Sarah Young, a devotional author who wrote in Jesus’ voice and became one of the most-read evangelicals of the 21st century, has died at 77.
The wife of a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) missionary to Japanese people, Young suffered from Lyme disease and other chronic illnesses that sometimes forced her to stay in her room for 20 hours a day. In her isolation, she started to practice “listening prayer” and journaling what she felt the Spirit tell her.
“Messages began to flow … and I bought a special notebook to record these words,” Young later wrote. “I have continued to receive personal messages from God as I mediate on Him.”
A few pages from her journal found their way to a women’s prayer group in Nashville in the early 2000s. One of the women shared them with her husband, who was vice president of marketing at Integrity Publishers, and Integrity asked Young if she could write one message from God to the reader for every day of the year. She agreed, and they published Jesus Calling in 2004.
With an additional marketing push after Integrity was absorbed by Thomas Nelson, the book earned a top 10 spot on the Evangelical Christian Booksellers Association’s bestseller list in 2009. It remained atop the list, month after month, for the next 15 years, ultimately selling more than 45 million copies. In August 2023, Jesus Calling outsold T. D. Jakes, Lee Strobel, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Louie Giglio, and Max Lucado.
A children’s version of Jesus Calling has also sold more than a million copies, as have two of Young’s follow-up devotionals, Jesus Always and Jesus Today. Two others, Jesus Lives and Jesus Listens, have sold half a million copies each.
Young’s devotional writing has stirred controversy, with some evangelical leaders expressing concern that she undermines the idea that the Bible is sufficient for contemporary Christians, and others saying that writing from Jesus’ perspective borders on blasphemy. Many, many believers, however, have found comfort, peace, encouragement, and inspiration in Young’s Jesus’ words.
Jesus Calling has attracted fans as diverse as hip-hop producer Metro Boomin, who posted photos of completely highlighted pages on his social media, and talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford, who has praised Young’s spiritual guidance in her life.
“I marvel at her endurance and her faith,” Gifford said. “I’m deeply humbled by her heart for Jesus.”
On Goodreads, a social media site where people share book reviews and ratings, 85 percent of Jesus Calling readers gave it four or five stars.
“I absolutely adore this devotional,” wrote one woman from Tennessee. “I have read it nearly everyday for the past year, but I still find peace from it even now. Beautiful and comforting.”
Spiritual struggles led to L’Abri
Young was born Sarah Jane Kelly in Nashville on March 15, 1946. Little is known about her childhood except that her father was a college professor and her family lived in the South. She graduated from E. C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1964, and attended Wellesley College, where she majored in philosophy. She went on to earn a master’s in education, focusing on child study, at Tufts University in 1974.
Despite her academic success, the future author of Jesus Calling was struggling spiritually. She was not a Christian, and her philosophy classes had convinced her that life was ultimately meaningless and absurd. Then she found Escape from Reason by Francis Schaeffer. The book made her think there might be answers to questions she had thought were unanswerable. She might be able to know the truth and even have confidence it was absolute.
The hope prompted a trip to L’Abri, Schaeffer’s evangelical study center in the Swiss Alps. There, Young had an encounter with Jesus. A counselor asked her if she was a Christian and what she thought she needed to be forgiven for.
“Immediately I understood my need for Jesus—to save me from my many sins,” she wrote.
After walking alone in the snowy Swiss woods, Young felt a Presence—she would always write about it with a capital P—and felt it was the overwhelming personal answer to a question she had only thought was intellectual. She said aloud, “Sweet Jesus.”
A year later, she felt the same Presence while reading Christian author Catherine Marshall’s book about prayer, Beyond Ourselves.
“I no longer felt alone,” Young later recalled. “I knew that Jesus was with me.”
Young decided to become a Christian counselor and went to earn a second master’s degree at Covenant Theological Seminary, a PCA school in Missouri. There, she met and married Stephen Young, a child and grandchild of missionaries to Japan who also planned to be a missionary to Japan. The couple was married in 1977 and moved south of Yokkaichi to plant a church with Mission to the World.
The Youngs moved to Melbourne, Australia, in 1991, where Steve helped plant the first Japanese-language church in the city. Sarah started a counseling practice, helping women who had been sexually and spiritually abused find healing in Christ. Young began to meditate on God’s protection, visualizing each member of her family encircled by the Spirit. As she did, she later recalled, she had a mystical experience. She was enveloped by light and overcome by peace.
“I had not sought this powerful experience of God’s Presence,” she wrote, “but I received it gratefully.”
Experimenting with a prayer journal
The following year, Young started experimenting with listening prayers. In her journal, instead of writing down what she wanted to say to God, she would would write down what she felt God saying to her. She was inspired, at least in part, by the evangelical theologian J. I. Packer, who wrote that God “guides our minds as we think things out in his presence.”
More controversially, Young was also influenced by God Calling, a British record of purportedly divine revelation given to two anonymous women known only as “The Listeners.” It was edited and published by a newspaper editor interested in spiritualism, mystic experiences, and alternative religious authorities.
“Christ Christ Christ. Everything must rest on Me,” they women recorded God saying in 1933. “Be channels both of you. My Spirit shall flow through and My Spirit shall, in flowing through, sweep away all the bitter past.”
Young treasured the book. It “dovetailed remarkably well with my longing to live in Jesus’ Presence,” she said. It prompted her to start writing in God’s voice in her prayer journal.
Young didn’t think her writing was inspired by God—and was certainly not inerrant—yet she didn’t think it was just a creative writing project, either. Writing from God’s perspective wasn’t conceived as a rhetorical device. She thought of her journals as a testament to God’s Presence.
As she experienced various illnesses, including two surgeries for melanoma, a misdiagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, and persistent vertigo, the prayer practices became increasingly important to her. Young wondered if she might be called to share them with others.
“When people open up to me,” she wrote, “I find most of them also desire the balm of Jesus’ Peace.”
She spent about three years preparing a manuscript but could not secure a publishing contract. She gave up in 2001, when the family moved to Perth, an isolated city in Western Australia, so that Steve could establish a ministry for Japanese people there. Her illnesses, in the following years, got so bad that she could barely leave her room. She focused as much as she could on writing, praying, and meditating on God.
Byron Williamson, founder of Integrity, received a sample of Young’s work in 2003. The writing grabbed him.
“I spent the next few days reflecting on the voice I heard in Sarah’s devotionals … they were remarkably intimate words, warmly voiced,” Williamson later recalled. “It reminded me of a book I’d seen on my own mother’s bedside table years before titled God Calling.”
He suggested the title Jesus Calling and offered Young a contract. She accepted, telling her husband she hoped the publisher would not lose money on her devotional.
A publishing miracle
She need not have worried. In its first three years, Jesus Calling sold an average of 20,000 copies per year, with many people buying them as gifts. Christian bookstores reported customers asking if they could buy the devotional by the case.
Thomas Nelson took over Integrity in 2006 and, instead of treating the devotional as an odd backlist title, saw Jesus Calling as a potential bestseller. The Christian publisher pushed the book. In 2008, they sold 220,000 copies. In 2009, it landed on bestseller lists. In 2013, it outsold Fifty Shades of Gray, and Thomas Nelson translated it into more than two dozen languages.
Young herself barely participated in the promotion of her books, earning a reputation for reclusiveness even after moving back to Nashville with her husband. When Christianity Today attempted to profile her, she only communicated by email through an intermediary at Thomas Nelson. The New York Times and Publishers Weekly were also denied telephone interviews.
But her book continued to sell. Many readers found Jesus Calling through personal recommendations. The musician David Crowder said he lost track of how many people asked him, “Bro! Have you read Jesus Calling?”
Actor and singer Kristin Chenoweth, who starred in the TV show Pushing Daisies and the Broadway production of Wicked, said she was given a copy by actor Rita Wilson, who is married to Tom Hanks and had roles in the films Sleepless in Seattle and Runaway Bride. Wilson was herself given a copy by country singer Faith Hill.
“It’s kind of crazy that sometimes you read the passage from that day and it’s exactly what you need to hear,” Wilson said.
The book was also promoted by Republican presidential primary candidate Scott Walker and passed around the White House. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she found a copy in her office shortly after president Donald Trump promoted her to press secretary.
“I grabbed it,” she told CBN. “I went into the other room, and I read it immediately. I just was kind of like, ‘I’m at peace.’”
As the book became more popular, it also attracted serious criticism.
“She puts her thoughts into the first person and then presents that ‘person’ as the resurrected Lord. Frankly, I find this to be outrageous,” David Crump, a theology professor at Calvin University, told CT in 2013. “I’m sure she is a very devout, pious woman, but I’m tempted to call this blasphemy.”
Evangelical blogger Tim Challies wrote that it was a “deeply troubling book” that was both dangerous and “unworthy of our attention.”
Kathy Keller, assistant director of communications for the New York City PCA church where her husband, Tim, was the lead pastor, wrote a review explaining why Redeemer would not sell Jesus Calling at its book table, even though lots of people asked for it.
“Young had the Bible but found it insufficient,” she said. “If you want to experience Jesus, learn how to find him in his Word. His real Word.”
Editors at Thomas Nelson objected that the critics were being obtuse.
“In no way does she believe her own writing is sacred or that she has new revelations,” one told The New York Times. “I feel like she’s tried to be pretty clear about that in her book introductions.”
They also pointed out the long history of devotional writing, including classic works by Andrew Murray, Oswald Chambers, and A. W. Tozer, was broadly accepted in evangelicalism. Young’s writing style might be different, but readers were very familiar with the devotional genre that critics seemed to wildly misunderstand.
Helping readers connect with Jesus
The accusations of possible heresy did not hurt sales. While some new readers approached Jesus Calling and follow-up devotionals with caution, most became ardent converts when they read Young’s Jesus’ words
Author Dawn Paoletta, for example, wrote that she was skeptical because Young’s account of receiving divine messages reminded her of New Age writings. But when she read Jesus Calling, she was convinced it was from God.
“I wholeheartedly recommend this book and have already bought a half dozen copies as gifts,” Paoletta wrote on Goodreads. “I have also purchased a hard copy that I currently keep in my purse! … I probably will eventually give it to the person God prompts at the moment!”
Millions responded the same way, returning to Jesus Calling again and again for spiritual substance and giving copies away to anyone who seemed like they might need it.
Young said she was astounded by the commercial success of her writing, but was glad she could help people connect with Jesus. As sales numbers grew astronomical, she committed to continue praying for all of her readers.
“Remember that I’m always praying for you,” she wrote upon publication of Jesus Listens. “But most importantly, remember that Jesus is always with you, listening to every one of your prayers.”
Young died in Nashville on August 31. She is survived by her husband, Steve, daughter Stephanie, and son Eric.