Joel Belz, founder of World magazine and former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in America’s general assembly, died on Sunday, Feb. 4, at age 82, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He’s one of the finest men I’ve ever known, and his development displays the strengths of American evangelicalism at its height.
Joel was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, in 1941. In 2019 he still remembered his rebellion at age five. He wanted to play in the sandbox of another child, Wendell, who lived two blocks away in their city of 19,240. Joel wasn’t supposed to go there himself but did so anyway because Wendell had a big sandbox and many toy shovels. Before scurrying home Joel stuffed one of them under his shirt.
Soon, patriarch Max Belz arrived home and immediately asked his oldest son, “What’s that in your shirt?” Joel replied “Nothing”—and suffered a spanking. Sometimes a disobedient act created its own chastisement. When Joel was seven, he wanted to sneak out of the house without using a door, so he tied a bedsheet to the leg of a bed, knotted the other end around his ankle, and had younger brother Mark, age 5, gradually lower him.
The plan was good—except the sheet was too short. Joel, dangling with his head six feet above ground, screamed, “Pull me up!” That was beyond the strength of his little brother. A neighbor came running and eased Joel down, with no permanent damage. That was a better result than three years later when Joel—earning a dime per hour for running the family printing press—put an index finger where he shouldn’t have and had the tip cut off.
Nevertheless, Joel grew up with a strong sense of security fostered by a loving but not clinging home a brick church with trustworthy values, and a small city where children could wander without facing stranger danger. He enjoyed family hymn-singing along with his four brothers and three sisters. His safe base gave him the physical and psychological freedom to explore, with nurturing by a dad who took him on travels throughout the Midwest.
Max Belz was a successful grain/lumber/coal dealer in rural Iowa with the largest single-chamber silo in the entire state and the cleverness to hire German prisoners of war to fill it. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, Max Belz gave up that: He became a leader in the small, Bible Presbyterian denomination that had broken away from the liberal mainline Presbyterians. Carl McIntire headed the group. Francis Schaeffer was one of its young pastors.
Joel eventually learned much from Schaeffer, but McIntire was Joel’s “boyhood hero.” Joel often accompanied his dad on church visits throughout the Midwest: Joel learned to “love the church,” although his dad often left meetings fuming. A side benefit of the trips came via Max Belz’s willingness to stop along the way to tour a John Deere factory, a paper mill, or a Mississippi riverboat—wherever the curiosity that would animate a future journalist beckoned.
McIntire’s big fundraising project was “Bible balloons” that would purportedly carry Bibles into East Germany and other countries behind that era’s Iron Curtain. Max Belz learned the balloons would not support entire Bibles and maybe not even New Testaments. He challenged McIntire to tell the truth during his promotions. McIntire stuck with his story.
Max Belz wanted honesty, regardless of consequences. Teenaged Joel watched in fascination as the blood vessels on McIntire’s neck popped in and out in response to the challenges of younger men. Joel was disenchanted—an occupational hazard for future journalists—as “my champion became my enemy.”
In 1958 Joel graduated from Cono Christian School, which his dad had founded. (Joel’s brother Tim said, “Cono made us brave enough to try.”) He became a freshman at Covenant College in St. Louis and used a loan from grandfather Raymond Belz to buy a Model L Linotype. Joel’s plan was to pay for college by setting type with that era’s behemoth instrument.
Grandpa—who would die of cancer in three months, although Joel did not know that—helped him chain up the complex machine and lower it into a basement that would become a print shop. The chain broke and the linotype lay on the floor, shattered into 500 pieces. Joel felt like crying. Then he did cry—but Raymond Belz prayed, thanking God no one was hurt, and took Joel that evening to a St. Louis Cardinals game.
The linotype was the disaster that kept on taking, as Joel hired a welder to fix it— but saw after much more expense it would never be right again. Still, he graduated from Covenant in 1962 with a B.A. in English and added to that an M.A. in Mass Communications in 1970 from the University of Iowa.
For a time, Joel made site visits around the world for the National Liberty Foundation, learning about funding, fundraising, and other cultures. He then taught logic at Covenant College and helped to found Lookout Mountain Christian School high above Chattanooga: When it ran through two headmasters and ran out of money, he became the unpaid head.
In 1977 Joel moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to work with Presbyterian Journal, a southern voice of theological conservatism and, sadly, a defender of segregation. Joel had seen the downside of Carl McIntire and now saw the same with editor Aiken Taylor, who exaggerated the circulation of the declining magazine and published some stories that were not true. The staff became so divided that writers and editors began working in two separate buildings.
Joel, with his printing background, was one of the first Christians to perceive that the media environment was changing. He never got his linotype machine to work well, but soon it didn’t matter. Those dinosaurs were on their way to extinction as new methods became available. Joel— combining his knowledge of printing, fundraising, and theology—learned about desktop publishing before it was cool and published in 1981 the first issue of God’s World for children.
This alternative to the secular Weekly Reader quickly became popular at Christian schools. In 1980 and 1981 Joel also helped to start what became two Asheville institutions, Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church and Asheville Christian Academy. But he and editor Taylor had escalating disagreements. A stormy showdown before the God’s World Publications (GWP) board of directors ended with Taylor leaving the Journal and Joel becoming interim editor.
Meanwhile, evangelicals who praised the children’s newspapers began to ask Joel to develop a weekly magazine for adults. He and his younger brother Nat Belz produced the first issue of World in March 1986. It was only 16 slick pages, with color only on the cover, but it still cost 53 cents per copy to print. The issue featured short news stories, along with legislative analysis by R.C. Sproul and an article by Nat’s wife, Mindy.
Selling subscriptions one by one proved harder than selling them by the hundreds when a Christian school signed up to have all its students receive copies. After 13 issues World was $300,000 in debt. The GWP board in June stopped the presses. Joel argued it was time to stop Presbyterian Journal, which had a dwindling readership, and put the dollars saved into World, which if produced on newsprint could have a per-copy production cost of less than a dime.
The board agreed. Joel and Nat restarted World in 1987. The magazine caught a break in 1989 when an evangelical magazine optimistically titled Eternity shut down without lasting as long as anticipated. Its 22,000 readers began receiving World instead: 8,000 of them eventually subscribed. Happily, Joel’s two other innovations—the children’s newspapers and a book club—produced enough revenue to carry World until it could stand on its own.
In 1994 Joel retired from editing and concentrated on the business side, along with writing his weekly column. The magazine prospered and Joel always backed it when World’s independence and investigative work upset just about every major evangelical leader from time to time.
Joel continued to serve as an elder of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville and a key trustee of Covenant College. In 2003 the PCA showed its confidence in Joel by making him moderator of its annual General Assembly. He showed the reason for that confidence when one of the PCA’s most prominent pastors, D. James Kennedy, wanted to speak out of turn. Joel declared him out of order.
In 2008, though, Joel’s health started on a long glide down. He suffered through a radical prostatectomy, 37 radiation treatments, and—in 2014—Parkinson’s disease. For another decade he traveled on, becoming a PCA grand old man and enjoying his wife of 49 years, Carol Esther, along with five daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. ###
Marvin Olasky was editor and editor-in-chief of World from 1994 to 2021.