Book Review: ‘God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism’ by David P. King

Review by Daniel Silliman. Daniel Silliman is a US historian who writes about religion in American culture. He teaches writing and humanities at Milligan College in Tennessee.

When World Vision responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, it didn’t tell supporters. The work wasn’t secret, exactly, but the organization also didn’t publicize what it was doing. It didn’t know how to publicize it, how to get evangelical donors to care about this particular crisis, AIDS in Africa. AIDS meant sex. AIDS was icky. It was associated with homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and drug use, and to talk about AIDS, you had to talk about needles and condoms.

“We’re a G-rated ministry,” the marketing team told Rich Stearns when he became president of World Vision US in 1998, “involved in an R-rated issue.”

AIDS education and prevention also reminded evangelicals of liberal social programs. It made them suspicious that the gospel message was being replaced with social action. This was always the challenge for World Vision, the small missionary agency that grew to be the largest Christian humanitarian aid organization in the world: How do you convince evangelicals that caring about social issues is part of the gospel? How do you persuade them that tending the sick and caring for the poor isn’t in conflict with sharing the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection?

The answer is the subject of God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism, an insightful new book by David P. King, who directs the Lake Institute of Faith & Giving and teaches at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. King argues that the organization shows how American evangelicals came to understand themselves in a global context in the 20th century. Historians have been very interested in this subject in the last few years, looking at how missionariesmissionary-spiesreligious mediathe state of Israel, and cooperation with churches in the global south made American evangelicals into global thinkers. King’s history is a valuable contribution to this scholarship. It’s especially interesting because it focuses on this tension in evangelical life between evangelism and social action.

The Humanitarian Turn

King’s story starts in the 1940s with the end of World War II and the beginning of a boom of revivalism. Conservative American Protestants—who at the time used the words fundamentalist and evangelical interchangeably—felt a renewed optimism about the possibilities for preaching the gospel. With new energy, new technology, and a new political situation, they felt they could reach the whole world for Christ. A young Bob Pierce took the gospel to China with Youth for Christ, with funds raised by another young YFC minister, Billy Graham.

Pierce spent four months in China, preaching in the largest auditoriums he could find. He didn’t know the language, so he spoke through a translator. He hadn’t studied the culture, so he didn’t try to adapt the messages to the specific needs or concerns of the Chinese people. He was, nevertheless, quite successful. Pierce recorded 17,852 decisions for Christ in the flyleaf of his Bible.

His ignorance could cause problems, though. Pierce preached at a girls’ school run by Dutch Reformed missionaries and told the new converts to go home and tell their parents, “I’m a Christian now.” One girl named White Jade followed his instructions. Her father beat her and threw her out of the house. The missionaries took this story to Pierce, demanding to know how he was going to help this newborn Christian whose faith made her an orphan. Pierce gave them his last five dollars. He felt convicted, though, that it wasn’t enough.

On his second trip to China, Pierce brought funds for orphanages, leper colonies, and to buy food and medicine. He continued to hold revivalist rallies but paired them with concern for the physical conditions of the people he was trying to reach. King calls this “a new evangelical humanitarianism” that “tied evangelism and social concern together with insider evangelical language that completely avoided the language of a liberal social gospel that conservatives despised.”

Pierce set out on his own in 1950, founding World Vision with this idea of combining traditional missionary work with humanitarian aid. He said social action sent a message: “Yes, we care about your eternal destiny—but we also care about you now.”

World Vision was blocked from China when the Communist government closed the country to missionaries, so Pierce turned his attention to Korea right as the Korean War began. The war created some acute physical needs. Pierce was especially concerned about orphans. By the end of the 1950s, World Vision was committing 79 percent of its annual budget to orphans, spending more than $425,000 to care for about 13,000 children. Child sponsorships became a major part of World Vision’s fundraising and a core part of the organization’s identity.

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Source: Christianity Today