By Peter Duffy
For two decades beginning in the early 1950s, John McCandlish Phillips composed elegant newspaper stories under grueling deadline pressure for the New York Times, earning a reputation as one of his generation’s great reporters. In his 2003 memoirs, Arthur Gelb, a longtime editor at the paper, described him as “the most original stylist I’d ever edited.”
“What kind of a day is today?” Mr. Phillips wrote at the beginning of a 1969 article on the closing of a famed Times Square eatery. “It’s the kind of a day that if you wanted a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s, you couldn’t get it.”
He was well known among his colleagues for his lanky stature, which earned him the nickname “Long John”; his sweet temper; and his uncompromising devotion to his Christian faith. “I don’t remember anybody quite like him in all my years of being around people who worked for newspapers,” said Gay Talese, a fellow Timesman in those days. “Newspaper people tend to be cynical. He’s the very opposite of that.” In the secular temple of the big-city newsroom, Mr. Phillips conspicuously placed a Bible on his desk, calling it “a statement I made of who I was and where I stood.”
Mr. Phillips stunned the staff when he decided to leave full-time employment in 1973 at the age of 46. The New Yorker magazine much later called him “The Man Who Disappeared” and wondered why a figure with so much talent would “walk away from it.”
But Mr. Phillips did not disappear. He channeled his imagination into the church he had co-founded with Hannah Lowe a decade or so earlier, the Manhattan-based New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a small Pentecostal congregation. His dream was to spur a massive evangelizing campaign in New York City that would result in waves of born-again Christians.
“What everyone in this city needs, with scarcely anyone knowing of it, is the one salvation that God has provided in His son, Jesus Christ,” he told me in a recent interview. “My life was changed in a moment of time, permanently, by an act of evangelism [in 1950]. I know its power. And I have no chiefer desire than to see as many individuals as possible come to that same threshold and cross it.”
Last year he stepped down from the church’s board of trustees, but he is still at the center of its life. He manages financial investments, answers correspondence and joins regular services, which are held on Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings in three different locations. He is a grandfatherly mentor to the “32 or 33” members, many of whom came to the church through its work on several Ivy League campuses.
The church has always been small. According to Mr. Phillips, its leaders have never been concerned with increasing membership. Rather, they “put an emphasis on growth in evangelical outreach,” he said. “People who come to Christ often go in a number of different directions.” From the 1960s through the 1980s, members spent much time on the streets of New York. They preached, prayed and sung in areas like Times Square and Columbus Circle. In more recent years, the church has funded evangelizing efforts abroad.
Still, public evangelism in the city remains a “very high” priority, Mr. Phillips stressed. Last Saturday, he was in Central Park, participating in an event at the Bandshell sponsored by his church called “Jesus Saves and Heals.” Preaching alternated with musical performances. Bibles and religious literature were offered. A prayer station was set up.
Now 81, Mr. Phillips is still spindly — “spectral” in his description — although a slight stoop has brought him closer to eye level. Wisps of gray hair adorn his bald head, and his voice is colored by raspiness. Although Mr. Phillips has sermonized in New York for decades — he is known for his professorial mien — he did not take the stage on this day. “I don’t think the people are as disposed to listening to an old wizened creature as they are to youthful vibrant persons,” he said. Instead, he has placed his hopes for the ministry’s public efforts on the day’s main speaker, Christopher White, a Yale-educated evangelist who has led the church’s efforts in Latin America.
Mr. Phillips says he is at work on a “longstanding but quite uncompleted” religious work and never particularly missed journalism. In recent years three opinion pieces of his have been published in the Washington Post. The topics included media ethics and the excessive complexity of our tax system. In 2005 he took on columnists like Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich for heaping “fear and loathing” on evangelicals and traditional Catholics. “I have been looking at myself, and millions of my brethren, . . . in a ghastly arcade mirror lately,” he wrote.
Mr. Phillips admits disappointment that his great hopes for the evangelization of New York City have not come to fruition. He characterized the response at Central Park as “fairly remote.” But who knows what the future holds? When it is pointed out to him that some of his best stories placed their greatest weight on the final line, he chuckles. A 1966 masterpiece about a U.S. Marine killed in Vietnam concluded with the wrenching words, “He was 19 years old.”
“I don’t anticipate being a prime mover of a spiritual awakening,” he said. “But I greatly desire to see it, and whatever its origins is thoroughly fine with me. It will come at a time chosen by God.”
Mr. Duffy’s latest book, “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland,” is available in paperback from Harper Perennial.