McCartney Conceives Promise Keepers

University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney conceived the idea for an interdenominational organization to promote faith and fellowship among Christian men. Promise Keepers attracted hundreds of thousands of men to rallies held at sports stadiums, where they renewed their commitments to Christ, their fellow men, marriage, and family responsibilities.

Summary of Event

In March, 1990, Bill McCartney, the head football coach at the University of Colorado, founded an organization he named Promise Keepers, the purpose of which was to help Christian men grow in their commitment and obedience to Christian teachings, especially concerning faithfulness and responsibility in marriage and family life. Promise Keepers became a fast-growing movement, reaching hundreds of thousands of men primarily from evangelical Christian backgrounds. The organization’s most visible activities were large rallies held in sports stadiums throughout the United States; these events attracted thousands of attendees. Religious organizations;Promise Keepers
Promise Keepers
[kw]McCartney Conceives Promise Keepers (Mar. 20, 1990)
[kw]Promise Keepers, McCartney Conceives (Mar. 20, 1990)
Religious organizations;Promise Keepers
Promise Keepers
[g]North America;Mar. 20, 1990: McCartney Conceives Promise Keepers[07680]
[g]United States;Mar. 20, 1990: McCartney Conceives Promise Keepers[07680]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 20, 1990: McCartney Conceives Promise Keepers[07680]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar. 20, 1990: McCartney Conceives Promise Keepers[07680]
McCartney, Bill
Phillips, Randy

McCartney was a familiar figure to many sports fans throughout the United States because of his position as the head coach of the University of Colorado football team, which won the national college football championship in 1990. On March 20, 1990, McCartney traveled with Dave Wardell, Wardell, Dave the Colorado state director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), to a speaking engagement at an FCA meeting. During their three-hour car trip, McCartney and Wardell discussed ways in which they might help Christian men to grow spiritually and become better disciples of Christ. One idea they discussed was bringing together thousands of men in rallies held at large sports arenas, where they could join in fellowship, worship, and teaching.

From these initial discussions, McCartney formed the concept for the Promise Keepers organization. He held meetings and discussions with various groups of Christian men through the spring and summer of 1990 to explore ideas about the form and purpose of the proposed group. Promise Keepers was incorporated in Colorado in December, 1990. Randy Phillips was chosen as the first president of the organization; he served until 1994, when McCartney took over the presidency after resigning his coaching job to devote all of his time to leading Promise Keepers.

According to the group’s mission statement, “Promise Keepers is a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world.” Those who join the organization commit themselves to seven promises concerning the spiritual discipline of a Christian life; fellowship with other men; moral, ethical, and sexual purity; marital and family commitment; support of the local church and its pastor; the breaking down of racial and denominational barriers to fellowship; and evangelism. (At some early Promise Keepers conferences, McCartney was struck by the fact that the attendees were almost entirely white. This observation led him to begin emphasizing racial reconciliation and fellowship among Christian men across racial lines as one of the goals of Promise Keepers.)

Members of Promise Keepers meet in small groups, often within the framework of a local church, to encourage one another and to provide some means of accountability. Many men are influenced through Promise Keepers rallies and other special events but do not become directly involved with the organization as members.

Promise Keepers’ first men’s conference was held at the University of Colorado football stadium in July, 1991; forty-two hundred men attended. When the third annual conference was held two years later at the same location, more than fifty thousand men attended. In 1994, after McCartney took on full-time leadership of Promise Keepers, the organization began holding rallies in several cities across the United States. It has been estimated that from 1994 through 1998, more than two million men attended Promise Keepers rallies at fifty sites around the country.

In 1997, Promise Keepers sponsored a rally it called “Stand in the Gap” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Estimates of attendance at the event range from one-half million to one million. This rally seemed to mark the apex of the group’s visibility, as conferences in subsequent years attracted only a fraction of the numbers of men who were attending major Promise Keepers events in the mid-1990’s. By the late 1990’s, attendance at the group’s rallies declined significantly, but tens of thousands of men continued to attend rallies and other events around the United States every year as the twenty-first century began.

At one point in 1998, financial difficulties forced the organization to furlough many staff members, but a resurgence of financial support later allowed Promise Keepers to return to full staffing. The group’s financial troubles stemmed in part from a decision to drop the fees charged for attendance at conferences and instead depend entirely on voluntary donations. After two years, the conference fees were reinstated. In 2003, McCartney resigned from the presidency of Promise Keepers so that he could devote more time to caring for his ailing wife. At that time, Thomas S. Fortson, Fortson, Thomas S., Jr. Jr., became the third president of Promise Keepers.


Promise Keepers was without a doubt the most significant and visible men’s movement within American evangelical Christian churches in the late twentieth century. Although the attendees and active workers in most American congregations are predominantly women, Promise Keepers played a significant role in bringing more men into active participation within their churches. The organization also had some limited impact overseas, primarily in other English-speaking countries.

As a highly visible group, Promise Keepers attracted significant attention from the secular media as well as criticism from those who disagreed with its conservative, traditionalist teachings or feared some hidden political agenda behind the movement. Secularist critics and feminist groups criticized Promise Keepers on several fronts. Some feminists asserted that the organization promotes “patriarchy” by emphasizing the concept of male headship in the family. In Promise Keepers, men are taught that they should exercise their biblical role of leadership in the family; many feminists interpreted this as continuing traditional forms of male domination.

Feminists and secularists also charged that Promise Keepers has a political agenda, because the organization has been supported by many prominent individuals and groups associated with the Christian Right. Some liberal groups criticized Promise Keepers because of the organization’s generally conservative social views, including its opposition to homosexuality and abortion.

Many evangelical Christian women, in contrast, including the wives of many men associated with Promise Keepers, expressed satisfaction with the changes the organization can make in men’s lives. Many scholars have seen parallels between the development of Promise Keepers and other relatively recent movements in Christianity, such as the “muscular Christianity” theme that was prominent in Christian circles in Great Britain and the United States around the beginning of the twentieth century and the urban revivalism of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. The movement also might be seen as an example of a new type of men’s movement that emerged in the late twentieth century, emphasizing male bonding and attention to various concepts of masculinity and the place of masculinity in the lives of modern men. Religious organizations;Promise Keepers
Promise Keepers

Further Reading

  • Allen, L. Dean. Rise Up, O Men of God: The “Men and Religion Forward Movement” and the “Promise Keepers.” Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2002. Compares a Christian men’s movement that took place in the early twentieth century with the Promise Keepers.
  • Bartkowski, John P. The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Excellent study of the movement looks at the social forces that promoted both the rapid growth and the subsequent decline of Promise Keepers.
  • Messner, Michael A. Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1997. Discussion of men’s movements provides an in-depth scholarly treatment of Promises Keepers and places it within the context of other movements.
  • Williams, Rhys H., ed. Promise Keepers and the New Masculinity: Private Lives and Public Morality. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001. Collection of essays by noted sociologists examines various aspects of the Promise Keepers movement.

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