The Birth (or Re-Emergence) of Evangelical Social Action
In 1947, budding theologian Carl F. H. Henry wrote a short book titled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In it he surveys the American fundamentalist movement’s engagement with the most important social issues of the day. Henry does not so much attack the fundamentalists for their social ethic as for their lack of one. Within their ranks, he finds little or no contribution to politics, economics, race and labor relations, intellectual life, or the arts. He paints a picture of fundamentalists with their backs turned to the world as they devotedly dissect the minutiae of obscure prophecy, taking pride in their total disconnect from a society destined to perdition.
Such a characterization might not seem an unusual interpretation of fundamentalism for a theologian trained at liberal institutions like Boston University and Harvard, as Henry was. But what makes Uneasy Conscience stand out is that Henry was himself a fundamentalist, intent on provoking his compatriots to apply the insights of conservative biblical theology to their contemporary context. Skeptical that fundamentalism’s old guard could rise from its slumber, he placed his hope in a younger generation who called themselves evangelicals—a group he hoped could reinvigorate the social consciousness of conservative American Protestantism.
Sixty years later, after the dawn of the twenty-first century, the largest privately funded global relief and development organization in the world is evangelical, and hundreds of smaller organizations funnel more than $2 billion overseas to meet the needs of the poor. For more than a decade one of the most famous evangelical megachurch pastors in America has been attempting the complete socioeconomic restructuring of a small African nation.
Evangelicals are zealously campaigning against child slavery and sex trafficking. Bringing their voices to formerly complacent churches and also to the broader public through social media and traditional television and newspaper outlets. Furthermore, thousands of neighborhood renewal ministries have enlisted millions of American evangelicals in Christian community development of various kinds. In just two generations, evangelicals have “moved from almost complete silence on the subject of justice to a remarkable verbosity.”
The Economics of Child-Sponsorship
While I was at a concert in college, I responded to a flyer requesting volunteers to sponsor a child overseas. For years I read the letters from this little girl in El Salvador. Ruth seemed happy to be sponsored, and I was happy to sponsor her. But there was always a nagging voice in the back of my mind that asked, “Does this stuff really work?” One day, after reflecting again on this question, I decided to find out. One of the advantages of working as a development economist is that sometimes my job makes me feel a little bit like Indiana Jones—we’re both professors, and we both get to travel around the world digging into mysteries.
But instead of looking for ancient treasure or cursed statues, I have the privilege of getting into the trenches and exploring whether international poverty programs actually work. Starting in 2008, and with the support of some immensely helpful graduate students and coauthors, I began a long-term research project to find out if international child-sponsorship programs actually help sponsored kids. We looked for partner organizations to carry out the research, and it turned out Compassion International was the only organization willing to submit to an independent review of their program. That was handy, because Compassion was the program I worked through to sponsor Ruth in El Salvador.
Children sponsored by Compassion receive tuition benefits for schooling, nutritious meals during the week, health insurance, and about eight to ten hours a week in an afterschool program that emphasizes both tutoring and Christian spiritual formation. In discussing the impact evaluation with the organization’s monitoring and evaluation director, we stumbled upon a vein of gold for a researcher: as Compassion underwent a major worldwide expansion during the 1980s, they used an arbitrary age-eligibility rule to limit sponsorship eligibility to children twelve and younger.
This arbitrary rule allowed us to compare the life outcomes of children in the same family, now all grown up, who were on opposite sides of the age rule when the program rolled into their village. It gave us a valid control group. We began the study in Uganda, looking at the adult life outcomes in education and employment from those who had been sponsored years before as children. When we ran the econometrics on the first set of data, my jaw nearly dropped off the bottom of my face.
The impacts were enormous on educational completion—far larger than in a conditional cash transfer program in Mexico that had been celebrated for years. I flew back to the Compassion headquarters in Colorado and met then-president Wess Stafford, who greeted me with a warm handshake. “Your program works,” I said. “I know,” he smiled. Six countries later, the study was published in a top economics journal edited at the University of Chicago, and it received attention from the BBC, USA Today, and news media across the country. Now people know—the program works.
A Little Girl and The Founding of World Vision
In 1947 huge crowds came to hear a thirty-two-year-old Californian preach at mass evangelistic rallies throughout China. Although Bob Pierce had no knowledge of Chinese language or culture, his message of American old-time religion was warmly received, reportedly reaching tens of thousands and even converting twenty members of General Chiang Kai-shek’s personal bodyguard. But despite these impressive results, Pierce’s trip to Asia would be most remembered for his brief encounter with a single little girl.
In Xiamen, Dutch Reformed missionary Tena Hoelkeboer invited Pierce to preach to four hundred girls at her school. When one of her students, White Jade, informed her father that she had converted to Christianity, he beat her and threw her out of the house. Hoelkeboer was distressed at the prospect of taking on yet another orphan and demanded of Pierce, “What are you going to do about it?”
Deeply moved, Pierce emptied his wallet of the five dollars it contained and promised to send the same amount every month. When he returned to the United States to report on his evangelistic exploits, Pierce told the story of White Jade in churches across the United States. In 1950 he founded World Vision in order to sponsor more needy Asian children like her. By the turn of the century, World Vision had become the largest privately funded relief and development NGO (nongovernmental organization) in the world, and White Jade’s story continued to be used both in advertising and in recounting World Vision’s history.
Even at the time of this writing, White Jade remains central in defining World Vision’s identity and approach for its employees and donors. Because of its deep rhetorical resonance and staying power, Pierce’s encounter with White Jade and Hoelkeboer might possibly be the single point at which North American Evangelical Christians began to reprioritize compassion for the poor.
An Odd Soccer Game & the Founding of Compassion International
Compassion International’s story strikingly parallels that of World Vision. Compassion traces its roots to 1952 when a Swedish American traveling evangelist named Everett Swanson found his way to Korea, where, according to his figures, thirty thousand South Korean troops responded to his message of salvation. On one early morning walk Swanson noticed sanitation workers gently kicking small piles of rags that lay here and there on the sidewalk. To his horror, Swanson soon realized that the piles of rags were homeless children, and the sanitation workers were gathering the bodies of those who had died overnight.
When a missionary colleague asked him, “What do you intend to do about it?” Swanson took the challenge as a divine calling. Two years later Swanson initiated a sponsorship program that enabled Americans to provide shelter, care, and Bible lessons to Korean orphans. As he promoted the program during his evangelistic travels, the number of orphan sponsors grew steadily.
The tally jumped more quickly when, in 1959, Swanson began to publicize his work in national magazines like Reader’s Digest, by the following year ten thousand orphans had been sponsored. In 1960 Swanson also undertook “Operation Long Underwear,” which provided six thousand children with warm winter clothes. Inspired by Matthew 15:32, the organization was renamed Compassion, Inc. in 1963.
Two years later, Swanson passed away. The fact that Swanson, a successful evangelist but not a nationally recognized leader, could garner such a significant response by himself was indicative of stateside Evangelical willingness to become involved with ministries of compassion if given the opportunity.