10 Influencers on Christianity Who Died in the Past Decade

Visitors pay their respects as the casket of Billy Graham lies in honor at the the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington on Feb. 28, 2018. It’s a rare honor for a private citizen to lie in honor at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Over the last decade, prominent people — household names and lesser-known leaders on social and moral issues — died after playing an outsized role in the realm of religion.

Here’s a sampling of some of the key figures who have left their legacies for the next generations.

Billy Graham

Billy Graham speaks during the closing meeting of the Greater London Crusade at Wembley Stadium on May 22, 1954. RNS file photo

The evangelist who converted millions to Christianity and encouraged them to nurture their faith in local congregations died at age 99 on Feb. 21, 2018. He also was a counselor to numerous presidents, an innovator in the utilization of television, and founder of Christianity Today magazine.

“Very few people have gone for as long as I have,” Graham told Religion News Service in 1994 when explaining his enduring popularity. “I don’t know any other evangelists who have preached to the audience that we have over a period of more than 50 years. Secondly, I’ve had a lot of exposure in the press … over a period of time from the television and radio.”

James Cone

The Rev. James Cone, known as the father of black liberation theology, and the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, died April 28, 2018. Image courtesy of Union Theological Seminary

The scholar known as the “founder of black liberation theology” died at age 79 on April 28, 2018.

Cone’s theology, expressed in books such as “Black Theology & Black Power” and “God of the Oppressed,” portrayed Jesus’ blackness, contrasting with traditional scholarly approaches and spawning other liberation theories.

“Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections,” he wrote in “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

Nellie Gray

nellie gray
The Rev. Frank Pavone, of Priests for Life, greets Nellie Gray, the matriarch of the annual March for Life rally against abortion, in January 2012 in Washington. Photo courtesy of Priests for Life

The Catholic woman who viewed fighting against abortion as a human rights issue died at age 88 on Aug. 13, 2012.

Every January since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, throngs of demonstrators have gathered in Washington and marched to that courthouse’s steps to seek the overturning of legalized abortion. She acknowledged in a 1998 interview that she had a naïve notion about her plans to have a protest on the first anniversary of the ruling.

“We just thought we were going to march one time and Congress would certainly pay attention to 20,000 people coming in the middle of winter to tell them to overturn Roe vs. Wade,” she told RNS.

Sun Myung Moon

Gesturing enthusiastically, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon delivers a sermon on “The New Future of Christianity” to an overflow crowd of more than 20,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York. RNS file photo by Chris Sheridan

The founder of the Unification Church, a leader known most widely for the mass weddings he blessed, died at age 92 on Sept. 3, 2012.

“From the time I was eight I was well-known as a champion matchmaker,” Moon wrote in “As a Peace-loving Global Citizen,” his autobiography. “I had only to see photos of a prospective bride and groom and I could tell everything.”

The religious leader believed that, since Jesus fathered no children, it was Moon’s mission to create a sinless family that united mankind, including interracial and international arranged marriages. Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han, were dubbed “True Parents” by Unificationists. He was accused of brainwashing members and spent 13 months in U.S. federal prison on tax evasion charges.

Chuck Colson

Prison Fellowship founder and Watergate figure Chuck Colson visits a prison. Photo courtesy of Prison Fellowship

The evangelical leader who transformed from President Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man” to prison ministry founder died at age 80 on April 21, 2012.

Colson started Prison Fellowship in 1976 after his release from federal prison on Watergate-related charges and was also known for advocating for conservative causes, including opposition to abortion as a chief architect of the 2009 “Manhattan Declaration” and a leader of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

“There was more than a little skepticism in Washington, D.C., when I announced that I had become a Christian,” said Colson, a Southern Baptist, in 1995. “But I wasn’t bitter. I knew my task wasn’t to convince my former political cronies of my sincerity.”

Rachel Held Evans

Author Rachel Held Evans. Courtesy photo

The evangelical-turned-progressive Christian writer and speaker died at age 37 on May 4, 2019.

The author of the best-selling and humorous “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” who served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was known for connecting via social media with readers and sharing her developing ideas of faith along with her questions and doubts.

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes,” Held Evans, who had become Episcopalian, wrote in “Searching for Sunday.” “And there’s always room for more.”

Beyond these top influencers, here are 10 more who merit a mention for their influence in particular religious realms:

Gospel music: Andrae Crouch (“Soon and Very Soon”), Edwin Hawkins (“Oh Happy Day”) and “Queen of Gospel” Albertina Walker.

Religious broadcasting: Mother Angelica of Eternal Word Television Network, Paul Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network and Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral.

Religious publishing: Catholic priest and novelist Andrew GreeleyTim LaHaye (“Left Behind”), Eugene Peterson (“The Message”), “evangelical Episcopalian” author Phyllis Tickle.

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Source: Religion News Service