Most Americans have never heard of Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. He was a roundish man who wasn't a great orator and never hosted a radio or television show. He practiced his conservative politics mostly behind the scenes.
But during his 52-year career, Bright--who died Saturday at age 81--was as influential as the Rev. Billy Graham and Focus on the Family's James Dobson.
As a young man, Bright said he got an "impression" from God that his mission was to reach college students. The idea was to persuade the "best and brightest"-the next generation of leaders-to become evangelicals. Bright drew up a pamphlet called "The Four Spiritual Laws." The tract included four statements, essentially a formula for pitching the gospel. The first and best-known is "God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life."
It is this strategy that was Bright's main contribution to evangelical Christianity and the wider culture. He was one of the first Christian entrepreneurs to mix marketing and religion; his formula resulted in the conversion of thousands.
"He's been tremendously influential, particularly in encouraging people to share their faith and in teaching ordinary people to do that, not just evangelists," said Kathryn Long, a church history professor at Wheaton College and former Campus Crusade staffer.
Probably his most enduring legacy is the Jesus film, which he produced in 1979 as an evangelizing tool for missionaries with the help of his friend, oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, who put up $4.5 million. Today, the film has been translated into 816 languages and has been seen by an estimated 5.6 billion people.
Hunt said in a 1998 interview that he immediately liked Bright's idea for Campus Crusade when they met in the early 1960s. "That's really where the problems were coming from, from leftists on the campus. This would be a means of balancing that situation."
The two stayed in touch.
"My theology and his theology are quite similar," Hunt said. "I'm not really a stickler for details as long as people believe in Christ and are honest about it."
Though he professed no involvement in politics, Bright seemed to relish his links with Republican leaders and liked to share memories of sitting between powerful senators at the 1980 Reagan inaugural. In the 1970s, he was embroiled in some public political skirmishes. Jim Wallis, the prominent liberal evangelical who is founder of Sojourners, remembered unfurling anti-Vietnam War banners in the middle of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas during Explo 72 and chanting "stop the war" as Bright was conducting a military celebration.
Later, Wallis published an article accusing Bright of using his ministry to promote right-wing politics. The article charged Campus Crusade with using its hundreds of Bible study groups as a political staging ground. It also charged Bright with political networking at Campus Crusade's Christian Embassy in Washington. The embassy offers counseling and prayer services to government officials.
Billy Graham publicly opposed the embassy, saying he was against organizing Christians into a political bloc. A flurry of attention followed, with national news organizations sounding the alarm about "politico-religious groups."
Bright vigorously denied a political scheme. "There was a left-wing element in our government, and the media tried to paint anything I did as being right-wing, bigoted, and anti-intellectual," he said in 1998.
"I think Bill got taken in by hard-right political people," Wallis said. "That was the first effort to forge the religious right in America."
But the Brights were proud that their idea to create a grass-roots evangelical movement was essentially a blueprint for the Christian Coalition, which formed a decade later.
In 1996, Wallis and Bright reconciled, and now speak warmly of each other.
One Sunday, he drove past First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood. "It was as though an unseen hand reached out and parked the car for me and led me in," Bright said.
During World War II, he moved to Los Angeles to start a gourmet food business. He was, he said, a "happy pagan" who acted in amateur radio shows, rode horses, and partied at the Cocoanut Grove.
Confronted with the Christian gospel, he got on his knees and accepted Jesus.
Bright enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1946; a year later he moved back to California and enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary. During this time, he wrote letters to his sweetheart in Oklahoma, Vonette Zachary, about his beliefs.
"I thought he was becoming a fanatic," Vonette Zachary Bright said. Eventually, however, he persuaded her to bring Christ into her life.
The Brights married in 1948. Two years later they drew up a contract with God, renouncing materialism and taking on a status as "slaves" to Jesus. "When it became so evident this is what God wanted us to do, I have to say I felt panicky," Mrs. Bright said.
In 1951, Bright dropped out of Fuller and started Campus Crusade at the University of California at Los Angeles. By the end of the first year, he had 250 converts.
Over the years, about 55 ministries have been added-for athletes, prisoners, executives, the military, and others. The ministry moved its headquarters to Orlando in 1991 after nearly 30 years in Southern California.
In 1996 Bright won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion-the same prize won by Mother Teresa. He relinquished the money to further one of the last causes of his life: promoting fasting and prayer among evangelicals as a sacrifice that might help turn the United States into a Christian nation.
And although Bright counted among his friends millionaires such as Nelson Bunker Hunt and Interstate Batteries owner Norm Miller, but he and his wife drew purposely small salaries---well under $100,000 annually, excluding housing. Bright accepted no speaking fees; the couple didn't even own a car.
At that time, Bright wanted to talk about his latest cause: fasting, an ancient discipline rarely practiced by Protestants. He was in the midst of one of his 40-day juice fasts, against the advice of doctors and his wife. "I had to obey God, and I said if I die, I die," he explained that day in the airport.
But fasting energized him. "I sense the presence of God in a way I never had before," he said.
At Bright's urging that year, Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson began hosting prayer and fasting events that drew millions of evangelicals nationwide. Bright believed that fasting and prayer was a discipline that proves to God Christians are repentant-and that they are ready for a spiritual revival.
Hope for "revival" has always been popular among evangelicals, and it has been fueled lately by what they see as America's dark moral climate. In his 1998 book, Red Sky in the Morning, he and co-author John Damoose blamed America's problems--such as crime, materialism, and AIDS-on the New Deal, feminism, the Supreme Court, the theory of evolution, birth control pills, abortion, get-rich-quick schemes, and homosexuals.
"I feel this is a matter of life and death for our country," he told Robertson on the 700 Club that year.
Toward the end of his life, Bright began to evolve in his approach, which for many years was considered-even by his friends-as heavily authoritarian. Former Campus Crusade leaders said he was no longer as rigid in his theology and leadership. (He was, however, just as socially conservative.) In his later years, he even embraced charismatics.
A few years ago, the Rev. Peter Gillquist, a onetime Campus Crusade leader who is now a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, visited Bright with two other former Campus Crusade leaders. It had been more than 20 years since a slew of such leaders had left in search of what they considered the deeper, fuller Orthodox theology.
Gillquist said their exodus was painful, and he was still critical of Bright. But as they sat around the table, each man thanked their old mentor.
"I learned from you not to be ashamed of the gospel and not to be afraid of speaking out about it-and for that," Gillquist said he told Bright, "I owe you a debt of gratitude."