Globetrotting Preacher

By Tom Gillem –

The Rev. H. Eddie Fox was born in the Appalachian foothills and never saw an ocean until he was 21. But as head of World Methodist Evangelism, he traveled millions of miles to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ on every inhabited continent in the world. Fox has retired after 25 years encouraging evangelism around the world.

“I believe that Eddie Fox has been the most visible evangelistic face in the Methodist/Wesleyan movement in our lifetime,” said Bishop Michael Watson of the North Georgia Conference, who is a member of the World Methodist Council’s steering committee. “Eddie Fox has preached to more people and taught faith sharing to more people than anyone on earth.”

The World Methodist Council is a worldwide association of 80 Methodist, Wesleyan and related Uniting and United Churches, including The United Methodist Church. The council represents more than 80.5 million people in 155 countries. It officially began in 1951, but dates its origin to a meeting of the Ecumenical Methodist Conference in 1881 at Wesley’s Chapel in London, which has been called one of the earliest organized Christian world communions.

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The Rev. H. Eddie Fox reads the gospel lesson during morning worship at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

In 1971, the council launched World Methodist Evangelism to fulfill its vision of encouraging evangelism in every land. Fox became director of World Methodist Evangelism on January 1, 1989, following the first full-time director, the Rev. Sir Alan Walker, a distinguished church and national leader from Sydney, Australia.

During the past quarter of a century, Methodist/Wesleyan denominations worldwide have grown by a million members each year, Fox said.

“Wherever the church is faithful to the doctrine, the sound teaching, the Discipline, the way of life – which is the way you order your life – and the spirit, openness to the Holy Spirit, you’ll find a church that’s dynamic, contagious and alive,” Fox said. “And where that is not true, you’ll find a church to be a dead sect, having the form but not the power thereof. That’s been a focus of my ministry. It’s been a call we’ve stood on for many, many years.”

Childhood and Call to Ministry

Fox grew up in a country Methodist church on Waldens Creek in Sevier County, Tennessee. At age 9, he knew he wanted to follow Jesus, and at age 16 knew he wanted to be a preacher like his grandfather. The church gave him a license to preach when he was 17 years old.

For six generations, since his ancestors moved in 1787 to a mountainous wilderness that later became part of Tennessee, Fox family members have been Methodists. “John Wesley was still alive, and my family was already Methodist,” Fox is fond of saying.

An ordained elder in the Holston Conference, Fox served churches in Virginia and Tennessee before joining the Board of Evangelism, which later became United Methodist Discipleship Ministries. He was there 15 years, and served as head of evangelism for the last six years. Fox also was on the faculty of Billy Graham School of Evangelism for 15 years.

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a past president of the World Methodist Council, served for 20 years as the council’s chairman of world evangelism and headed the committee that selected Fox.

“In a very significant way, Eddie has brought together human resources from all over the world for the cause of evangelism,” said Dunnam, minister emeritus of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and executive director of Christ Church Global, a ministry of Christ Church. “His bringing together of a group of people that we call regional secretaries of evangelism has just added a richness to proclamation and the program of world evangelism that I’ve not seen any place else.”

Methodist/Wesleyan church leaders from more than 20 nations attended a celebration of his service in August, and others sent messages proclaiming their love for Fox and his wife, Mary Nell. “They were friends, and people who prayed for us, and stood with us and have helped us,” Fox said. Fox retired in September, but is staying on through March to provide transition for his successor.

“One of Eddie’s real gifts – he has a lot of gifts – but one of his real gifts has always been the ability to perceive the moment in both an immediate way, but also in a more strategic way,” said the Rev. Kimberly Reisman, a United Methodist evangelist from West Lafayette, Indiana, who is succeeding Fox as world director.

The End of the Soviet Union

Three years after he became world director, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and Methodist churches forced underground for decades were able to begin re-emerging.

“He was able to grasp that moment. He immediately began going there saying ‘What do you need?’” said Reisman, who is chair of the World Council’s standing committee on social justice. “And that’s his second strength. He doesn’t ever try to project onto the other person what he thinks they need. He always says, ‘Tell us what you need. And we’ll see what you can do.’ ”

Fox’s office — located in a converted house behind his home church in suburban Nashville — is like a travelogue of his decades of evangelistic work.

Fox identifies people in photographs and describes other memorabilia on display: “Here we brought together 120 in Jerusalem in celebration … he’s from Australia … he’s from New Zealand … he’s from Estonia, a young superintendent. He was 12 years old the first time I met him … She’s from Ireland, a great, great teacher …

“We had about 20 countries here, maybe 25, for this celebration … this is the Tongans. They’re amazing. I love them … there are Samoans … We had a millennium event in ’99 – 3,000 Methodists gathered in Houston, Texas, from the Bahamas, Mexico and North America …

“Here is this boy from Waldens Creek, and there’s the Pope in Rome … this is in Brazil, the youth marching down the street … here is the king of Tonga in 1975, my first visit … Here’s Nelson Mandela… We were actually privileged to go to his 80th birthday party … that’s the youth in Indonesia …”

At age 76, Fox does not use the word “retirement” to describe what lies ahead for him.

“I’m not retiring my tongue. I’m going to be teaching and preaching,” he said, including an evangelism course and preaching class for lay pastors from the Appalachian region at the Appalachian Local Pastors School. “… John Wesley went until he was 88, and he preached on the weekend before he died. So I’ll continue.”

Tom Gillem is a writer and photographer in Brentwood, Tennessee. Distributed by United Methodist Communications. 

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