Johnny Cash and the Evangelical Fascination with Celebrities

Evangelical Christians have had a longtime fascination with celebrities. The latest example was Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas inviting Fox News host Sean Hannity for an interview at the church on October 22. To be fair, evangelicals may not be any more consumed with celebrity than American culture at large is. But evangelicals have often seen celebrities as a means to get the word out. Friendship with celebrities could also signal evangelicals’ own status as cultural and political “insiders.”

The temptation of celebrity, however, has routinely caused problems as evangelicals have platformed people who have only a distant grasp of evangelical beliefs, and who show little sign of conversion, or of personal devotion to Christ and the church. Sometimes evangelical leaders have also given their blessing to celebrities who have brought embarrassment to the evangelical movement by issues in their personal lives, or when their faith turns out to be a short-lived “Christian phase.”

One could write a book on the saga of evangelicals and celebrities from the worlds of politics, sports, music, and more. But perhaps one of the most representative evangelical relationships with celebrity was Billy Graham’s platforming of Johnny Cash. Robert Hilburn’s tragic biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, explains that as Cash’s celebrity crested in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cash’s sincere sympathy for evangelical faith made him an alluring candidate to appear at Graham’s crusades. Instructively, it was Franklin Graham who first promoted Cash to his father as the kind of star who “could attract millions of people to the Crusades, especially young people.”

Johnny Cash and June Carter, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.Johnny Cash and June Carter, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The problem was that Cash in this era was a deeply troubled person who was addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, and who hardly ever attended church in spite of his wife June Carter Cash’s pleading. Johnny Cash was certainly fascinated with Jesus, as a number of religious songs and his film The Gospel Road made clear. But his drug habit was out of control, and he sometimes even showed up high for Graham’s crusades.

Hilburn concludes that “when Cash described himself as a ‘C+ Christian’ at various times in his life, most thought this American icon was just being humble. To those who’d been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous.”

Obviously, there have been plenty of times when evangelicals have platformed celebrities who have had genuine, enduring faith, and who have not brought embarrassment to the movement. But before we give the stage to our “evangelical” celebrities, we should ask a few questions:

  • On what basis are we presenting this person as a Christian exemplar? Is there long-term “fruit” in their life that suggests that they are a sincere, devout believer?
  • If this person is a celebrity, would it be better for them to be able to attend their home church (assuming they actually go to church) in as much anonymity as possible, so they and their family can learn, worship, and grow?
  • What message are we sending to our churches about “greatness” in the Kingdom by platforming this person?
  • Is this person’s presence at my church or evangelistic event clarifying or muddying the message of the gospel?

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Exploring Jonathan Edwards’s World: With Drawings and Google Maps

Using the very helpful research of Tony Reinke, I recently plotted the major locations of Jonathan Edwards’s life on a Google Map. If you click through, you can zoom in. This plots not only the major towns where Edwards lived, but also tries to zoom in to exact locations, like the house where he was born, the church where he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and so on.

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In his excellent book,  Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (IVP, 2009), Douglas Sweeney explains what it would have looked, sounded, and even smelled like if you went back in time to Jonathan Edwards world:

Perhaps the first thing you would notice as you entered one of the small towns that structured Edwards’ world is the quietness of the daily lives of its residents.

To be sure, you would hear noises—people talking and working with tools, the rhythmic clopping of horses’  hooves, the lowing of cows and bleating of sheep. But you would not hear any engines, whether of cars or heavy machinery. You might well hear a town crier making announcements to the community with the help of a hand bell, a conch shell or even a drum. But you would not hear any planes, trains, automobiles or trucks. Nor would you hear the steady humming, beeping, honking and general wailing of industrial equipment. In fact, the loudest sound to be heard in  many early New England towns was the ringing, by the sexton, of  the church bell.

As you traversed the town green, you would notice the smell of dung. (In early New England these spaces were often used for grazing.)

But once you became inured to it, and learned to watch your  step, your gaze would likely be fixed on the most important building on the green, the local church, or “meeting house,” as the Puritans usually called it. You would not find it impressive. England’s  neogothic churches were aesthetically far more pleasing. From cavernous, cross-shaped naves, they attracted attention heavenward  with their massive, vaulted ceilings, then to the altar, richly adorned  and set in the center of the chancel. Worshipers walked forward reverently at the height of the liturgy to kneel at the rail (which divided  nave and chancel very clearly), meet the priest, and then receive the body of Christ.

Walking into a meeting house in Puritan New England, by comparison, was like walking into a barn. In Edwards’ day, many churches sought to improve their meeting houses, adding pew cushions, arched windows, bell towers and spires. But the whitewashed, neoclassical, picture-perfect churches featured in regional tourist guides are the  results of nineteenth-century nostalgia.

In colonial New England,  churches were plain and sided with clapboard that was often left unpainted.


Below are several drawings of key places from Edwards’s life.

For a complete chronology of Edwards’s life, see this by Ken Minkema.


East Windsor, Connecticut (1703–1716)

Jonathan Edwards birthplace


Yale College, New Haven, Connecticut (1716–1720, 1724–1726)

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Northampton, Massachusetts (1726–1750)

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EdwardsHouse

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Stockbridge, Massachusetts (1751–1757)

MissionHouse Stockbridge

Jonathan Edwards home at Stockbridge


The College of New Jersey, Princeton, New Jersey (1758)

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