Log In | Contact Us | View Cart (0 items)
Browse: Collections Digital Content Subjects Creators Record Groups

National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) (1942-) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) (1942-)


Historical Note:

A brief history of the National Association of Evangelicals as written for the 50th Anniversary of NAE in the Preface to the New International Version of the Bible.

The year 1992 marks fifty years of spiritual ministry by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a coordinating agency facilitating Christian unity, public witness, and cooperative ministry among evangelical denominations, congregations, educational institutions, and service agencies in the United States. The Association traces its beginnings to April 7-9, 1942, when a modest group of 147 people met in St. Louis with the hopes of reviving the fortunes of evangelical Christianity in America.

The time was an unlikely one for the creation of anything new, let alone the creation of an organization for evangelicals. The nation, on the heels of a severe economic depression, had just declared war against Germany and Japan. American energies were being directed to the war effort, not matters of religious endeavor. Furthermore, if any new ecclesiastical initiative were underway, the public was not expecting one from conservatives. After all, the Scopes Trial of 1925 and the resultant loss of fundamentalist influence in the mainline denominations had led many to believe that conservative Christians had vanished from the scene, never to be heard from again.

But from another perspective, the formation of NAE seemed like a logical outgrowth of developments among fundamentalists during the 1930s. After conservatives had suffered public defeats in the 1920s, they channeled their creative and innovative energies into building alternative institutions independent of the established denominations, including congregations, mission agencies, Bible institutes, conference grounds, and publishing houses. They also placed renewed emphasis on evangelism, finding radio to be an effective medium for taking their message to the people at a time when they could not rely upon established cultural and ecclesiastical structures. As a result, evangelical Christianity, while remaining outside the cultural mainstream, established a thriving subculture, centering around engaging personalities and independent institutions.

The downside to this emerging grass-roots, popular movement was that many radio preachers, Christian college presidents, and pulpiteers tended to do their own thing with little regard for the big picture. Instead of acting like brothers, they acted like rivals, weakening the possibilities of meaningful Christian witness. This was particularly disheartening to the Reverend J. Elwin Wright of the New England Fellowship, the man whose ideas and energies, more than any other single individual, resulted in the formation of NAE.

The Wright Idea

Wright was the right man at the right time. Lacking national stature and connections, he was a perfect example of the popular, independent religious leader in the decade before the creation of NAE. He followed in the footsteps of his father, a Free Will Baptist minister turned Free Methodist minister, who left his denomination to start an independent Pentecostal ministry called the First Fruits Harvesters Association in Rumney, New Hampshire. After graduating from the Missionary Training Institute at Nyack, New York, (now Nyack College) in 1921, he was ordained by his father to the work in Rumney.

When the younger Wright succeeded his father in 1929, he transformed First Fruits Harvesters into the New England Fellowship. Rather than continuing a ministry devoted to Pentecostal distinctives, the new fellowship would serve a broader constituency by operating a summer conference to inspire and bring together evangelicals of all stripes throughout New England. This was not his only change. In 1934 Wright became a Congregationalist, being received on profession of faith into the membership of Park Street Church in Boston. The new ecclesiastical commitment proved beneficial to the New England Fellowship, enhancing Wright's relationship with a number of emerging evangelical leaders, including one who would play a role in NAE, the Reverend Harold John Ockenga.

The New England Fellowship struck a responsive chord in an area of the country many had considered lost to the evangelical cause. But the fellowship did more than bring New Englanders together; by hosting such prominent personalities as William B. Riley of Minneapolis, Will Houghton of New York, Charles Fuller of Los Angeles and Walter Maier of St. Louis, Wright expanded the horizons of New Englanders to the emerging network of conservative Christians nationwide. By the end of the 1930s, the idea of duplicating the fellowship on a national scale emerged and Wright found himself crisscrossing the continent to promote the idea.

At the same time, the Reverend Ralph T. Davis of Africa Inland Mission had broached the same idea, sensing the need for greater cooperation in the missionary enterprise and for representation before civil authorities. As a result, the Reverend Will Houghton, by this time president of Moody Bible Institute, called for an exploratory meeting in October 1941 in Chicago. At that meeting, a Temporary Committee for United Action Among Evangelicals was created, Wright was named chairman, and a national conference in St. Louis for April 1942 was placed on the calendar. The committee opened an office in New York, met several times during the winter to make arrangements, and issued an invitation to the National Conference for United Action Among Evangelicals. The invitation was signed by 147 leaders, all of whom agreed that “the time is ripe for frank discussion and exploration” of the possibility of a national organization.

The Spirit of St. Louis

While they may not have realized it, those who responded to the invitation to St. Louis would be changed forever. What were previously isolated, lonely, and separated leaders working in limited frames of reference were molded into a cohesive whole by stirring addresses by Harold J. Ockenga of historic Park Street Church in Boston, William W. Ayer of Calvary Baptist Church in New York, Stephen W. Paine of Houghton College, and Robert G. Lee of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis.  Ockenga's often-quoted “The Unvoiced Multitudes” speech captured the mood of the hour, lamenting that the testimony of evangelical Christianity in America--once maintained by the united, corporate testimony of the established denominations--had been reduced to individuals and individual congregations. He challenged those lonely voices to put aside denominational differences for the sake of a more consolidated witness for Christ.

Moved to action, the conference drafted a tentative constitution and statement of faith and accepted a report of the policy committee that called for a constitutional convention a year later. As the proposed constitution stated, the group determined “to organize an Association which shall give articulation and united voice to our faith and purpose in Christ Jesus.” The only source of tension during the proceedings centered upon a motion presented by the fiery fundamentalist from New Jersey, Carl McIntire. He pleaded with participants to join the American Council of Christian Churches, an organization he had founded, a month before the October 1941 exploratory meeting in Chicago, as a declaration of war against the Federal Council of Churches (FCC). The issue had been placed on the table at the earlier Chicago meeting, but in St. Louis the participants declined McIntire's invitation, believing that a more positive testimony to the gospel was needed. While they all shared serious reservations about the FCC, the participants did not feel that militant opposition and direct confrontation with the well-established Protestant council was the best strategy. Following the St. Louis meeting, Wright moved what was the New York office of the Temporary Committee to Boston, held regional meetings to generate interest, and launched the official NAE publication, United Evangelical Action. Interest in the National Association of Evangelicals for United Action, as the organization was called during the first year, was growing and not simply because it promised new vistas of fellowship. Some very practical issues were drawing evangelicals together, particularly an item very close to home: access to radio. The Federal Council of Churches had persuaded the CBS and NBC radio networks not to sell time to religious broadcasters, but to allot free time to “recognized” faith communities. Since evangelicals were unorganized--and therefore “unrecognized”--the new radio policy posed a serious threat to evangelical broadcasting.

So when the doors opened for the 1943 constitutional convention in Chicago, more than one thousand participants were ready to take their seats and constitute the new entity. While they were not official delegates, those who came represented, by some estimates, nearly fifty denominations with a potential constituency of fifteen million Christians. After amending the proposed constitution and doctrinal statement, they adopted the documents and shortened the name of the organization to simply the National Association of Evangelicals.

The Formative Years, 1943-1950

The years following the first convention proved determinative for the fledgling organization. The first among many action items was the 1943 opening of an office in Washington, D.C., to help on a number of fronts, whether supporting evangelical chaplains, assisting mission agencies in dealings with the State Department, championing the cause of religious broadcasting to the Federal Communication Commission, or defending religious liberty. Because the demands were great, NAE called the Reverend Clyde W. Taylor, a Baptist General Conference pastor in New England, to oversee the strategic office. Taylor, a former missionary to South America with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and part-time professor at Gordon College, was well suited for the post and for NAE in general. While he would wear a number of different hats, he would become the dominant figure in NAE over the next thirty years.

Continued concern over radio prompted NAE at its 1944 convention in Columbus, Ohio, to form the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), the first of many related service agencies NAE would charter with a particular purpose in mind. Following the lead of CBS and NBC, the Mutual radio network had announced it no longer would sell time for religious broadcasting and turned the Protestant broadcasting slot over to the Federal Council of Churches. NRB, after holding its own constitutional convention later that year, responded to the challenge, eventually persuading the networks to reverse their policies.

In addition to NRB, NAE in 1944 created two task-specific commissions, the Chaplains Commission, to assist evangelical chaplains in the military, and War Relief Commission, which would eventually become a subsidiary known as World Relief, NAE's humanitarian assistance arm. The following year, NAE created the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (now the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, the largest missionary association in the world), chartered to handle the special needs of missionaries and their agencies. NAE had also, by 1945, established regional offices in Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland, and Los Angeles to promote the cause locally and keep in touch with the grass roots.

Some debate has focused on whether or not NAE helped itself by spinning off new agencies rather than consolidating the functions under one centralized structure. Whatever its pros or cons, the arrangement was reflective of the evangelical mood at the time. While evangelicals sensed the value of some level of structure, the dynamic nature of their movement would only tolerate a limited amount of centralization. The emerging association, while providing a loose structure linking commissions, affiliates, and a subsidiary, would reflect the dynamic and independent nature of American evangelicalism.

The accomplishment of NAE during its early years was not simply the creation of new agencies or the opening of regional offices ready to serve the evangelical public. Instead, the accomplishment of NAE was its ability to pull together a new coalition of conservative Protestants that was unheard of just five years before. Whereas the fundamentalist movement that prefigured NAE was largely the domain of Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians in the northern part of the United States, NAE from the 1942 conference on, embraced numerous Christians in the Pentecostal, Holiness, and Anabaptist traditions. Pentecostalism, which had been kept at arm's length by most fundamentalists, had become part of the conservative alliance.

Yet just when the young organization seemed to be on a roll, an issue arose that had the potential of dismantling the new coalition. The issue was evangelism; not whether it should be done, but NAE's exact role. Should NAE as an organization be involved in evangelism directly, or should NAE leave the preaching of the gospel to constituent member churches? A compromise was worked out at the 1945 convention, limiting the national organization's role to simply promoting the cause of evangelism, while giving city and regional associations the option to sponsor evangelistic initiatives as they saw fit. While the compromise was satisfactory to a good majority, it did not sit well with some; the issuewould undergo further revision twenty years later. One result of the controversy: those who had been looking to NAE for a more direct role in evangelism began to looked elsewhere, to parachurch agencies like Youth for Christ and its promising first evangelist, Billy Graham.

While NAE did represent a diverse coalition, the sizeable coalition for which the founders had hoped did not emerge. By 1945, just fifteen relatively small denominations, representing less than 500,000 communicant members, had signed on, a far cry from the fifty denominations and fifteen million Christians that had been unofficially represented at the constitutional convention. Some larger conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, remained outside of NAE. In addition, NAE adopted a policy in 1944 disallowing dual membership in the Federal Council of Churches, creating a barrier for some denominations. As a result, when committees of the Reformed Church in America and the old United Presbyterian Church of North America (not to be confused with the United Presbyterian Church, USA, created in 1958) were formed in 1948 to study the merits of switching to NAE, they decided to remain with the Federal Council. In the same year, when the motion of continuing membership in the FCC was put before presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (Southern), the affirmative vote precluded any relationship with NAE.

Growth and Accomplishments in the Fifties

Reflecting the democratic and popular orientation of its founders, NAE's inability to win over elements of the ecclesiastical mainstream steered the organization toward a closer identification with the smaller, lesser known, and more culturally isolated denominations. Yet the organization would prosper in the 1950s, even without the help of the larger denominations.

These were the Eisenhower years, a period of economic growth when large families, tract housing, and new churches were dotting the expanding suburban landscape. NAE's reputation in Washington as a service organization that could get things done was well-established. It was also the period when evangelist Billy Graham, who was identified with NAE, became a national figure.

The cooperative agency had reached new heights, as President Eisenhower welcomed an NAE delegation to the White House, a first time honor for the association. Denominations continued to join, so that by 1960, thirty-two denominations, representing nearly 1.5 million communicants, maintained NAE membership. The growth meant that the number of member denominations had doubled, while the number of communicants of these denominations had tripled, in fifteen years. The numbers may still have seemed rather modest, but the NAE family was gaining national attention. In 1958, Life Magazine called attention to an emerging “Third Force” in Christianity alongside Protestantism and Catholicism which was “the most extraordinary religious phenomenon of our time.” Although the article did not mention NAE, it identified among the new force five denominations that comprised nearly two-thirds of NAE's membership: Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland), International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Pentecostal Church of God, and the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

But in the 1950s NAE would also wrestle again with its identity vis-a-vis the National Council of Churches to the left and the American Council of Christian Churches to the right. Aiming to present a positive testimony to the gospel without directly confronting the Protestant establishment in fundamentalist fashion proved difficult in early years, especially after adopting the no-dual-membership policy in 1944. Strident criticism of the old Federal Council was not characteristic of NAE in general. But after the formation of the National Council in 1950, United Evangelical Action veered in that direction, denouncing the new council as a ominous superchurch threatening the freedoms of American Christians and their churches. Not until the late 1950s did the magazine move away from direct criticism and toward promotion of the evangelical cause in more positive terms.

A key accomplishment of NAE in the fifties was its role in the formation of the World Evangelical Fellowship in 1951. Both J. Elwin Wright and Clyde Taylor had sensed the need for an NAE on the international level that would be a counterpart to the World Council of Churches, formed in 1948.

An exploratory meeting with the British Evangelical Alliance was held in Clarens, Switzerland, followed by two consultations in 1950 in London and Boston with representatives from the United States, England, and eleven European nations. In August 1951, ninety-one leaders from twenty-one countries attended the International Convention of Evangelicals in the Netherlands, where the World Evangelical Fellowship was officially constituted.

Another NAE initiative in the 1950s, with long-range consequences, was the formation of a committee in 1957 to explore the possibility of a new translation of the Bible. (The National Council had five years earlier released the Revised Standard Version, but the new translation did not prove popular among many evangelicals.) The NAE committee began meeting with a similar committee commissioned by the Christian Reformed Church in 1961. By 1965, the two committees formed an independent Committee on Bible Translation and two years later, the New York Bible Society (today the International Bible Society) became the official sponsor. In 1978, the first copies of the New International Version of the Bible came off the presses. The presses would not stop; ten years after initial publication, more than fifty million copies would be distributed throughout the English-speaking world.

Trials and Tribulations, 1960-1978

While NAE momentum was strong from its founding in 1942 through the late fifties, the next two decades would prove to be a time of testing for the cooperative agency, just as they were for the country as a whole. Not until the late 1970s would any new initiatives galvanize the association into meaningful action. The sixties, particularly, were difficult. NAE and most of its leadership were not at all encouraged with the prospect of the 1960 election of John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, to the presidency, a first in American history. The mood digressed as civil rights, the Vietnam War, and a new counterculture divided the nation. Assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading political figures, shocked the populace. The state of the church was equally disturbing as theologians proclaimed “God is dead” while bishops experimented with psychedelic drugs. Young people were leaving churches as quickly as babies were being born in the 1950s.

NAE faced its own troubles as its executive leadership changed hands more often than did residents in the White House. While the Reverend George L. Ford, the first permanent and resident executive director (1956-63), had brought needed stability to the organization, his ascendancy to the newly created position of general director in 1963 lasted only one year. The Reverend W. Stanley Mooneyham, director of information at the time, was considered by many as heir apparent, but left NAE for a position with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The board then named Clyde W. Taylor, who was in charge of the Washington operation, to the top post of general director. Taylor would remain in the nation's capital while administrative matters in the Wheaton office would be handled by the executive director. The Reverend Arthur M. Climenhaga was named to the Wheaton post, but three years later, in 1967, returned to a post in his Brethren in Christ Church. The Reverend Billy A. Melvin, a denominational official with the Free Will Baptists, was brought in to succeed Climenhaga, and following Taylor's retirement in 1974, was given sole leadership responsibility for NAE.

The frequent transitions in leadership during those years, coupled with the cultural upheaval in general, took a toll on NAE. The rate of membership growth in the association, while it did not decline, slowed considerably. Black evangelicals formed a separate National Black Evangelical Association in 1963. The association lost its third largest denomination, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, in 1972 in the wake of ecclesiastical struggles within that communion. The publication frequency of United Evangelical Action, issued twice a month in the 1950s, was cut to four times a year. Also during this period all regional NAE offices were closed as the field services department was centralized in the Wheaton office. By the late 1970s, NAE had only experienced a net membership gain of five denominations since 1960. No wonder when Newsweek marked 1976 as the Year of the Evangelical, the magazine had very little to say about NAE.

Maturing Leadership Brings New Life, 1978-1992

However, in the late 1970s NAE entered another phase of history marked with leadership stability, near record growth, and increased national recognition. Reversing an apparent decline since the early 1960s, this phase extended through its fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1992. In part because of the maturing leadership of Billy A. Melvin, now the sole director, the organization expanded on several fronts, including the 1979 construction of the Evangelical Center--a new headquarters building in Wheaton--expansion of the Office of Public Affairs, and a concerted effort to enlist new denominations.

If an exact beginning of this phase of NAE's history could be determined, it might be 1978 when NAE moved to significantly expand the Washington operation, naming the Reverend Robert P. Dugan, Jr., a Conservative Baptist minister and former congressional candidate, to head the expansion. The time was prudent for such a move. Five years before, the Supreme Court had handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, granting women an unrestricted right to abortion. While the Court did not foresee it, the decision awakened evangelicals to the world of politics in general and the nation's capital in particular. The association launched a monthly newsletter, NAE Washington Insight, to keep evangelicals outside the Beltway informed, and hired an experienced attorney and public policy analyst to gain influence inside the Beltway.

While President Jimmy Carter had distanced his administration from the expanded NAE office, the new phase of NAE history swung into full gear with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan had come to power with the wide support of evangelicals. NAE, increasingly consulted about administration appointments and policy, seized opportunities to influence government further while enjoying unprecedented access to the White House. The Republican president courted evangelicals for support, speaking at the 1983 and 1984 NAE conventions, the first time a U.S. president had ever visited an NAE function. At the 1983 convention in Orlando, Florida, Reagan delivered one of his most famous speeches, referring to the Soviet Communist system as “the Evil Empire.”

The association was also gaining influence on Capitol Hill. NAE's efforts resulted in a number of legislative victories in the 1980s, including the passage of bills on drunk driving, church audit procedures, and equal access to public school facilities for religious organizations. But NAE did not just concern itself with domestic matters. In 1984, NAE launched the highly-praised Peace, Freedom and Security Studies program in an effort to make a distinct contribution to the public debate.

Transcending NAE's new visibility in Washington was Billy A. Melvin's tireless effort to highlight the status and role of denominations in NAE. At the twenty-fifth anniversary in 1967, some observers had noted that while denominations held membership in NAE, they appeared as second-class citizens. Twenty five years later, the opposite is the case, as NAE has become more and more identified as a fellowship not just of evangelicals, but as a fellowship of evangelical denominations. Closely related to this change of identity was Melvin's deliberate effort to persuade new denominations to sign on to NAE. In the mid-seventies, Melvin began building relationships with key officials in denominations outside NAE's fellowship. By the 1980s, his campaign paid off, as denomination after denomination applied for membership in NAE, enabling NAE's membership to expand at a level not experienced since the 1940s. Between 1981 and 1990, fifteen denominations joined NAE. Total NAE membership, as reflected in the combined communicant memberships of constituent denomina-tions, reached nearly 4.5 million, a 74 percent increase since 1980. The gain during the decade was greater than the entire NAE membership as of 1960. The growth under Melvin did not bring NAE up to the expectations of the 1943 convention, but the growth was nevertheless remarkable, considering the record membership losses haunting the mainline Protestant community at the time.

With a fifty year record of facilitating evangelical unity, witness, and cooperation, the National Association is well situated to continue providing strategic leadership as evangelicals face an uncertain future. Granted, NAE has not become everything or done everything that many had hoped, but it remains the only institutional structure and the most representative agency of American evangelicals in the twentieth century. As such, it serves a critical need, providing stability and order for a diverse and competitive movement while projecting a respected voice for the unvoiced multitudes from coast to coast.

No one can predict the future of NAE, but evangelicals can be certain that NAE will remain faithful to her original vision of providing a united and public witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.







Page Generated in: 0.086 seconds (using 107 queries).
Using 6.22MB of memory. (Peak of 6.36MB.)

Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-3
Copyright ©2017 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign