The "High Visibility" Mormon in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes

Vernon Law was one of the reasons I began to take a deeper interest in the history of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

It was not Law's athletic exploits that interested me, although he did have a distinguished sixteen-year career pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, it was his religion. Law was a Mormon. And he was involved with the FCA, a pioneering sports organization founded in 1954, supposedly formed from the same 1940s/1950s neo-evangelical/"re-engaged fundamentalist" soil as parachurch organizations like Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the like.

I knew that neo-evangelicals generally did not think that Mormons were true Christians, so Law's involvement with the FCA intrigued me, and suggested that perhaps there was something different about the FCA compared to other evangelical parachurch organizations. Although I have since expanded beyond a sole focus on the FCA, that organization remains central to my dissertation. As such, it seems only right to pay my respects to Law. So let's call this a Vern Law Appreciation post, a brief look at some of the sources that show just how involved Law was within the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during its early years.

Law first got involved in the FCA at the behest of Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Branch Rickey, one of the FCA's founding figures. Law's involvement goes all the way back to very beginnings of the organization. At the initial meeting between FCA founder Don McClanen and Branch Rickey, in which McClanen pitched Rickey his FCA idea, Rickey and McClanen adjourned for lunch with Law where the three of them continued to discuss the organization.

Below, Law is featured in an early Fellowship of Christian Athletes brochure, published in 1955.

In the late 1950s, the FCA published an in-house Christian Athletes Devotional that featured inspirational religious testimonies written by FCA members. Vern Law was a regular contributor to the series. Below are two of his entries: "God's Living Temple" is from the first edition of the Christian Athletes Devotional, and "Belonging Is Not Enough" is from the fifth edition. 

Law frequently appeared on behalf of the FCA at city-wide rallies and smaller church-based events. In 1959, for example, he was one of the many athletes sitting on the stage at this FCA event in Dallas (the picture is from The Christian Athlete, the FCA's official magazine).

In 1962 the FCA published its first book intended for an outside audience. Titled The Goal and the Glory and published with Fleming H. Revell, it was in some ways a more polished version of the Christian Athletes Devotional series. Once again, Law was a featured contributor. Here is the first page of his four-page entry:

Law's involvement with the FCA did not come without controversy. One early FCA staff member told me that some conservative Protestants stayed away from the organization in part "because Vernon Law had high visibility." And Protestants did not have to be conservative to be suspicious of Mormons. Consider, for example, a report commissioned in 1955 by the National Council of Churches, the institutional expression of mainline ecumenical Protestantism. Titled "On Relationships With Mormons," the report studied whether Mormons (of both the LDS and RLDS variety) should be involved with the NCC. It determined that both the LDS and RLDS Church agreed with the "basic concept of 'Jesus Christ as Divine Lord and Saviour' as expressed in the preamble of the constitution of the National Council of Churches" and that both viewed the Bible as the word of God. These two tenets, the report stated, "might be considered as adequate and sufficient for both these bodies to qualify for cultivation, and possible membership at some later date in the National Council of Churches."

But on the other hand, the report determined that "the questionable elements in the faith and practice of both churches, their avowed purpose to win all people to Mormonism, making them well nigh fanatics in their efforts to proselytize members of other churches, make it not only doubtful but seemingly impossible to expect any acceptable organizational relationship with either of these churches."

For its part, as historian Neil Young has explained, the LDS Church had little interest in joining with the NCC. But it did not have a problem with individual Mormons like Vern Law participating in civic-minded organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Despite the pervasiveness of Protestant suspicions towards Mormons, those within the FCA did not seem to have a problem with Law. Indeed, Law was a longtime member of the FCA's Advisory Council and was one of the most involved professional athletes in the organization. In 1963 when the FCA was searching for a new executive director, Vern Law's name was floated as a possibility; soon after that, he was one of three individuals recommended to serve as an eastern regional secretary for the FCA (the FCA ultimately decided not to create the east coast position).

These days the FCA is less welcoming to Mormons. In 1996, for example, an FCA chapter in Tennessee rescinded an FCA Male Athlete of the Year award given to Aaron Walker because Walker was a Mormon. FCA leaders apologized for how they handled the situation, but claimed that the FCA's official policy was that Mormons were not Christians; as such LDS Church members could not hold FCA offices or receive FCA awards.

That may be true of the organization today. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the FCA was more than willing to include a prominent Mormon, featuring him in its public programs, promotional materials, and inspirational religious testimonies.