In January 1954, Youth for Christ Magazine, in the article “Who’s Who in Religious Films,” spotlighted key people and organizations involved in Christian film production. Around this same time, A.W. Tozer wrote “The Menace of the Religious Movie” in which he opposed the use of Christian films to portray spiritual or biblical dramatic performances. Youth for Christ was in favor of Christian films because of the decisions for Christ that accompanied them. However, they also recognized that there was opposition and sought to quell it by highlighting the positive aspects they saw with Christian films.
Below is a summary of the “Who’s Who” article presenting the justifications and rationale of those involved in and supportive of Christian films at that time.
The Early Days
C.O. Baptista was credited with pioneering the Christian film idea in the late 1930s. Baptista said that while using an object lesson during Sunday school “he suddenly caught a vision of what that same object lesson could do if presented as a motion picture in churches.” Baptista produced dramatic films, sermon-type pictures, and animated films. Reportedly, “hundreds of professions of faith” resulted from the showing of just one of his dramatic films.
Also in the late 1930s, Episcopal clergyman James Friedrich began Cathedral Films and produced biblically-themed films that “immediately caught fire among nearly all denominations.” He was criticized by some for using professional actors “some of whom appeared in the kind of secular films frowned on by many evangelical groups.” However, this did not dampen his endeavor and a later film on the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ “was the most honored religious film of 1953” when it won three awards.
It was said of Dick Ross, of Great Commission Films, that “basic in all of his work is a clear desire to see people won for Christ…that has resulted in cameramen and others in his film productions coming to know Christ as Saviour.” Ross produced films for missionary work, colleges, and evangelists such as Billy Graham.
Irwin “Shorty” Yeaworth, the son of a Presbyterian minister, began Good News Productions in the basement of his father’s parsonage. He reasoned, “Jesus taught the crowds by telling stories…. Why couldn’t he do the same, using modern communications media?” Yeaworth emphasized that his goal was not to compete with other religious film organizations nor was it “to get the most business or produce the best films.” Rather, he felt “that God has led to a peculiar ministry, reaching the unsaved where they are, with a message they can understand.”
Growth and Expansion
Irwin Moon, of Moody Films, had a “vision of what God can do through documentary, scientific films.” Using the world as his stage, he specialized “in portraying through his camera the wonders of creation and God at work in nature and the world around us.”
Christian writer Ken Anderson, of Gospel Films, Inc., began writing, directing, and producing motion pictures when he “foresaw the place which films could and would have in evangelism and missions.” Likewise, evangelism was the aim of some of the movies produced by Unusual Films that were “geared for presenting the Gospel on high school and college campuses.”
Sam Hersh, a seller of educational films, came “to the realization that a great demand existed for religious films” for the family. In the 1940s he organized Family Films, Inc., showed a few of his movies to religious leaders across the United States, and then produced more films designed to meet the expressed needs of those who provided feedback. At first his films were thought to have “a somewhat watered down Christian message” but later productions were deemed effective “for evangelistic purposes.”
The End Justifies the Means?
Tucked in the Youth for Christ Magazine article, amid these vignettes about Christian filmmakers, was the short testimony of sixteen-year-old Bobby Oliver in which he thanked God that he “found the Lord Jesus Christ” through watching a Christian film. Bobby wrote, “I only pray that others might have the privilege of seeing this wonderful film that they, too, will receive the Lord Jesus as their Saviour.”
A personal testimony, such as Bobby’s, was the oft-used trump card played either proactively or defensively in response to future or present criticism of Christian films. One such critic was A.W. Tozer. He had seven arguments against the use of Christian movies (not including educational or missionary film presentations) that were reproduced in Youth for Christ Magazine in January 1954. That article, titled “Christian Movies? The Pro and Con of Religious Films,” included a condensed version of Tozer’s seven opposition arguments printed alongside seven arguments in support of Christian films as expressed by Evon Hedley of Youth for Christ International. Part two of this two-part series presents those opposing viewpoints.