Rueben A. Torrey (R.A. Torrey) is a name forgotten by many evangelicals today. But the influence of this late 19th to early 20th century evangelist can not be underestimated in American evangelical circles.
Torrey was one of the major theological minds behind The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, a series of book-length journals, that were distributed to thousands of English-speaking pastors and other church leaders, from 1910 to 1915. We get the terminology of “Fundamentalist” from the publication of these journals, though the term did not catch on in popular culture until several decades later.
What I did not learn until recently is that R. A. Torrey was also the center of a firestorm of controversy in conservative evangelical circles, as the world entered the 20th century. In Timothy E. W. Gloege’s informative history of the Moody Bible Institute, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, Gloege clued me into an episode in Torrey’s life that almost dissolved his reputation, in evangelical circles, but that also reveals a ongoing tension that exists to this day, in evangelicalism.
R. A. Torrey had a rather privileged upbringing, finishing Yale University in 1875, and then Yale Divinity School, followed by graduate work in Germany. It was in Germany that Torrey was exposed to the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, the foundational element of Protestant liberal theology, that eventually made its way to America, by the early 20th century.
As a Congregationalist pastor, Torrey was deeply conflicted over “Higher Criticism,” and he considered himself an “avowed liberal,” until he attended a meeting held by D. L. Moody, the most influential American evangelist in the late 19th century. Torrey was stunned by the spiritual power that Moody had, despite Moody’s sparse accomplishments, educationally.
Over the next several years, Torrey gave up his liberal theology for a more “plain” reading of the Bible, experiencing a sense of power in doing Christian work, that he did not have, during his more “liberal” years. He soon entered Moody’s orbit, with a focus on ministry to the working man. In 1889, Moody tapped Torrey to become the principal head of what would later become the Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago, Illinois.
It was during those years that Torrey developed a particular interpretation of the Bible, that designated the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” as a type of “second blessing” moment, a crisis experience that Torrey believed that a Christian should pursue. The idea of a “second blessing” moment, in terms of a crisis experience, following some time after the moment of conversion, had become a staple of theology in the Holiness circles of the late 19th century. Though recognizing that not all were called to what might be classified as “Christian work,” Torrey believed that this “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” gives the Christian the Holy Spirit power required to be an effective evangelist of the Gospel. Without such Spirit Baptism, the Christian labored in vain to share the Gospel with others, with relatively little success.
Torrey got his beliefs from treating passages like Luke 11:13, Acts 2:1,38 (Pentecost), Acts 11:15-16 and Acts 19:6, not merely as descriptive episodes of history, but rather as prescriptive teachings to be followed today. In doing so, Torrey rejected the more standard teaching of tying the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” together with conversion and regeneration, more commonly associated with a classically informed, Reformed approach to the Bible (see my blog series on Spirit Baptism, on Veracity).
But it was Torrey’s application of the theological principle of faith, standing behind this interpretation, that would eventually stir the controversy. Torrey became impressed with the British orphanage director, George Muller, who lived “by faith” by praying for his needs, and never soliciting others for financial and material support. However, Torrey’s experiment in living “by faith” did not end there.
Soon, Torrey went beyond that to favor an approach to “faith healing,” whereby he believed that sickness could be healed by prayer, and not by medical intervention. Torrey advised, somewhat cautiously to others at times, that a Christian should ignore doctors and rely on the prayer of faith, for God to miraculously intervene. This mistrust of doctors was not an altogether uncommon view, in the late 19th century, as modern medicine was still pretty much in its infancy, though new medical discoveries were just beginning to emerge.
For Torrey, God would only supply the needs of the believer, including medical ones, if that believer truly rested in prayer by faith. If the needs went unmet, then this was clearly an indication that there was some sort of spiritual error, committed by the Christian. Most commonly, this error was thought to be a lack of faith, on the part of the believer.
The real test of Torrey’s theology came in 1898, when Torrey’s 8-year old daughter, Elizabeth, became desperately ill due to diphtheria. Due to advances in treatment, there was a medically proven antitoxin that she could have taken, that would have surely helped cure her. However, Torrey insisted on trusting in God, and God alone, for a “faith healing.”
One evening, while Elizabeth’s sickness seemed somewhat under control, Torrey prayed and continued that evening to draft some summer landscaping plans. When Elizabeth’s condition rapidly declined, Torrey panicked and called for the doctor to bring in medicine. But by that time, it was too late.
Torrey was shaken by his daughter’s death. But his anguish was not because he wished that he had contacted the doctor sooner. Rather, he was in despair because he panicked, and called for the doctor out of his unbelief, and that it was this lack of trust in God, that led to his daughter’s death.
Shortly thereafter, Torrey’s 14-year old daughter, Blanche, became ill with a different sickness. But this time, Torrey completely relied on prayer. Blanche soon recovered, and Torrey’s confidence in “faith healing” was renewed. No medicine. No doctors.
But when D.L. Moody learned of these episodes in Torrey’s family life, the elder evangelist grew deeply concerned about Torrey’s radical views on “faith healing.” Moody shared Torrey’s theological position on the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit,” but he believed that Torrey’s views against using medicine and against heeding the counsel of medical doctors went too far. This is where the story of Henry Crowell enters the picture.
Henry Crowell was the founder of Quaker Oats, an incredibly successful brand of selling oats to consumers as packaged cereal. Prior to the market success of Quaker Oats, Americans were not accustomed to eating oats regularly, as they would typically buy their oats from a mill, scooping them out of a bag, barrel, or similar container. The quality was not always assured, and often oats were considered only suitable as feed for horses. But Crowell and his competitors sought to find ways whereby humans could enjoy oats for themselves. By pre-packaging oats in a round box, Henry Crowell was able to guarantee to his customers that the Quaker Oats brand was the safest and pure.
Henry Crowell’s success eventually led to a friendship with D. L. Moody. Unlike Moody, Crowell was not much of a public speaker, but he was a savvy and profitable businessman. Moody tapped Crowell to head the board of directors for Moody’s ministry, and remained chairman of the board of the Moody Bible Institute for 40 years.
Moody confided his concerns about Torrey with Crowell, prior to Moody’s death in 1899. Crowell agreed with Moody that the ministry should distance itself from such radical “faith healing” views. As with his attitude towards marketing a “guaranteed pure” brand of oats to a consuming public, Henry Crowell envisioned a Moody Bible Institute that offered a “guaranteed pure” presentation of evangelical Christian faith. Torrey’s anti-medicine views threatened to poison that purity.
It became increasingly clear that Torrey’s influence in Moody’s ministry was declining, so Torrey began a new period of service as an itinerant evangelist, culminating with him becoming the dean of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA), in 1912. During this period, Crowell was working to shift the direction of the Moody Bible Institute towards a more orderly and respectable evangelicalism, and away from Torrey’s confidence in “faith healing,” and other Pentecostal leanings.
Moving forward, Crowell urged his fellow evangelicals to go to the doctor when they got sick. Prayer for healing, had its place, for sure. But Crowell did not believe that such prayer was a legitimate substitute for the growing effectiveness of modern medicine.
It should not come as a surprise that when the Pentecostal movement sprang up in California, just a few years later, that the brand of theology at Moody Bible Institute cast a skeptical eye on the excesses of such less respectable theology, as found in Pentecostalism. In many ways, the greatest resistance to the “charismatic renewal” in evangelicalism was centered in the cessationist theology at Moody Bible, that taught that the gift of speaking-in-tongues ceased during the first century of the church. This theological judgment aligned with Moody Bible’s dispensationalist interpretation of Scripture, suggesting that such miraculous gifts were not part of the current dispensation of the 20th century church.
Interestingly, while Torrey still remained confident in his approach to “faith healing,” undergirded by his interpretation of the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” Torrey never fully endorsed the idea that the gift of tongues-speaking was the critical sign behind receiving the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” which was a distinctive teaching of those early Pentecostals. Pentecostals were able to make the claim that miraculous sign gifts, such as tongues-speaking, fit within their own dispensationalist paradigm, as being fully part of the current dispensation of the church (contra the Moody evangelicals). But the elevation of tongues-speaking, in particular, kept Pentecostalism from penetrating the evangelical mainstream.
R. A. Torrey went onto become a leading revivalist evangelist, in his own right, though his ministry was overshadowed by his mentor before him, D. L. Moody, and the energetic Billy Sunday, who continued the evangelistic legacy of Moody into the early quarter of the 20th century.
Torrey’s involvement in producing essays in The Fundamentals journals, of the early 1910s, sought to combat the increasing influence of German “Higher Criticism” and liberal theology, in otherwise evangelical Protestant churches. Torrey had been recruited to write for The Fundamentals project, guiding its progress as its last editor. Thanks to Torrey, his efforts helped to spur a new generation of Christians to resist the corrosive elements of theological “modernism.”
Yet Torrey would most probably bristle at the use of the term “fundamentalism,” with respect to how this concept was understood, by the late 1920s, and on into the 21st century. While Torrey was very much an advocate of halting the spread of theological liberalism, he was becaming resistant towards the tendency to view evangelical orthodoxy as being synonymous with dispensational premillennialism.
As a believer in the possibility of miracles today, Torrey was critical of those dispensationalists who downplayed the idea of God producing modern miracles, under the guise of saying that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were not part of today’s dispensation. Though still a committed premillennialist, Torrey would not insist on premillennialism as an essential dogma, largely because he showed no interest in the intricate end-time prophecy speculations, advocated by a number of those who claimed dispensational premillennialism as fundamental Christian doctrine.
Furthermore, Torrey was not overly concerned by the promotion of Darwinian evolution, in the churches. He would be rightly called a “progressive creationist,” seeing no difficulty in reconciling the Bible with the millions of years, required for evolution to work. But he did see a limit to evolution as an all-encompassing explanation for human origins. In his book-long defense of evangelical faith, What the Bible Teaches, Torrey explains that, “Whatever truth there may be in the doctrine of evolution as applied within limits to the animal world, it breaks down when applied to man.” The problem for Torrey, was not evolution, per se, but a philosophy of naturalism, that ruled out God’s intervention in history.
Here, the author of several essays in The Fundamentals stands in stark contrast with the purely dispensational premillennialism, and Young Earth Creationism, that would later become indelibly associated with so-called “fundamentalism.” Though surely a defender of conservative evangelical faith, later “fundamentalists” would surely brand Torrey as not “fundamentalist” enough, as they defined it. As Timothy Gloege concludes, in his essay “A Gilded Age Modernist: Reuben A. Torrey and the Roots of Contemporary Conservative Evangelicalism:”
- “[Torrey’s] theological development suggests that at least one strand of conservative evangelicalism was more a product of modernity than a reaction to it. His mature theology was conservative to be sure, but it was also distinctively modern.”
Torrey’s largely positive legacy remains complicated. Torrey’s foray into the world of “faith healing” has left a few Christians, like his friend and ministry associate, D. L. Moody, disturbed. Torrey’s interpretation of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit sparked a manner of speculation, that deeply impacted his own personal family. By not heeding the medical advice right away, was he truly acting in the best interest for his daughter, Elizabeth? Or was he misunderstanding what it meant to truly have faith?
Nevertheless, R. A. Torrey’s reticence to fully endorse Pentecostalism, despite the similarities in views of Spirit Baptism, may partly explain why Torrey’s reputation among respectable evangelicals was eventually rehabilitated. His contribution to The Fundamentals stands as a hallmark for a type of moderately conservative evangelicalism, that stood in contrast with a more militant approach, characterized by what “Fundamentalism” would later become.