The World's Fair History of Sermons from Science ... an essay by Eric Paddon

SOURCE: Pavilion Promotional Pamphlet

Pamphlet Cover
This presentation has been developed by
the Moody Institute of Science of Los Angeles
and is one of twelve
different programs featured
each day for your pleasure.
For the convenience and enjoyment
of our visitors who prefer
a language other than English,
the films can be heard in a
variety of languages through
the use of ear-phones
located on the arm of your chair.
A total of thirteen different
languages are available.
For further information check
a member of the staff as you leave
or consult the Information Center
at the entrance of the building.
If you desire any of the above material leave the request with one of the Staff
123 West 57th Street, New York 19, N.Y.
__ the free booklet on the Sermons From Science Films
__ a free home study book
__ a film catalogue and list of distributors
__ further information

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.

Artist's Rendering

Sermons From Science Pavilion - 1964/1965 New York World's Fair

The building is a 500-seat circular air-conditioned auditorium 35' in height, 80' in diameter, with a passage connecting to a smaller circular wing which houses a conference hall on the main level. The second floor of this wing is planned for the staff offices and lounge. The auditorium has a circular scalloped shell roof supported beyond the building by colorful fins decorated with abstract designs. The entrance to the auditorium is 8' above the ground and is approached by a 65' long ramp, which follows the curve of the building outside the line of fins and over a reflecting pool. Seats and audio equipment are placed along the ramp for the comfort and interest of the waiting queue. The reflecting pool boarding the building is decorated with fire and water fountains and a sculptured standard rising 60' which supports and ever-changing color sphere.

H. Robley Saunders


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