NEW YORK—John McCandlish Phillips Jr., an acclaimed New York Times reporter who left his job to become an evangelist, died Tuesday at age 85 after a long bout with pneumonia.
Phillips worked for 21 years at the Times, starting in 1952. He was known for his sparkling writing in feature articles as well as hard-knuckled reporting. In a 1965 article he revealed that Daniel Burros, the leader of New York state’s Ku Klux Klan who advocated the genocide of Jews, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. Burros had threatened to kill Phillips in the lead-up to the story, but Phillips went forward with his reporting. Burros committed suicide the day the Times published the story.
Phillips famously kept a big Bible on his desk at the Times and abstained from the common newsroom practices of drinking and gambling. But he didn’t have a preachy reputation: He was a quiet giant at 6 foot 6 inches tall with a string bean frame, and had the reputation as a good writer and reporter. Phillips’ identity was first as a Christian and second as a New Yorker—he very rarely left the city, even for vacations.
“If anyone were to ask me for my credentials as an illuminator of New York City, I would suggest that a biopsy of my lungs might establish my authority,” he once wrote, a prophetic assessment given his later struggles with pneumonia. “The air of the city is the only air I have breathed.”
Phillips mentored several generations of journalists, even in the years after he left journalism. Russ Pulliam (a WORLD board member) met Phillips in the 1970s when Pulliam was working the New York City police beat as an Associated Press reporter. Phillips became a friend, and in the years following Pulliam would mail him packages of his work every couple years. Phillips would write him back with encouragements and critiques.
“I didn’t even know how to say, ‘How do we bring a Christian worldview to our work?’” Pulliam recalled Tuesday. “I know for a number of younger Christians in journalism he was a friend who gave us guidance. … He could go write a story and he would bring biblical principles to bear in it, and in such a subtle way. And The New York Times editors would love it.”
Phillips chronicled the mundane (collected in his 1974 book City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York). He described homicides, people waiting at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and bee swarms plaguing a neighborhood. In an article on the polluted Gowanus Canal he wrote, “To call the Gowanus a waterway is to affirm the fact that the fluid that sloshes in it is composed partly of water.”
Phillips was known for writing about the unnoticed people in the city: a high school principal who was skilled at ragtime piano, a shoe salesman, or a bricklayer.
“He always realized the people he was writing about were made in the image of God,” said Pulliam.
For six years in the 2000s, until his health deteriorated, Phillips taught courses on journalism basics at the World Journalism Institute, which is affiliated with WORLD News Group. I was a student in his class in 2006, where he introduced our class to the classic work of journalism, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by his former Times colleague Gay Talese.
After a meteoric rise at the Times, Phillips decided to quit in 1973. He was 46. He said he felt God calling him to do ministry full time, which he did through the small Pentecostal church he helped found and run: New Testament Missionary Fellowship. At the time the Christian community in New York City was very small, but has multiplied in the decades since. He wrote periodic pieces for the Times, but faded out of writing as the years went on. But he continued to mentor and teach journalists.
“Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Talese said in a 1997 article on Phillips in the New Yorker. “He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer! Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”