Graham and Peale

Peale and Graham

I listened to both charismatic preachers.

By Ken Shelton

            I suppose that I could blame my grandmother, Helen Liddell Jones, for my affinity to preachers Norman Peale and Billy Graham, since she was a big fan of them in the 1950’s.  In fact, from 1950 to 1965 I likely listened more to them than I listened to Mormon David McKay. 

            About 18 months after Peale died on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1993, I found myself meeting with his widow, 95-year-old Ruth Stafford Peale, in their offices in Pawling, New York and attending church with her on Sunday at the scenic Christ Church on Quaker Hill.  I then collaborated with her in publishing In God We Trust (1996) and with her friend Scott Ventrella in publishing and promoting Power of Positive Thinking in Business (1997).

Christ Church on Quaker Hill

Norman Vincent Peale (1898 – 1993) was a prominent minister who served as the pastor of Marble Collegiate Church, New York, from 1932 until his death. As an author he is best known for popularizing the concept of positive thinking through his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale was a personal friend of President Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump attended Peale’s church while growing up (and married his first wife, Ivana, there).

            Peale’s ministry was controversial, and he received frequent criticism both from church figures and from the psychiatric profession.  Raised as a Methodist and ordained as a Methodist minister in 1922, Peale changed his religious affiliation to the Reformed Church in 1932 when he began a 52-year tenure as pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City.

            In 1935, Peale (a Freemason) started a radio program, “The Art of Living”, which lasted for 54 years. Under sponsorship of the National Council of Churches, he later moved into television. In 1945 he launched (with his wife Ruth) Guideposts magazine, a forum for celebrities and ordinary people to relate inspirational stories. His sermons were mailed monthly. 

            In 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded Peale, for his contributions to the field of theology, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor in the United States). Peale had met or personally known every US president of the 20th century. Five presidents (NixonFordCarterReagan, and Bush) spoke well of him in the documentary about his life, Positive Thinking: The Norman Vincent Peale Story. 

            Upon hearing of Peale’s death, President Bill Clinton said: “The name of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale will forever be associated with the wondrously American values of optimism and service. Dr. Peale was an optimist who believed that, whatever the antagonisms and complexities of modern life brought us, anyone could prevail by approaching life with a simple sense of faith. And he served us by instilling that optimism in every Christian and every other person who came in contact with his writings or his hopeful soul. Dr. Peale lifted the spirits of millions of people. While the Clinton family and all Americans mourn his loss, there is some poetry in his passing on a day when the world celebrates the birth of Christ.”

            The Reverend Billy Graham said at the National Council of Churches on June 12, 1966: “I don’t know of anyone who has done more for the kingdom of God than Norman and Ruth Peale or have meant any more in my life for the encouragement they have given me.”

            Billy Graham (1919-2018) was arguably the world’s best-known evangelist. After finding God as a gangly 16-year-old in North Carolina, he became America’s pastor, preaching for nearly six decades to millions around the world in crusades. He packed stadiums, counseled presidents, befriended Johnny Cash and led Kathie Lee Gifford’s family to Christ.

            Graham once said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead, but don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

            Over the course of his career, even more than Peale, Graham capitalized on modern communication technologies — from radio, books, television to satellite to the internet — to give his ministry a global reach. He spread his influence through a combination of religious conviction and a commanding stage presence. He refused many offers to get involved in politics, saying: “If I get on these subjects, it divides the audience. I’m just promoting the Gospel.”  He even refused to speak primarily as a Southern Baptist—he spoke for neither a particular church nor a particular people, preferring to fill the role of national clergyman and have a global reach.

            He, too, was not without critics. Some mainline Protestant leaders and theologians accused him of preaching a simplistic message of personal salvation that ignored societal problems like racism and poverty. Nonetheless, Graham gained and retained the respect of most Americans, earning him dozens of appearances on Gallup’s annual list of the world’s 10 most admired men and women. With a warm, courtly manner that was readily apparent both to stadium crowds and to those who met him face to face, Graham could be a riveting presence. At 6-foot-2, with a handsomely rugged profile fit for Hollywood westerns, he would hold his Bible aloft and declare that Scripture offered “the answer to every human longing.”

            Graham drew his message from mainstream evangelical Protestant belief: Repent of your sins, accept Jesus as your Savior and be born again. In a typical exhortation, he declared: “Are you frustrated, bewildered, dejected, breaking under the strains of life? Then listen for a moment to me: Say yes to the Savior tonight, and in a moment you will know such comfort as you have never known. It comes to you quickly, as swiftly as I snap my fingers, just like that.”

            He always closed by asking his listeners to “come forward” and commit to a life of Christian faith. When they did, his well-oiled organization would match new believers with nearby churches. Many thousands of people say they were first brought to church by a Billy Graham crusade. It is estimated that he preached the Gospel to more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories since beginning his crusades in October 1947. And he reached hundreds of millions more through books, radio, television, video and film. “This is not mass evangelism,” Graham liked to say, “but personal evangelism on a mass scale.”

Covey Crusade/Ghost Shelton

            Perhaps unconsciously I helped fashion the Covey Crusade in the likeness of Peale and Graham (P&G). Certainly we used many of the same methods from 1983 to 1995, the 12 years that I was most closely linked to SR Covey.  And, much like P&G, we embraced a much wider audience beyond our own religion and endured much criticism from within and without the faith.   For example, I was oft confronted by mad Mormons accusing me/Covey of “Priestcraft” and accused by mad non-Mormons of packaging and selling disguised Mormonism. Not true! We, like P&G, were extrapolating and expanding true principles beyond our own religion.

            As for me, I never wanted a Shelton Crusade, preferring to play my role as ghost—a mostly anonymous agent and invisible writer/editor/agent/publisher.      


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