GREAT SOULS is a retrospective of six of the great souls of the 20th Century. It is a marvelous series that should be seen and re-seen in the homes of believers and non-believers. Written and hosted by David Aikman, former Senior Correspondent of Time Magazine, this series looks at six of the most influential people of the 20th Century. In doing so, it exalts cardinal virtues and Christian principles and gives children and adults the desire to embrace and emulate them.
Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the closing months of World War I, in the tiny village of Mwezo, tucked into the hillsides of the Umtata district of South Africa. His father was of Themu tribal royal blood, an advisor to the Thembu chiefs of the Transkei. The name Nelson was bestowed upon the boy when he began primary school. Rare for his day, Mandela attended both college and university, eventually becoming an attorney in Johannesburg, where his law firm was the only one defending blacks in the white run courts of the capital.
The South Africa of Nelson Mandela’s youth was deeply divided by racial inequality, reinforced by a series of laws called Apartheid, designed to maintain white supremacy and both economic and political power over the black majority of the population. Mandela was initially opposed to violent confrontation as a means to achieve racial equality. But in 1948, the predominantly Afrikaans Nationalistic Party came to power, extremely anti-British, all white, and radically racist. They passed a series of draconian laws that defined where blacks could live, who they could marry, what they could and could not do. Riots ensued, thousands of blacks were shot or imprisoned. The nation fell into a moral and spiritual abyss. It was only a matter of time before Mandela’s deepening commitment to revolution against the white government landed him in prison, ultimately with a sentence of life imprisonment. He could have been given the death penalty.
Nelson Mandela quickly became the world’s most famous prisoner. Many nations, including the United States, placed trade embargos on South Africa. Business with the outside world slowed to a trickle. Racial struggle intensified. Calls for Mandela’s release and their conclusion that he was the only black leader with whom they could negotiate a peaceful transition to the enevitability of majority rule, led the white government to eventually pardon Mandela and other political prisoners. New elections were scheduled in which all South Africans participated. Not surprisingly, Nelson Mandela won that election, becoming South Africa’s first black President. The avoidance of a bloodbath revolution in South Africa is universally credited to Mandela’s skill as a leader and his personal character as a man of integrity. After one term, as planned, he returned to private life where he continued to lend his influence on human rights issues around the world.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia, on December 11, 1918, the same year as Billy Graham and Nelson Mandela. His father died six months before he was born in a tragic hunting accident. Solzhenitsyn began life in poverty and remained so through his childhood, though his remarkable intellect insured his place at Russia’s prestigious Rostov University, where he majored in mathematics and physics. As a teenager, Aleksandr abandoned the Russian Orthodox faith of his family and embraced atheistic Communism.
At the outbreak of World War II, he volunteered for the army, but physically impaired, he was rejected. But the threatening advance of the German Army toward Moscow gave him the opportunity to prove himself as a soldier. He was decorated in battle for his bravery. But the discovery of letters he had exchanged with a former schoolmate about their mutual disdain for Stalin, led to his arrest on February 9, 1945, where he was given a sentence of eight years imprisonment, light by Stalinist Russian standards. His last years were spent in the isolation of Siberia where he intellectually and spiritually completed a transformation from atheist to devout Christian and came to understand his mission to be that of exposing the evils of the Communist system.
His first book, a novel that painted the daily life of a gulag prisoner in vivid detail, made him instantly famous and controversial. This work and his subsequent writings about the evils of the Communist system are credited with helping to undermine the legitimacy of Communism as a moral and philosophical system and contributing in no small measure to the eventual fall of the Soviet empire. In 1974, the government revoked Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship and deported him, whereupon he was welcomed to the United States, where he lived in Vermont until 1994, when his exile was revoked and he was permitted to return to his homeland. By many accounts, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the greatest Russian author of the twentieth century. Only time will validate that claim.
Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918, on a sprawling dairy farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, one year to the day after the Bolshevik Revolution that launched the Soviet Communist empire and just four days before the armistice that ended World War One. The oldest of four children, Billy Graham=s childhood was like a page from a Norman Rockwell painting. By the age of eleven, he had developed a passion for reading, devouring biographies and Tarzan novels. He dreamed of becoming a big league baseball player, but it was not to happen. Attending an evangelistic service conducted by an itinerant evangelist named Mordecai Ham, Billy Graham responded to an invitation to make Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior. It changed him forever. Ultimately he felt a call to the ministry.
After a stint at Bob Jones University and the Florida Bible Institute, Billy enrolled in Wheaton College, where he met his wife to be, Ruth Bell. They were married on August 13, 1943. From 1943 to 1945, the young Graham pastored a small Baptist church in Western Springs, Illinois, but he spent as much of his time speaking at rallies for the newly formed AYouth For Christ@ movement and hosting a weekly popular weekly radio program. As World War II progressed, Billy accepted an army commission as a second lieutenant, but a serious case of the mumps eventually led to his release from the army.
In Los Angeles, in September, 1949, Billy was preaching at a Youth For Christ crusade when he came to the attention of the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, who ordered his newspapers to feature the young evangelist. Overnight he was front page news, never leaving the public spotlight again, becoming America=s most well-known and respected religious leader. He shaped much of the modern evangelical movement in the United States and built new bridges between Protestant and Catholic streams of the Christian faith. He awakened the born-again Christian movement to its potential for influence in the public sector, and personally influenced the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. He was briefly tempted by offers of public office, but was deeply disturbed by what he considered the betrayal of the national trust by President Richard Nixon.
The hallmark of Billy Graham’s life and influence was his moral and ethical integrity that was above reproach and won over many of his skeptics and enemies. He became unofficial pastor to the nation and the friend and confident to every American president since Harry Truman. Yet, he never strayed from his personal sense of inadequacy or his reliance on God.
Great Souls producer / director Tom Ivy directed the television programs for Billy Graham for more than seven years, and observed the consistent warmth and graciousness that Billy Graham extended toward everyone he met, regardless of their station or importance. The relationship was both a treasured friendship and a model for living that was to influence the director’s own life.
Born on August 26, 1910, Agnes Gonxha Obojaxhiu was the daughter of a close-knit and very devout Catholic family in the town of Skopje, Macedonia. While still a young girl, her father died, leaving Agnes and her sister to be raised alone by her mother. As a teenager, hearing stories of Catholic nuns serving in India, she volunteered for a life of service to the church. Her local priest wrote letters of introduction and obtained an interview for Agnes at the Mother House of a Catholic order based in Paris. On September 26, 1928, Agnes boarded a train for Paris. When she said goodbye to her mother and sister a few days later, it was the last time she would see them alive. After passing her interview in Paris, she was sent to Ireland for several weeks of training and a crash course in English. Soon thereafter, she was on her way to India, where her training continued.
Two years after taking her vows as a beginning novice, she took the name Sister Teresa On May 24, 1937, in a ceremony presided over by the archbishop of Calcutta, she finished her eight years of training and became Mother Teresa. She was given teaching responsibilities at the Loreto Convent in Calcutta where she served through the years of World War II. But on September 10, 1946, on a train ride up the mountains to Darjeeling for a much needed retreat, she felt she heard the voice of God speaking to her heart, calling her to a new work outside the safety of the convent walls, to serve the poor and suffering on the streets of Calcutta. She would later call it Athe call within a call@ and it became the basis for her request to start a new order of nuns to serve Calcutta=s poorest and most desperate citizens. Three years later, the Missionaries of Charity became official.
Over the years, Mother Teresa=s own boundless energy and selfless example drew around her hundreds of other young women who took up her calling to the downtrodden of the world. The work would eventually touch over a hundred nations and as many as 50 cities in India alone. Mother Teresa would call those to whom she ministered, AChrist in a most distressing disguise@. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Queens and celebrities of all kinds came to see her, yet she remained a servant of the poor till her death in September, 1997. She was given a State Funeral by the nation of India. Her body was carried on the same carriage that had borne Gandhi. In the years after her death, the Vatican began the process that would consider her for canonization as a saint.
Ellie Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania, a predominantly Jewish town, on September 30, 1928. He deeply loved and admired his father, but felt distant to him. They spent little time together except the weekly walk to the synagogue for Sabbath services. In contrast, Elie was emotionally very close to his mother. He had two older sisters and one younger. He and his older sisters were to survive the holocaust, the only members of his family to do so.
Elie grew up in a culture of anti-Semitism. In the first half of the twentieth century, it permeated European life for all Jews with few exceptions. But no one could imagine the horror that was to become the holocaust. Six million Jews died in the death camps of the Nazi war machine before it was crushed by the Allied armies. Elie=s mother and younger sister died in Auschwitz. Elie, along with his father and two older sisters were among those relocated to Buchenwald, in the heart of Germany, as the Allies advanced across Poland. His father died there. Elie lost contact with his sisters until after the war.
On April 11, 1945, the morning before the Allies liberated Buchenwald, the prisoners themselves revolted and freed themselves. After several days in the former camp hospital, Elie was among several hundred orphaned children who were sent to France to begin new lives. It was there he eventually reconnected with his two older sisters. In Paris, he learned French and eventually entered the famed Sorbonne University, developing the skills of a writer and lecturer that would make him a prolific author, speaker, and educator in the years to come. Eventually, he came to understand his mission in life was to make certain the world did not forget what it had done and was still capable of doing when hate overpowers all other emotions.
For his work, Elie Wiesel has been awarded the highest accolades known to man, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement at the White House in 1985, America’s highest civilian award, and the coveted Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Elie Wiesel continues his work today through the Elie Wiesel Foundation, and through his writings, lectures, and conferences around the world.
Pope John Paul II
Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, Poland, a small town some thirty miles southwest of the ancient city of Krakow, on May 18, 1920. He was the third child and second son in a close-knit, devoutly Catholic family. He never knew his older sister, who died when she was infant. Karol’s mother also died when he was just eight years old. Five years later, tragedy struck again when his older brother Edmund, an up and coming intern at the nearby hospital, contracted scarlet fever from a patient and died. They had been very close and the loss affected him deeply.
With his aging father, who was barely surviving on a small army pension, Karol moved to Krakow, where he enrolled in the university, his sights set on becoming a stage actor, all the while his spiritual life was deepening. But in September, 1940, Hitler’s war machine invaded Poland. The university was closed; its faculty deported or imprisoned. All intellectual and spiritual life in Poland was suppressed. In February, 1942, his father died, leaving him totally alone in the world, and drawing him even deeper into his own spiritual journey. Eventually it led him to the priesthood and full time service to the Church, although it was against the law during the Nazi occupation.
After the war, Father Karol Wojtyla quickly rose in the Catholic Church, becoming a bishop (1958) and then archbishop of Krakow (1964), where he came to the attention of the Vatican, becoming cardinal three years later (1967). He served as a delegate to the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 and had already established himself on the international stage of the Catholic Church when newly elected Pope John Paul I suddenly died after only 34 days in office. When the cardinals were summoned again, he emerged on October 22, 1978 as the new pontiff, taking the name John Paul II, in honor of his predecessor, the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years. He was just 58 years old, the youngest pontiff in more than a hundred years.
John Paul’s papacy would be marked by his influence on the fall of Communism, first in Poland, then in the Soviet Union itself. He would travel to more countries and see more people face to face than any man in history. He would champion the human right to dignity for all mankind and become the first pope to cross the Tiber River and embrace the Chief Rabbi of Rome. He would build new bridges between Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox churches, and reaffirm traditional Catholic positions on issues such as abortion, the role of women, and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. His appearances at international youth gatherings would challenge millions of young people in their walk of faith. He would appoint more than three quarters of the cardinals who would elect future popes, insuring his ideas would long outlive him. John Paul changed the face of the papacy forever. Ultimately many believe he will go down in history as John Paul The Great.