To get a visceral sense of the real diversity of religion in America, we can look to the obituaries. Every year, people who gave their lives to one vision or another of transcendent reality and of the next life leave this one.
These 15 religious leaders, all of whom passed away this year, moved many in one way or another. They inspired Americans — and terrified them. They sang and organized, converted and advertised, prayed and preached and, for some, set an example.
And then, in 2015, they were gone.
They were each, in their own way, witnesses. Taken together, they testify to something true about America and about this moment:
Andraé Crouch was widely hailed as the greatest gospel musician of the modern era. He started performing in his father’s Pentecostal Church of God in Christ and wrote his first hit song at 14. As he recounted it, he was watching barbecue sauce being poured over ribs when he had a vision of Jesus’s blood. At that moment, he said, he received the words to “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power.” The song was a cross-racial hit. Crouch incorporated popular music into gospel and made gospel accessible to popular music. He won seven Grammys and six Dove Awards. He died at 75.
John C. Willke
John C. “Jack” Willke, a Catholic obstetrician who led the anti-abortion movement, died in Ohio at 89. Willke and his wife, Barbara, took up the cause in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade. They co-authored “Handbook on Abortion,” a foundational anti-abortion text describing fetal development and abortion in medical and polemical terms.
Willke challenged the rhetoric of abortion-rights supporters, his fans said. Critics accused him of fudging facts. He was responsible for promoting the discredited theory that women do not get pregnant from rape. Willke was on the board of National Right to Life from 1973 to 2012.
As Publishers Weekly’s first religion editor, Phyllis Tickle documented and facilitated the modern boom of religious book publishing. Tickle had 15 years of experience as an editor and publisher when she joined the magazine in 1990. At that moment, big box retailers and national chains started selling evangelical books and religious titles started topping bestseller lists.
In 1993, religious book sales increased 246 percent, according to Publishers Weekly. Tickle said Americans were becoming detached from religious institutions and turned to books as “portable pastors.” She wrote more than 30 books herself. She wrote extensively on Episcopal spirituality and, starting in 2008, emergent Christianity. She died at 81.
A folk singer and folklorist, Guy Carawan died at 87. Carawan was the music director of the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in East Tennessee, co-founded by Southern students of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. At the school, Carawan specialized in showing activists the political power of old spirituals.
He believed the resources of the religious past could be applied to the liberation struggles of the present. Carawan taught the song “We Shall Overcome” to the organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. They picked it up and made it the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Billy Ray Hearn
Billy Ray Hearn did more than perhaps anyone to make evangelical music into an industry. Hearn started in Waco, Texas in 1968, promoting evangelistic musicals. He then joined a new record company, Myrrh, as the “A&R man” responsible for finding new talent.
He signed many of the biggest acts of the Jesus People movement, selling $2 million of the music of born-again hippies in 1974. Hearn then founded Sparrow Records and oversaw the emergence of Contemporary Christian Music. When his son Bill took over in 2001, the business was worth $135 million. Hearn died in Nashville at 85.
Elisabeth Elliot preached God’s forgiveness to the Ecuadorian tribe that killed her husband and four other American missionaries. Elliot wrote about the experience in “Through the Gates of Splendor” and “In the Shadow of the Almighty.” The story of the 1956 martyrdom and subsequent successful missionary efforts inspired generations of evangelicals to give their lives wholly to God’s work.
Elliot was especially inspiring to women, telling them they were empowered to ministry by Jesus. She wrote a number of other books, including a biography of missionary Amy Carmichael and a book popular with conservative evangelicals on female sexuality, “Passion and Purity.” She died at 88.
Clementa Pinckney was the senior pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., when he and eight parishioners were shot to death in what law enforcement have judged a racially motivated hate crime. Pinckney started preaching at 13. He became a minister at 18 and took the helm of one of the most historic black churches at 26.
Pinckney also had a passion for politics and served as a Democratic state senator. He campaigned for legislation requiring police officers to wear cameras and tried to raise awareness about gun violence before he was shot down at 41. President Obama gave Pinckney’s eulogy.
Michael W. Ryan
Michael W. Ryan died awaiting execution at the age of 66. Inspired by the racist Christian Identity movement, Ryan led a group of about 20 to prepare for the end of the world on a hog farm in Nebraska in 1984. The group believed Ryan heard directly from Yahweh.
He said he heard he should have sex with the women and brutalize the men. Ryan killed a 5-year-old boy and instructed his followers to torture a 26-year-old man to death. He was sentenced to die in 1985 and had been on death row since then, rewriting the Bible.
Boyd K. Packer
Boyd K. Packer, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died at 90. Ordained in 1970, he was a key part of the decision to allow African American men into the priesthood. He also oversaw publication of an expanded edition of the Mormon scriptures, with new study guides.
Packer championed practical teaching and criticized Mormon historians for not protecting and promoting the faith. In a widely reprinted sermon on male sexuality, he praised violent reactions to unwanted homosexual advances. Packer led the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1994 until his death.
William Wakefield Baum
William Wakefield Baum, former archbishop of Washington, D.C., was the longest-serving Catholic cardinal in U.S. history. Baum — whose father was Presbyterian and stepfather Jewish — was one of the church’s leading authorities on interfaith dialogue.
Ordained in 1951, Baum served as an adviser to the Second Vatican Council, and helped draft the decree on ecumenicism, the “Unitatis Redintegratio.” He was made bishop by Pope Paul VI in 1970, archbishop in 1973 and cardinal in 1976. As a leader of the church, he preached against racism and abortion, oversaw the 1990 revision of the catechism and helped elect three popes. He died at 88.
Self-help guru Wayne Dyer died in Hawaii at 75. A promoter of New Age spirituality, Dyer combined psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with the teachings of Swami Muktananda, who said, “God dwells within you as you.”
Dyer’s first book, published in 1976, was a commercial failure. But then he bought back thousands of copies and personally promoted “Your Erroneous Zones” to TV stations across the country. It became a bestseller. Dyer, with his message of “God realization,” became a TV star. He was a frequent guest on Oprah and a fixture on PBS, and he presided over Ellen Degeneres’s wedding.
Everett Parker used the communications office of the United Church of Christ to fight segregationist TV. A radio producer and UCC minister, Parker believed broadcast stations needed to serve the public interest and the church should champion social causes.
He picked a fight with the NBC affiliate in Jackson, Miss., in 1964. The station didn’t cover civil rights news, and would claim technical difficulties to avoid covering desegregation news or advocates, Parker said. Parker got the courts to deny the renewal of the station’s license. He went on to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to require broadcasters to offer equal employment opportunities to women and minorities. Parker died at 102.
Jacob “Jack” Pressman was an institution builder, establishing Conservative Judaism in Los Angeles. From 1950 to 1985, Pressman was the rabbi of Temple Beth Am. He raised funds for a new synagogue and senior citizen housing and expanded the educational programs to cover every level of education.
Temple Beth Am grew to 1,300 families, becoming one of the most prominent Jewish congregations on the West Coast. Pressman also co-founded what is now called American Jewish University, and founded Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Camp Ramah and Los Angeles Hebrew High School. He died at 95.
Robert Schuller, who died at 88, was one of the country’s most successful megachurch ministers. Inspired by the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale and consumer marketing strategies, he preached upbeat sermons about the benefits of Jesus. Schuller started his Southern California church at a drive-in theater in 1955. Its slogan: “Worship as you are, in the family car!”
Schuller’s TV show, “Hour of Power,” achieved a viewership of millions. The iconic Crystal Cathedral, constructed out of 10,000 panes of glass in 1980, symbolized his message of “possibility thinking.” The ministry empire fell on hard times when Schuller stepped down in 2006.
Raouf Ghattas was pastor of the only Arabic-language Baptist church in Tennessee. Ghattas was born to a Christian family in Egypt and emigrated to the United States at 20. He became a Southern Baptist pastor in 1985 and earned a doctorate in Muslim evangelism.
He and his wife, Carol Ghattas, preached Christ to Muslims across the Middle East before returning to the United States in 2009. Settling in Mufreesboro, Tenn., Ghattas found Christians outraged over immigrants building a mosque. Where others saw a threat, Ghattas saw a missions opportunity. He started the Arabic Baptist Church with about 20 people. He died at 69.
Daniel Silliman is an instructor of American religion and culture for the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at Heidelberg University. You can follow him on Twitter @danielsilliman.