“I never met a man among evangelicals who could compare to the mighty intellect and spiritual development of Harold John Ockenga” – Billy Graham
Emerging from the heart of Chicago in the year 1905 was a man who would dramatically shape the landscape of 20th-century evangelicalism – Harold John Ockenga. For over three decades, Ockenga distinguished himself through his unwavering commitment to faithfully disseminate the teachings of God from the pulpit of Boston’s renowned Park Street Church. As we delve into his captivating journey, we explore his early life, how he emerged as a profound theologian, and how he stretched the boundaries of influence as a visionary media leader — further affirming his legacy as a remarkable change-maker in modern evangelical history.
Ockenga had a bright mind and demonstrated leadership skills from an early age. Born into a devout Christian family, he professed faith at 11. Ockenga had planned to pursue law at the University of Chicago but a conference experience that turned his heart towards ministry spurred him to pursue theology instead at Taylor University, Indiana. At Taylor University he preached more than 400 times as an undergraduate traveling with a ministry team.
After he graduated from Taylor, Ockenga went to Princeton for his postgraduate studies in theology. Due to a rift between the modernists and the fundamentalists a group of scholars from Princeton broke out and started the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Ockenga left Princeton and joined Westminster as J. Gresham Machen’s foremost protege. During his time at Westminster, Ockenga honed his theology under the guidance of Machen and other scholars while contributing vigorously towards assisting the conservative revolt against modernist theology. His personalised blend of conservative reformed doctrine and evangelical activism, often termed as ‘New Evangelicalism’, thrived here.
This marked the beginning of Ockenga’s impactful career. His interpretation of the Bible through the prism of this ‘New Evangelicalism’ was embraced not just by his fellow theologians, but it resonated with people in congregations around America. This would lead Ockenga to produce life-changing sermons each week, warming the hearts of faithful parishioners and earning him a significant degree of reverence within and beyond his community.
After his stint at Westminster, Ockenga accepted a pastoral role at Park Street Church in Boston. Through his charismatic preaching style and profound insights into biblical doctrine, he successfully nurtured his congregation, fostering their spiritual growth and instilling a renewed zeal for serving the Lord. His sermons continually encouraged his congregation to not only embrace their faith personally but also to take up the mantle of evangelism in their everyday lives. This resulted in a remarkable sense of unity and collective commitment toward fruitful and ethical living, echoing within the walls of Park Street Church.
Besides notable success at the local level, Ockenga’s influence stretched far and wider through his ingenious use of burgeoning media platforms. By tapping into radio and later television to broadcast his teachings widely, he managed to reach a far larger audience than traditional means had allowed.
Recognizing the potential of collaborative work serving as a catalyst for effective gospel propagation, Ockenga was instrumental in founding institutions that played pivotal roles in the rise of 20th-century evangelicalism. Alongside figures like Billy Graham and George Eldon Ladd, he co-founded the National Association of Evangelicals, designed to facilitate cooperation among conservative Evangelicals and amplify their collective voice. He later served as its first president, setting its trajectory toward becoming a leading platform for evangelical thought.
In 1942, amid a spiritual and intellectual renaissance among conservative Christians, he also founded the notable Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Established as a response to the dwindling inheritance of the robust, academic traditions of Evangelical Christianity, the seminary continues to hold a revered place among esteemed theological institutions worldwide.
As he further diversified his role as an evangelical leader, Ockenga became the administrative brains behind ‘Christianity Today’ magazine in collaboration with Billy Graham. Serving as the publication’s first editor, he carried on his fruitful collaboration with renowned evangelicals, forging a mass media outlet that encapsulated diverse evangelical voices. Not merely a promotional tool, this magazine aimed to reinforce theological substance and social conscience, while maintaining a striking relevance to contemporary issues.
Ockenga successfully melded insightful commentary on Evangelical Christianity’s doctrine with robust analyses of premier religious thinkers and contemporary sociopolitical issues. It showcased thoughtful conversations alongside spirited debates within its pages, cementing its legacy as a beacon of thoughtful diversity in evangelical discourse. Continuing his ethos of demonstration-oriented faith, Ockenga was notably involved in numerous charity works and social causes that altogether promoted a compassionate Christian worldview. His non-conformist approach to theological concepts and contemporary issues stirred interest beyond church walls, bridging gaps between multiple demographics. Such compassionate outreach and the diversity stimulated through his leadership not only empowered his evangelical community but affected global conversations at large.
Betwixt his clerical responsibilities, he authored multiple books, concisely articulating his theological exegeses while further promoting evangelical scholarship. With his gifted command over language, he produced seminal works that expounded on the challenges faced by modern Christianity while offering a continued response.
Harold John Ockenga’s extraordinary journey was an intersection of abundant faith, theological prowess, visionary leadership, and an emotion-charged oratory gift. By innovating the conventional media landscape, founding influential institutions, and continuously championing his ‘New Evangelicalism’, he set ablaze an enduring flame that has greatly illuminated the path of evangelical Christianity since. As we recount his formative contributions to Christian theology and study his instrumental role in bridging religious discourse with modern mediums, we find his legacy standing tall and shining bright, enriching the canvas of global evangelical history, echoes of which continue to sustain faith and inspire countless people today.