Thirty-eight years ago on April 22, J. Edwin Orr (1912-1978), evangelist, scholar and author, died unexpectedly in Ashville, NC where he was scheduled to speak at a Southern Baptist Convention. Orr, as a prominent Protestant historian, traveled and spoke across the globe, sharing his research that showed all revivals were birthed from gatherings focused on prayer. Dr. Billy Graham spoke highly of Orr, saying “Dr. J. Edwin Orr, in my opinion, is one of the greatest authorities on the history of religious revivals in the Protestant world. I think that God has given him one of the greatest and most unique ministries anywhere in the nation . . . I know of no man who has a greater passion for worldwide revival or a greater love for the souls of men.”
Noting that Orr was born in Belfast, Ireland, on January 15, the website devoted to his life and ministry, revealed that “The day January 15 would become even more meaningful than simply a birthday in the life of J. Edwin Orr; on that day he was born, converted, married, ordained, and became a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force.”
Although Orr became a Christian at an early age through the influence of his mother, he experienced a strong call to evangelize in the early 1930s and began to hold open air meetings in the streets of Belfast, eventually leading to city-wide campaigns. In 1935 he traveled to Scandinavia and throughout Europe, going all the way to the Soviet Union, before returning to London where he departed and traveled throughout Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Palestine, Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.
His travels in the mid-1930s included sailing to Canada and a whirlwind tour of the United States, before going on the South Africa and Rhodesia, prior to going to Australia and New Zealand. During his travels to South Africa, he met Muriel Carol Carlson, a young woman whom he later asked to marry him. Following a quick courtship, they were married on January 15, 1937.
Christianity.com states that in addition to his travels, Orr wrote about his experiences in a series of autobiographical works. Titles include Can God-? (1934), This Promise Is to You (1935), Times of Refreshing (1936), Prove Me Now (1936), This is the Victory (1936), All Your Need (1936), If Ye Abide (1936), Such Things Happen (1937), and The Church Must First Repent (1937).
J.EdwinOrr.com also points out that as he travelled, Orr sensed the need for further education and began studying at Northwestern University in Chicago. On January 15, 1940, he was ordained in the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. He continued to preach and write, making a tour of the West Indies and Central America in 1940 and publishing Always Abounding. He got his M.A. from Northwestern in 1942. Toward the end of the year, he enlisted in United States armed forces and went to attend chaplain’s school on the campus of Harvard University. The following year, he got his Th.D. from Northern Baptist Seminary in Chicago and began his service as an air force chaplain on January 15, 1943. Earning seven battle stars and finishing with the rank of major, he wrote about his military experience in I Saw No Tears (1948).
Among his celebrated accomplishments, Orr became a Professor at the School of World Missions, in Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA where he served until 1981. Orr’s influence can be noted as one of the five original board members of Campus Crusade for Christ. In addition to numerous books based on his travels as an evangelist and historical account of evangelical revivals, he has also authored a number of hymns. One of his best known compositions, “Cleanse Me,” is based on Psalm 139:23-24 and commonly known as “Search Me, O God.”
On the day of his death, we acknowledge and celebrate the inestimable contribution the world evangelist, scholar and author has made. F.F. Bruce, renowned Biblical scholar, has summarized the life of Orr in this way: “Some men read history, some write it, and others make it. So far as the history of religious revivals is concerned, J. Edwin Orr belongs to all three categories.”