Vonette Zachary Bright (1926-2015)

In December 2004, I went to Orlando, Florida, to interview Vonette Bright.

I was in the process of researching and writing a dissertation about Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), using the organization as a lens into the trajectory of American evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century.

I already felt as if I knew Vonette Bright. I had talked with scores of people about her and her husband Bill Bright: friends who knew them as young adults in California; current and former staff members of the organization; their two sons; and many others. I had even driven to the Brights’ hometown of Coweta, Oklahoma, and talked with relatives there.

Of course, knowing about someone and knowing someone are two very different things. In Orlando, I got to visit Mrs. Bright’s office and that of her late husband. She invited me into her apartment — extremely modest by the standards of evangelical leaders. Despite their fundraising prowess and desire to reach “the up and outers,” the Brights did indeed “wear the cloak of materialism lightly,” as Bill Bright commonly recommended.

What I most remember, however, is a visit to a Campus Crusade Christmas party, at which I sat next to Mrs. Bright. There was food, music, and games. Various leaders contributed words to the holiday merriment. Then, at the end, Mrs. Bright went to the front of the ballroom. Extemporaneously, she spoke about Mary’s humble reception of the angel’s message for her and encouraged those in the room to similarly prepare themselves and others to receive their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Mrs. Bright provided a spiritual anchor for the evening.

Vonette Zachary Bright died at the age of 89 two weeks ago. Outlets from the New York Times to Christianity Today published obituaries. They tell the story of her unexpected romance with Bill Bright and equally unexpected conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Vonette and Bill Bright at UCLA, 1951 (Courtesy of Cru)
Vonette and Bill Bright at UCLA, 1951 (Courtesy of Cru)

After Bill Bright moved to California to seek his fortune, he devoted his life to Jesus Christ through the ministries of Hollywood Presbyterian and Henrietta Mears, the church’s director of Christian Education. When Bright became interested in the not-yet-converted Vonette Zachary, Mears cautioned him.

“I decided Bill had become a religious fanatic and that somehow he must be rescued from this fanaticism,” she later wrote. “At the same time, Bill was beginning to think that perhaps I was not a Christian. He knew he could not marry me until there was a change in my spiritual life.” Eventually, Zachary traveled to California, where she resolved the impasse. She met Mears and a host of young Christians, and she experienced conversion herself. She was ready for marriage and ministry.

In 1951, the Brights founded Campus Crusade for Christ, beginning their work at the University of California Los Angeles and then quickly expanding across the country.

Vonette Z. Bright died on Dec. 23, 2015 at the age of eighty-nine. She was fervent in her love for Jesus and — in interviews — flinty in her defense of her husband’s reputation and ministry. She was genuine, warm, and engaging, a towering figure in the story of twentieth-century evangelicalism.

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