and work of the NAE can be found in the SC-113: Records of the National Association of Evangelicals. The official records of the NAE are also complemented by the papers of individuals who worked with the organization, like CN 565: Ephemera of J. Elwin Wright, CN 597: Papers of Hebert J. Taylor, and CN 629: Ephemera of Harold J. Ockenga, as well as associated groups, such as CN 165: Records of the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, CN 309: Records of the National Religious Broadcasters, and SC-218: Records of the Committee on Bible Translation.