Social Engagement Before It Was Cool: The Life and Times of Carl F. H. Henry (Part 1)

Carl F. H. Henry
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Faith is never far from the American political consciousness.  According to an ABC poll, fully three-fourths of the public identify themselves as Christian, with a little over one-third of this number claiming the title evangelical.  It is thus impossible for the American people to filter through policy questions and political quagmires without considering spiritual ramifications on some level.  There can be no question faith is motivating factor for actions from every side of the political spectrum; for and against pre-emptive military strikes, for and against comprehensive health care coverage, for and against same sex marriage, the list goes on and on.  Whatever the issue, whatever the cause, Christians will be found on both sides.

The President of the United States is no exception.  A top advisor for President Obama’s campaign team describes his boss’s political views as, “an outgrowth of his reading of some of the seminal parts of the Bible about doing into the ‘least of these’ just as we would have done unto Christ . . . He takes very seriously the numerous passages in the Bible that talk not only about poverty, but of people of faith taking God’s words and extending them beyond the four walls of the church.’ He has continually spoken of the church as an ‘abiding force in American public life, from the Boston Tea Party through the abolition and civil rights movements.  He suffuses his speeches with biblical allusions…and he cast his generation of black leaders as modern-day Joshua’s, after Moses’ successor, who led Israelites to the Promised Land.

With the Christian faith so publicly displayed, and in so many different ways, the question then is what is the proper role for the religion in the political world?  Is there a Christian view? A Christian political party?  Is there only one Christian answer to the great social questions and conundrums of our time?  If so how are they arrived upon?  Who has the authority to answer them?  What happens when sincere believers disagree on an issue?  These are not easy questions to answer.  They are pre-loaded with layer upon layer of cultural and historical experiences, not to mention the emotional reactions often quickly produced in people.  But despite the difficulties, and the inability to arrive at perfect solutions, Christians must strive to speak truth in a society hungry for answers and for hope.  No one did more to this end, and to provide a workable model for social and political engagement in the 20th Century then did evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry.  His example, while at times unnecessarily equating civil government and divine justice nonetheless carries within immense inertia for world change if implemented by the faithful.  Therefore, I want to take some time to unpack his views,  in a series of six posts.  This is number one.  For the purposes of context, I want to use this first post for a survey of Henry’s upbringing and life.

Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry entered this world on January 13, 1913, born to German immigrants in New York City.  Henry’s father and mother were nominally Catholic and Lutheran respectively.  Therefore, as a compromise they agreed on a nominally Episcopal upbringing for young Carl.  He and his siblings often received the annual silver bar for perfect attendance at their local parish church.  Carl was also confirmed at the age of twelve, though he himself admits he was “no more regenerate than the Long Island telephone directory.”

The family moved to a one-acre farm just outside of Islip, Long Island when Carl was seven years old.  It was here where the enterprising, young Henry began a journalism career before even graduating high school.  He started doing sports reports as a means of earning free entrance to local school events, and soon did general reporting for both of the town’s rival newspapers, a feat made possible because both editor’s were “not on speaking terms and never used bylines.”  His talent and savvy were such that by age nineteen he was an editor in the weekly of New York’s second largest county.

Carl’s attention during those early professional years fell mostly on reporting not faith, but he did have a few run-ins.  He had a Seventh Day Adventist friend who as he wrote, “plied me with prophecies of impending eschatological doom.”   He attended house parties hosted by an organization called the Oxford Group.  Here professionals gathered to discuss spiritual and ethical renewal, though decidedly not in evangelical terms.  As the country slipped deeper into depression, Henry also witnessed first hand the inability of local churches to keep up with the needs of the community.  He took part in a church benefit for the local unemployment fund, actually playing the bride in ‘A Womanless Wedding,’ which was able to raise only $75.  This experience and others like it surely shaped his later passionate exhortations for his fellow evangelicals to engage those in need and fight for justice.

His soul finally found an awakening through the persistence in both prayer and action of an elderly co-worker, Mother Christy, as he called her.  Mother Christy asked Carl to drive her one night to a gathering at the local Episcopal Church.  Refusing her invitation to come in, Henry returned to pick her up two hours later only to face a much more obscurant Mother Christy.  She implored him repeatedly to go inside and meet the evening’s speaker.  Not wanting to openly insult someone he deeply respected, and his reporter’s curiosity peaked, Carl went inside to meet one Gene Bradford.  With one simple question, this young, itinerant evangelist changed permanently the course of evangelicism. “Is newspaperwork what you plan to do all your life?’ ‘I wish I knew,’ Carl responded.  ‘Why don’t you ask God about it?’ Gene countered.”  These questions sent Henry into a tailspin.  He met Gene the following Saturday, and after talking for three hours, the two of them knelt in the front seat of the car as Carl gave his life to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Soon after his conversion, Carl began making plans to enter the ministry.  He planned to enter Wheaton College in the fall of 1935 and thereafter seminary.  These plans came to a crushing halt however with a diagnosis of acute appendicitis.  An operation in that day meant postponing school for a semester.  This after he publicly announced to his secular colleagues and the community God’s will for him to start college in the fall.  Desperate to avoid surgery, Henry begged his Christian doctor to give him one night of prayer, and if God did not heal him, he would submit to the operation.  What happened the next morning surely provided Henry with much of his later steadfastness in defending the comprehensive truth of God’s actions.  The doctor reported to the house, and upon examination found no pain.  Upon lightly hitting the abdomen, he found no pain, and upon punching even harder, he found again no pain.  Carl simply pointed to a painting nearby of Christ weeping over Jerusalem and said, “The Lord is good.”  He matriculated at Wheaton two weeks later.

Henry’s theological education essentially never stopped.  He received multiple advanced degrees, and spent the rest of his life preaching, lecturing, writing, traveling, and generally guiding the evangelical movement.

It was back at Wheaton however where he encountered two of the most profound influences on his life.  He met and married Helga Bender, the daughter of German missionaries to Africa.  Secondly, he studied under the professor of philosophy Gordon Clark, who instilled in Carl the rationality of propositional truth.  The greatest work of his career, and the arguably the most influential work of evangelical theology of the 20th Century God, Revelation, and Authority was written in defense of this truth and continues to impact on a fresh generation of evangelical leaders.

This firm conviction in propositional truth drove Henry to strongly believe Christians must not remain cocooned away from society, no matter how difficult engagement might be.  The things to which he gave his life attest to this passion.  He served as the founding editor for Christianity Today, a magazine designed to give Christian leader’s confidence in the rationality of their faith.  He was also a founding faculty member at Fuller Seminary, a school designed to give the West Coast an evangelical presence, and one of the chief organizers of the first World Congress on Evangelism.  During his later years, Henry became a well-traveled mentor and networker for evangelical leaders and activists of all types.  His passion for Christians being an influence in the secular world is perhaps best seen in the two organizations he invested in during the twilight of his career, World Vision and Prison Fellowship.  He died peacefully in 2003 ending a brilliant lifetime as the, “Grand Old Man” of evangelical theology.

Sources: Henry’s autobiography Confessions of a Theologian, Timothy George, “Inventing Evangelicism,” CT, March 2003; Carl F. H. Henry: Makers of Modern Theological Mind by Bob Patterson; Beth Spring, “Carl F. H. Henry dies at 90,” CT, Feb 2004.


2 thoughts on “Social Engagement Before It Was Cool: The Life and Times of Carl F. H. Henry (Part 1)

  1. I don’t have time this evening to read this series, but I am definitely looking forward to it! Over the past several years I have become much more interested and opinionated on the idea of social engagement and the church.

    I am curious about where you found the quote about President Obama. I personally have a lot of respect for Obama, and I’m interested in reading your source material there too.

    Okay, I’ll be back to read this series when I have enough time to get through it all! 🙂

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