The Ten Most Influential Christians of the Twentieth Century: From the Editor — The Long and the Short of Lists

THE JOURNALIST IN ME is pretty happy with this issue’s title, “The 10 Most Influential Christians of the Twentieth Century.” It’s got bite, appeal, and it begs for an argument. And I had a lot of fun pulling the list together: after reading the results of our poll (see “What Do You Think?") and sifting that through my experience and reading, this is what came out. 

On the other hand, the historian in me is nagged by the qualifications that whisper their disapproval.

First, among the readers and scholars we polled last year, one exclaimed: “I am amazed by the list of candidates . . . as if the entire church consisted of Westerners!” Valid criticism.

Then again, had we put, let’s say, Africans John Chilembwe and Simeoni Nsibambi on this list, would they have garnered many votes? I doubt it. Nearly all Christian History readers and scholars (and the editor) are Westerners; we know the West; we've been affected by the West. We could hardly vote any other way. Besides, influential Westerners in the Northern Hemisphere have unparalleled access to mass media, and they have, for better or worse, received disproportionate exposure and so have had disproportionate influence. That’s the way the world is at this point in history.

Second, one fellow editor in the Christianity Today International, building, was especially incensed: "How could you leave out so many women, like Henrietta Mears, who discipled men like Senate chaplain Richard Halverson and Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright?” Point well taken. Yet other than leaving off Mears, I have no regrets in this respect. The historical fact is that for the bulk of the twentieth century, Christian women have been excluded from public influence. I'm sure my editorial heir in the year 2100 will have a lot more female names on the ballot listing the most influential Christians of the twenty-first century.

Finally, as reader Jeremy Stefano put it, "How can someone’s influence in an organism as diverse and scattered as the church be gauged?” In his e-mail, he argued that while the media catapulted Mother Teresa to fame, it ignored the work of people like scholar Bruce Metzger—who headed the committees that translated the RSV and NRSV, Bible versions read by millions, and whose Greek New Testament has become dog-eared with use by seminarians and pastors for decades. Stefano concludes, “Influence in the cause of the Kingdom of God cannot be gauged in this life.”

This is why, I'm sure, more than one reader ignored our instructions (to note only those who have had a public influence) and put down as most influential a father, mother, or pastor. For good reason. Those most close to us will remain the most vital influences.

Still, I find this most-influential list most inspiring. Such an exercise is a way to look back on the century and, as the psalmist said, “remember the wonderful works [God] has done, his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered” (105:5). Reader Larry Bjorklund put it more poignantly: “The list of names you provided . . . is wonderful, and as I read through it, my mind went back to so many of them who have influenced my life in so many ways. I wish I could tell each of them how greatly their lives challenged me in my walk in Christ.”


By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #65 in 2000]

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