Today's Paper Season Pass Readers Choice Obits Latest LEARNS Guide Puzzles Newsletters Public Notices Podcast HER Magazine Jobs Circulars Classifieds

Sarah Young, who created an empire around a Christian devotional, diesat 77

by Clay Risen, NYTimes News Service | September 8, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.

Sarah Young, whose book "Jesus Calling," composed of devotional readings written in the voice of Jesus Christ, sold tens of millions of copies and spawned an evangelical empire of sequels, television shows and podcasts, died Aug. 31 at her home in Brentwood, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville. She was 77.

Her sister Beth Bhatnagar said the cause was leukemia.

The Christian publishing world is chock-full of devotionals, collections of daily spiritual texts that sell at a modest, regular pace through gift shops and church bookstores. For a while, "Jesus Calling" seemed to follow the same pattern: In the first three years after it was published in 2004, it sold a respectable but unremarkable 59,000 copies.

Then it took off. A renewed push by Young's publisher, Thomas Nelson, drove it to the top of the Christian publishing bestseller lists; the company reported that it sold 220,000 copies in 2008 alone.

Then came sequels, including "Jesus Always" and "Jesus Today," along with calendars, journals and children's editions. A podcast was begun in 2016. An app, a magazine and a TV show followed. As of August, the "Jesus Calling" brand had sold 45 million units.

The book's success can be attributed in part to Young's unique technique.

"I have written from the perspective of Jesus speaking, to help readers feel more personally connected with Him," she wrote in the introduction. "So the first person singular ('I,' 'Me,' 'My,' 'Mine') always refers to Christ; 'you' refers to you, the reader."

Most of the book's entries, one for each day of the year, appear as calm, concrete directives. "Let me show you my way for this day," the July 2 entry reads. "I guide you continually so you can enjoy my presence in the present."

"Jesus Calling" has not been without its critics, some of whom accuse Young of blasphemy for speaking in the name of Jesus. It even sparked a book-length dissection, "'Another Jesus' Calling: How False Christs Are Entering the Church Through Contemplative Prayer" (2013), by Warren Smith, a self-professed "former new ager."

Young denied that she meant to speak for Jesus, or to channel his words. She said her book was simply her attempt to communicate the thoughts and feelings she experienced through her own daily devotionals.

Young was an intensely private woman who for years lived with a number of chronic conditions, including Lyme disease, which left her largely housebound. She never toured, and she gave interviews only by email. Few photos of her have been published.

None of that hampered the appeal of "Jesus Calling." Among her millions of readers and fans were celebrities such as former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, singer Reba McEntire and talk-show personality Kathie Lee Gifford, who on Aug. 23 asked her own fans on Facebook to pray for Young.

"Would you send her a message today please and ask that Jesus heals her?" Gifford wrote. "She is just precious."

Sarah Jane Kelly was born March 15, 1946, in Nashville. Her parents were both educators: Her father, Tom, taught college economics and later worked for the state of Virginia; her mother, Douglass (Levine) Kelly, taught elementary school.

The family moved around, following Tom Kelly's career. Young graduated from high school in Lynchburg, Virginia. She studied philosophy at Wellesley College, graduating in 1968, and received a master's degree in child development at Tufts University in 1974.

While she was in graduate school, her brother persuaded her to read "Escape From Reason," a 1968 book by evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. Until then, she had been a nominally faithful Christian at best, much more influenced by the secular philosophers she studied in college.

Schaeffer's book affected her so much that she soon traveled to his retreat in the Swiss Alps, near Lake Geneva. One evening, she found herself walking through the snow amid the pine trees outside her chalet.

"I became aware of a lovely Presence with me," she wrote in the introduction to "Jesus Calling." "This experience of Jesus' Presence was far more personal than the intellectual answers for which I'd been searching. This was a relationship with the Creator of the universe."

She went on to study at Covenant Theological Seminary in Creve Coeur, Missouri, near St. Louis, where she met Stephen Young, a third-generation missionary. They married in 1977 and moved to Japan as missionaries that same year.

In addition to Bhatnagar, Stephen Young survives her, as do their children, Stephanie van der Westhuizen and Eric Young; her brother, Tim; another sister, Ellen Woolaver; and six grandchildren.

After eight years in Japan, the Youngs moved to Atlanta, where Sarah Young earned another master's degree, this time in counseling, at Georgia State University. Three years later, they moved to Australia, again as missionaries, living first in Melbourne and then in Perth.

All the while, she was keeping a devotional journal. She met with rejection when she tried to get it published, but samples of her writing began to circulate among prayer circles, including in Nashville. One member there was so moved that she showed them to her husband, an executive at a Christian publisher, Integrity (which later became a part of Thomas Nelson). He was also moved, and offered Sarah Young a contract.

The Youngs moved to Nashville in 2013. By then, Sarah Young's conditions was keeping her in bed for long stretches of the day. She insisted on email interviews because, she said, she was never sure when her mental clarity would falter.

But she kept writing, with at least a dozen titles in her "Jesus Calling" series. The latest, "Jesus Listens -- for Advent and Christmas, With Full Scriptures: Prayers for the Season," is to be published in October.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Print Headline: Sarah Young, who created an empire around a Christian devotional, diesat 77


Sponsor Content