NEW YORK, MARCH 6, 1996 — Dr. William R. “Bill” Bright, president and founder of Campus Crusade for Christ International and one of the most vigorous Christian evangelists in the world, has won the 1996 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The announcement was made today at a press conference at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.
Bright, 74, a former specialty-foods purveyor, sold his business to begin Campus Crusade for Christ with his wife, Vonette, at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1951. Since that time, the organization has grown into an international Christian ministry of colossal proportions, assuming as its ultimate goal to help evangelize to every single human on earth. By its own estimate, Campus Crusade has already reached more than two billion people with the Biblical message of God’s love and forgiveness.
The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion is the world’s largest annual award, this year increased in value to 700,000 pounds sterling, more than one million dollars. Begun in 1972 by renowned global investor Sir John Templeton, the prize is awarded each year to a living person who has shown extraordinary originality in advancing humankind’s understanding of God and/or spirituality.
Some Templeton Prize winners are well known personalities, such as Mother Theresa, who won in 1973, Dr. Inamullah Khan in 1988, and the 1983 winner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Most, however, have earned the prize through pursuits often removed from the public eye. Last year, for example, mathematical physicist Paul Davies won the Templeton Prize for his wide-ranging inquiries into the workings of the universe that breach the barrier between science and religion.
Bright is one of several Templeton Prize winners who’ve been honored, at least in part, for their ministries, including Brother Roger (1974), who founded the Taize Community in France and the youth outreach program Council of Youth, famed evangelist Rev. Dr. Billy Graham (1982), the Very Reverend Lord MacLeod (1989), founder of the ecumenical Iona Community, and Rev. Dr. Kyung-Chik Han (1992), founder of Korea’s 60,000-member Young Nak Church, the world’s largest Presbyterian congregation. In 1993, former Watergate figure Charles Colson received the prize for his founding of Prison Fellowship, a worldwide network of prison ministries operating in nearly 60 nations.
Part of Campus Crusade for Christ — Justice LINC — also works with prisoners, yet it is but one part of some 40 ministries founded and run by the Crusade which include outreach programs that serve inner cities, the military, athletes, political leaders, business executives, the entertainment industry, single adults, and families.
It is with students, however, where Bright established himself as an evangelist nonpareil. Beginning with a person-to-person sharing of New Testament scripture, Bright created a cadre of like-minded students who then sought to share this message with others. Strategically, Bright targeted athletes, fraternity and sorority members, student body officers, and other campus leaders for his original core of converts, thus simultaneously imbuing the movement with popularity. Today Campus Crusade serves on over 650 university campuses in the United States and approximately 470 campuses overseas. Similarly, recognizing the influence athletes have in society, Bright founded Athletes in Action in 1966. During the past three decades, athletes have been recruited to share Campus Crusade’s message in much the same way advertisers seek these role models to do commercial endorsements.
This unique blend of religious commitment and communications acumen is at the heart of Bright’s success. His Four Spiritual Laws booklet — a four-point outline written by Bright in 1956 on how to establish a personal relationship with Jesus — has been printed in nearly 200 languages. Although religious tracts have been published for centuries, Bright’s booklet became what is likely the most widely-disseminated religious booklet in history, with approximately 1.5 billion distributed. In the same way, Bright has effectively exploited other communications vehicles over the years, including television and radio, billboards, phone banks, movies, videos, international satellite training conferences reaching hundreds of millions, and, most recently, using the Internet to resource and equip Crusade volunteers and staff, and creating sites on the World Wide Web.
Bright has also been responsible for rallies of immense proportions. In 1972, Bright organized a week-long event in Dallas for 85,000 youths officially known as EXPLO 72, but dubbed by the press as the “Religious Woodstock.” Campus Crusade’s EXPLO 74 in Korea drew nightly crowds of up to 1.5 million persons. Six years later, crowds from two million to almost three million attended the Here’s Life Korea World Evangelism Crusade. A 1980 gathering co-chaired by Pat Robertson, Washington for Jesus, brought 200,000 to the nation’s capital to march and pray, according to New York Times estimates.
Today’s press conference will be followed by the presentation of the prize in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, May 8th. The public ceremony in connection with the prize will be held on May 9th in the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the first Christian building opened in Rome, founded by St. Callistus in the year 217.
In a statement prepared for the news conference, Bright said:
“I am deeply humbled and greatly honored to receive this prestigious Templeton Prize which, to me, because of its nature, is to be desired above every other prize given for whatever purpose. I would like to thank and commend Sir John Templeton for establishing the Templeton Prize which emphasizes the most important aspect of life — the spiritual dimension — upon which all other considerations of life find fulfillment…. By God’s grace, Vonette and I have had the privilege and excitement of seeing Campus Crusade grow to nearly 13,000 full-time and more than 101,000 trained volunteer staff members in 165 countries. We have had the thrill of helping to take the good news of Jesus Christ to well over two billion people, and tens of millions have indicated they will follow Him as well.”
Born near Coweta, Oklahoma in 1921, Bright attended a one-room schoolhouse until eighth grade. In high school and college, he distinguished himself as an achiever in academics, student government, journalism, drama, debate, and oratory, all disciplines that would later serve him well in his mission. After graduating with honors from Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University in 1943, where he served as president of the student body and editor of the university yearbook, Bright moved to Southern California and began a confections company. While studying at Princeton and Fuller Theological Seminaries in 1951, Bright says, he was inspired to forsake his budding business empire and embrace the scriptural command to “go and make disciples of all the nations.”
Bright’s ministry now includes nearly 13,000 full-time and an estimated 101,000 trained volunteer staff members working in 165 nations around the globe. The organization’s budget exceeds $270 million and was recognized in 1993 by Money magazine as America’s “most efficient religious group” in terms of percentage of contributions actually reaching ministry programs. Bill and Vonette’s combined annual gross salary, however, excluding housing, is currently $43,402.
Among the most ambitious of Campus Crusade for Christ’s efforts has been Jesus, a feature-length film documenting the life of Christ. The film includes a cast of 5,000 and was filmed at 202 locations in Israel. Since its debut in 1979, it has been translated into a record 355 languages and viewed by an estimated 750 million people in 217 countries.
Bright’s latest projects emphasize mobilizing millions of Christians to fast and pray for worldwide spiritual revival. Two gatherings of prayer and fasting (with a combined attendance of nearly 4,300 Christian leaders) were held in Orlando in 1994 and in Los Angeles in 1995. Plans call for annual gatherings in all major cities of the world. Using the latest computer technology, Bright also recently launched the International Christian Leadership University with the goal of training tens of millions of students in all the university disciplines with a Biblical worldview. No less ambitious is New Life 2000, which aims to help take the message of the Bible to the world’s population of six billion.
Though skeptics may question the viability of that effort, those familiar with the magnitude of Campus Crusade’s outreach and the depth of Bill Bright’s dedication fully expect his goal to be realized.