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Carl F.H. Henry, 90; Theologian Was a Key Evangelical Influence

December 10, 2003|Myrna Oliver and Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writers

Carl F.H. Henry, a key force in the evangelical Protestant movement who was a founding faculty member of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and the founding editor of Christianity Today magazine, has died. He was 90.

Henry, the author of more than 25 books on conservative Christianity, died Sunday in Watertown, Wis., after a long illness.

Often called "the thinking man's Billy Graham," Henry has been considered by many as the outstanding evangelical theologian and scholar of the mid-20th century. He was a stickler in his writing, teaching and lecturing about biblical scholarship and the intellectual pursuit of truth.

Fuller President Richard J. Mouw on Monday called Henry an innovator and "a very important leader who was ahead of his time." He told The Times that Henry gave the evangelical movement intellectual respectability and led it "out of the margins of social, political and academic life ... to where today we are mainstream Protestantism, a powerful intellectual and political force."

He added that Henry was "the leading voice of the 1940s neo-evangelicals" in urging conservative Christians, accustomed to withdrawing from society and government involvement, to foster a Christian political and social culture by speaking out for racial integration and on labor and management issues and militarism.

Charles W. Colson, former special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, who became a born-again Christian while serving a prison term over Watergate and is the founding chairman of Prison Fellowship, called Henry "one of the towering figures of our age."

"He will be singularly remembered as the man who led the evangelical movement out of its wilderness and brought it into the 20th century," Colson said in a statement issued from his Washington, D.C., office.

Henry came to prominence in 1947 with his book "The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism." Along with the preaching of the Rev. Billy Graham, the book was a key element in the post-World War II revival of evangelicals, defined as born-again, convert-seeking, conservative Protestant Christians.

"Carl Henry helped define modern evangelicalism, whose message is that you must be born again and that the Bible is the word of God," the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, told The Times on Monday from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I think of him first as a teacher, although he was a magazine editor too. As a teacher at Fuller Theological Seminary, he had an impact on students, who would become leaders, from various streams in the evangelical movement."

David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, told Religion News Service on Monday that "whereas Billy Graham was the movement's goodwill ambassador and welcoming spirit," Henry was "one of its most brilliant minds."

"Without his rigorous thought and his determined will," Neff said, "evangelicalism's premiere institutions would have been clearly second-rate."

Urged by his former classmate Graham to become editor of the magazine when it was established in 1956, Henry labored for a decade to make it a serious journal of theological scholarship. To compete with the more liberal Christian Century, he interviewed such influential newsmakers as Nixon, who he wrote was "remarkably imprecise about spiritual realities and enduring ethical concerns."

Born in New York City to German immigrants, Henry grew up without religious training. He was 20 and working at a Long Island weekly newspaper when he began learning about Christianity from a proofreader who rebuked him for swearing.

He earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Wheaton College while teaching typing and journalism, and a doctorate of theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was ordained a Baptist minister and later completed a second doctorate at Boston University.

Henry taught at several theological seminaries over the years and was recruited to become the first acting dean and a founding faculty member when Fuller was created in 1947. He taught there until becoming editor of Christianity Today in 1956.

Henry later concentrated on his writing and roamed the world as a speaker for Monrovia-based World Vision International.

For Henry, the evangelical movement peaked in 1976 with the election of born-again Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter as president. By the 1980s, however, the scholar worried that the movement, plagued with controversies over television evangelists and other problems, was "being swallowed by the very culture it sought to alter."

Henry said in his keynote address at Fuller's 40th anniversary observation in 1987 that society was being overcome by secular humanism that was "decomposing into paganism" akin to ancient Rome.

He did not reserve his criticism for non-evangelicals, excoriating Oral Roberts, for example, for announcing that he would die if he could not raise $4.5 million within a month.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Helga Bender Henry, and one daughter, Carol Bates. His son, Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.), died in 1993.

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