Earlier this week I was reading Mark Tooley’s op-ed "10 influential Protestants for me," which I thoroughly enjoyed. It inspired me to think about how I would answer that question. I immediately started making notes. As I was doing so, a colleague suggested I should share my list with the readers of TheChristian Post. For better or worse, here is my list of the 10 influential Protestants who most shaped my worldview and ministry. I have placed an asterisk on the ones I was privileged to know personally.
1. Martin Luther (1483-1546). Any discussion of “Protestant” leaders must commence with Luther. He is the original Protestant. Once the printing press was invented, medieval Catholicism was doomed and the Reformation was inevitable. When the people could read the Scripture for themselves, they would demand that the church hierarchy reform itself of the extra and non-biblical additions that had been added over the centuries. The question, “Where is that in the Bible?” would reverberate again and again across the European continent.
But it was the good German theologian and Augustinian monk who lit the match when he nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” officially titled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the Wittenberg church door in 1517.
Several years ago my wife presented me with a portrait of Martin Luther accompanied by an authenticated signature of the great man himself. She wouldn’t tell me how much it cost, but I gather it was more than my very frugal wife usually spent on gifts. She said, “I hope I picked the right man. I had a choice of Luther, Calvin, or Spurgeon.”
I emphatically reassured her that she had indeed made the right choice. “Sweetheart,” I said, “without Martin there is no guarantee the others would have happened. He was the originator.”
Luther’s emphasis on the primacy of individual conscience as the guide to truth ultimately led to the modern world. And his leadership guaranteed that the Protestant Reformation would be focused on the supremacy of Holy Scripture over the customs and ceremonies of man.
As Mark Tooley pointed out, Luther’s “leaving the monastery for marriage further sacralized marriage” for Protestantism and his emphasis on “the dignity of all human work fueled modern capitalism.” Most importantly, his affirmation that salvation depended on Christ alone through faith alone and grace alone laid the essential foundation stone for the Reformation.
It is virtually impossible to imagine Protestantism without Brother Martin.
2. Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528). Hubmaier is known to history as perhaps the most educated, eloquent, and erudite leader of the 16th Century Anabaptist movement. Hubmaier earned his doctorate from the University of Ingolstadt and became vice-rector of the university in 1515.
In the first heady days of the Reformation, he rejected infant baptism in favor of baptism (probably by affusion) of people after they had made a profession of faith in Jesus as Lord. He embraced the concept of the visible, gathered church as a local body of confessing believers. He laid out his views in at least eight works that have survived attempts to burn them all as heresy. In Eighteen Articles (1524), Heretics and Those Who Burn Them (1524), The Christian Baptismof Believers (1525), Twelve Articles of Christian Belief (1526), and the Open Appeal of Balthasar of Friedberg to All Christian Believers (1525), Hubmaier proclaimed and explained his understanding of the Christian faith and “soul freedom” unfettered by government repression or coercion.
His much-renowned pulpit oratory led to many Anabaptist converts and he was arrested and imprisoned in Vienna by secular authorities. He was tortured on the rack and convicted for heresy. On March 10, 1528, he was taken to the public square and executed by being burned at the stake while his wife exhorted him to be steadfast. Three days later, his wife was drowned in the Danube River, having had a large stone tied around her neck.
Hubmaier’s example of religious conviction in the face of brutal governmental tyranny has always inspired me as it has millions of fellow believers down through the centuries.
3. John Calvin (1509-1564). John Calvin is the touchstone without whom Protestant theology cannot be meaningfully discussed. His development of Reformed Theology through his ministry and writings (especially The Institutes) has made him the defining anchor of Protestantism.
Calvin is quite simply the benchmark by which the rest of Protestant Theology is defined. Calvin is to Protestant Theology what Freud is to Psychology, Marx is to Economics, and Darwin is to Biology. Even if you fundamentally disagree with Calvin, Freud, Marx, or Darwin, the discussion begins with your views on them in contrast to yours, whatever the discipline.
For example, the condensed summary of Calvin’s theology is the famous T.U.L.I.P. (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints) has become the reference point for defining one’s own theological position in contrast or agreement. For instance, I can impart to someone a great deal about my own theology when I share with them that I am a 3¼ -point Calvinist. (I believe in ¾ of T, U, and I, all of P and none of L.)
It is a measure of the impact John Calvin and his Geneva have made on Protestantism that there is no other theologian with which you can so define yourself by comparison and contrast.
Before moving on to the remaining seven Protestant leaders who have most influenced me, it should be pointed out that these first three – Luther, Hubmaier, and Calvin – all three emerging from the first three decades of the Reformation, represent the three classic formulations of Protestantism.
Lutheranism represents the Reformation’s right-wing movements, much more comfortable with state partnership. Calvinism represents the middle way of the Reformation, especially when it comes to church-state partnerships (Presbyterianism). Hubmaier represents the Reformation’s left-wing, those moments the jettisoned government partnership and the parish concept of the church in favor of independent congregations of believers.
My seminary history professor gave us a shorthand way to understand the differences among these three expressions of Protestantism. While it is an oversimplification, it does provide clarification. It goes like this. In Lutheranism, you can do it as long as it does not directly contradict Scripture. In Calvinism, you can’t do it unless it is condoned explicitly by Scripture. In Protestantism’s Baptist left-wing, unless it fits the New Testament model for the church, it is to be rejected.
4. George Whitefield (1714-1770). George Whitefield, an Anglican minister and evangelist was a seminal figure in transatlantic Evangelicalism. He became close to John and Charles Wesley through the “Holy Club” at Oxford. He became the premier evangelist of his generation and was one of the key progenitors and catalysts of the First Great Awakening which transformed Colonial America.
So many of Whitefield’s converts during the Great Awakening became Baptists that Whitefield complained that “too many of my chickens have become ducks,” alluding to the Baptists’ affinity for water. Whitefield’s converts who became Baptists helped form the core of the new Separate Baptist denomination that arose out of the First Great Awakening and swept across America, turning the Baptists from a small, sectarian minority into the largest U.S. denomination, which it remained until the successive waves of Roman Catholic immigration from Ireland and then Southern Europe in the 19th century. The Separate Baptists’ impact was especially powerful in the Southern states.
5. John Leland (1754-1841). John Leland was a convert of the First Great Awakening in Massachusetts who felt God’s call to become an evangelist in the South. He became the leading Separate Baptist evangelist in the South, having preached 8,000 sermons by his 80th birthday and reportedly baptizing 20,000 converts personally. As the most prominent Baptist leader in the South, he negotiated the deal with James Madison that resulted in the First Amendment to the Constitution coming to fruition. At the time of ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Baptists in Virginia were not inclined to support ratification because they feared a national government church that would discriminate against them as the established church in Virginia continued to do. After a three-hour meeting in Orange County, Virginia, Leland and Madison cut a deal: Leland would encourage Baptists to vote for ratification and Madison would sponsor an amendment to the Constitution in the first Congress under the new government that would guarantee no national government church and no governmental interference with freedom of religion — The First Amendment.
Leland was staunchly anti-slavery and his tombstone in his native Cheshire, Massachusetts declares, “Here lies the body of John Leland, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”
6. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). Spurgeon was a British preacher, pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London for 38 years. A peerless preacher and expositor, multi-volume collections of his sermons have sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the years. He founded Spurgeon’s College, established an orphanage, and exhorted his congregants to assist the poor in Victorian London. He defended a high view of the authority of Scripture. It is reported that Queen Victoria waited impatiently for transcriptions of his sermons to be delivered to Windsor Castle by express messenger.
It is also reported that when Spurgeon, who was raised a Congregationalist, wrote his mother and informed her that he had become a Baptist, she responded, “Charles, I always prayed that you would become a Christian, I never prayed that you would become a Baptist.” Spurgeon replied, “Mother, isn’t that just like God. He always gives you more than that for which you ask.”
Virtually every Baptist pastor I know has several of Spurgeon’s volumes of sermons in his library.
*7. William Franklin Graham, Jr. (1918-2018). How do you do justice to Billy Graham’s influence on Christianity in the last half of the 20th and the first part of the 21st century? An ordained Southern Baptist minister and world-renowned evangelist, it is estimated that the North Carolina native preached live to audiences of at least 210 million people in more than 185 countries. Billy Graham became the most famous Protestant preacher since the apostles. Billy Graham was on Gallup’s list for most-admired American men and women a record 61 times.
Dr. Graham stayed true to his calling despite many very lucrative offers to run for public office or enter the entertainment industry. I cannot remember a time when I did not love and admire Dr. Graham for his faithful witness to the faith and his strong advocacy for integration and civil rights.
On a more personal note, my father was saved at a Billy Graham crusade at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, shortly before my sixth birthday in 1952. As a consequence of Billy Graham’s ministry, I grew up in a home with a Christian father, for which I am forever grateful.
8. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). A Baptist minister and incomparable Civil Rights Leader who led America through a very trying time as he challenged our country to live up to the promises of our founding documents. He inspired generations of his fellow countrymen to seek a society where everyone is judged by the strength of their character rather than the color of their skin.
I vividly remember hearing Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech televised from the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. I had just answered God’s call to ministry a month before and his example inspired me to aspire to Dr. King’s dream for America as an integral part of my ministry. We as Americans owe Dr. King an incalculable debt. Frankly, I do not know how we would have made it through that turbulent chapter in our nation’s history without a great deal more bloodshed and acrimony without Dr. King and his commitment to peaceful social change. I for one will never give up on Dr. King’s dream and his admonition, “Those you would change, you must first love.”
*9. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Schaeffer was an ordained Presbyterian pastor and world-renowned Christian apologist who articulated and popularized a Reformed social philosophy that informed, equipped, and energized my generation (the Baby Boomers) to engage culture from a Judeo-Christian perspective heavily informed by the Reformation’s understanding of that culture. Unlike many intellectuals, Schaeffer was not uncomfortable with generalizations and was not haunted by “exceptions to the rule.” Consequently, Schaeffer put down the microscope and picked up a telescope and explained the “big picture,” analyzing Western Civilization in terms of a struggle between Renaissance humanism and the Reformation emphasis on biblical truth.
Schaeffer was criticized for making mistakes and over-generalizing, but that is like criticizing a dentist for not being an ophthalmologist. He did more than anyone I know to promote a Christian worldview among Christian young people in the last third of the 20th century. He was an enormous help to me in providing a Christian perspective on the momentous changes roiling American culture in the last third of the 20th century.
*10. W.A. Criswell (1909-2002). Dr. Criswell served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, from 1944-1993 and served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1968-1970. He authored 54 books, including the widely distributed and highly-regarded Criswell Study Bible. And his volume “Why I Preach That the Bible is Literally True.” He founded Criswell College in 1970. Pastor Rick Warren (of The Purpose-Driven Life fame) described Dr. Criswell as “the greatest American pastor of the 20th Century.”
As Senior Pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a forerunner of the modern megachurch movement, Dr. Criswell did more than probably anyone else in his era to popularize verse-by-verse expository preaching among Southern Baptists and other Evangelical denominations.
He was the spiritual godfather of the 1970s “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I began to work for Dr. Criswell when I became a professor at Criswell College in 1975 at the age of 23. I served there for 13 years and I learned more from him than I could articulate in multiple volumes.)
HONORABLE MENTION: There were two men who did not make the list but who had a tremendous influence on my life and ministry. The first was *Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003), perhaps the greatest Evangelical Theologian of the 20th Century. He cemented his place in the first rank of theologians of any theological tradition with the publication of his majestic six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority.
He influenced me and my ministry greatly through his writings and his friendship for more than 40 years. He graciously agreed to be the keynote speaker at my inauguration as President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in 1988.
The second was *Paul Ramsey (1913-1988). Dr. Ramsey, a Methodist minister and ethicist, earned his doctorate in ethics under H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale. I was privileged to have Dr. Ramsey as a religious professor when I was an undergraduate at Princeton. He was a great teacher and he introduced me to the long and rich Catholic tradition on social justice. He greatly influenced me both as his student and later as a colleague and as a friend as he graciously agreed to mentor me long after my graduation.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.
Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.