National Association of Evangelicals Founded
Harold J. Ockenga, J. Elwin Wright
- Time Period
The National Association of Evangelicals united traditional evangelical denominations with Pentecostals for the first time in a major, national organization. The impetus behind its formation in 1941-42 was the protection of religious broadcasting and the need to represent evangelical interests before the federal government during World War II. Despite criticism from both separatist fundamentalists like Carl McIntire, the NAE adopted a moderate, yet oppositional stance toward the mainline National Council of Churches. In 1951 the NAE organized the World Evangelical Fellowship as a counter to the World Council of Churches and in 1978 it sponsored the New International Version of the Bible to replace the more liberal Revised Standard Version. Despite a series of controversies with conservative evangelicals in the early 2000s, the NAE remains the largest fellowship of evangelicals in America today.
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Prominent Religious Events and People in American History
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) had inauspicious origins. A second-generation evangelist named J. Elwin Wright headed up a small organization of Pentecostals in New Hampshire called the New England Fellowship. Wright's father had headed the group before him, when it was known as the First Fruit Harvesters, and, like many early Pentecostals, had come into conflict with the non-Pentecostals around him. Wright the elder had accused other churches of deviation from primitive Christianity; in response, the locals of one town went so far as to dynamite a First Fruit Harvesters' church building. J. Elwin Wright adopted a more accommodating stance toward non-Pentecostals and developed a friendship with Congregationalist minister Harold J. Ockenga, pastor of the prominent Park Street Church in Boston. After having trouble with getting airtime on local radio stations, Ockenga and Wright began to see the need for a national organization of evangelicals modeled along the lines of the New England Fellowship. In the summer of 1941 they invited prominent pastors and evangelists to an October planning meeting in Chicago, where they then planned to formally organize in April 1942 in St. Louis. One of the invitees, Carl McIntire, a Presbyterian pastor in New Jersey, jumped the gun and started a counter-organization in September called the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC). The ACCC repudiated the NAE's moderate stance toward the liberal-controlled National Council of Churches. The NAE allowed churches that were part of denominations within the National Council also to be members of the NAE, a position that McIntire considered to be an unacceptable compromise with heresy. McIntire's split with the nascent NAE foreshadowed the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals a decade later, but at the time, many fundamentalists, like Bob Jones Sr. and John R. Rice, chose the NAE over McIntire's strict separationist ACCC. Despite McIntire's accusations of compromise with liberalism, the National Association of Evangelicals was explicitly organized to provide a counterweight to the National Council of Churches' influence in the broadcasting industry. The National Council, claiming to speak for the vast majority of Protestants in America, received a great deal of free, or "sustaining," airtime from the major radio networks, a privilege not typically accorded to the smaller, divided evangelical denominations. Furthermore, the National Council had been pushing the networks to deny the sale of commercial airtime to religious groups, a policy shift that would have severely hindered popular paid-time evangelical programs like Walter Maier's "The Lutheran Hour," Charles Fuller's "The Old Fashioned Revival Hour," and William Ward Ayer's "God's Truth Marches On." In 1944, a deepening of the crisis over sustaining and commercial airtime led the NAE to spin off its radio arm into a separate, dedicated organization, the National Religious Broadcasters.By the time the NAE officially organized in St. Louis in April 1942, it had additional concerns given the entry of the United States into World War II. Evangelicals needed a unified voice to guarantee evangelical access to the chaplaincy and to navigate the bureaucracy to provide post-war civilian aid. Furthermore, the NAE encouraged wartime evangelism among America's young people by having its members hold revivals in major cities like Chicago and New York, efforts that would eventually coalesce into the Youth for Christ movement in 1944 and launch the career of a young evangelist named Billy Graham. At its founding, the NAE represented a full-range of Protestant denominations, including Lutherans (Walter Maier), Congregationalists (Harold J. Ockenga), Methodists (Bob Jones Sr. and John R. Rice), Baptists (William Ward Ayer), Presbyterians (Charles Woodbridge), and Pentecostals (J. Elwin Wright and J. Roswell Flower). Prior to 1942, most American evangelicals considered pentecostalism a heretical theology and it was revolutionary when the NAE became the first major, national organization to successfully combine traditional evangelical denominations with newer Pentecostal groups like the Assemblies of God. The NAE grew rapidly during the 1950s, from 15 denominations and 500,000 members in 1945 to 32 denominations and 1.5 million members in 1960. That growth was global as well. In 1951 the NAE helped organize an international organization called the World Evangelical Fellowship as a counter to the liberal World Council of Churches. Although the NAE's growth slowed during the 1960s, the organization's influence continued to be felt in the field of Bible translation. It sponsored the New International Version of the Bible, completed in 1978, which quickly became the bestselling translation in the world and remained so into the 21st century.In the late 1970s, the National Association of Evangelicals began to expand rapidly. Politicians became ever-more aware of the importance of wooing evangelical voters and starting with Jimmy Carter every president has either spoken at the NAE's national convention or spoken to its leaders at the White House. In fact, Ronald Reagan gave his famous "Evil Empire" speech at the NAE's Orlando convention in 1983. The NAE weathered a series of controversies in the 2000s. First, a constitutional change that further accommodated the National Council of Churches led the National Religious Broadcasters to formally disaffiliate with its parent organization in 2001. The following year's convention flopped and the leadership scrambled to make up the drop in membership and giving. In 2006, NAE President Ted Haggard was forced to resign after issues regarding a male prostitute. Still, the National Association of Evangelicals remains the largest fellowship of evangelicals in America. It has moderated its political stance from the 1980s and in the past decade thrown its weight behind environmental initiatives, comprehensive immigration reform, and federal aid for religious charities.
- Religious Groups
Independent Fundamentalist Family: Other Timeline Entries
Independent Fundamentalist Family: Other ARDA Links
Timeline Entries for the same religious group Independent/Nondenominational
Henry, Carl F. H.
Graham, William "Billy"
Ockenga, Harold John
Fuller, Charles Edward
Jones, Robert "Bob"
Robertson, Marion "Pat"
NAE Founding Convention, 1942- photo courtesy of the National Association of Evangelicals
Harold Ockenga preaching- David Allan Hubbard Library, Archives and Special Collections, Fuller Theological Seminary
Ronald Reagan addressing NAE annual convention- National Archives and Records Administration.gif
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An in-house history by the National Association of Evangelicals.
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Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History