Harold Ockenga, Church Renewal and the United Methodist Church by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

One of the most interesting books I have read recently is by Garth Rosell entitled, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. Rosell, a church history professor and leading expert in revivals, explores the life of Harold J. Ockenga and his relationship with Billy Graham.  Ockenga is widely regarded as the founder, chief architect and leading thinker of the 20th century revival and renewal movements which are collectively known today as neo-evangelicalism.  It was Ockenga who helped Christians see that there was a third choice between narrow, defensive fundamentalism and the mainline liberalism which was sweeping the country.  The result was a major movement which was embodied publically by Billy Graham’s ecumenical, socially engaged evangelism and spawned the planting of thousands of new churches.  It also produced a number of major evangelical seminaries including Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, both co-founded by Harold Ockenga.   Ockenga also served as the President of both Fuller (1947-1954) and Gordon-Conwell (1969-1979).  He was also the founder of Christianity Today magazine.   The magazine was designed to promote thoughtful Christian reflection on contemporary culture.  It was no mistake that the first editor was none other than the great thinker Carl F. H. Henry, the author of the multi-volume work God, Revelation and Authority.  Oh, did I forget to mention, Ockenga is also the founder of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and served as its founding President (1942-1944)?  In short, the book makes a convincing case for what many of us have long argued; namely, that Harold Ockenga was arguably one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century, and certainly a leading voice for church renewal.

I am sharing this because there is an interesting, little known, Methodist connection with Harold Ockenga.  He was born in a devout Methodist home.  His parents raised him in the Methodist church and he came to Christ in a Methodist camp meeting.  Ockenga even experienced a second work of grace which he subsequently described in a way which was precisely in line with Wesleyan thought.  Ockenga graduated from Taylor University (a Methodist related school) and eventually answered the call into the ministry and became ordained as a deacon in the Methodist Church.  He decided to go to Princeton because he longed for a classical education and Princeton was on the approved list of Seminaries by the Methodist Church which to this day certifies which seminaries United Methodist students may attend in order to be ordained.  Near the end of Ockenga’s time at Princeton (and as he was preparing for full ordination as an Elder in the UMC) the Seminary decided to embrace modernism and separate themselves from their long-standing commitment to the authority of scripture.  Princeton turned its back on its long standing commitment to historic orthodoxy.  Its heritage goes back to 1727 when William Tennent founded what became known as the Log College.  This is a history I know well because William Tennent is also my great (times six) grandfather.  Princeton eventually became known for great stalwarts of the faith such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield.   J. Gresham Machen led a separation from Princeton which resulted in the founding of Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia.  Although Ockenga was about to enter his final year at Seminary, he felt compelled to switch to Westminster because of his abiding faith in the Word of God.  When Ockenga switched to Westminister, the Methodist church informed him that he could not be ordained unless he remained at Princeton.   Even though he had completed two years at Princeton and had already pastored two Methodist churches in New Jersey, his graduation from Westminster would make him ineligible for full ordination in the Methodist church.  Ockenga was in deep distress.  His entire orientation was Wesleyan.  He knew no other tradition.  After a long struggle he decided sadly to leave the Methodist church and join the Presbyterians.  It is from this platform that his amazing ministry unfolded over the next five decades.  By denying Ockenga ordination in the Methodist Church, we lost his voice and missed much of his influence.  To this day most Methodists have never even heard of Harold Ockenga.  What a missed opportunity!

However, Ockenga never lost his love for “the people called Methodists.”  In the early 1980’s I met Ockenga while I was a young student at Gordon-Conwell.  He was the most respected Christian statesman I had ever met in my life.  He had recently retired as the President of Gordon-Conwell and had been named as President emeritus.  As a young, budding theologian and future pastor, I was awed by the presence of God which I sensed when I was with him.  He was a man who had walked with God his entire life.  He never lost his love for Christ, his confidence in the Scriptures and his devotion to the church (he also pastored the historic Park Street Church in Boston for several decades).  I told him I was a United Methodist and asked him if I should stay in the denomination even though many of its leaders and churches had lost touch with orthodoxy, or should I go join another denomination.  I was truly prepared at that moment to do whatever Dr. Ockenga told me.  He told me, “son, stay in the Methodist church, and be faithful there until they ask you to leave.”  Because of that conversation I stayed in the Methodist church.  I am still ordained in the UMC, with a membership in the North Georgia Conference.  Today, I am the President of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Ockenga died on February 8, 1985, about nine months after I graduated from Gordon-Conwell.  I was the pastor of a United Methodist church in Georgia at that time.  Someone close to Ockenga, who had been with him in his final days, told me something which later Garth Rosell confirmed for me. Above the bed where he died hung a portrait of John Wesley.  It was the same portrait that had hung in his office all the years of his remarkable ministry.  Ockenga never lost his love for Wesley.  One can only wonder how history might have been different if the Methodist church had received 50 years of leadership under a man like John Harold Ockenga.

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