Of the six major religion pavilions
at the 1964 World's Fair, the one that would have earned the
award for most previous Fair experience was Moody Bible Institute's
"Sermons From Science." The 1964 Fair marked the third
time that a Sermons From Science pavilion had been part of a
major World's Fair, with previous participation at the 1939 San
Francisco World's Fair (the less remembered one to take place
that year) and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle. Ultimately,
"Sermons" would also participate in the next two major
Fairs to take place in North America: Montreal's Expo '67 and
the 1974 Spokane World's Fair.
In each of these fairs, the
message of "Sermons" remained the same as it had been
since the program was founded in 1931 by Irwin Moon. A California
pastor with a long-time childhood fascination with science, Moon
hit upon the idea of using scientific demonstrations as a way
of communicating Biblical concepts to younger audiences. Whether
consciously or not, this represented an attempt to move away
from the impression left in the 1920s in the wake of the Scopes
Trial that scientific concepts and traditional Biblical beliefs
could not be easily reconciled.
Moon's approach was to use experiments
from the areas of physics, biology and chemistry that to him
would demonstrate the reality of a "Divine plan of creation"
in the world and the universe. By spotlighting the intricacies
of scientific concepts in actions in an eye-catching experiment,
this would communicate the broader idea of the universe's intricate
patterns that indicated the reality of a Divine Creator. Ultimately,
this would represent a more positive approach to defending the
idea of God as creator of the Universe by means other than a
simple appeal to the Book of Genesis. Somewhat prudently, these
demonstrations did not focus on challenging evolutionary theory
or defending the 19th century concept of a young Earth (indeed,
Moon and most evangelicals by this point had reconciled themselves
to the concept of an old Earth, even while remaining skeptical
of macro-evolution, the idea of one species changing into another
as opposed to evolution within a species), but instead focused
on the more basic concept of the presence of God in the universe.
Moon's demonstrations became
so popular with audiences that ultimately he gave up his pastorate
to devote his full attention to the science ministry. To reach
a broader audience, he began using filmed demonstrations for
church and national distribution. By 1939, he had linked his
"Sermons From Science" program to Chicago-based Moody
Bible Institute and was traveling all over the country. That
same year saw the first "Sermons From Science" program
at a World's Fair in San Francisco, and this perhaps brought
the greatest national attention to the ministry. During World
War II, Moon focused on America's servicemen with many "Sermons"
presentations at military bases, and after the war, the use of
films for distribution to servicemen remained a vital component
of the Sermons ministry.
By the late 1940s, Moon had
decided to cut back on doing the live demonstrations himself
so he could concentrate instead on producing new science films
for Moody. Among the many titles that Moon would help produce
over the next two decades (and all of which were ultimately shown
at the 1964 Fair) were "God Of the Atom," "Red
River of Life," "Experience With an Eel" and "City
Of the Bees." The live demonstrations and traveling ministry
would now be done by George Speake, who retained the same format
Moon had pioneered. Speake would hold the position of chief demonstrator
of the "Sermons From Science" program for the next
thirty years, before retiring in the mid-1970s.
The effort Speake put into the
program was almost limitless. At the 1962 Century 21 Fair in
Seattle, Speake's workload involved doing several performances
a day for six months single-handedly. His efforts paid off as
"Sermons From Science" reported a 92% occupancy rate
at Seattle with over 400,000 people attending.
With the program considered
a success at Seattle, it was no surprise that "Sermons From
Science" would find a place at the 1964-1965 World's Fair
in New York. In late 1962, New York based pastors of the Christian
Life Convention organized a Sermons From Science Committee to
make the necessary pitch to the Fair organizers and receive approval
for a pavilion. With Robert Moses already showing considerable
deference to religious organizations and finding a place for
them at the Fair, gaining approval turned out to be an easy task.
Although considered in Fair
literature as part of the International section, the Sermons
pavilion was ultimately located close to some of the more prominent
Industrial pavilions, with the Kodak Pavilion its nearest neighbor.
The building's design (by H. Robley Saunders) contained a unique
"pie-shaped" roof and a 500 seat auditorium that would
host both the live demonstrations (in which because of the heavier
workload, Speake would alternate with James Moon, son of the
program's founder) and showings of Moody Science Institute films.
Their intent, as a 1963 preview brochure noted, was to be "accurate
from a scientific point of view; exciting from an entertainment
point of view; stimulating from an intellectual point of view;
and faithful from a Biblical point of view."
Among the many live demonstrations
Speake and Moon used to illustrate their scriptural points (according
to the catchy descriptions in their literature) were "Metal
Rings Floating in Air" (when placed over an electric transformer);
"Invisible Energy Sets Steel Aflame" (steel wool actually,
placed inside a copper coil fixed to a transformer); "Frying
an Egg On a Cold Stove" (the key being the presence of a
coil of wire inside the cold plate affixed to a high voltage
source, which demonstrated the "selective nature of physical
forces"); and "The Cry that Can Shatter Glass"
(placing a glass above an "electronic voice" and adjusting
it to the right frequency).
But by far, the most famous
demonstration in the entire "Sermons From Science"
program, the one that had been its signature for many years and
which always attracted the most attention, was the "Million
Volts of Man-Made Lightning." Even those not necessarily
interested in the pavilion's religious message always found this
demonstration worth seeing. This was when Speake or Moon would
literally allow a million volts of electricity to safely pass
through their body without causing any injury.
As founder Irwin Moon explained
in a 1957 filmed demonstration, the key was changing the frequency
from 60 cycles of alternating current to 65,000. Once this was
done, "a lot of power can be taken through the human body."
The demonstrator, Speake or Moon, then removed his shoes and
stood on top of the transformer, holding a pine board in one
hand to provide the visual demonstration of the electricity's
power as it discharged from the body. The command "Lights!"
was given to darken the auditorium, and then came the next command,
"On!" Astonished spectators then saw the sparks as
the wood ignited demonstrating that it was no trick and that
one million volts of electricity were indeed passing through
Speake's body with the only visible damage being caused to the
wood he held. Once this was done the central lesson of relating
science to scripture was taught. Natural laws needed to be followed
in order for this demonstration to be performed safely and violating
those natural laws would result in certain death. In the same
way, Speake would argue, man needed to follow the spiritual laws
set forth by God in the Bible to avoid the certainty of spiritual
death. Such lessons were the things that Speake and Moon ultimately
hoped would impact the audience even more then their fascination
with the visual demonstrations.
Ultimately, "Sermons From
Science" was one of the few Fair pavilions to enjoy a gradual
increase in attendance over the two year run of the Fair. Final
statistics put 1964 attendance at 555,429 while in 1965 that
rose to 802,733. When the one millionth pavilion visitor, a businessman
from Alexandria, Virginia came on August 21, 1965, the occasion
was marked by an informal ceremony (and in a further boon to
the Sermons From Science program, the gentleman even accepted
counseling afterwards and professed a newfound Christian commitment).
When the Fair closed, Sermons From Science was just shy of making
back its overall costs for the two years of the Fair, but the
indications were that one set of post-Fair contributions from
supporters would be enough to make up the remaining difference.
Overall, as pavilion director Scott Nyborg noted, the results
were considered a success from the organization's standpoint.
After the Fair, "Sermons
From Science" resumed its traveling ministry across the
country and added to its World's Fair legacy with pavilions at
Montreal in 1967, and Spokane in 1974. George Speake retired
in 1976 and was succeeded by Dean Ortner who continues to head
the ministry today. In 2001, "Sermons From Science"
ended its 55 year affiliation with Moody Bible Institute in order
to base its operations on the west coast in Whittier, California.
The program is now called "Wonders Of Science" and
the focus on using scientific demonstrations as a way of entertaining
audiences while raising challenging questions about the presence
of God in the world remains the same as it was when Irwin Moon
first started the program.