Frank Laubach: One of the Most Influential Christians of the 20th Century
Frank Laubach has been, for the most part, forgotten in the public mind in the 21st century, but he was one of the more interesting, and quite probably the most influential Christian man of the 20th century. While he was known for his focus on literacy in the second half of his life, he did, in fact, contribute to a wide spectrum of ideas across a variety of disciplines.
Also valuable to know about Laubach was that up to about 40 years of age, or possibly a little older, he was confused in his Christian walk because of the influence of Union Theological Seminary, which when introducing him to the hoax of higher criticism, caused him to be in doubt about what was true in the Bible and what wasn’t, for a couple of decades.
I don’t mean by that that I personally believe there is any legitimate doubt about the Bible being inerrant and true, rather, that Laubach went through a prolonged period of time where he struggled immensely with that issue. That was unfortunate because his father taught him that the Bible was the very word of God and inerrant. It was also unfortunate because when reading his books, he sometimes makes assertions and participates in actions that reflect that uncertainty in some areas.
Consequently, there are contradictions in who he was that are reflected in his beliefs, writings and actions. He’s difficult to understand at times because he would on one hand be a staunch anti-communist, and on the other hand he would go to Moslem mosques and participate with them when they conducted their religious meetings. He would also pray with Moslems as well; not necessarily in the sense of helping them to see Christ, but as one of them.
On the other hand, when Moslems observed his upright lifestyle, they would assert he was of Islam. Laubach would correct them and say, it was Christ. Those are just a few of the apparent contradictions of his life. Another thing that makes it difficult to know where Laubach stood on a number of issues was he wrote a lot throughout the many years of his life, and since he was an experimenter and on, what today would be described as a journey, what he saw or believed at one time could and did change as he grew older.
I’m starting this article with all that to say there are caveats to take into consideration when taking into consideration the life and impact of Frank Laubach, but it shouldn’t take away from the things he accomplished that we can learn from.
According to biographer David E. Mason in ‘Frank C. Laubach: Teacher of Millions’ (p.31), when Laubach decided he wanted to go to a top university, he chose to go to Perkiomen Seminary, a prep school sponsored by German Schwenkfelders. This was actually a top-notch school academically; many of the students there, including Laubach, went to an Ivy League school afterwards.
He eventually went to Princeton, then Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. The latter two he attended simultaneously. Along with the questioning of the accuracy and inerrancy of the Bible at Union, Laubach was significantly influenced by the ‘Social Gospel’ of Walter Rauchenbush via his book ‘Christianity and the Social Crisis.’
The point I wanted to make in relationship to his education is Laubach was an extremely intelligent man. Yet, he was one of the best I’ve ever read at taking complex topics and communicating them in a way most people could understand. His books, in fact, are examples of popular writing for a general audience, even though he was quite capable of communicating at a much more scholarly level.
Importance of Laubach
What is important about Laubach is he was one of the most influential people in the 20th century, and he, through his literacy work in particular, had access to heads of state around the world that was and remains unprecedented for someone operating outside of government, by which I mean he wasn’t an elected official.
A number of times in his book ’40 Years With the Silent Billion’, he would talk about hitting a variety of roadblocks that hindered him from going forward in a particular country. He literally had access to the heads of state or their inner circle in a way that with a phone call he would have the red tape quickly resolved.
To understand Laubach in the second half of his life, it needs to be known that his drive to increase literacy around the world was a direct result of the threat he saw from communism spreading across the planet. He saw why illiterates and the poor were attracted to communism, and came to the conclusion literacy was the best way to combat the vulnerability of masses to the evil ideology and accompanying practices.
One of the more impressive accomplishments of Laubach and his team was the ability to go into a specific region of a country without an existing alphabet or written language, and within two to three weeks, not only develop an alphabet and written language, but have people that were illiterate able to read that newly-developed language. This didn’t happen with every dialect, but it happened with many of them.
What Laubach would do is search for and find someone that was an expert in the spoken language in an area, and work with them to develop an alphabet by identifying vowels and consonants within the spoken language or dialect. He almost always had an illustrator with him that would literally visually develop the alphabet and written language.
Bear in mind I’m not saying they figured out and developed every word that was communicated by the people. Yet they did develop the framework to work from. Time after time he would go into a part of the world and within no more than several weeks have people reading their own language that had never been put on paper before, or, never had vowels, consonants or an alphabet that was identified and developed.
Why Laubach is important beyond the obvious focus on improving global literacy in order to combat the communism of his day, was his accompanying outlook on successfully improving things in the world.
Some of his traits
Among the many traits that led him to success in his primary chosen endeavor was his ability to identify what the core issue of a specific problem is and find a solution to it. In other words, in the case of communism, he understood the vulnerability of the masses in the Western and other parts of the world to embracing it, because of a lack of hope concerning being able to lift themselves out of poverty and improve their lives. In order to lift themselves out of poverty they had to learn how to do it. To learn in general, they had to know how to read.
That leads to another extremely important trait of Laubach’s, and that was his capacity to keep on going when facing enormous challenges. An obvious example there was the numerous people groups that spoke in a dialect with no alphabet or written language. To start over with one language or dialect after another required an enormous inner resolve to keep on going in spite of the overwhelming challenges that were faced. All of that while communism and the remainder of the world battled it out.
Part of that above-mentioned capacity was the experimental nature of Laubach, who thrived when faced with problems that needed to be solved. He also recognized his limitations and knew how to put a team together that could quickly solve the problems faced by illiterate populations with no written language they could be taught.
In that sense all of this wasn’t just about literacy. Literacy wasn’t the core problem for many of them because there was nothing that had been developed in regard to their spoken language. How can literary tools and methodology be developed if there isn’t an alphabet or written language? They have to be developed first. Literacy became the issue once there was a written alphabet and language to work from.
Another strength he had that was related to that was in how he would be able to adapt to various dialects and languages that had more vowels or consonants than some of the written languages they could develop rapidly. The key was developing the original language model and then putting it in place. From there they used it to work from that baseline to make the needed adaptations or changes.
Finally, Laubach truly believed in making progress in this world, and in his primary chosen field of endeavor may have made more advances than all of prior history to that time. In case you were wondering about it, he did work with Wycliffe Bible Translators in certain parts of the world.
Frank Laubach, in my opinion, is very worthwhile reading and researching. While he has been called an ‘apostle to the illiterates’ and other designations, in truth his interests went far beyond that, as did his writing and commentary.
He is interesting and complex because of his early background and influences (including Woodrow Wilson), which resulted in him questioning many things that he should have retained by faith. At the same time, he would continue to remain faithful to that which he believed, and when he developed a written language for people groups, he would include a newly created booklet that would also share the gospel and other stories from the Bible.
In truth, it’s impossible to appreciate the accomplishments of Laubach in a single, small article like this; he deserves a book with the nuances of his life revealed, along with the character traits that can and should be emulated by those desiring to accomplish something for Jesus Christ in their lifetimes.
One of the reasons I believe he has been identified solely with literacy is his declaration for Christianity and Jesus Christ, and his strong opposition to communism. If the focus is on literacy alone, he isn’t very controversial. It’s a safe topic the world can report on or embrace.
In a world that is still trying to go socialist, he isn’t the type of person that would be presented as a role model to follow. From the Christian point of view, he at times seemed to be heterodox, and other times orthodox in his beliefs.
However you view the man, he was among the most influential men that lived in the 20th century, and may have been a key reason that communism was defeated and rolled back.
When reading about Laubach or directly from his works, you do have to take into account the influences that opposed traditional Christianity. That said, as far as all the books I’ve read about and by him, I never found him abandoning his faith, although he had more mixture within himself than I am comfortable with.
The value of Laubach is learning how he developed his vision, took practical steps to solve problems, and stuck to what he was called to do for the duration of his life.
Add to that enormous confidence he had, including strong communications skills, it resulted in him being brought into the presence of kings, presidents, prime ministers and tribal leaders around the world.
He genuinely wanted to help their nations improve and resist the communist threat of that time, and they knew it. This opened extraordinary doors for him and the teams associated with his ministry, which did in reality change those nations for the better. Not many Christians of our time have come close to his accomplishments, which is why he is worth studying closely, once again, keeping in mind the various influences on his life that resulted in confusion and uncertainty for many years in relationship to doctrine and the truth concerning some parts of the Bible.
Here are some books I’ve read that give a good view of how and what Laubach believed: