The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelism

by Garth M. Rosell

In The Surprising Work of God, Garth M. Rosell offers an engaging portrayal of the emergence of the worldwide evangelical movement primarily through the life, work, and friendship of two of its key leaders: Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham.

Baker Academic, P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287, 2008, 288 pages, $19.99.

Reviewed by Sarita D. Gallagher, doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of global studies at Azusa Pacific University.

As Harold John Ockenga stood before the overflowing hall of six thousand people, he declared to the crowd, “The hour of revival has struck. New England is ripe for evangelism. The same yearning which is seen over the land is experienced here…Yesterday has gone. Tomorrow is uncertain. We have only today. Now is the time. Let us redeem it. Let us use it.” Ockenga’s words at that New Year’s Eve service in 1950 proved to be prophetic as that single meeting in Boston quickly expanded into a series of New England-wide revival meetings. Over the course of the following months it is recorded that tens of thousands attended the meetings and over nine thousand professed faith in Christ. In Ockenga’s words, “God has come to town."

In The Surprising Work of God, Garth M. Rosell offers an engaging portrayal of the emergence of the worldwide evangelical movement primarily through the life, work, and friendship of two of its key leaders: Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham. Highlighting in particular the pivotal influence of the mid-twentieth century American spiritual awakening, Rosell provides a well-researched account of the events leading up to the national revival, the influential leaders in the movement, and the lasting influence which the revivals had upon the emerging evangelicalism.

Beginning with the historic birth of evangelicalism, Rosell presents a balanced yet intimate look at the journey of the mid-twentieth century pastors, evangelists, and leaders who witnessed God’s amazing work within their churches and nation. Using the stirring sermons and words of the young leaders themselves, Rosell follows the growth of the movement from the early revival days to the establishment of such institutions and organizations as the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Christianity Today.

However, more than just an articulate historical account of the emergence of American neo-evangelicalism, Rosell manages to capture the heartfelt passion and excitement of the movement and its leaders. As the son of Merv Rosell, one of the foremost evangelists of the time, the author’s insider perspective gives the events surrounding the mid-century spiritual awakening a vibrancy and poignancy that both challenges and encourages its readers.

While the names and events of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are starting to fade from evangelical conversations, Rosell proves that many lessons are yet to be learned from these godly men. Leaving the reader with a challenge to listen to those who have gone before, Rosell rightly calls our attention back to the founding core beliefs of the pioneers of modern evangelicalism.

Check these titles:

Lindsell, Harold. 1951. Park Street Prophet: A Life of Harold Ockenga. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen.

McGrath, Alister. 1995. Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Sweeney, Douglas A. 2005. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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