Charles Stanley, Atlanta Pastor Who Preached to the World, Dies at 90

The Rev. Charles Stanley, an influential Baptist pastor who for more than 50 years preached a conservative message from his Atlanta megachurch, through an extensive network of television and radio stations, and in many books, died on Tuesday at his home in Atlanta. He was 90.

In Touch Ministries, Dr. Stanley’s nonprofit organization, announced his death but did not state a cause.

As the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. Stanley was known as one of the leading American preachers of his time, alongside figures like the Rev. Billy Graham. He was also a board member of the Moral Majority, the right-wing religious organization, and a close friend of its founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

“Evangelicals just loved him,” Barry Hankins, a professor of history at Baylor University who, with Thomas Kidd, wrote “Baptists in America” (2015), said in a phone interview. “He was a very winsome preacher. He didn’t exude the hard fighting edge that conservatives sometimes did.”

Dr. Stanley built a significant national profile through his church and his television ministry, and in 1984 he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

He brought staunch beliefs — among them that the Bible was infallible and that women should not be ordained — to a continuing battle over control of the convention between conservatives, who were in ascent, and moderates.

In his first year as president, Dr. Stanley backed measures within the convention to stop churches from ordaining women. By 1984, Christian Today magazine reported, the convention had ordained more than 200 women.

“The Bible does not forbid women from preaching,” Dr. Stanley said at the time. “The issue is authority, not service. Role, not work.”

Dr. Stanley was re-elected in 1985 with a record turnout of the convention’s delegates, extending the denomination’s conservative resurgence.

After the vote, Dr. Stanley was asked about his positions against abortion and in favor of prayer in public schools. He told The Associated Press that he took those stands as a “strong Christian citizen and not a right-winger.”

Dr. Stanley preaching at First Baptist Church in Atlanta in 2017. He became the church’s senior pastor in 1971.Credit…via In Touch Ministries

Charles Frazier Stanley Jr. was born on Sept. 25, 1932, in the farming community of Dry Fork, Va. When he was nine months old, his father died of nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys. His mother, Rebecca (Hardy) Stanley, an unskilled laborer, worked for $9 a week at a textile factory in Danville, Va.

She also introduced Charles to the Bible.

“I remember how we would turn to the index in her well-worn, thick black Bible — which was the only book she owned — and looked up subjects together,” Mr. Stanley wrote in his autobiography, “Courageous Faith: My Story From a Life of Obedience” (2016). “Those are times children just don’t forget.”

Dr. Stanley, whose paternal grandfather was a preacher, felt a calling to the ministry at age 14. He graduated from the University of Richmond with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1954 and, two years later, was ordained at a Baptist church in Danville. He later became a pastor at churches in Hendersonville, N.C., Fairborn, Ohio, and Miami and Bartow, Fla., before joining First Baptist Church of Atlanta in 1969 as associate pastor.

He earned a master’s degree in 1968 and a doctorate in theology in 1971 from Luther Rice College & Seminary.

Dr. Stanley’s path to becoming the church’s senior pastor, after the previous senior pastor stepped down, was rocky. The search committee initially rejected him. One of its members told The Atlanta Constitution that he was power hungry. And during a heated church meeting, Dr. Stanley was punched in the face by a member of the church board after cautioning him about using a curse word.

“I was preaching a lot of things that made some of the church leaders uncomfortable — the Holy Spirit, the coming of the Lord, evangelism,” Dr. Stanley told The Constitution in 1982, explaining why his acceptance had come slowly. “Secondly, there were a small group of men who’d always made the decisions, and when I would say we’ve got to obey God, that’d disturb them a bit.”

“So,” he added, “I became a thorn in their plans. But I was willing to stay or leave, whatever God wanted.”

He took over as senior pastor in 1971 and began broadcasting a taped 30-minute weekly sermon, “The Chapel Hour,” on two Atlanta TV stations in 1972. Six years later it was picked up on cable by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, greatly expanding its audience.

It was renamed “In Touch With Dr. Charles Stanley” in 1982, and it continued after he stepped down as senior pastor of First Baptist in 2020. At his death, it was carried by 743 stations nationwide and a separate daily radio program was broadcast by 637 stations. His programs also had digital and worldwide media distribution.

“He was a solid Bible teacher whose straightforward preaching style appealed to a broad middle class,” Troy Miller, president of National Religious Broadcasters, a Christian media association, said in a phone interview. “He was an early adapter in television, like Dr. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.”

Dr. Stanley wrote numerous books, including three New York Times best sellers, “Surviving in an Angry World: Finding Your Way to Personal Peace” (2010), “Turning the Tide: Real Hope, Real Change” (2011) and “Emotions: Confront the Lies. Conquer With Truth” (2013).

Dr. Stanley taping an episode of “In Touch With Dr. Charles Stanley,” which is carried by more than 700 television stations in the United States.Credit…via In Touch Ministries

Dr. Stanley faced a major challenge to his hold on First Baptist in the 1990s with the deterioration of his marriage to Anna Johnson. The church had not allowed divorced men to serve as deacons or ministers, and Dr. Stanley had agreed with that policy.

Tension within the church grew when Mrs. Stanley filed for divorce in 1993; she dropped the suit, but refiled it in 1995. Dr. Stanley insisted to his congregation that he wanted to reconcile. But Mrs. Stanley said that their marriage was broken.

“I am dismayed by my husband’s refusal to accept the critical state of our marriage,” she wrote in a statement published by The Constitution in 1995. “Instead, he has made repeated announcements from the pulpit that progress was being made toward our reconciliation, when in fact the very opposite was true.”

Some church members asked him to resign. His son and heir apparent, Andy Stanley, suggested that he read a letter of resignation to his congregation and let them decide if they wanted him to stay.

“Andy says his father didn’t hear anything after the word ‘resign,’” CNN reported in 2012. “All the rumors seemed to be true. His son had joined the church faction trying to get rid of him. His son had betrayed him.”

Andy Stanley soon left First Baptist, and that year he founded North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, which he has built into one of the nation’s largest megachurches.

But Dr. Stanley survived. In 2000, after his divorce was finalized, the church agreed to retain him as senior pastor. (His former wife died in 2014.) When the news was announced at the church, the congregation rose and applauded, The Constitution reported in a front-page article.

“He is our pastor,” said Jerry Beal, chairman of the church’s board of directors, “and he will remain our pastor.”

In addition to his son, Dr. Stanley is survived by his daughter, Becky Stanley Brodersen; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and a half sister, Susie Cox.

Dr. Stanley and his son eventually ended their rift. The younger pastor told an Atlanta TV station after his father’s death that he was a role model not just as a preacher or a church builder, but also because he showed “how to get to a finish line with integrity, and to be able to look back and be proud of everything that came before, and unfortunately that’s increasingly rare.”

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