Friday Fives: Five Underrated 20th Century Christians

This edition of Friday Fives is the fourth in a series on “The Underrated.” To get caught up on the background, see the first post in the series, the second, and the third.

I define underrated as having great value without corresponding fame. So for instance, on today’s list of underrated 20th century Christians you won’t find names such as Billy Graham, James Dobson or Dietrich Bonhoffer because they were both great and renowned.

Today’s Friday’s Five brings you believers who accomplished a great deal although you may not know of their names or their faith.

#5 Lettie Burd Cowman

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She wrote the classic (and I mean classic) Streams in the Desert as “Mrs. Charles Cowman,” so not many recognize her or her name. But Lettie has touched thousands and thousands of believers – many in their darkest hours – through what may be the most powerful devotional book ever written aside from the Bible or possibly My Utmost for His Highest.  She also co-founded the Oriental Mission Society. The power of her work and her passion for Christ certainly far overshadow her fame, or her desire for fame. Thus, Lettie Cowman is dramatically underrated.

#4 Dennis Kinlaw

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Dr. Kinlaw was a two-time president of Asbury College and professor at Asbury Seminary. In fact, he was president during the time of the famous Asbury Revival (see the link at the very end of this post if you’ve never seen the revival video) and founded the Francis Asbury Society. His devotional book, This Day with the Master, is also underrated. He’s at number 4 on this list because he is an amazing man of God who has had a direct impact on many hundreds of key Christian leaders yet, for many, this will be their first time hearing of him.

#3 Eliza George

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Born near Austin, Texas, Eliza George is number three on the list because she had to fight to serve Christ as an overseas missionary. In the early 20th century, she fought as a woman and she fought as a black woman for the right to pursue a call to Africa. (Some struggle against a call to Africa, she struggled to pursue one.) One college president tried to convince her otherwise, saying, “Don’t let yourself get carried away by that foolishness. You don’t have to go over there to be a missionary — we have enough Africa over here.”  When she finally resigned her teaching position to move to Africa, she read from a poem she had written: “My African brother is calling me; Hark! Hark! I hear his voice . . . Would you say stay when God said go?”

In Africa, she was founder of the profoundly successful Elizabeth Native Interior Mission and the Bible Industrial Academy. She remained active in ministry into her 90’s and is considered one of the most influential Christians in African history. Eliza should be more well-known than she is.

#2 Joseph Pomeroy Widney

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There isn’t time to list all of this (now) relatively obscure man of God’s accomplishments. But here are a few:

  • A doctor, he founded the Los Angeles Medical Society
  • He was a decorated military surgeon during the civil war
  • Founded the Los Angeles Library Association
  • Founded the Los Angeles City Mission
  • Second president of the University of Southern California and founding Dean of its medical school
  • An early leader in California conservationism
  • Credited with solving California’s early problems getting water to its cities
  • Founder of the Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles (Widney is credited with naming what would become a new denomination, “Nazarene”)
  • A Methodist Pastor
  • A Nazarene Pastor
  • A published author

You get the idea… Unbelievably influential and, today, significantly underrated.

#1 Branch Rickey

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Branch Rickey is probably the most famous name on this Friday Fives. But he’s number 1 on the list not because he was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson, breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but because what motivated Branch Rickey beyond anything else was a passion for Christ. That’s often undersold or not even mentioned in the historical accounts, including movies such as “42,” in which he was played by Harrison Ford. But Rickey, who was known as “The Deacon,” was a passionate Methodist. A ballplayer himself, Rickey was once demoted to the minor leagues because he wouldn’t play on Sunday. (For those of you who follow baseball, Ricky is also the person who drafted Roberto Clemente.)

In fact, both Ricky and Robinsion credit their success to their faith, as writer Mark Ellis notes:

The biographical film “42” depicts Jackie Robinson’s courageous battle to break the color barrier in major league baseball. At the same time, the film provides a glimpse of his religious faith, which afforded the strength he needed to overcome fierce opposition.

“It took two Christians to pull this off,” says Chris Lamb, the author of “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training” (University of Nebraska, 2004). “Robinson was a Christian and Branch Rickey was a Christian,” he notes. “Sometimes we miss this.”

Lamb was blind to it himself until he researched Robinson’s life for his book. “I kept wondering all these years what kept Robinson together,” he says. “Finally I realized what I missed before – the core came from above.”

Branch Rickey’s last words referenced Scripture. On November 13, 1965, Rickey collapsed while speaking at his election to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He was about to site Scripture – “Now I’m going to tell you a story from the Bible about spiritual courage,” he said. But he had a heart attack and collapsed. Those ended up being his last words.

At his funeral, Jackie Robinson stated that only Abraham Lincoln had done more for blacks than Branch Rickey.


The Famous Asbury Revival Video