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Andrew S. Finstuen


The Prophet and the Evangelist

The public "conversation" of Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham.

In 1948, the well-known neo-orthodox1 theologian Reinhold Niebuhr appeared on the cover of Time magazine's 25th anniversary edition. Niebuhr's stern visage was accompanied by the original sin-inspired caption: "Man's story is not a success story." Six years later, a portrait of evangelist Billy Graham stared directly out at Time's readers. A Garden of Eden scene, complete with a naked Eve and a menacing serpent coiled around the tree of knowledge, provided the backdrop.2

Their respective cover appearances were more than mere happenstance. These two giants of American Protestantism revitalized the doctrine of original sin in the post-World War II era. Their interpretations of sin differed: Niebuhr focused on the complexities of individual and social sin, while Graham focused almost exclusively on individual sin. Indeed, Niebuhr had little patience for what he referred to as Graham's "pietistic individualism," which asserted that the solution to the world's problems was individual regeneration. Despite this theological divide, Niebuhr saw great potential in the ministry of Graham, and he poked and prodded the evangelist in several mid-Fifties articles aimed in part at helping Graham realize his potential as a prophetic leader within American Protestantism. For a brief moment, then, these two leading Christian personalities were not so much polarized from one another as typically imagined but rather in "conversation" with one another. And to a large degree, ministers and some lay believers of the day followed the conversation closely, appreciating each thinker for his respective gifts to the community of the faithful.

Yet few scholars have recognized this basic point of contact in the thought of Niebuhr and Graham, however distinct their interpretations of sin, nor have they given careful consideration to the space they shared within the mid-century public sphere.3 As the two most recognizable faces of postwar Protestantism (Paul Tillich and Norman Vincent Peale were the ...

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