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Editors’ note: 

For more on the neo-evangelical intellectual vision, see Owen Strachan’s book Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement (Zondervan, 2015).

In 1943, Winston Churchill interrupted his regular routine of nighttime writing, early morning bathtaking, and all-day world-saving to deliver a speech at Harvard University. At one point in the speech, Churchill delivered one of his greatest epigrams: “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”

At the time Churchill delivered his prescient speech, evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry was studying for a doctorate at Boston University. He was one of a handful of brilliant young believers we could call the “Cambridge evangelicals” who’d come to Boston for training, most of them matriculating in the Harvard Divinity School doctoral program. There’s no record of Churchill and Henry meeting up in 1943, but we do have abundant evidence that Henry developed grand hopes, empire-like, for the evangelical mind in the 1940s.

Thorough Shakedown of the Evangelical Mind 

Henry believed the church’s need for intellectual uplift in his day was great. “The state has steadily supplanted the church as the indoctrinating agency,” he observed in 1947, “and today secular education largely involves as open or subtle undermining of historic Christian theism.” This meant, quite simply, that “evangelicalism will have to contend for a new order in education.”

These views, expressed in Henry’s 1947 clarion call The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, had formed years prior. Henry believed the evangelical mind suffered the prospect of total eclipse in American life. The young theologian didn’t intend to take this lying down.

Others shared Henry’s vision for expanded Christian influence in the academy and culture. E. J. Carnell matched him in earning two doctorates, an unbelievable feat by any measure. But Carnell upped the ante: he completed his degrees from Harvard and Boston University—simultaneously. He too articulated a bold plan for Christian scholarship. In 1947, seeking a job at newly established Fuller Theological Seminary, Carnell wrote to Fuller president (and Boston’s eminent Park Street Church pastor) Harold J. Ockenga of the great need of the hour: “I am all too aware of the anemic state of the Christian organism in the world today. It seems to me the church is in such an emaciated condition.”

Next Carnell shared with Ockenga, no intellectual slouch himself, his hopes: “I am possessed with a whole-soul conviction” that the way to restore “the glory of the church of Jesus Christ is a thorough shakedown of our educational program, from the grade school to the graduate divisions of our universities.” Carnell’s memorable phrase, “thorough shakedown,” captures exactly what Henry, Ockenga, and Cambridge evangelicals like George Eldon Ladd attempted in the 1940s and 50s through Fuller, Christianity Today, the Evangelical Theological Society, and other projects. It was to be a roots-to-branches revolution or nothing. They had empire on the mind as they sought to build an empire of the mind.

With Icarus in the Clouds

But this soaring vision reached still higher. The preternaturally restless Henry wanted still more. He set his sights on the academic holy grail: founding an elite Christian research university. In a remarkable (and unseen) 1955 letter to his close friend, globe-trotting evangelist Billy Graham, Henry outlined the essential content of his grand strategy. At base, such a school would need to be:

  1. “Evangelical in urgency,” with the gospel at the forefront of all study and research;
  2. “Evangelical in doctrine,” expressly grounded in biblical and systematic theology;
  3. Committed to “academic standards and moral purity,” concerned with displaying the kind of life created by the gospel;
  4. Grounded in the “importance of personal academic relationships between professors and students,” such that holistic intellectual, moral, and spiritual discipleship occurs;
  5. Achieving “the unification of all the university disciplines in the interest of a Christian world with an eye on tragic cultural crisis of our times”;
  6. Focused on “the political, economic, and social applications of Christianity, and thus expound a consistent criticism of an alternative to socialistic revisions of the social order”;
  7. Deeply aware of “the history of thought and systematic orientation to Jesus Christ as the revealed center of history, nature, conscience, and redemption”; and
  8. Staffed by “a faculty engaged in corporate conversation, research, and writing, each making some minimal contribution for the production of textbooks that will enable the evangelical enterprise to challenge the initiative of secular scholars, and to penetrate the collegiate world.”

This was a fulsome, full-tilt, vertically scaled operation. On paper, it bore outrageous promise. Henry’s vision proved persuasive as a rallying point, and he and Graham held several high-level meetings with Christian leaders to test the waters for the project called “Crusade University.” The group went so far as to print up an elegant proposal for Crusade U. with Billy Graham on the cover, flashing his toothy Hollywood smile.

But Crusade, to cut the story short, was not to be. Henry’s vision of brilliant Christ-loving scholars addressing every area of life from a distinctly Christian viewpoint didn’t materialize.

Hope for the Future in the Past

The grand strategy faltered, yes. But the group made major progress addressing the intellectual weaknesses of the evangelical movement. Colleges and universities proliferated in the postwar era; for example, membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities tripled between 1975 and 2015. The Evangelical Theological Society has seen dramatic increases in its numbers, and numerous publishers feature excellent evangelical scholarship in an array of disciplines—systematic theology, biblical studies, philosophy, history, and more. Outside evangelicalism, a 2009 study in Sociology of Religion found that 19 percent of college professors identify as “born again,” a stunning percentage in the era of the “nones.”

Beyond this, the church has experienced a gospel awakening, a genuine theological revival, of its own. Henry predicted this when he wrote to a young Cambridge University PhD student named Mark Dever in 1989:

I may see Al Mohler at Southeastern. He has many gifts. Who knows how our Lord may bring together a core of young evangelical spirits for some dramatic breakthrough a half generation down the road.

The existence and flourishing of countless gospel-centered institutions shows Henry’s words proved true.

There’s much to be encouraged by today. And yet there is so much more ground to schemed about, let alone taken. In the age of secularist ascendancy, many evangelicals have elected to play intellectual small-ball. But this was not the posture of Henry, Ockenga, and their peers. Faced with the prospect of expulsion from the academy, the culture, and the public square, they elected not to go small. They went big.

Though the neo-evangelicals had every reason to shrink back, they pursued excellent training, launched impressive institutions, wrote high-level books, and preached stemwinder sermons. Henry and his peers sought not an upgrade of the academic software but a thorough shakedown of the evangelical mind.

In the day of small dreams, when the keepers of the house tremble, is it possible we might once again dream great things for God, and attempt them? Our context is remarkably similar to that which the neo-evangelicals faced. Is it possible for Christian schools and leaders to reject the ghetto allotted them by secularism and seek to build great institutions, write great books, and foster healthy churches that thrive with theological and intellectual vibrancy? And can we seek such a vision not by playing down our Christianity, as if our confessional Scripture-grounded faith is a problem, but by firing the engine of the 600-horsepower Christian mind once more?

Build as Big as God 

As in Henry’s day, the answer to these questions may disappoint us. That’s possible. But whatever the case, we should make sure our vision for the evangelical mind does justice to our doctrine of a sovereign, super-intelligent, world-ruling God. And we can mark this: whatever we do, our neighbors will not be bunting. They will be swinging for the fences. They know, even if we don’t, that the empires of the future are empires of the mind. They are structuring their schools and our society accordingly. They are competing, scheming, hoping, questing, and building.

Are we?