“One Small Step for Man,” or What the Apollo 11 Mission Meant to Evangelicals (Including the Brethren in Christ)

The Apollo 11 spacecraft takes off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 16, 1969. Four days later, the astronauts on board would take the first human steps on the moon. Within evangelical circles in the U.S., the event would elicit nationalistic and eschatological responses.

Forty-one years ago today, the astronauts on board the Apollo 11 spacecraft took the first human steps on the moon — a major event in U.S. history.

Twenty-one days later, in the August 11 issue of the Evangelical Visitor, editor John Zercher responded to the event:

I have not quite gotten over it yet. . . . One can understand President Nixon being somewhat carried away by the entire affair when he called it the ‘greatest week since creation.’ Those who believe in the historical character of the Christian faith can recall several weeks whose significance surpasses this one. . . . But I also have some second thoughts. . . . When I see those towering rockets on the launching pad at Cape Kennedy I instinctively think of Genesis 11 . . . ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its tops in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves . . .’ And I remember God’s judgment upon their pride. [1]

Contrast Zercher’s skepticism of the Apollo 11 launch with the response of fellow evangelicals.

Some saw it as a prophetic omen. In a August 22, 1969 commentary in Christianity Today, one writer noted that “perhaps the most gratifying element [of the space walk] was . . . [the] plaque left behind on the moon [which] . . . notes that that man first set foot there in July, 1969, A.D. Baptist pastor James Bulman of Oak Ridge, North Carolina in a July 27 sermon cited inclusion of the abbreviation Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord) as partial fulfillment of the Philippians 2 passage that says Jesus will be acknowledged as Lord not only on earth but also ‘in heaven.'” [2]

Others confused the nation’s achievement with a Christian accomplishment. Christianity Today news writer David Kucharsky opined, “[The Apollo 11 mission] was possibly the most prayed-for event in human history, and the intercession continued as the astronauts headed back to earth. . . . God did bless the venture, but there was no immediate recognition of the fact or any utterance of thanksgiving for it, either from the astronauts on the moon or from President Nixon in his earth-to-moon telephone call. . . . Landing on a Sunday helped to give something of a religious tone to the occasion. Among special observances was a White House service in which Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman read the first ten verses of Genesis as he had while orbiting the moon last Christmas Eve. Thousands of ministers built sermons around the moon theme.” [3]

These responses — quite different and far more optimistic than Zercher’s assessment — suggest that though the Brethren in Christ were realizing greater familiarity with American Evangelicals during the 1950s and 1960s, there remained some resistance to buying wholesale into certain aspects of Evangelical culture and theology.

Notes:

[1] “Apollo 11 — Genesis 11,” Evangelical Visitor, August 11, 1969, 2.

[2] “Man’s New Domain,” Christianity Today, August 22, 1969, 42 [1046].

[3] David Kucharsky, “The Lunar Landing,” Christianity Today, August 1, 1969, 32 [996].

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “One Small Step for Man,” or What the Apollo 11 Mission Meant to Evangelicals (Including the Brethren in Christ)

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the moon landing and evangelicalism « Insomniac memos

  2. Pingback: “That’s one small step…”: The Moon Landing as Public Theology | Bethel at War 1914 - 2014

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