Like all reasonable people everywhere, I always expected to be a super-hero when I grew up. I figured it was just a matter of time before my latent superpowers manifested themselves. But my sixteenth birthday came and went, no superpowers. My eighteenth birthday came and went, no superpowers. By that time, I would have settled for being bitten by a radioactive spider or bombarded by cosmic rays, but what I really wanted was to discover that I had superheroes in my family lineage. I always hoped I’d find Grandpa’s cape in the attic, or maybe the spaceship in which I had crashed to earth from a distant planet with a red sun. I love my parents, but I secretly longed to learn that my real father was named Jor-El or Captain Invincible, rather than Fred. There’s nothing that builds up your confidence quite like being descended from a super-hero, whether your own superpowers have manifested themselves or not.
Today’s evangelicals have spiritual ancestors of super-heroic stature. No matter where your starting point is, reach back a couple of generations and you’ll find these folks. At Biola University, now in our hundredth year of existence, we have a history well stocked with plenty of them. But one stands out: Reuben Archer Torrey. Call him Super-Torrey if you must, or Torrey-Man or Captain Torrey, but it’s high time to remember How He Worked for Christ.
R. A. Torrey (1856-1928) was the first dean of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, serving at the school from 1912-1924. But by the time he came to Biola, he was already world-famous. Indeed, Biola’s other founders called him to join them precisely because they wanted him to do that famous Torrey thing at their school. “That famous Torrey thing” was a combination of academic prestige, solid teaching, and evangelistic fervor. Where did R.A. Torrey gather and combine these elements? Here is his career in five easy pieces:
I. Education & Formation
Torrey was from a wealthy family, and graduated from a private high school in New York at age 14. He had to wait another year to be eligible for college, and then he enrolled at Yale. As an adult, Torrey would look back on his time in college as mostly mis-spent on partying and triviality: card-playing, dancing, drinking to excess. His family was Christian, and Torrey’s mother wanted him to be a minister, but Torrey had his mind on becoming a lawyer. In high school, Torrey contemplated what it would mean to become a professing Christian and a member of the church. He believed everything a broad-minded citizen of the nineteenth century needed to believe about Christian doctrine, with only a handful of skeptical reservations about some of the harder doctrines. He was willing to identify himself publicly with the church. But as he read the church membership requirements closely, he recognized that to be Christian meant to surrender your will and your future plans to the lordship of Jesus Christ. This was something he was not willing to do. After all, he wanted to be a lawyer, but Christ might want him to do something else. Perhaps he would even have to become a preacher, and, as he noted in a later autobiographical sketch, “then life would not be worth living.” Unwilling to surrender his sovereignty and self-possession, Torrey set aside the question of becoming a member of the Christian church.
But Torrey had faced the claims of Christ, and rejecting them took a toll on him. He apparently was well aware that he had confronted someone who was rightfully his Lord, and had opted to avoid settling his accounts with th at person. In his junior year at Yale, Torrey was wracked with guilt over his rejection of Christ’s rightful claims. One night it all pressed in on him at once, and he actually attempted suicide. Unable to find the razor with which he planned to kill himself, he instead fell to his knees and surrendered to Christ. This act of absolute surrender was not just a momentary crisis in a young college student’s life. In fact, it took a few years for Torrey to think his way out of the intellectual hole he had dug himself into in the years he had been on the run spiritually. His doctrinal views continued to be liberal on many fronts: he was soft on the full deity of Christ, and rejected eternal punishment and the inerrancy of Scripture for several more years. But what marked his life from that point on was the absolute surrender to Jesus. He would emphasize it later in his personal evangelism strategy, which sometimes included accusing the self-sufficient and self-righteous of having committed “treason against the high king of heaven.” He would also underline it in his teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which focused on surrendering your will to God and consecrating your life to service. And writing in the 1920s, he would name as the number one reason “Why God Used D. L. Moody” that his mentor Moody was “a fully surrendered man.” Whatever developments lay ahead for Torrey, the shape of his Christian life was set on that night of which he said: “I dropped on my knees beside the open drawer and promised God that if He would take the awful burden off my heart I would preach the Gospel.”
Torrey went on to Yale Divinity School, where he did well academically and was licensed for ministry in the Congregational church. Both of Torrey’s parents died when he was 21 years old, just as he was launching into his career as a pastor in Ohio and then in Minneapolis. In one of his early pastorates, Torrey met and married Clara Belle Smith. With his wife and their infant daughter Edith, Torrey resigned his pastorate in order to spend a year doing graduate studies in Germany. Torrey chose very conservative German theological schools to study at (Leipzig and Erlangen), and worked hard in a range of subjects from Old Testament through apologetics and doctrine. Though he kept a diary during this time (which is archived at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center), he did not record the many decisions he was making and positions he was taking during this crucial year of his developments. What we know is that when he returned from Germany, he no longer had any hint of indecisiveness about investing his life in the work of a pastor.
II. Testing in Early Ministry
Returning to America, Torrey threw himself into his ministry in the new Open Door Church in Minneapolis, and later at The People’s Church. For the next several years, Torrey made a number of moves which show how serious, even radical, his vision of the urban pastorate of the late nineteenth century was. He and his family embraced for some time a life of total dependence on God for financial support, following the model of George Muller’s “Life of Faith”according to which he did not make his needs known to anyone but God. He became convinced that sprinkling was an unbiblical mode of receiving water baptism, and he and Clara were baptized by immersion. He experienced divine physical healing personally, and prayed for a number of people who were also healed by God. He became increasingly committed to preaching social reform, especially temperance. Torrey had long been persuaded that revival was the normal state of church life, that every church member should be engaged in personal work for the salvation of those around them, and that denominational differences should be strictly subordinated to a unified effort of all Christian churches in any given city to glorify God and help the community thrive. In his pastorates after his return from Germany, Torrey worked at these goals like a man with a mission —or half a dozen.
III. Moody’s General
Torrey’s omnicompetence came to the notice of Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), who was in need of somebody with the academic credentials to run his new Bible Institute. Torrey had first encountered Moody during his time at Yale Divinity School, and had instantly recognized this uneducated former shoe salesman as a man who knew what mattered. When Moody called, Torrey answered immediately, and radically subordinated his own ministry to the needs of Dwight Moody for as long as Moody needed him. Torrey drafted a curriculum for the Bible Institute and oversaw the massive evangelistic work connected with the World’s Fair, while pastoring and chairing a number of non-denominational organizations. In his work as Moody’s right hand man, Torrey devised new ways of training large numbers of laypeople in Bible knowledge and personal evangelism.
These are the years in which Torrey honed his trademark personal evangelism methods. Torrey’s approach is certainly direct, even confrontational. Torrey had pondered the deep mysteries of Christianity, grappled with the whole Bible, led many people to Christ, and seen the work of God in the lives of numerous church members. Cognizant of all these things, Torrey believed that a Christian should engage directly with people he meets, quickly discern their spiritual needs, and bring the ideas and the very words of Scripture to their attention in a definite way. In the many training books he wrote about how to evangelize, Torrey was always careful to emphasize the need for guidance from the Holy Spirit in discerning the needs of people you meet. But what most strikes the reader who picks up these books today is the prompt, definite, and confident way Torrey could perceive a person’s spiritual condition. All the relevant words of Scripture, all the relevant arguments, all the helpful appeals, would snap into place as soon as Torrey had made a judgment about who he was dealing with.
When Dwight Moody died in 1899, many Christian leaders felt that a great age of the church had passed away with him. R. A. Torrey, who had as good a claim to being Moody’s second-in-command as anybody, had a different view of the matter. Torrey began preaching that the death of Moody was not a sign that great things were past, but that greater things were coming. Just as the death of Moses was a call for the generation of Joshua to move on to the land of promise, Torrey viewed the death of Moody as a call for the next generation to seek even greater things from God. Along with preaching this message, Torrey began organizing prayer groups to ask God to awaken the church and save the lost.
IV. World-Wide Revivalist
Torrey, as it turned out, saw something in God’s purposes that others were missing. As the prayer groups grew, Torrey received a call to go preach in Australia. Taking with him song-leader Charles Alexander, Torrey began, at age 45, an evangelistic journey that would take him around the world in the next few years. The Torrey-Alexander revival started out in Hawaii and Japan, but when Torrey hit Australia, his preaching began to attract enormous crowds. Australia, New Zealand, India, London, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and numerous places in Europe were all electrified by the revival. Their meetings were the biggest news item in most of the cities they came to, and it is worth remembering that this Torrey-Alexander juggernaut was in motion during the years immediately before the (not directly related) Welsh Revival of 1904, the Azusa revival of 1906, and the Pyongyang revival of 1907.
What was so powerful about the Torrey-Alexander presentations? One of the keys was that Torrey presented himself as intellectually credible and serious, with a message that spoke directly to the mind of his listeners as well as their hearts. R. A. Torrey was well educated and respectably dressed; one friend noted that he often wore a tall had, but always spoke as if he were wearing a tall hat. The typical R. A. Torrey sermon was a list of reasons or arguments, briskly stated and vigorously argued, driving toward one conclusion. One of the best examples is his sermon, “How God has Blockaded the Road to Hell,” reprinted in his Revival Addresses. Torrey begins with direct address to his hearers:
If any man or woman in this audience is lost, it won’t be God’s fault. God does not wish you to be lost. God longs to have you saved. …God has filled the path of sin —the road that leads to hell—with obstacles. He has made it hard and bitter. … God has filled it full of obstacles, and you cannot go on in it without surmounting one obstacle after another. I am to talk to you tonight about some of the obstacles that God has put in the path of sin and ruin.
The rest of the sermon is a list of ways in which God has blockaded the road to sin and hell:
Number 1. Godly Parents. They are a good influence on you, but you ignore them and seek your own way.
Number 2. Christian influence in your country. It surrounds you on all sides, but you persist in sin.
Number 3. This sermon. It is being spoken in your presence and applied to your conscience. Do not seek to climb over this barricade.
Number 4. The Bible. You know what it says.
Torrey would hammer away at his audience in this manner for some time, and then hand things off to his song-leader, Charles Alexander. Alexander would lead congregational singing, and the typical Alexander hymn was a rather treacly Victorian song about heaven, Mother and the old time religion. A song that even Alexander was hesitant to use was “Tell Mother I’ll Be There.” But once he did sing it, the audience responded so powerfully that he made it a normal part of the repertoire. Here are some key lyrics:
When I was but a little child, how well I recollect
How I would grieve my mother with my folly and neglect;
And now that she has gone to Heav’n I miss her tender care:
O Savior, tell my mother I’ll be there!
Tell mother I’ll be there, in answer to her prayer;
This message, blessed Savior, to her bear!
Tell mother I’ll be there, Heav’n’s joys with her to share;
Yes, tell my darling mother I’ll be there.
It is hard for us to understand, in the twenty-first century, why these songs were so popular at that time, and especially why they were so powerful for religion. In the context of an R. A. Torrey sermon, however, an Alexander song was the occasion of a great many people responding whole-heartedly to the call of the gospel. Torrey would hammer away with logic and argument, appealing to the mind, and then Alexander would go straight for the heart. The sermon-and-song combination could be viewed cynically as an alternation of bullying and manipulating. But the more than hundred thousand souls who came to Christ through this revival understood it otherwise. They heard in the Torrey-Alexander campaign the call of a Savior who spoke through these men to their minds and their hearts alike, calling them back to a faith that was just beginning to fade from their lives but was lurking powerfully in their cultural heritage. In many cities, Torrey and Alexander displayed a huge banner that said simply GET RIGHT WITH GOD. This four-word exhortation was enough for their audiences: they knew that their modern, secularizing lives were breaking the hearts of their saintly mothers, they knew where the churches were and what they would hear there, and they knew deep down that their great need was to GET RIGHT WITH GOD. The Torrey-Alexander campaign was just the occasion for it, and what an occasion it was.
The great years of world-wide revival swept through Torrey’s life like a storm. After returning to the United States, Torrey founded a retreat center, conducted a number of American revivals, and took a few more trips abroad to preach. But the great movement was over, and after a few years Torrey settled down to the normal business of his life as a preacher, teacher, and writer. One thing he had learned from the great revival, however, was that preaching the simple gospel message was enough. As the increasingly faddish twentieth century rolled along, Torrey would consistently refuse to indulge in spectacle or entertainment just to draw a crowd. He resisted the temptation to recapture the large numbers of his golden days by any means necessary. Instead, he drew this lesson:
The Real Gospel, when preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, produces the same effects in individual lives to-day, and in the transformation of families and communities, that it has produced throughout all the centuries since our Lord Jesus Christ died on the Cross of Calvary and rose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father and poured out His Holy Spirit upon His people. Practical results prove that that Gospel does not even need to be restated, though of course it is desirable to adapt the illustrations and method of argument to the thinking of our own day.
“Practical results prove:” Torrey had seen it happen around the world, and he knew his task was to keep at preaching the real gospel as unadorned as possible. “Nineteen centuries of Christian history prove the drawing power of Jesus when He is properly presented to men. I have seen some wonderful verification of the assertion of our text as to the marvelous drawing power of the uplifted Christ.” He would provide numbers and credentials when necessary:
In London, for two continuous months, six afternoons and evenings each week, I saw the great Royal Albert Hall filled and even jammed, and sometimes as many turned away as got in, though it would seat 10,000 people by actual count and stand 2,000 more in the dome. On the opening night of these meetings a leading reporter of the city of London came to me before the service began and said, “You have taken this building for two consecutive months?” “Yes.” “And you expect to fill it every day?” “Yes.” “Why,” he said, “no one has ever attempted to hold two weeks’ consecutive meetings here of any kind. Gladstone himself could not fill it for two weeks. And you really expect to fill it for two months?” I replied, “Come and see.” He came and he saw.
V. Fundamentalist Patriarch
Giving R. A. Torrey the title “Fundamentalist Patriarch” is not a strategy for ensuring his return to popularity eighty years after his death. But softening it to “Founding Father of Conservative Evangelicalism” wouldn’t do justice to his self-understanding. George Marsden has rightly called Torrey “one of the principal architects of fundamentalist thought.” Of course the term “fundamentalism” has taken on a new meaning over the course of the twentieth century: not only does it apply to an especially militant and separatist variety of evangelicalism after the late 1920s, but it has since the 1980s been extended to terroristic movements in other religions. We would do well to remember the nineteenth century origins of those institutions that originally brought forth the conservative evangelical movement for reaffirming fundamentals. Torrey was, after all, a nineteenth century man. He lived two and a half decades into the twentieth, but he was formed long before that. Even to see him in a photo from 1924, standing in Los Angeles in his double-breasted suit, is to catch sight of a New England victorian squinting under palm trees in the wrong century. Taking a view from the nineteenth century, Torrey was a fundamentalist; in fact he and his co-laborers invented fundamentalism as a response to the creeping liberalism of the mainline denominations in the early twentieth century. They formed the interdenominational anti-modernist coalition that contributed to The Fundamentals, a series of twelve small books widely distributed in the second decade of the twentieth century. R. A. Torrey was the final editor of that series, which was financed by oil magnate Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton.
Lyman Stewart had begun investing heavily in founding a Bible Institute in Los Angeles. Collaborating with his friend T. C. Horton, Stewart planned to replicate what Moody Bible Institute was accomplishing in Chicago with a similar school in the rapidly-growing Los Angeles. What better way to replicate Moody’s success than to hire the man who had been deputized by Moody himself to run the flagship Bible Institute? So Stewart and Horton invited R. A. Torrey to come to BIOLA in 1912, and he answered the call, spending twelve years as the figurehead and dominant intellectual force on campus. One of the conditions of his hire was that BIOLA would enable him to start a non-denominational congregation on the Institute’s premises, and this came into being as the Church of the Open Door, with Torrey as pastor. In 1924, Torrey left Biola to devote time to other ministry opportunities in what would turn out to be the last four years of his life. He died in 1928 and was buried on the grounds of the Montrose retreat center which he founded in Pennsylvania.
R. A. Torrey had been the perfect dean for BIOLA. He combined in one person the academic accomplishment necessary for the head of an educational institution, with the passion for evangelism and Christian work that kept this unique place from being just another college or seminary. Any student of BIOLA could point to their dean and say that he embodied the very virtues they came to the school to cultivate. When Torrey departed, Horton and the other leaders (Stewart had already died in 1923) faced the intractable problem of who could replace him. As it turned out, nobody could. They tried unsuccessfully a few times, and ultimately decided that the many things Torrey achieved and symbolized for the school would in the future have to be split among several leaders.
We could rend our garments and lament this sorry, decadent, post-Torrey era in which it is so hard to find an intellectual soul-winner or an evangelistic scholar. We could say, as people said after the death of Dwight Moody, that the golden days are behind us and all that’s left is maintenance and clean-up operations. But several other possibilities are also open to us as descendants of R. A. Torrey. We could pray that better things are still to come. We could also recognize that, having circled the globe in an epochal revival ministry, R. A. Torrey chose to spend his final season of productive labor investing in training ordinary, non-professional Christians in Bible knowledge and personal evangelism. The right way to carry on the legacy of R. A. Torrey is not to wait for the next big stadium evangelist, but to invest in churches, schools, and ministries that know how to train laypeople in doing the work of ministry.
R. A. Torrey may be the superhero in our lineage, and we may have found his cape in our institutional evangelical attic. But his plan was to train a much larger team of people to carry on the work that was too great for any one person. His vision was for a whole legion of super heroes — dorms full of super friends — Professor Torrey’s school for gifted youngsters. The work of R. A. Torrey goes on in places where an army of godly laypeople are being equipped for the work of ministry, united in gratitude, bonded in love, trusting God, obeying Christ, happy in Jesus —corny and nineteenth-century as it may sound— and fully surrendered to the Holy Spirit.
(This article is based on a sermon delivered in Biola University’s chapel on October 15, 2007, just before the opening of the annual Torrey Memorial Bible Conference.)