Renowned evangelist Charles B. Templeton finds, and loses, religion.
By the mid-1950s, Charles B. Templeton had been Canada’s leading evangelist for 20 years. Impassioned and eloquent at the pulpit, the Torontonian delivered his message with a marketer’s flair, presenting Christianity as the path to achieving happiness—an approach that had great appeal for the broad masses. His audiences regularly numbered in the tens of thousands; and many thousands more watched his regular CBS television program, or read his numerous books.
Though he presented the picture of success and confidence to the world, inwardly Templeton was quietly suffering a crisis of faith. Doubts that had plagued him for a decade or more returned and redoubled, and he feared the hypocrisy of preaching doctrine he no longer believed. So, in 1957, at the peak of his career, he did the only thing he thought a man of conviction and integrity could: he abandoned religion as suddenly as he’d once found it, and returned home to Canada.
(Left: Globe [June 25, 1935].)
High school wasn’t for Charles Templeton. After failing and repeating grades at Parkdale Collegiate, he transferred to Western Technical School, where he studied art. A year later, in 1932, he quit entirely after securing a job in Toronto at the Globe‘s sports department. He’d shown up at sports editor Mike Rodden’s office door with a portfolio of drawings of athletes tucked under his arm. Impressed, Rodden assigned him to do a portrait of Bobby Pearce, then the world’s leading sculler. And, when Templeton returned successful, Rodden hired him for $12 a week, with higher wages if a cartoon was picked up for national syndication. It seemed an extravagant salary to the teenager and, moreover, his family needed the income.
When Templeton was 14, his father had left—first to Montreal, then to Western Canadian—to work and send money home to the family. Eventually, drifting farther west, Templeton’s father disappeared entirely, abandoning his wife and five children. For years, life for Templeton’s mother was a struggle. She went on relief to survive, supplementing this social assistance by renting out rooms in their house to boarders. Eventually, through her embrace of religion, Templeton’s mother was “changed,” as he put it in An Anecdotal Memoir (McClelland and Stewart, 1983). “She looked better, sang as she went about her housework and seemed filled with an inner happiness.”
While the rest of his siblings joined her at Parkdale’s local branch of the evangelical Church of the Nazarene, Charles held out. Though still a teenager, Templeton had been given a taste of adult independence and resisted assuming responsibilities as the man-of-the house. He went drinking with his newspaper cronies, befriended local sports figures and celebrities, and for a time dated an older girl, a wild partier with an apartment near Maple Leaf Gardens that he frequented. He was, in other words, a typical young man.
One evening in 1936, the 19-year-old arrived home at 3 a.m. Feeling “heavy with depression,” as he described in Farewell to God (McClelland and Stewart, 1996), he paused for a long moment in front of the hall mirror. “I didn’t like the man I saw there.” He’d been out with Globe colleagues at a sleazy house party in the east end, where bored strippers had performed ungracefully and unattractively, leaving him feeling “shoddy and unclean.”
His mother heard his footsteps, and called him to sit at her bedside. Half-listening as she talked about God and how she yearned for Charles to join the family at church, his thoughts drifted to a stock-taking of his life. When he arrived in his bedroom, he fell to his knees, raised his head to the ceiling and began to pray. “Lord, come down. Come down,” he repeated the only words that came to mind as tears welled in his eyes. In Farewell to God, he recalled the sensation he felt:
I found myself—I don’t know how much later—my head in my hands, crouched small on the floor at the centre of a vast, dark emptiness. Slowly, a weight began to lift, a weight as heavy as I. It passed through my thighs, my torso, my arms and shoulders, and lifted off. An ineffable warmth began to suffuse my body. It seemed that a light had turned on in my chest and that it had cleansed me. I felt, in the biblical phrase, that I could have leaped over a wall.
Lying in bed afterward, he felt “an indescribable sense of well-being at the centre of all-encompassing joy.”
(Right: Globe and Mail [October 21, 1942].)
Templeton was soon a frequent, enthusiastic congregant at his mother’s Parkdale church. His workplace friendships cooled after his “conversion experience,” but he found his minor celebrity as a sports cartoonist offered an advantage in religious circles. He was invited to appear at Toronto-area meetings, setting up a large pad of paper on an easel, and quickly sketching biblical themes and scenes as he addressed the crowd. Preachers soon noticed that Templeton’s novelty helped attract young people to services.
As invitations came from farther afield, Templeton took time off from the Globe to accompany travelling preachers on their rounds. Eventually, after more than four years at the newspaper, he quit to dedicate himself to proselytizing full-time. He found he liked speaking to audiences and began to rely more on words and less on his sketch pad. He spoke haltingly at first. But, with time spent watching and copying others, then practising at night in churches full of empty pews, Templeton honed his skill and eloquence.
(Left: Star [November 1, 1941].)
He studied for ordination and felt fortunate to discover his lack of academic credentials posed no barrier for Church of the Nazarene authorities. They placed far greater emphasis on enthusiasm than education, and Templeton just had to read a half-dozen books and pass an oral examination.
He spent the next three years as an itinerant evangelist, preaching in run-down storefront churches, community halls, tents, basements, and even a wrestling ring in a softball stadium. He travelled widely, from Indiana, Michigan, and upstate New York to the Deep South. Given that crowds could range from five to 500, there wasn’t always much money in it, and at least twice Templeton had to pawn his briefcase to afford transportation to his next stop.
On the road, he established his style—both oratorically and sartorially—and his mannerisms. He wore a regular shirt and tie, rather than priestly robes, to better connect with his common-folk audiences, and he spoke without written text or even notes to give his words greater authority. Forceful and confident at the pulpit, Templeton believed “dullness” to be the preacher’s worst sin. The passion with which he spoke was strengthened by the fervent conviction with which he held the moral certainties he asserted.
Driving up Avenue Road in the summer of 1941, Templeton spotted a “for rent” sign on an imposing church, constructed of white limestone, on the northeast corner of Roxborough Avenue. Designed by Gordon & Helliwell and built in 1899, the building had housed a Presbyterian church, but had laid vacant since that denomination’s absorption into the United Church of Canada in the late 1920s. With “an unquenchable optimism and a conviction that we had been called by God to revive this dead church,” as he put it in An Anecdotal Memoir, Templeton and his wife Constance, a singer he’d met in his evangelist travels, put down $600 for a six-month lease.
About a hundred people showed up for the first service, drawn by a series of newspaper ads. Spread thinly around the 1,200-seat sanctuary, the congregants clustered in the back pews—presumably so they might quietly escape if Templeton, in the far-off distance at the pulpit, failed to fulfill their expectations. The night’s offering, Templeton recalled, was 67 cents shy of the week’s rent. It was worse the following week, when only 27 people attended. But this nucleus returned, bringing others with them, and, within six months, the Avenue Road Church of the Nazarene was positively thriving. If you didn’t arrive at least 15 minutes early, you risked being turned away at the door.
(Right: Star [June 3, 1944].)
Promising an “aggressive, evangelistic church” in its early advertising, the Avenue Road Church featured Charles occasionally sketching to accompany his sermons and Connie regularly performing solos. As the membership stabilized, a church board was established. They added weeknight prayer meetings and a Sunday school, along with a second, youth-oriented service to follow the regular Sunday evening service. The board raised Templeton’s salary from $18 to $40 a month. “He has that essential thing which we call personality,” newspaper columnist J.V. McAree said of Templeton’s appeal, “and can communicate his own burning emotion to his congregation.” His flock continued to grow at such a rate that, in a little over two years, Templeton hired a contractor to add a balcony and seating on three sides of the sanctuary. On the evening of March 7, 1944, 50 or more people gathered with mops and brooms to clean up the church for its grand reopening the next day. Climbing to the topmost seat in the new balcony, Templeton watched the volunteers tidy, reminiscing of his first visit to the then-abandoned structure.
Later that same night, in the early hours of the morning, Templeton was awoken by the telephone, and frantically called back to his church. Driving down Avenue Road, from the crest of the hill near St. Clair, he could see flames flickering against the night sky. The roof was engulfed. Window glass melted from the heat. Firemen from 10 stations battled the flames; one man was injured by a slate tile falling from the roof. The water from their hoses came down in great torrents, creating a waterfall down the stone steps. Later, with dropping temperatures, the water solidified into icicles along the charred beams of the now-open-air structure. (The blaze, which caused $100,000 in damages, had been started intentionally by a 16-year-old member of the church’s choir, though the boy never clearly articulated his motivation.)
That very Sunday morning, however, Templeton penned an advertisement to appear in local newspapers promising that the congregation would persevere. Reinitiating services before a capacity audience at the Masonic Temple, Templeton delivered not a sermon but a history of the church and his dreams for his flock. Outlining their financial troubles, he appealed for donations to rebuild the church. Within two weeks, newspapers reported that he’d already raised $25,000 from members and Torontonians who attended many different houses of worship who’d read about the fire in the newspaper.
Completely renovated and modernized, the Avenue Road Church eventually reopened. Even with an expanded seating capacity of 1,600, congregants were regularly turned away for lack of space if they didn’t arrive a half hour early. Templeton’s popularity was such that each Sunday, policemen were assigned to direct traffic outside the Avenue Road Church.
In the mid-1940s, Templeton turned his attention to Youth for Christ, a series of upbeat rallies organized across North America that married Christianity with show business in order to appeal to young people. Templeton took the lead on planning the youth rallies in Toronto, staging them at Massey Hall, and, occasionally, at Maple Leaf Gardens. Consistently drawing 2,500 people, the weekly events featured speeches from evangelists and performances from professional singers and musicians.
(Right: Star [March 25, 1944].)
Then, in the late 1940s, doubts he’d repressed for years resurfaced. The seeds of doubt had first been planted in about 1940, when, as a travelling preacher, Templeton killed time reading whatever he could get his hands on while fulfilling a two-week commitment in a colourless Michigan village. Books by Thomas Paine and others raised questions of reason that his blind faith alone could not answer. His belief system thoroughly shaken, Templeton felt “like a boxer who has been stunned and is out on his feet.” He cancelled the rest of his itinerary and returned home for a six-week break from evangelism. He nearly quit for good, but slowly, eventually, he regained his confidence through prayer and reflection on the New Testament, and resumed his place at the pulpit.
“I was discovering that I could no longer accept many of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith,” Templeton recalled of his resurfacing doubts of the late 1940s in An Anecdotal Memoir. Having converted as a young man with limited formal education, Templeton hadn’t questioned what he’d been told. Now, questioning the insistence on biblical literalism and infallibility in fundamentalism, his doubts undercut the simple certainties he’d long accepted as doctrine. With his “entire fabric coming apart,” he realized that he needed to explore his concerns intellectually, if he were to salvage his disintegrating faith. “If I continued as I was going,” Templeton admitted in his memoirs, “I would soon be a hollow shell, a hypocrite mouthing what I no longer believed.”
(Left: Star [October 16, 1943].)
So, in the late summer of 1948, he resigned from the Avenue Road Church, and went back to school at the age of 33. He’d managed to convince the Princeton Theological Seminary to accept him—despite his having none of the academic pre-requisites of the post-graduate program—on the condition that he’d complete all coursework and exams but not receive a degree.
Leaving behind friends in Toronto, as well as the apartment rented for them and furnished by the church, Charles and Connie had no assurance of income while he attended Princeton. She took a job, and he eventually accepted occasional work as a fill-in minister.
If there were any question that this was a critical juncture in Templeton’s life, that fact was made clear when Templeton visited Billy Graham in North Carolina just before school started in 1948. The two were close friends, having met at a rally in Chicago when both were young preachers on the rise. But now, as they chatted, the reality sharpened for Templeton that Graham represented the intellectually-closed-off fundamentalism he was leaving behind. “Both of us knew that, for all our avowed intentions to keep our friendship alive, our feet were set on different paths,” Templeton later recalled of the meeting. “He was as distressed as I was.”
(Right: Star [March 4, 1944].)
After three years at Princeton, Templeton was ordained as a Presbyterian minister; and in 1951 he accepted a position with the National Council of the Churches of Christ—an umbrella organization representing the interests of many mainline Protestant churches—to organize their evangelistic efforts. In 1954, he accepted a similar position with the Presbyterian Church USA, taking an office on Fifth Avenue in New York City. For these positions, he insisted upon receiving an annual salary rather than accepting the traditional “love offering,” in which the evangelist receives all the donations collected during the final, well-attended night of a campaign. His $7,500 annual salary was dwarfed by what he could have collected—and what many leading evangelists did collect—preaching before tens of thousands at a time. Over the course of one two-week stay at Evansville, Indiana—population 128,000—he preached to a total audience of 91,000. On Easter Sunday in 1949, he led a sunrise sermon for a rapturous crowd of 40,000 at the Rose Bowl. And he claimed to have staged the first integrated public meeting south of the Mason-Dixon Line at Richmond, Virginian, in 1953.
In the 1950s, Templeton wrote books, lectured, hosted a weekly television show, Look Up And Live, on CBS. He was the subject of profiles in The Globe Magazine, Maclean’s, Time, and the Chicago Sunday Tribune. John Diefenbaker even tried to lure the preacher back to Canada in 1952 with promises of a guaranteed Conservative seat in the House of Commons.
Dubbing Templeton to be “Religion’s Super Salesman” in an American magazine feature, Edward Boyd noted that instead of “the old-style hellfire-and-damnation oratorical fireworks,” Templeton used “a persuasive, attractive approach that presents religion as a commodity as necessary to life as salt, and in the doing, has set a new standard for evangelism.” He was at the height of his powers and reach as an evangelist in the 1950s. “And,” as Templeton put it in Farewell to God, “I struggled with my faith.”
(Left: Star [December 6, 1941].)
Outwardly, Templeton’s sermons were as confident as ever, though he bristled at the necessity of simplifying his message in order to reach auditoriums-sized audiences—acting like “an oratorical mountain goat, leaping from mountain crag to mountain crag, without exploring the valleys where truth lies,” as he once said. And Templeton accepted the handshakes and gratitude of bright-eyed converts though, as put it in An Anecdotal Memoir, it “added to my sense of unworthiness.”
Despite sincere efforts at Princeton to transition to “a more intellectually-grounded faith,” historian David Vance argues in his 2008 master’s thesis, Templeton clung to his old conception of Christianity defined in narrow, Conservative terms. Faith was still seen by him as an all or nothing proposition, requiring that you believe wholeheartedly and confidently. Grappling with doubt meant weakness and disbelief, not a potential source of renewed piety or an opportunity for reflection. He refused to confide his inner turmoil to anyone for a long time, and the strain of repression manifested itself physically, with regular pain in his arms and chest, and pangs of anxiety.
In the spring of 1957, at the height of Templeton’s crisis of faith, the 41-year-old admitted his misgivings to Graham, before the renowned evangelist’s New York service. Attending that night at Graham’s request, Templeton was put on the spot when Graham insisted—before a packed Madison Square Gardens audience—that he come forward to lead a prayer. Recognizing this as merely Graham’s attempt to help his friend recover his spirit, Templeton acquiesced and gave an impromptu “homily on the need to come to terms with one’s self.”
“But there was no real choice,” he recalled in Farewell to God. “I could stay in the ministry and live a lie or I could make the break.” To finally calm his conscience, Templeton resigned the Presbyterian Church in 1957. “I don’t want to diminish or in any way weaken the faith of people,” he later told a reporter, expressing his feeling of having betrayed those who’d trusted and supported him. “But I felt I had no other course. A man must do what he believes to be right.”
With little to his name beyond an automobile and $600 in savings, Templeton—then in his early 40s—packed up a rented trailer and headed north, to a rented bachelor apartment in midtown Toronto. It was a disorienting time. Templeton had yet to discover a new identity to replace the one he’d lost. To aggravate matters, he and Connie got divorced in Mexico around the same time; and his mother died not long afterward.
Secluding himself in a log cabin on Georgian Bay, Templeton tried his hand writing television plays for the CBC, which, in turn, led to a position as an interviewer for the CBC TV’s Close-up, a public affairs show, as the first stop on a decades-long career as a media personality. With stints at the Toronto Star, CTV, Maclean’s, a long-running Toronto radio program co-hosted by Pierre Berton, and a series of best-selling novels, Templeton proved to be infuriatingly prolific, rising to prominent positions quickly and seemingly at will; then dropping them for something new just as fast.
Over those decades, his relationship with religion remained difficult. Initially, as a television presenter, he tried exploring religion’s social value. But he grew to be aggressively anti-Christian by the late 1960s, and not only challenged but also openly criticized interview subjects for their faith. Criticism of the church became, Vance suggests, “a defining characteristic of his public persona.”
Templeton eventually lost this hard-edged antagonism, softening into what he termed a “mature expression of agnosticism,” as exemplified by his late life reflections contained in Farewell to God.
If that seemed, at last, to make his beliefs clear, his third wife, Madeleine Helen Leger complicated things shortly after Templeton’s death in June 2001 after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Visiting him in hospital the day before he died, she claimed Templeton saw angels on his deathbed. Gazing upward, he cried out suddenly and excitedly: “Look at them, look at them. They’re so beautiful. They’re waiting for me.” Then he added in elation: “I’m coming.” His wife, the only witness to the event, told theologian and Star writer Tom Harpur that Templeton’s vision was “such a tremendous comfort.” A comfort to him or to her, she didn’t specify.
Sources consulted: Pierre Berton, Just Add Water And Stir (McClelland & Stewart Limited, 1959); Ralph Hyman, “Once he preached to thousands—Now he’s seen by far more,” The Globe Magazine (March 8, 1958); Charles Templeton, An Anecdotal Memoir (McClelland and Stewart, 1983); Charles Templeton, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith (McClelland and Stewart, 1996); David Vance, “Charles Templeton and the Performances of Unbelief,” Masters of Arts Thesis. (Carleton University, 2008); and articles from the Globe and Mail (October 21, 1942; March 20, 1944; June 16 & 17, 1945; November 24, 1952; and June 8, 2001); and the Star (November 1, 1941; June 8 & 24, 2001).