Influential Protestants

10 Influential Protestants for Me

Mark Tooley on January 7, 2022

Yesterday on twitter there was a challenge to cite 10 most influential Protestants shaping your worldview. I gladly chimed in with my own, and here’s some elaboration:

Martin Luther: Since he launched the Reformation, he must rank on this list, not just as religious reformer but as a founder of the faster paced and more egalitarian modern world. Unintentionally, he was the force behind modern democracy, with mass literacy, individualism, nation states, human rights and an expectation of equality. His stress on the dignity of all work fueled modern capitalism. His leaving the monastery for marriage further sacralized the family. He was a tireless machine, churning out endless translations, commentaries, sermons and hymns. He was brilliant, devout, fearless, sometimes bigoted, often intemperate. Luther was the continental divide of the last millennium. He’s always been a force in my mind.

John Calvin: Methodists like me aren’t supposed to embrace Calvin because of predestination, which was never his emphasis. He turbocharged the Reformation and also was central to molding the modern world. Lutherans were mostly Germanic and accepted the political and social status quo. Calvinists were international and revolutionary. They sternly feared God and sought to conform the world to His purposes. Their angst over salvation and calling created a social dynamism that electrified societies politically and economically. Calvinists were dangerous to tyrants. And Calvinists, unrestrained, could be tyrants. Sometimes they didn’t know when to stop. Calvin approved the burning of Servetus, a Socinian (Unitarian) for heresy. But when Calvinists are on the right path they are unstoppable. I’ve always been intrigued by and appreciative of Calvin and his followers. Once in the college library, I randomly examined his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and I reassuringly spotted a passage promising any believer fretting about salvation was already secure, as the nonbeliever would not worry.

John Wesley is the father of Methodism and his movement of personal holiness transformed Britain and early America. He was largely temperate and wise, a superb organizer, confidently Protestant but also apostolic and catholic. Unlike Luther and Calvin, he lived very long and toiled until the very end, maximizing each one of his nine decades. Wesley faced down angry mobs and could comfortably speak to both intellectuals and illiterates. He’s a father of modern evangelicalism but also stressed the centrality of the institutional church. Wesley was not a systematic theologian like Luther and Calvin but he published rich sermons, tracts and correspondence. The tradition he founded, stressing divine grace for all people, for reasons he likely did not foresee, became perhaps the most egalitarian of all major Protestant traditions. I think of him every Sunday when I attend a Methodist church.

Francis Asbury was Wesley’s apostle to early America, which he fearlessly crisscrossed and evangelized. He lacked Wesley’s erudition but more than equaled Wesley’s energy as the organizing force of what became Americas largest church. His journal is a classic of early American religion. By making America Methodist, overshadowing originally dominant Calvinism, he also made it more democratic. Wesley was frugal but he had a nice house, a wide family, and regular income. Asbury was alone, homeless, and scrounged what he could for the denomination he was building until he dropped dead from his labors. He was holy but supremely practical. Asbury opposed slavery, preached often to black audiences, and ordained black clergy, but he knew the limits of what he could do, leaving the rest to God and posterity. I’ve always admired Asbury.

Peter Cartwright was ordained by Asbury and represented the next generation of frontier circuit riders who lived long enough to see the backwoods civilized and Methodism become dominant. His memoir colorfully recorded his career, in which his many confrontations across decades resulted typically in Methodist conversion or calamity. He told Andrew Jackson that God esteemed him no more than any pagan from Africa. He bumptiously battled rival Baptists and Calvinists in the ferment of early American revivalism. Cartwright unwisely ran for Congress against Abraham Lincoln, whom he later admired, and he fortunately lost. I read Cartwright’s memoir as a young man and revered it as nearly canonical.

Dwight Moody was the prototype of the modern evangelist who speaks to urban crowds in theaters and stadiums with the goal of tallying conversions. He was a Congregationalist chaplain in the Civil War who appreciated from the battlefield that life can be short and eternal destinies must be decided. As urban Protestant churches became uppity, he strove to reach the less respectable unreached in America’s newly sprawling cities amid dramatic industrialization. He was simple and decent and sanctified. An optimist, he once asked God not to overwhelm him with more blessing lest he be unable to absorb it all. Reading his biography as a young man was deeply inspirational.

Less optimistic than Moody, Reinhold Niebuhr as German Reformed pastor and theologian addressed the dark complexities of American Christianity, urging systemic social reforms but cautioning against hubris about accomplishment in this world. Everyone, including the saintly elect, are influenced by self-interests and limited vision, even at their best. He understood America’s Calvinist and revivalistic history, which explained for him his nation’s strengths and weaknesses. Niebuhr urged America to lead in WWII and the Cold War but also warned America not to exult in its own supposed goodness. Hope in God but not in yourselves, Niebuhr implored, with Protestant gusto. He is the inspiration for our Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy.

Everybody loves C.S. Lewis for his literary faith and charming ability to interpret Christianity with generosity and ironic insight. He’s endlessly sensible and portrays the path to faith as the logical conclusion to any carefully considered life. An Anglican, he was not entirely a conventional Protestant. He believed in purgatory and had a Catholic leaning view of salvation. Lewis tried to broadly advocate for orthodox Christianity in all its major streams. His message is successfully timeless and I much appreciated him as a young man and still do now.

Francis Schaeffer was a Presbyterian pastor turned Christian apologist and historiographer who created a Calvinist social theory that inspired contemporary Evangelical political witness and activism. He was an enthusiast for Christian Civilization without minimizing its failures, and he stressed the Reformation as the basis for modern ordered liberties, which he saw as deeply threatened by secularism. As a generalist he was not always right in the details but his wider perspective was intellectually uplifting for a smarter evangelical public engagement. I read his works as a young man and was profoundly influenced and encouraged. Sadly, not many read him today.

Thomas Oden is the only Protestant on my list whom I personally knew. He was the foremost Methodist theologian of the late twentieth century. Urged on by his Jewish colleague Will Herberg, who thought Tom’s liberal Protestantism superficial, Tom studied and became committed to the Early Church Fathers, who persuaded him to embrace orthodoxy. Tom adorned his patristic faith with the Wesleyan distinctives of his own background. His works were expansive and unusually admired by Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals. His systematic theology included insights from all those traditions. Tom was ferociously attached to Methodism and its renewal, saying he would never leave the church of his baptism. As an older friend, he was endlessly encouraging and gracious. In his final years, speaking in a whisper, he sounded apostolic.

These ten Protestants have influenced me. Who’s influenced you?

  1. Comment by Terry Shaffer on January 7, 2022 at 7:04 pm

    Would add William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army. He was an evangelist, advocate of women in all phases of ministry, proponent of holiness and reached out to the “down and out”.

  2. Comment by George on January 7, 2022 at 7:24 pm

    Billy Graham .

  3. Comment by Kevin Babb on January 7, 2022 at 9:56 pm

    Dietrich Bonhoffer

  4. Comment by Lawrence Kreh on January 8, 2022 at 1:24 am

    Billy Graham was not a scholar but had the most significant influence for evangelicals in my lifetime. Unlike many evangelicals today he preached the gospel without compromise, and for all people regardless of race, denomination, or political party. He warned against emeshing the gospel with partisan politics, while being willing to boldly confront racial segregation when I was a child in 1960s Birmingham. On that basis he greatly influenced who I am today.

  5. Comment by Paul Zesewitz on January 8, 2022 at 5:31 am

    Being raised Baptist, I would say John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams (the very first American Baptist), Augustus Hopkins Strong and Walter Rauschenbusch. But all these theologians (and the others mentioned) have their Superior. His name is Jesus.

  6. Comment by Martyn Gabriel on January 8, 2022 at 6:18 am

    Wesley and CS Lewis’s were Anglicans, Church of England and not Protestant. You will not find the word Protestant in the Book of Common Prayer 1662.

  7. Comment by Donald on January 8, 2022 at 6:55 am

    I would add these two, making the list an even dozen:

    Dietriech Bonnhoeffer. His willingness to return to Germany as the Third Reich was forming and knowing that he would probably be martyred is courage at it finest and most humble.
    Karl Barth. Writer of the Theological Declaration of Barmen. Lays out the complex Reformed understanding of the relationship between the Church and State. Again, speaking at a time when being a faithful theologian actually cost something.

  8. Comment by Pamela Buckroyd on January 8, 2022 at 7:16 am

    Martin Luther: I’m shocked/nauseated at the accolades for Luther while noting that he was “sometimes bigoted, often intemperate”. That’s not why Hitler quoted him in Mein Kampf. Luther is regaled as though he was a Christian. Juicy Ecumenism should expose hatred and bigotry and antisemitism and violence … not herald it. “How odd of God to choose the Jews, and odder still those who choose the Jewish God and hate the Jews.”

  9. Comment by David Virtue, DD on January 8, 2022 at 7:40 am

    I would add John Stott, J.I. Packer, Michael Green, Thomas Cranmer, JC Ryle, to name but a few Anglican divines.

  10. Comment by David Gingrich on January 8, 2022 at 9:57 am

    Jan Hus, the great Bohemian priest from Prague. He was the prototype Protestant 100 years before Luther and Luther gave him full credit. Hus preached that the people should be able to read the Word in their own language, that laypeople should be offered both the Bread AND the cup, that indulgences were evil. For these preachings, he was burned at the stake by the Holy Roman Empire.

  11. Comment by Thomas on January 8, 2022 at 10:05 am

    Some of the American left claims Reinhold Niebuhr`s legacy, but I always thought that as an orthodox Christian he would be opposed nowadays to some of their anti-Christian causes, like the pro-abortion advocacy, now more extreme then ever, and the acceptance of same-sex unions and homosexuality. Am I wrong about Niebuhr`s religious orthodoxy?

  12. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 8, 2022 at 9:47 pm

    Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr were of the Neo-Orthodox school, which held that the Scriptures were the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, but were not themselves the Word of God.  Reinhold labored at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Richard labored at Yale, neither of which is known as a bastion of Christian orthodoxy.  Richard labored largely prior to the sexual revolution, but Reinhold sided with conservatives on issues raised by it, including denouncing Kinsey’s “modern naturalism,” which he claimed, “solved the problem of man’s sexual life by treating him as an animal.”  Reinhold Niebuhr was a proponent of social justice, as expressed by what was known as Christian Realism, which he developed as a response to the Social Gospel that ultimately was ultimately responsible for mainline collusion with such secular doctrines as abortion and the normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism.  Presumably, had they lived long enough to witness this collusion, they would have opposed it.  However, their Neo-Orthodoxy did not have sufficient grounding in the Scriptures, and as such sided with the Theological Liberalism that preceded and followed it in undermining the Scriptures’ divine authority.  Thus, I would be cautious in endorsing the Niebuhrs solely on the basis of their opposition to secular doctrines related to human sexuality.

  13. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 8, 2022 at 9:56 pm

    My list of the ten Protestants most influential in forming my worldview (discounting, of course, pastors of the Evangelical churches I have regularly attended in the last thirty years, who have had more direct influence):
      1. John Calvin
      2. Martin Luther
      3. John Owen
      4. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield
      5. Charles Hodge
      6. Louis Berkhof
      7. R. C. Sproul
      8. John Murray
      9. Francis Schaeffer
    10. John Stott

  14. Comment by joe m on January 9, 2022 at 1:24 am

    I’d add

    A. Wetherell Johnson, founder of Bible Study Fellowship

    J.I. Packer, theologian with a metal plate in his head

    Elisabeth Elliot, opinionated missionary author

    Martin Lloyd-Jones, magisterial evangelical pulpit master

    J.C. Ryle, master Anglican rhetorician from the Victorian age

  15. Comment by Thomas on January 9, 2022 at 10:15 am

    Loren J Golden

    Thank you very much for your answer. It helped a lot about some doubts I had about Reinhold Niebuhr.

  16. Comment by Gary Bebop on January 9, 2022 at 1:43 pm

    Supplementing Mark’s illustrious ten, I would add T.F. Torrance (and the Torrance brothers). The Scottish theologian carried forward the conversation with Barth and brought Eastern Orthodoxy into consideration, thus anticipating others we read avidly today. Reading Torrance will scour out a lot of bad theological thinking and open the mind to renovation of the Romans 12:1-2 variety.

  17. Comment by Bill Brewer on January 9, 2022 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks Mark for this topic and thread inspiration. Was going to add J I Packer as I’ve been directly influenced by him as has the Rector at my current church, who was taught at Seminary by him. Someone already has. Love Charles Spurgeon also. Don’t agree exactly with his eschatology anymore but love his understanding of heaven.
    So glad that saving faith doesn’t depend on perfect theology!! LOL. I’d never pass muster. Then again, no one else would either.

  18. Comment by td on January 10, 2022 at 7:08 pm

    Martyn- protestant denotes any christian who is not Catholic or Orthodox. Anglicans are protestant. A brief perusal of the articles of religion firmly put anglicans and methodists amongst protestants.

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