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The full Nelson

L. Nelson Bell’s many efforts included setting the foundation for WORLD

The full Nelson

L. Nelsen Bell (Handout)

Especially in its earliest years, WORLD magazine was sometimes described by its boosters as a sort of “Christian Time magazine.” I always winced at that shorthand; it seemed so presumptuous.

But there was one sense in which the two publications shared an unusual common ancestry. Both Henry R. Luce of Time and L. Nelson Bell of WORLD had extensive missionary experience in China during their youthful years—Bell as a missionary himself, Luce as the son of missionaries.

Did it surprise you when I referred to “L. Nelson Bell of WORLD”? It should have—because Bell died more than a dozen years before WORLD published its first issue. But I still think it’s appropriate to suggest a parallel relationship. We’ll come back to that shortly.

For now, let’s note that Henry Luce was once referred to as “the most influential private citizen in the America of his day.” His worldview as a publisher was secular, not Biblical. But with his wide-ranging stable of magazines, and later with his corporate forays into broadcast journalism, Luce set the pace for the world of mass media. Just this afternoon, I heard a reference on public radio to one of the Luce charitable foundations. What an impact!

You have to wonder whether the challenges of living in Chinese culture were unique in equipping Luce and Bell to wield their media wands.

On an admittedly more limited scale, Nelson Bell was profound in his influence in the world of Christian media. Especially when you compare the two men’s youthful years, you have to wonder whether the challenges of living in Chinese culture were unique in equipping them to wield their media wands.

For example: Nelson Bell’s main commitment in China 100 years ago was as a medical missionary. But practicing medicine then meant helping in the construction of multistory hospitals, building staff homes, and designing and fabricating medical tools and instruments. Sometimes it meant pouring cement blocks when commercial blocks were not available. And notably in the context of this column, it meant editing, duplicating, and distributing a small newsletter in the community—promoting cohesion for the citizens of a little town and an opportunity to spell out the gospel regularly.

That’s why, when World War II and the advent of communism in China forced his family to return to the United States, it was natural for Bell to expand into magazine publishing. First—just 75 years ago this month—came The Southern Presbyterian Journal, a rallying cry for conservatives in the mainline Presbyterian denomination of the South. If that seems like a narrow assignment, consider that the magazine came soon to be known simply as The Journal, with as many as 50,000 subscribers across the country. A pastor named Henry Dendy (whose roll-top desk I still sit at every day) managed the nuts and bolts of printing and mailing. But the intellectual spark plug of The Journal, by everybody’s telling of the story, was Nelson Bell. He wrote a column for every issue.

But that wasn’t enough. In the mid-1950s, a new magazine called Christianity Today appeared on the landscape. Its editor was intellectual and theological giant Carl F.H. Henry. But CT’s executive editor for the next decade and more was Nelson Bell—who, along with all his other duties, wrote a column for every issue of CT. Indeed, for a period of time, Bell contributed simultaneously to both magazines! I tend to think of The Journal as his Presbyterian footprint, and CT as his more ecumenical, interdenominational footprint.

In 1972, as The Journal identified more and more with what would become the fledgling Presbyterian Church in America, Bell resigned from the magazine he had founded 30 years earlier. He died the next year. And starting just about then, for a variety of reasons, The Journal entered a period of decline. The best efforts that a team of us could summon were not enough to sustain it.

All of which is why in 1986 we closed down the witness and work of The Presbyterian Journal and folded its energies into a new magazine called WORLD. We did so under the very same corporate structure originally established by Nelson Bell—and with high confidence that if he had still been around, he might well have welcomed the opportunity to write a regular column. But who knows, in the mind of a man with such diverse interests, just what topic he might have chosen for those words of journalistic wisdom?