The journalist who became an evangelist

I spotted his obit in the New York Times this morning, and wanted to post something.  But now Terry Mattingly has gone a step further, and nicely woven together the threads of this exceptional life.

Take it away, Terry:

If you wanted to know who John McCandlish Phillips was, as a New York Times journalist, all you really needed to do was listen to the words of other journalists. Here are two of my favorite quotes along those lines, drawn from a classic profile in The New Yorker (which is now behind a firewall, unfortunately).

“He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural,” the legendary reporter Gay Talese once said, describing a staff that included the likes of David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and J. Anthony Lukas. “There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”

Anyone who knows anything about Talese will find those words very revealing. And there was more:

“Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Talese told The New Yorker. “He is not interested in demeaning people. … He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer. Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”

The headline on that New Yorker piece said, bluntly, “The Man Who Disappeared.”

I guess that was true, journalistically speaking, but it was totally wrong from a Christian point of view and, for Pastor John, the eternal point of view was what really mattered.

As the fine obit in the New York Times notes:

An evangelical Christian, he kept a Bible on his desk and led prayer meetings for like-minded colleagues (there were none when he joined the paper, he noted ruefully) in a conference room off the newsroom…

…In 1962, he had helped found the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a Pentecostal congregation in Manhattan. Its tenets, as Ken Auletta wrote in a 1997 New Yorker profile of Mr. Phillips, include the belief that “pornography, drugs, abortion and any form of fornication (including premarital sex and homosexuality) are sins.”

In the early 1970s, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship made headlines after the kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of several of its congregants by their families. The families maintained that the group had trained the congregants to repudiate them.

After leaving The Times, Mr. Phillips lived, in Mr. Auletta’s account, a contented if threadbare existence, preaching the Gospel on the Columbia University campus, near his home, and managing the fellowship’s affairs. The fellowship, which has long since ceased to incur unfavorable notice, is still extant, based in Upper Manhattan.

And then there is his writing, which makes most of us journalists sound in comparison like mouth-breathing hacks:

Consider Mr. Phillips’s 1961 account of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, an annual millstone for the city’s general-assignment reporters:

“The sun was high to their backs and the wind was fast in their faces and 100,000 sons and daughters of Ireland, and those who would hold with them, matched strides with their shadows for 52 blocks. It seemed they marched from Midtown to exhaustion.”

Mr. Phillips became known in particular for his coverage of the city’s vaunted, vanishing institutions, as in this 1969 article about the closing of the original Lindy’s delicatessen, which began:

“What kind of a day is today? It’s the kind of a day that if you wanted a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s, you couldn’t get it.”

Near the end of the article, he wrote, with plain-spoken, impeccable logic:

“The locusts stripped the place of menus and ashtrays and other mementos. There were conflicting claimants to possession of the last bagel. As a souvenir, a bagel is not much good. It is perishable and it also lacks proof. Anyone can hold up a bagel and say, ‘This is the last bagel from Lindy’s.’ ”

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…


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