Charles Templeton: Inside Evangelism

Charles Templeton, Former Evangelist and Agnostic
When finally I shook free of Christianity, it was like being born again. I began to see all of life differently. The things that had once seemed important now seemed trivial. And things I'd never seen the meaning of or the essence of I began to appreciate for the first time.

--Charles Templeton (in a telephone conversation with the editor)

Charles Templeton's careers have been many and varied: syndicated sports cartoonist, evangelist, pastor, television and radio personality, author of a dozen novels, screenplays, and nonfiction, and political candidate. He has held three of the top news jobs in Canada: executive managing editor of the Toronto Star, news director of the CTV Television Network, and editor-in-chief of McLean's magazine. Two of his novels deal with religious issues, Act of God and The Third Temptation. His autobiography, An Anecdotal Memoir, provides an intimate glimpse into his varied careers. He is currently writing a book on agnosticism tentatively titled Farewell to God. The following account focuses on Templeton's twenty-one years in the Christian church in Canada and the United States, during which time he preached in fourteen countries to audiences of up to seventy thousand.

In 1936, at the age of nineteen, Charles Templeton left his job as sports cartoonist for the Toronto Globe to become a minister in the church of the Nazarene. He had been reluctant to attend the Nazarene church where the rest of his family had been converted, but one night he went through a "profound change." He had returned home from a party at 3 A.M. His life seemed "empty, wasted, and sordid." "It was as though a black blanket had been draped over me. A sense of enormous guilt descended and invaded every part of me. I felt unclean." He prayed at his bedside, "Lord, come down. Come down. Come down. . . ." Then "a weight lifted off and an ineffable warmth began to suffuse every corpuscle in my body." Afterwards he prayed, "Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Thank you. . . ." As the birds began to chirp outside he "began to laugh . . . out of an indescribable sense of well-being at the center of an exultant, all-encompassing joy."

He was ordained by the Church of the Nazarene after reading only "half a dozen books and submitting to an oral examination by a group of local preachers."

Templeton spent three years as an itinerant evangelist, preaching in churches from Ontario to California "In Minden, Louisiana, I was preaching on the subject of 'God's Perfect Love' as a tornado touched down, disintegrating the segregated African Methodist church across the street, killing eight members of the congregation, including the pastor. . . "

During this period he preached in a town in Michigan where there wasn't much to do during the day. He began reading in the library of the pastor with whom he was staying, a library that included Thomas Paine's critique of Christianity The Age of Reason, Voltaire's The Bible Explained at last, Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian, Robert lngersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses, and books on Gandhi, David Hume and Thomas Huxley.

The arguments of these men stunned him. For about six weeks he stopped preaching "The way back was tortuous and slow."

He met his future wife, Constance Orosco, during an evangelistic campaign in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "She was the singer and I was the evangelist. We were married six weeks later."

Together, they took all their savings, $600, and rented an empty church in Toronto. Within six months it was impossible to find a seat in the Sunday night service unless you were on hand by 6:45. Every week hundreds were turned away at the doors."

The board agreed with Templeton to enlarge the church. But before the morning of the rededication, an arsonist set the building ablaze. Public sentiment was so positive that enough money was pledged in one service to rebuild the church. It was during the time spent as minister of the Avenue Road church in Toronto that Templeton witnessed two cases of instantaneous healing. Not to say that he is in favor of mass healing rallies, which he has always viewed as a health hazard rather than a blessing "since they leave behind an emotional wreckage and illnesses often worsened by neglect."

The two instances that Templeton witnessed occurred in private. In neither did he expect a healing to occur.

In the first, an infant suffering a big defect-a muscle that was misattached, causing the baby's head to be twisted to one side-was healed within minutes after Charles laid his hands on the child and prayed. The child's condition prior to and after the healing was documented at the time by hospital physicians. New World, a Canadian version of Life magazine, ran the story and a full-page picture of the mother and child.

In the second instance, Templeton prayed for his aunt after exploratory surgery revealed that her stomach cancer was both malignant and inoperable. As he laid hands on her and prayed, he says he "felt something akin to an electrical charge flow through my arms and out my fingers."

Within hours his aunt, who had been bedridden for weeks, was up and about. The cancer did not return, the pain from the adhesions ended, and she lived for another forty-two years.

Despite his opposition to "the public healing services of contemporary evangelism--wherein "the 'healers' are often simpletons or rogues or both"-Templeton says he is convinced that "what may loosely be called faith healing is an area of medicine with unrealized potential".

Templeton first met his long-time friend Billy Graham in 1945 at a Youth for Christ rally in Chicago. He had been invited to attend by Torrey Johnson, the pastor of an evangelical church in that city, and the founder of Youth for Christ. That night, hundreds of young people in an audience of twenty thousand responded to Billy's invitation to come forward and receive Christ.

Templeton returned to Toronto and immediately began his own Youth for Christ rallies. They soon became "the largest of the more than one thousand weekly rallies in North America."

Youth for Christ International was formed, and Billy Graham was chosen as the group's official evangelist. Together, Templeton and Graham alternated as preachers in London, York, Manchester, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Copenhagen, and Stockholm.

Returning home, Templeton continued to preach at Youth for Christ rallies and at his church in Toronto. Frequently he would fly to Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and other cities to preach in stadiums and major auditoriums. One Easter sunrise he preached to fifty thousand in the Rose Bowl.

Back home in Toronto, he arranged yearly rallies in Maple Leaf Gardens. "Much of what we did was show business. Spectacle. The thousand-voice choir was dressed in white except for a number in black forming a cross at the center. There were five grand pianos, an international pageant in full costume, vocal soloists, a trumpet trio, the Octette, and to climax it all, Connie's "The Lord's Prayer."

"For Christian young people the Gardens rallies were pop extravaganzas. They were participants in something larger than life. Surrounded by thousands of their fellows, holding a common faith, they found a tangible justification of their religious commitment."

Then Templeton's doubts began to resurface. "Following our return from Europe, I had been fighting a losing battle with my faith. I had been so busy that there had been little time to take stock. But in the occasional quiet moments, questions and doubts resurfaced. There was a shallowness in what we were doing, a tendency to equate success with numbers. There seemed to be little concern with what happened afterwards to the youngsters who responded to our appeals. Billy, too, was troubled by it, and we talked about it many times. It undoubtedly contributed to his move from Youth for Christ to conduct his own campaigns.

"But my dilemma was of a different kind. I was discovering that, as I matured, I could no longer accept many of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. I had been converted as an incredibly green youth of nineteen. I had only a grade-nine education and hadn't the intellectual equipment to challenge the concepts advanced by my friends and mentors. I wanted very much to believe. There was in me then as there remains now an intense, inchoate longing for a relationship with God. In the beginning, I accepted the beliefs of the people around me, but I read widely in every spare minute; on planes and trains and in bed. Slowly against my will, for I could perceive the jeopardy-my mind had begun to challenge and rebut the things I believed.

"I had never believed all that fundamentalists believe-the Genesis account of creation, for instance, or the monstrous evil of an endless hell. But now the entire fabric was coming apart."

At this time a fiend suggested to Templeton that he quit preaching and return to school if he wanted to continue to be useful in the ministry. He was "startled" by his friend's suggestion. What would happen to the various projects he had founded over the years?

After "brooding, appraising, praying" he concluded that what his friend had sensed was true. His faith was disintegrating. "I lacked the intellectual training to deal with the questions that were beleaguering me. If I continued as I was going, I would soon become a hypocrite, mouthing what I no longer believed."

He applied to Princeton Theological Seminary but was rejected--his ninth grade education being less than the bachelor's degree requisite for attending. After a personal appeal to the president of the seminary, he was admitted as a "special student."

A month before he enrolled at Princeton, Templeton visited Billy Graham in Montreat, North Carolina. "Billy and I talked long about my leaving Youth for Christ. Both of us knew that, for all our avowed intentions to keep our friendship alive, our feet were set on different paths. He was as distressed as I was. We both knew that I was not simply giving up Youth for Christ, I was leaving fundamentalism."

Over the years, Templeton and Graham had often discussed their beliefs. "Once we spent two days closeted in a hotel room in New York City, exchanging experiences, discussing the Bible and theology, and praying together."

It was at one such meeting that they debated the Genesis creation account. Templeton couldn't accept it. But Billy defended it, pointing out, "When I stand before the people and say, 'God says,' or 'The Bible says', there are results. People respond. I don't have the tune or the intellect to examine all sides of each theological question, so I've decided, once and for all, to stop questioning and to accept the Bible as God's Word."

"But Billy," Templeton protested, "you can't do that. You don't dare stop thinking. Do it and you begin to die. It's intellectual suicide."

There are accounts in a few biographies of Billy Graham that claim this particular exchange between Graham and his friend led to a temporary crisis in Billy's faith.

Here was Templeton about to leave for seminary, but not wanting to part from his old friend. "'Bill,' I said, 'face it we've been successful in large part because of our abilities on a platform. Part of that stems from our energy, our convictions, our youth. But we won't always be young. We need to grow, to develop some intellectual sinew. Come with me to Princeton.'"

Graham replied that he could not because he was president of Northwestern Bible College, a small fundamentalist school in Minneapolis. He suggested that they seek admission to a seminary somewhere outside the U.S. "Oxford, for instance". As a measure of his sincerity, Graham held out his hand. There is no doubt in Templeton's mind today that if he had shaken Billy's hand "the history of mass evangelism would be different than it is" "But, he "couldn't do it" He could not give up the opportunity to enter Princeton for the possibility of a chance to enter Oxford later.

"Not many months later," Templeton recalls, "Billy traveled to Los Angeles to begin a campaign that [with the aid of a newspaper magnate's publicity blitzed], would catapult him overnight into national prominence."

While at Princeton, Templeton hoped to resolve some of the questions that were eroding his faith. "Paramount among them was the question. Who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was he a moral and spiritual genius or was he, as the Christian church has always held, 'very God of very God'"? In his search for answers he found the "stacks of relevant material in the library" to be of more value than his classes and conversations with his professors.

But his searching was not merely intellectual. "I knew that faith is more a matter of the spirit than of the mind". So, in his second year, Templeton began to fast one day a week "in imitation of Mohandas Gandhi--who remains one of the formative influences on my life."

Every night he walked for an hour on the golf course back of the seminary, straining to get in touch with God, "to grasp something of what the theologians have described as 'the mysterium tremendum.'"

One night as he stood beneath the stars, looking skyward, he went though what he later realized was a mystical experience "I was caught up in a transport. It seemed that the whole of creation, the trees, the skies, the very heavens, all of time and space and God Himself was weeping. I knew somehow that they were weeping for mankind for our obduracy, our hatreds, our ten thousand cruelties, our love of war and violence. And at the heart of this eternal sorrow I saw the shadow of a cross, with a silhouetted figure on it weeping."

Templeton sought to repeat the experience. He studied the writings of the Christian mystics and eventually realized that such experiences had no special significance--members of various religions have had similar experiences. Indeed, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was able to go into a transport at will merely by repeating his name aloud.

Leaving Princeton, Templeton had reestablished his faith. He had "found a measure of certainty through a conscious act of commitment."

He was ordained into the ministry by the Presbyterian Church, and the National Council of Churches hired him in July 1951 to conduct "preaching missions." He traveled from city to city across the United States and Canada under their auspices, which included most of the churches in each city he visited.

To avoid "the scandal of love-offerings," he put himself on a yearly salary of $7,500. It was traditional for an evangelist to be paid all the money contributed during the closing night of a campaign, when the largest crowd is in attendance, which could amount to thousands of dollars. When it was publicized that Templeton was receiving a meager salary for his services, Time magazine used the opportunity to shaft Graham. Billy had just completed a campaign in Atlanta, and Time ran a picture of him. Over his shoulder was a mail sack bulging with the love offering presented to him on the closing night. To his credit, Billy immediately put himself on a salary at $15,000 a year.

Two significant differences between Templeton's and Graham's evangelistic campaigns remained. Billy spoke a lot about heaven and hell, and asked converts to come forward. Templeton seldom spoke about heaven, never preached on hell, and "deliberately avoided" applying any emotional pressure. At the end of his sermon, he would announce that an afterservice would be held for any who wanted to make a commitment, and would then dismiss the meeting. Those who wanted to remain had to move against the flow of the thousands leaving. Each night, hundreds chose to stay.

The other difference between their campaigns, when they preached south of the Mason-Dixon line, was that "in the beginning Billy's were segregated, mine were not."

As the crowds attending Templeton's campaigns grew larger, so did the newspaper coverage.

In the August 1953 issue of American magazine Edward Boyd wrote an article titled "Religion's Super Salesman." Boyd commented, "I have just seen the man who's giving religion a brand-new look; a young Canadian by the name of Charles B. Templeton. Passing up the old-style hellfire-and-damnation oratorical fireworks, he uses instead a persuasive, attractive approach that presents religion as a commodity as necessary to life as salt, and in doing, has set a new standard for evangelism.

"Dispensing with . . . tricks from the old-time evangelist's repertoire, he is winning converts at an average of 150 a night, and-what is something new in modern evangelism-they stay converted.

"At a recent two-week stay in Evansville, Indiana, for example, a count showed that Templeton had drawn a total attendance of 91,000 out of a population of 128,000. A survey taken six months later showed that church attendance was 17 percent higher than it had been before he'd come.

"He is booked two years ahead, a situation that the biggest Broadway hit can't boast, and the demands for his service are ten times greater than can be met. Moreover, observers who have closely followed his progress say that Templeton has not yet begun to hit his stride."

However, during this period Templeton began to experience pains in his chest and arms, sudden sweats at night, and a pounding of his heart that would shake his bed.

He was examined by a doctor who could not find any physiological causes for the problems. One specialist, however, told Templeton that his symptoms might be a psychosomatic disorder, some conflict or unresolved problem in his life. The physician added that unless the problem was resolved, the symptoms would continue and new ones could arise, adding to his discomfort.

Templeton knew what the problem was--doubt. "How does a man who each night tells five thousand to ten thousand people how to find faith confess that he is struggling with his own?"

Following the closing service at a campaign in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, described in the press as "the greatest crowd ever to gather in the history of Harrisburg, "Templeton made the decision: he would no longer conduct campaigns. He accepted a position as head of the Department of Evangelism for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. He taught at seminaries and universities and wrote two books, one of them being Evangelism for Tomorrow.

During this period, Templeton spoke at Yale for a week, meeting afterwards with various students. One was the outstanding man in the senior class. He was also the captain of the debating team and an avowed atheist. The two of them debated the truth of Christianity alone in a borrowed office. At the end neither had convinced the other. The student conceded, however, that Templeton had made "a hell of a good case."

Templeton's first reaction was elation, but he realized that he too had a concession to make-his arguments no longer convinced himself. "In the heat of discussion I believed them, but, alone, I knew that I had been role-playing."

During this time Templeton was hosting the CBS network's religious television program "Look Up and Live" (1952-55). Not long after his debate with the Yale student, Templeton quit the television program and "gave up the ministry."

About his irrevocable decision to leave the ministry Templeton states, "There was no real choice. I could stay in the ministry, paper over my doubts and daily live a lie, or I could make a break. I packed my few possessions in a rented trailer and started on the road home to Toronto."

Thus began his various careers as writer, editor, producer, politician. "The only activity I will not return to is the Christian ministry; I am and will remain a reverent agnostic."

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