Charitable giving took many shapes in the twentieth century. Alongside the rise of secular and scientific philanthropic approaches, religious giving from Protestant evangelicals fueled significant levels of philanthropy at both home and abroad. Charged by a theology of sacrifice, self-denial, and storing up one's treasure in heaven, evangelicals built one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in America.
“Evangelical,” however, is a conflicted term. Many claim it proudly, and many avoid it like the plague, making any discussion of “evangelicalism”—whether under the auspices of religion or philanthropy—a fraught and complex undertaking.
David P. King of the Lilly School of Philanthropy captures these nuances in his thoroughly-researched book, God’s Internationalists, in which he traces the growth of World Vision, one of the most influential evangelical nonprofits. He shows how the history of this Christian humanitarian organization mirrors the history of evangelicalism as a religious, cultural, and political movement in America.
King shows how evangelicalism rose to a special level of prominence in postwar America as the devout searched for meaning after shattering world wars and new nihilistic forces. The threat of totalitarianism and civilizational annihilation was suddenly quite real, bringing the seriousness of the religious question to a new pitch. In response, evangelicals desired to restore goodness, morality, and truth in America.
While evangelicals have always been at the forefront of causes such as universal education, abolition, and hospitals, post-war evangelicalism heightened the stakes. Evangelicals began to combine the Gospel with a Christian America which, while fraught with all kinds of systemic problems, revealed the grain of truth that man does not live by bread alone. In other words, evangelicals reminded the world that despite the rise of modern materialism, there is more to reality than what we see before us. Theirs, then, was a paradoxical age: a deeply spiritual evangelicalism, juxtaposed with a rigorously material secular philosophy.
Enter World Vision. In many ways, World Vision embodied this paradox on a philanthropic plane. Founded in 1950, the organization originated both to spread the Gospel and to feed the hungry. Like many mid-century evangelicals, it debated fiercely the “proper lines between spreading Christ and culture.” As World Vision moved from missions to relief and development, many evangelicals criticized the organization’s failure to focus on domestic or social issues.
World Vision, however, embraced this tension between mission work and social action, between evangelism and feeding the poor. Amazingly, this organization reminded the world that human need cannot be reduced to solving the problem ofhunger or poverty. World Vision’s unflinching religious commitment attested to immaterial reality and the needs of the soul, even as it met the physical needs of the sick, the poor, and the downtrodden.
At the same time, World Vision challenged some evangelicals’ insistence on the primacy of the spiritual, encouraging them to address the needs of both body and soul, and thereby teaching Christians the importance of fusing together social service and evangelism.
The organization embodied other tensions as well, transcending both the political right and left as well as avoiding inter-religious theological debates with its focus abroad. World Vision reminded evangelicals that Christianity is neither a religion of America nor a religion of the spirit alone.
Ultimately, the struggle of evangelicalism in the 20th century as seen through World Vision’s maturation is nothing more than the perennial Christian paradox of coming to terms with being human: creatures of body and soul, material and immaterial.
World Vision showed the world what religion and philanthropy can look like. The organization also showcased the admixture of religion and professionalism, exemplifying that Christian humanitarian agencies can be both professional and pious. A tremendous innovator of fundraising and marketing techniques, the organization adopted strong branding, new media, corporate management practices, and the best of maturing development theory. In its management, globalized World Vision quickly recognized the need for indigenous leadership and a federalist approach of localized control over centralization.
A pioneer in fundraising in particular, World Vision cultivated a broad base of individual donors which lent the organization resilience, stability, and wide appeal. Bypassing the local church, World Vision solicited its donors directly, bringing the wider world into the living rooms of evangelical Americans across the country. With its iconic child sponsorship program, World Vision tapped into the power of human emotion in fundraising, highlighting moving stories and sharing stirring images of people—rather than citing statistics about poverty and hunger. The organization understood that emotions, stories, and images connect donors to the mission and with those who are suffering: “helping people understand vast suffering through the story of a single child.”
King’s book on World Vision reveals the power of a religiously-inspired philanthropic organization to shape the outlook and conscience of its supporters. Philanthropic organizations wield tremendous influence to form and shape their donors while influencing culture more broadly.
The book also serves as a reminder not to reduce evangelicalism to the political right. Evangelicals have always cared deeply about social action and the “least of these” as demonstrated in their past work for abolition and now global humanitarianism. Evangelicals have profoundly shaped not only American culture and politics but also transformed philanthropy at home and abroad.
David P. King, God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. $39.95