Harold John Ockenga (1905-1985)
Bill Long 8/28/06
Expository Preaching and Kicking Ass
On the way back from a conference on autism and legal issues in Minneapolis, MN, I stopped in for the evening with my friend Bruce Zabel in Seattle. Bruce and I first crossed paths more than 30 years ago when he was a very young (20 years-old) doctoral student in American history at Brown and I was finishing my undergraduate program. Bruce and I share our thoughts on lots of subjects, but we seem to keep returning to the history of American Evangelicalism, especially in the period from about 1960-1980. While I was visiting him he loaned me a book by Joel Carpenter, now Provost of Calvin College in MI, on the formative period of Evangelicalism in American (1925-1950). Entitled Revive Us Again, Carpenter's book is a well-researched and well-written book. It picks up where George Marsden's earlier work Fundamentalism and American Culture (1875-1925) leaves off, and shows how the fundamentalist/evangelical world was a seething cauldron of movements, personalities, and institutions in a largely overlooked period of its history (1925-1950).
In my judgment, and Carpenter may agree with me, the most influential person in the fundamentalist/evangelical movement in this period, or at least the latter half of it, was Harold John Ockenga. Billy Graham only became visible after his Los Angeles and New England crusades of the late 1940s and early 1950s; before that period Harold Ockenga ("O") was the big name. I knew him while I was a student and he was President at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary ("GCTS") in 1974-77. This essay probes two aspects of his character and commitment which I witnessed in his later days.
I am encouraged to write this because of a footnote in Carpenter's book. After presenting some of O's influence (some GCTS students referred to Ockenga as the "Big O" in the mid-1970s, though another "Big O," Oscar Robertson, was no doubt more visible in our culture at the time) in organizing the National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Theological Seminary, Carpenter says: "Relatively little has been written about Ockenga" (308, n. 6). The first source that he cites, Harold Lindsell's 1951 biography, is nothing more than a posterior-osculatory work, though the other two are more serious scholarly pieces. Nevertheless, only the most basic biographical facts regarding Ockenga are online (a typical article is here). Suffice it to say that he was the pastor for 33 years (1936-69) of one of the more prominent pulpits in fundamentalist/evangelical America (Park Street Church on the Boston Common) and, during that time, was influential in the founding of the NAE, Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary and then, in 1969, GCTS. His fingerprints are on almost every aspect of the nascent modern Evangelical movement.*
[*I would describe modern American Evangelicalism historically as the movement arising out of the April 1942 meeting in St. Louis to organize a more moderate movement to oppose the Federal Council of Churchs than Carl McIntire's separatist American Council of Christian Churches. Sociologically I would describe it as the fundamentalist guys who wanted to get Ph. D's at marquee secular universities just before and after WWII.]
Two Memories from Seminary
The two memories I have of talking to O and working with him come from my first and third years of seminary. The first, illustrating his commitment to expository preaching, is hazy for me but the second, showing his commitment to kicking ass, is more fresh in mind. On one occasion he invited some students to visit him at his New Hampshire home. It was a very large cottage where he used go each Sunday night after the evening service at Park Street Church, returning back to Boston on Tuesday morning. While there, in response to a question about preaching, he took one of his books from the shelf (an edited collection of his sermons) and proceeded to show us how he preached--three points, textually-based, illustrations from literature, beginning and ending with a homey or (sometime hokey) story. He memorized his sermons, as well as the Scriptures on which they were based, thus giving him a rather large store of images and texts at his command. Though I wouldn't call him a riveting preacher, his sermons were workmanlike and energetic, and he was committed to expositing biblical principles as well as engaging some leading ideas in the history of political philosophy (his doctoral field) or in the cultural world of Depression and WWII America.
But it was when I saw the "Big O" as ass-kicker that I really got a more intimate view of the way he worked. I was student body President my senior year and, even though the Administration had no real commitment to including the students in many important decisions, they did want our "buy in" for a massive expansion of married-student housing in 1976 and 1977. GCTS is situated in an idyllic area in one of the richer areas of a rich state (about 20 miles North of Boston), and students often had difficulty finding affordable housing. So blind was the surrounding community to the teeming realities of urban blight and poverty twenty miles away that we felt that the nearby hunt club had a very appropriate name: Myopia Hunt Club.
Not all the neighbors of the seminary were entranced with the idea of the seminary building 100 or more apartment units in the utopian hills of Essex County. One of them decided he was going to stop the project. He threatened legal action. And, he met with a few student leaders--of whom I, as student body President-elect, was one. He pulled out diagrams, showing how his property would be affected, how "raw sewage" might burst forth from various embankments if the project went ahead, how this was bad politics, bad neighbor relations, bad "witnessing" for Christ, etc. etc. Thirty years later I see this as the protest of a man who didn't want his property values to plummet or his quiet to be disturbed; at the time I sort of sympathetically listened to him, and imagined, while he was talking, what raw sewage spewing forth from hills might look like.
The Big O got wind of our meeting, met with us, wanted to know what the man had said and then, with a determined voice said, "It looks as if we will have to teach this young fellah a lesson." A year later the apartments were built, students were careening down narrow country roads to get there, and a disappointed neighbor put up some "hate GCTS" signs on his property. I saw then that Harold John Ockenga, even in his 70s, was a man to be reckoned with and who would hesitate not a moment to push through his vision of what he felt would "work" for his institution.
So, maybe that is my final mental picture of Harold Ockenga--a man who preached the Gospel, but really wielded a very strong hammer. Even his words, now that I think of it, were words fashioned more with hammers than with careful carving tools. Maybe that will be how I will now know him--rather than the Big O, he will be Harold the Hammer for me.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long