Charles F. Stanley had the unflinching zeal of Billy Sunday and the neighborly compassion of Mister Rogers.
A shy, small-town boy from Dry Fork, Virginia became one of the most prolific broadcast preachers around the world. He also became a friend to my family.
Stanley pastored First Baptist Church of Atlanta for over 50 years and founded the global broadcasting organization In Touch Ministries. On Tuesday at the age of 90, he entered Heaven—a place he often described as his final and permanent home.
His ministry spanned 65 years, growing from humble origins to a worldwide reach. He authored more than 70 books and his sermons have been heard in over 127 languages internationally through radio, shortwave, television, and solar-powered audio devices.
Stanley’s appeal to diverse audiences was reflected not only in his global footprint, but also—perhaps most so—in the diversity of his local congregation at First Baptist Atlanta. This thriving church community incorporates members from over 100 nations who experience a wide range of socio-economic realities.
My family was one of those immigrant families who found a home at his church, which means Stanley’s influence played an integral role in shaping our trajectory. I came to know him as a spiritual grandfather of sorts: he discipled my dad in the 1970s, led my mom to faith in Christ in 1980, and personally encouraged me at critical points in my own journey for over three decades.
Stanley grew up in poverty during the Great Depression. His dad died when he was nine months old, and his mother worked at a textile mill to support them making $9.10 a week. At the age of 13 in 1945, Stanley became a newspaper delivery boy, working Mondays and Thursdays to earn a weekly wage of $4.
“It was a long route, and I had a lot of papers,” he reflected at his 80th birthday gathering. “I was often scared walking alone in the dark, but that’s when I learned to talk to God before the sun rose.”
In his mid-teens, Stanley borrowed $125 from the bank to buy a daily paper route where he could earn $16-$20 a week. “The first thing I did was make sure I tithe,” he said. He delivered newspapers in his town of Danville, Virginia, until heading to college.
“Your confidence and faith in God was not passive,” Andy Stanley told his dad in a 2020 interview discussing his upbringing. “Your work ethic has always been extraordinary; you work as hard as you can possibly work, and then you trust God to honor that.”
“I’m still a paper boy delivering news,” Charles Stanley remarked with a chuckle. “Good news.”
Stanley’s stated vision for the church he led over five decades was “to touch the world with the Word of God, motivated by a passion for God and compassion for people.” And that he did.
His preaching emphasized that salvation is available for anyone who believes. He focused on the fact that every individual must make a personal commitment to follow Christ as their only Savior and Lord.
That message gripped my mom’s heart when she walked down the aisle on a Wednesday night at First Baptist Atlanta in 1980. She left her Hindu belief system and stepped into a relationship with Jesus. “Dr. Stanley’s sermons emphasized that the scope of the gospel is universal, but also highlighted the exclusivity of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” she recounts.
Stanley’s Pentecostal upbringing sometimes showed through in his worship preferences, and he referenced the Holy Spirit in almost every sermon and book.
I think one of the many enduring aspects of his legacy is the compelling way he combined theology and life application. He always anchored himself in Scripture, while reminding his listeners that intimacy with God was the highest priority and that it would determine the impact of our lives. The “30 Life Principles” that guided Stanley were woven throughout his sermons, writing, and public interactions as he exhorted others to grow in knowledge, service, and love of God.
Stanley personally encouraged me in various seasons of my life. I still remember how he gave me my first “grown up” Bible when I was a spunky six-year-old in first grade (“Now you be sure to read this,” he admonished), how he came and spoke to my high school youth group (“Never sacrifice your future for the pleasure of a moment,” he cautioned a room full of rambunctious teenagers), and how he prayed with me during some of my most challenging days in college and beyond (he loved to quote Joshua 1:9). Each of these encounters left an indelible mark on my heart and mind.
Some knew Stanley as an evangelical stalwart, a founding member of the Moral Majority, or president of the Southern Baptist Convention during a pivotal juncture for the denomination. As a leader in the SBC’s conservative resurgence in the 1980s, he led the movement to affirm the inerrancy of the Bible and restore its focus on uncompromising evangelism and the faithful proclamation of the gospel message.
He preached to presidents and dignitaries, never backing down when it came to defending the truth of Scripture. And he was a pastor to little ones, often kneeling down to look children in the eye and tell them about God’s love. His bus tours garnered massive and diverse book-signing lines in cities big and small—demonstrating his unique ability to connect authentically with individuals from many different backgrounds.
Although he had well-defined political views, he largely stayed out of the partisan fray to avoid being distracted from his goal of taking the gospel to every place, people, and culture.
Stanley was America’s longest-serving pastor with a continuous weekly broadcast program which has aired since 1980.
His steady, resonant voice was unmistakable. It combined bold conviction with heartfelt empathy—at once speaking as a concerned parent committed to orthodoxy and as a tenderhearted friend who cared for the individual.
Stanley was able to translate deep theological truths into practical life principles. His insights were engaging enough for seminarians and scholars and yet simple enough for children to understand.
His preaching wasn’t heard only in church sanctuaries and Christian media, but also in airports and sports bars, and even in the world’s most isolated and dangerous places—from war zones in the Middle East to the streets of Asia’s most impoverished slums.
“I would hear his voice all the time, especially in the red-light district in New Delhi,” a social worker involved with anti-trafficking efforts in India told me this week, describing how she’d often walk past a row of brothels in a back alley and hear the voice of Charles Stanley preaching.
“Many of the women who were trafficked were not even allowed to have cell phones, but the madams would allow them to have the Messengers from In Touch Ministries for entertainment. It’s probably the only sermons and Bible teaching many of those women ever heard.”
The Messenger is a solar-powered device pre-loaded with an audio Bible and Stanley’s sermons in over a hundred different languages. It is through this medium that Stanley’s words have reached thousands of unlikely places across the globe.
Since 2007, these devices have been distributed to hundreds of thousands of people who have limited access to electricity and internet—including in remote villages and rural churches. Some eager recipients use his messages to learn English, while aspiring pastors leverage them to plant and lead house churches.
Stanley may have been a preacher of old-time religion, but he was always excited to adopt new technologies to reach more people around the world.
The last time I saw Stanley was the week of his 90th birthday last September. After an outdoor gathering with In Touch Ministries staff, I went up to his office with him and a few others. He cut a small chocolate cake and reminisced about his milestone birthday celebrations through the decades. His voice was frail, yet his spirit was strong.
I shared with him that I’d soon be speaking at a business leaders’ conference and planned on referencing his teaching on true success. “You taught me that ‘genuine success is the continuing achievement of becoming the person God wants you to be and accomplishing the goals he has helped you set,’” I said, quoting from one of his past sermons verbatim.
“Say it again,” he responded, visibly choking up. “Those are your words,” I reminded him, obliging his request.
“Ruthie, if you say it just like that, they’ll remember it,” he told me with tears in his eyes. “Dr. Stanley, you said it just like that when I was a little girl, and I still remember it,” I replied.
Millions of people remember Stanley’s words because he said it “just like that,” pointing us to the truth and goodness of the gospel message with clarity and grace—and with a humble confidence that reflected the Savior he served faithfully.
Alongside the words of wisdom he’s spoken from the pulpit, I’ll treasure the moments of banter we shared through the years.
An avid photographer, Stanley traveled far and wide capturing the beauty and majesty of God’s creation. His stunning images adorn the walls of First Baptist Atlanta, In Touch Ministries, and homes around the world—including my own.
He once gave me an impromptu lesson on how to get just the right shot.
“It’s all about the light,” he told me with a twinkle in his eye. “Remember that when you take those pictures.”
I love you, Dr. Stanley. Thanks for being my pastor. You were a familiar face on television for many, and a real neighbor to me. I know you’re taking pictures on the streets of gold in the eternal city where it truly is all about the Light.
Ruth Malhotra is passionate about helping Christians communicate truth with clarity and grace. She manages strategic partnerships for Ronald Blue Trust and is a member of First Baptist Church Atlanta.