William R. Bright, who founded Campus Crusade for Christ on the UCLA campus in 1951 and built it into an Evangelical Christian movement with branches in 191 countries, has died. He was 81.
Bright died Saturday at his home in Orlando, Fla., of complications from pulmonary fibrosis, said Steve Chapman, a spokesman for Campus Crusade.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction
Bill Bright -- The obituary of Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, that appeared in the California section Monday mistakenly implied that the location of the operation's proposed expansion was in Arrowhead Springs. Campus Crusade was based in Arrowhead Springs, north of San Bernardino, but Bright attempted to add to its facilities with a project in San Diego. That was prevented by a slow-growth initiative approved by San Diego voters, and as a result Bright moved the Campus Crusade headquarters to Orlando, Fla., in 1989.
The dedicated leader's religious fervor and a family tradition of supporting Republican candidates found expression in the Christian Embassy he established in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s for prayers and Bible study.
Critics said it was an attempt to organize a Christian coalition. Admirers applauded Bright as a visionary.
His tightly run Campus Crusade was singled out in 1996 as the largest organization of its kind by U.S.A. Today and in 1993, '95 and '96 as the most efficiently managed of its kind by Money magazine.
"Bill Bright was a catalyst," said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine, "not only for Campus Crusade, but for other programs he launched."
During 50 years as head of his organization, Bright expanded his empire to include a film and video division that created a feature on the life of Jesus. It was produced in 1979 and translated into 700 languages. He added more than 60 other offices to his original campus program, each one aimed at converting members of a special interest group, from executives to prison inmates. In 2000, his staff had grown to 26,000 and his annual budget was $450 million.
Bright built his organization with the help of a pamphlet he produced and freely handed out, starting in 1951. It contained four points that he referred to as the Four Spiritual Laws. They state that God loves you and has a plan for your life, sin separates you from God, Jesus is the only provision for your sins, and you must individually receive Christ as your Savior.
Members of a sorority at UCLA were Bright's first target. From there he went on to train more than 1 billion young people at Campus Crusade rallies and conferences to memorize his laws and repeat them to anyone who would listen.
Critics charged that Bright's four laws reduced Christianity to a superficial formula. Supporters described him as God's entrepreneur.
"One thing that characterizes American Evangelical Protestantism is an entrepreneurial spirit," Neff said.
"A person gets a vision, calls a few friends, drums up a little money and does it. He doesn't wait for a church bureaucracy to approve the plan."
Born in Coweta, Okla., one of seven children, Bright was the son of a prosperous rancher and Republican fund-raiser, and the grandson of a pioneer in the oil industry. He once recalled his early years as a time of ice cream and watermelon socials. After graduating from Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Okla., in 1943, he moved to Southern California for business, not religious reasons. He saw growth opportunities for his California Confections company, which offered candy, jam and jelly.
At the time, Bright was 23 years old and a "happy pagan," he later said. Along with building up a successful company, he worked as an amateur actor on radio theater, rode horseback to relax and socialized at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.
All of that changed when he got to know Dan Fuller, whose father, Charles, was helping to found Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
At the time, Bright's landlord had been inviting him to church on Sunday, but he had resisted. One day when he was driving along Hollywood Boulevard, he happened to pass by the First Presbyterian Church.
"It was as though an unseen hand reached out and parked the car and led me in," Bright said in a 1998 interview. By then he was accustomed to talking about his religious life in mystical terms.
That same force led him to Sunday school classes at the church and to a born-again religious conversion. At the time, Bright made a "contract" with God that promised, "I am your slave."
The following year, 1946, he entered Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He soon transferred to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, but kept his confections business going.
"I thought he was becoming a fanatic," said Vonette Zachary Bright, his sweetheart back home in Oklahoma. He sent her letters expounding on his new faith and eventually he convinced Vonette to follow his lead. They married in 1948 and three years later they co-founded Campus Crusade. Bright dropped out of the seminary and closed his candy business.
Entrepreneurial talent and religious zeal joined forces in the Campus Crusade. "Bill Bright had a remarkable organizational ability," Charles Colson once said. When Colson founded his Prison Fellowship in 1976, he consulted Bright about business concerns.
"He structured his Campus Crusade from nothing," Colson said of Bright. "He was a visionary who surrounded himself with talented people to help him carry out the vision."