Maxie Dunnam: Revival on the Horizon —
Several years ago, the Good News Board of Directors met in Memphis, Tennessee, and bestowed the United Methodist Renewal Award on the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam. In the previous issue of Good News, we published the first part of our conversation with him and touched upon his spiritual journey as local pastor, social activist, influential author, seminary president, and former world editor of The Upper Room.
Good News’ award is presented to a person that has demonstrated dedication to the renewal of Methodism. It was named after the late Rev. Edmund W. Robb Jr., an unforgettable evangelist and author who served as chairman of the Good News board of directors.
For the occasion of the award presentation in 2016, friends gathered at a Good News dinner at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. At the ceremony, the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News, accentuated Dunnam’s focus on a Christ-centered ministry, as well as his commitment to civil rights and education for underprivileged children. My colleague also touched upon Dunnam’s winsome disposition.
“When he steps up to a pulpit, within a few words people think to themselves, ‘I like that man. I’d like to be his friend. Or I wish he were my uncle.’ And when people like you, they listen to you and you have a real opportunity to influence them for Christ,” said Renfroe.
“And the reason people like Maxie is because you immediately get the impression that he likes you,” observed Renfroe, a long-time friend. “The reason you love Maxie is because you sense that he loves you.”
Maxie has had a great impact on Methodism because “people know that he cares,” said Renfroe. “So they have listened when he spoke, they have followed when he led, and they have given their time and their talents and their treasure when he has challenged them to a worthy cause.”
The award presentation also celebrated his influence as a faithful delegate to numerous United Methodist General Conferences, as well as his pivotal roles in helping create both the Confessing Movement and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
“Maxie, by nature, is a lover with a heart of grace. But, there is a commitment to the truth of the gospel that has propelled him into the fray, at times reluctantly,” concluded Renfroe. “And for who he is and for all he has done, we honor him.”
In the previous issue of Good News, we spoke with Maxie about his childhood, call to ministry, his signature on the “Born of Conviction” statement, Bishop Gerald Kennedy, Brother E. Stanley Jones, and the mystery of prayer. What follows is the second-half of our colorful conversation.
– Steve Beard, editor of Good News
Because of the [previously discussed] “Born of Conviction” statement, you moved from Mississippi to California in the 1960s. That was a shift for your family.
I was excited about going to something new and fresh. One of our friends – who was not a signer of the “Born of Conviction” statement – was out in California. He had nurtured me in the ministry. We visited him six months before we went. We saw San Clemente and I said, Wouldn’t it be would it be wonderful to live in a place like this? That’s where I planted the church.
What did you learn spiritually on that journey?
I didn’t know anything about anything. That was another confirmation of God’s guidance in a way that you don’t even recognize it until it’s over.
The district superintendent had given us the name of two couples in San Clemente. That’s all we knew and those two couples just took us in and welcomed us. They were happy because they knew they were getting an evangelical pastor.
What that taught us at a deep level is that it really doesn’t matter where you go, God’s people are there – it’s a matter of getting connected with them. Not all of them are on the same level of the relationship, but they know themselves to be God’s people and that was confirmed.
After 10 years of ministry in Southern California, you moved your family to Nashville to work at The Upper Room. Big shift.
The Upper Room was a huge chapter in my life. That’s really when I became what I call a “world Christian.” How I got there is really a mystery. I had begun to lead some retreats and speaking at conferences.
I received a letter from Wilson O. Weldon, the world editor of The Upper Room, saying that they were starting a new ministry that was going to try to resource and engage the readership of The Upper Room – 4 million back then – as a prayer fellowship and get their energy directed.
I just felt, my Lord, I don’t know anything about that.
What year was this?
That would have been 1974. About the same time, I had been involved with some people in Mississippi who were friends and lay people committed on the racial issue – which was a rare kind of thing – and they had become involved with people in Maryland who had a retreat center. We had been in an interview to become the head of that retreat center. It was so attractive because my wife Jerry and I have had a faint, and sometimes passionate, desire to live in a deliberate Christian community. That’s been a thing that has stirred in me through the years and that would have been it.
That ends up being the most exciting thing that you never ended up doing. [laughter]
We got on the plane headed back to California. We hadn’t been in the air 30 minutes before we looked at each other and said, We can’t do that. We both had the same feeling.
It wasn’t but a couple of months later before we got this word from Wilson Weldon at The Upper Room. I think that I’m honest emotionally – and I always try to be honest with other people if I’m involved relationally – when they began to talk about me leading a prayer movement I just said to him, “Look I am not an expert in prayer and I think you’re talking to the wrong person.”
You felt like this was a mistake?
I still have a letter that I wrote them on the plane going back to California telling them that I just didn’t think I was the person for that job because of my weakness in prayer.
The long and the short of it is that they called me and offered me the job. It’s one of the two or three times in my life when I accepted a position that I knew I was incapable of really performing. That’s also what I felt about becoming the president of Asbury Theological Seminary.
Every reader can relate to feeling inadequate. All you have to do is see the phrase “Prayer Specialist” and we all feel inadequate. We’re all amateurs, right?
That’s right. Absolutely.
There’s nothing that we are asked to do “spiritually” – and I put that in quotation marks – that we are capable of doing. We are equipped as we move along and as we are obedient. If we are obedient, we are equipped supernaturally.
That’s really what happened at The Upper Room. We need to be humble enough to recognize our deficiency, to confess it to those who are part of the responsible bodies, and trust that God has other instruments that he’s using to accomplish his will. When they invited me, I had to say, Well, they know what they need better than I do. Both Jerry and I felt that we should do it.
How did your name emerge at The Upper Room?
I tried to find out how in the world they had ever chosen to interview me for that job. Ira Galloway had become the General Secretary of the Board of Evangelism. Ira didn’t know me. And I knew Wilson at The Upper Room didn’t know me.
The General Board of Evangelism had a program where it sent young ministers to Mexico to preach revivals. I was one of the ten they sent to Monterrey, Mexico. The visiting preachers and our hosts would get together every morning for prayer and sharing before we started teaching and preaching at 10 o’clock in the morning. One of the guys on the team was from Texas. He is the one who told Ira, “Maxie is the guy you need to look at.”
Earlier, you used the phrase “world Christian.” What do you mean by that term?
Being in that position at The Upper Room, there is lots of travel involved because we had all these editions all over the globe. That was a tough part of the job, but it was a great part of the job. We visited the different editors all over the world and began to share life with them. For a country boy from Mississippi, California was an eye opener, but this was even beyond that.
I also began to see the expression of the gospel and the church in different ways – and how it was effective and not effective.
I met dynamic Christians – some of them world-class. I met Christians who were laboring in very difficult situations but were radiant and faithful. Some of that became clear when I traveled with Dr. Tom Carruth and Brother E. Stanley Jones at Ashram meetings.
[Editor’s note: Carruth taught on prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary and authored 15 books on the subject. He died in 1991. E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), of course, was a historic international Christian leader who developed the Christian Ashram movement.]
I am who I am and I’ve done what I’ve done because there’s been three or four big occasions when I was called and I knew I was incapable – but I thought it was a genuine call and that I would be enabled to do the job. We’re enabled as we move out. The Upper Room was a big example of that.
You began at The Upper Room as the director of Prayer Life and Fellowship. You then became the world editor of The Upper Room daily devotional guide. It had a worldwide circulation in the millions at the time and was printed in 38 different languages.
When I went to The Upper Room I was responsible for the area of work that was related to the fellowship of prayer and developing resources. I wasn’t proficient in prayer or spiritual direction. I began to read everything I could read and talk to everybody I could talk to. As a result, I came in touch with the saints of the ages. I saw people in East Germany that were oppressed, but faithful. I saw the prophetic witness of Dr. Peter Storey and Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. We saw the humble saints that were without fame – as well as those with well-known names. Both had deep commitments. I had a chance to be exposed to all kinds of people.
You once had a meeting with a very consequential man: Pope John Paul II.
I met Pope John Paul while I was the editor of The Upper Room and on the board of the World Methodist Council.
What struck you about him?
His humility. Pope John Paul knew he was under a heavy burden and a heavy responsibility but there was nothing haughty about him. Nothing. In fact, quite the opposite. The only reason my picture was taken with him was really accidental. Wherever the Pope goes, there are photographers. I didn’t even know that picture was taken. These photographers post those pictures on bulletin boards all over the place.
I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis, the current pontiff. He’s rare. I’m not sure he’s going to be as popular as others but sometimes he tickles me. I don’t see how a man could even function there – but they have to know that they’re the spiritual head of millions and millions of people.
Agreed. Switching to a different lane of leadership, let’s talk about how you became president of Asbury Theological Seminary.
Again, it was Tom Carruth. I had been invited to serve on the Asbury Seminary board after having been given an honorary degree. I was at Christ Methodist Church in Memphis and I got to know the Asbury community a little bit after being on the board. I discovered Asbury was a place I wish I had gone to for my own seminary education.
Jerry and I went to a meeting with the World Methodist Evangelism to England with Eddie Fox [longtime leader of World Methodist Evangelism] to dedicate the statue of John Wesley feeling his heart “strangely warmed.” We knelt at that statue and prayed. Three months later the Asbury presidency opened up. Six months later I was offered the job.
How did that come about?
I had resigned as chair of the presidential search committee. It was a time of obedience because we could not have been happier at Christ Church. It was dynamic. It was growing. Two of the greatest missional expressions that are going on in Memphis were birthed at Christ Church. It was just a great church and it was growing. The person that teetered me in the direction of being interested in the presidency was Jimmy Buskirk.
Dr. Jimmy Buskirk was a precious soul. He was the long time pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tulsa. He served on the Asbury Seminary board with you. He had also been the founding dean of the School of Theology at Oral Roberts University.
I was happy at Christ Church but Jimmy came to see me and said, “Your ministry, Maxie, at Christ Church is a ministry of addition. If you become the president of Asbury, it’ll be a ministry of multiplication.”
He was right. Pivoting in a different direction, I am going to list some names. Give me your thoughts.
Bishop William R. Cannon (1916-1997).
I have a real love and attraction for people who are themselves – and don’t try to be anything else – but have some uniqueness that just sets them apart. Bishop Cannon was one of those people. When I went to Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, he was the Dean.
He would preach in chapel now and then and I remember two or three occasions when everybody would just remain, just linger – not talking to each other. Our relationship was very loving – it wasn’t formal. When I went to The Upper Room, we had dinner and he said, “Maxie, don’t stay there too long. You need to be preaching.”
Yeah, beautiful. He didn’t pretend to be anything he wasn’t. But he did emphasize his eccentricities. He was the chair of the General Board of Evangelism. He gave a speech at the Confessing Movement. He was as orthodox as you can get. He was an evangelical – not in the popular sense of the word – but he really wanted people to be won to Christ. There’s a sense in which he really was a lot like Bishop Gerald Kennedy from California. Very different personalities. You never knew how they were going to express their passion.
Dr. William J. Abraham (1947-2021). Our dear Irish friend, Billy, who taught for ages at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.
First, I felt he died too early. He was one of the best theological leaders we had – as smart as any of the theologians I knew, but he did not let that smartness keep him from communicating the gospel in an understandable way. Our friendship was really growing. We had been friends a long time, but I didn’t see him a lot. I’m sure he knew that I had become the president of Asbury Seminary when he was a primary candidate, but we never talked about it. I get the feeling that Billy would have loved to have been the president of Asbury Seminary. I think he was that kind of leader.
One more mutual friend: Dr. Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016) from Drew Theological School.
There’s a sense in which Tom was a little bit more of a churchman. Tom would have never been the communicator that Billy was – I don’t think he ever was – but their theology is very much the same. They’re both brilliant. Both of them loved the academy – and championed the academy. I don’t think Tom ever wanted to be anything other than what he was.
Tom and Billy rarely faced a battle they weren’t willing to fight.
That’s right. Both of them were fighters but Billy was a feisty fighter. Tom was a conservative fighter.
Let’s talk about the launch of the Global Methodist Church.
I really have come to believe that the Global Methodist Church is an answer to prayer. It isn’t that we’ve been praying for a new denomination – we’ve been praying for revival. I’ve been a Methodist preacher longer than there’s been a United Methodist Church and I have been totally – maybe more than I should have been – committed to the United Methodist Church.
I’ve poured my life into that denomination and the World Methodist Council. I’ve been a part of Methodism and have fought the battles to conserve what the UM Church has always said she was in terms of how we define ourselves. I could have lived basically with the Book of Discipline of the UM Church the rest of my life, except I’d want to change some things about the bishops.
The obvious pattern of the church, it seems to me, developed a strong vocal, very influential liberal presence. That’s not just theological. There was a another group – not evangelical, really – we would really label as “centrist.” I really have been a part of that.
You would consider yourself a centrist?
I have, through the years.
These categories can be confusing, sometimes overlapping.
I’m clearly traditionalist now, but I think it’s because of my pastoral inclination of wanting people to be together. And then I saw the glaring violation of the Book of Discipline with one of our retired bishops performing a same-sex wedding ten years ago in Alabama, and the effort to liberalize the UM Church.
In the southeast, we always seemingly elected bishops that were different than that – we thought. I decided that something needed to happen. I didn’t think about it in terms of division, but I knew it had to be some sort of division and that happened to me at the 2019 special General Conference when the bishops brought the four ways forward.
The bishops themselves didn’t want to consider the traditional one – being what the UM church has said she is, but with more accountability for the episcopacy.
That’s the way I saw it. I left that General Conference just really down.
I had a small group of people scheduled to go to Cuba. There’s been a revival going on in Cuba for a long time. I really needed that and it was terrific. I’d been to Cuba before, but I’d never really experienced the depth of spirituality there.
The 2019 General Conference reaffirmed what we had affirmed the four years preceding but it turned into a shouting match. As you know, the Western Jurisdiction publicly announced that it was not going to abide by what we had decided. The bishops had come to the General Conference divided themselves.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m excited about the Global Methodist Church because I believe it is a great expression of revival. I think the structures are too great and the interest groups are too firmly established in the United Methodist Church. It could be a fresh start for everybody. It will give us an opportunity to really be serious about how we, as a body, are going to preach and teach and experience the Holy Spirit.
I believe we’re going to have a demonstrable revival.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. All of us at Good News are grateful for the Christian witness of our friend Maxie Dunnam. Photo: Anthony Thaxton. Used by permission.Maxie Du
Maxie Dunnam: Finding His Pulpit in Life —
Known all over the globe, Maxie Dunnam may be his generation’s most recognizable Methodist. Of course, popularity contests are for politicians and marketing firms. Still, it is worth noting that we don’t know of a more beloved Methodist clergyman.
His first article in Good News appeared in 1984. It was ambitiously and positively titled: “You Can Grow In Your Walk With God.” He led with a wise admission: “For anyone to write on this subject is presumptuous at best. So, I accepted the assignment with some reservation, but keeping in mind the original ‘working title’ for this article: ‘Developing a Deeper Walk with God.’”
Dr. Dunnam went on to clarify: “Developing is the right word, and humility is the saving stance, when we talk about our relationship with the Lord. Yet, I’m convinced that no need is greater for Christians than a commitment to pursuing a ‘deeper walk with God.’”
In many ways, this has been the theme of his life’s ministry. In a world with chaotic church skirmishes, this is something that people of faith can agree upon.
“Maxie is known and loved by Methodists around the world probably more than any living United Methodist leader,” observed the Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger II, my former colleague at Good News. “Here is a pastor who has been effective in the local church, bold in addressing issues facing the nation, a visionary leader at the Upper Room, a prolific author, a seminary president, a voice for renewal – the Houston and Memphis Declarations, and a co-founder of the Confessing Movement – and a mentor to more pastors than we might imagine.”
The professional journey on his resume tells you a lot – but not nearly as much as locking eyes with him as he grasps the back of your arm to draw you in closer to hear about what is going on in your life.
Maxie married Jerry Lynn Morris in 1957 after he had graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory. She was a charter member of his first church plant, Aldersgate Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and went on to join him in planting two others, Trinity Methodist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, and St. Andrews Methodist Church in San Clemente, California.
I’ve always thought of her as the artistic one – the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. A famous politician from Texas once said that Rogers did everything Astaire did: “She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Their daughter, Dr. Kim Reisman, described her mom as a “partner in ministry.” After all, it has always taken two to tango. “Jerry worked in the early days of the Fair Housing movement and the Laubach Way to English. While in Memphis, she was instrumental in the founding of the chapter of Habitat for Humanity and in organizing a local jail ministry for Shelby County,” Kim told me. “During their time at Asbury, she used her gifts in art and hospitality to provide ministries with students, including an annual Holy Week mime interpretation of the passion of Christ.”
The Dunnams have endeavored to answer “yes” to the divine calls in their walk together with the Almighty. It has led them on a remarkable path.
That resume is colorful and significant. After serving in the local church, he became the World Editor of the Upper Room devotional with a circulation of four million and was instrumental in founding the church’s Walk to Emmaus program and launching the Academy for Spiritual Formation. He became a leader in the World Methodist Council, served as senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, and was elected President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. In 2004, Maxie and Jerry returned to Memphis where he serves today on the staff as minister-at-large at Christ Church.
Maxie believes his most significant contribution to the Christian cause was The Workbook of Living Prayer (The Upper Room). That may prove to be a memorable legacy. “Prayer is one of the ways we link ourselves with God, we put ourselves in the channel of God’s moving power, and we participate with God in ministry to all persons,” he wrote. “I am convinced that this is one of the most glorious privileges given to Christians.”
The prayer workbook was first published in 1974 – nearly five decades ago – and is, remarkably, still in print. Available in six languages, the publisher estimates that more than one million copies have been printed.
It is always a pleasure to be in the company of the Dunnams. I sat down with my old friend recently to go over some of the highlights of his life’s story. This is part one of our conversation. Part two will appear in the next issue of Good News. I’m grateful for his time and our friendship.
– Steve Beard, editor of Good News
You were born in Mississippi during the crest of the Great Depression. Aside growing up without electricity or indoor plumbing, what do you recall about your childhood?
I grew up in rather extreme poverty in rural Mississippi. We lived way out in the country and were limited in all sorts of ways – educationally and culturally. We had expressions of Christianity all around us, represented primarily in small Baptist churches. We had a minister that came to our area once or twice a month and held evangelistic services. They called them holiness preachers – primarily holiness in terms of morality and enthusiasm. These preachers would preach on the front porches of homes or in a barn or outdoors.
Hellfire and brimstone preachers?
Always hellfire and brimstone. We lived way out in the country and we just couldn’t go to church often – but we went whenever we could.
These services were held in people’s homes?
Well, there were a lot of the traveling preachers. Lots of little Baptist churches. I can’t remember any other kind of churches. We moved closer to town when I was in my early teens. There was about 800 people.
About 150 yards up the road from where we lived was East Side Baptist Church. My mother was a professing Christian. My father was not – although he may have been more Christian than the rest of us. We went to that church. They would have services with Brother Wiley Grissom.
Let’s talk about him. In your book, God Outwitted Me, you write: “Memory of him kept me aware of the fact that calling and anointing are as important (ultimately, maybe more important) as education.”
He was a fifth-grade educated Baptist preacher. I seem to have experienced him in a different way than I had all the other preachers I had heard. There was a tenderness. The invitation was never a rigid hellfire and damnation. It was more, “Come on, join the people of God.” And that part of it really attracted me.
Two things were going on in my life. One, I had heard enough of the gospel – in a lot of different ways – to know that I really needed to reckon with it. But the other thing that was just as strong was feeling that I had to get out of my circumstances – culturally, educationally, economically.
I have repented of a lot of the feelings I’ve had about my circumstances because my mother and father were really loving and outstanding parents. My father was a very wise man – ponderous and reflective. My mother was very emotional. I think I may have gotten more of my mother than I did of my father in that emotional bit.
Brother Grissom’s preaching made a difference in your life.
One Sunday morning, it came to a head. I said, This is it. I’m going to make a commitment to Christ.
How old were you?
I was 14. I walked the aisle and made that decision. My father didn’t walk down with me, but he was there. Sometime during the next three weeks he made a decision. I’m sure he had really made it earlier but he felt he had to make that formal.
He and I were baptized together by immersion in a running creek. I was probably more serious as a teenager than I should have been, but I tried to live that out. We were about a mile and a half from the little town of Richton [in southern Mississippi] and we had absolutely nothing for young people in our little Baptist church and I just wanted to be with young people.
How did you get involved with Methodism?
I had heard of the dynamic youth group at the Methodist church in the same town. I had never been to a Methodist church, and I didn’t know anything about Methodism. I started going to that youth group, and the minister was very dynamic and educated. He took tremendous interest in the youth group and really paid attention to me. The youth group had a short term retreat in a rural area on the banks of a big lake. I vividly remember he rowed out not very far from the shore and stood in the boat and preached to us.
I formalized my commitment to Christ and decided then that I was probably going to have to do what the preacher was doing. I went off to my first year of college, but I was poor and didn’t have the kind of clothes everybody else did. I was wrestling. I knew God was calling me to preach, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I knew I was going to get an education and get out of what I felt was the trap of poverty. I wrestled with that intensely while I was in my first year of college.
Sounds like a difficult time to struggle with the call to preach.
I ended up leaving college and moved in with my married brother in Mobile, Alabama. I got a job selling women’s shoes. My brother was newly married and I knew I’d have a lot of time alone. He was generous. I couldn’t pay any rent.
During that time – it didn’t last but about six weeks – I said to myself, I’m gonna do what God wants me to do and I believe God wants me to preach. I believed I had to share this with someone and I said it to that young Methodist preacher. He smiled and said, “I have known it a long time.”
I became a Methodist and he began to shepherd me. I attended Mississippi Southern College [in Hattiesburg] in the early 1950s. We had an outstanding Wesley Foundation director. He took us to the National Student Movement conference at the University of Kansas. The president of the student movement was Jameson Jones, the father of Bishop Scott Jones. He gave an address to that group and I was tremendously inspired.
In reflection on my whole story, that director of student ministries at Mississippi Southern really was a liberal theologically and socially and that’s one of the places I got my social commitments.
I made it through college, but my passion always has been to preach. My mentor was a marvelous young Methodist preacher named David McKeithen.
This is a little bit neurotic on my part but this whole business of feeling that I had been cheated economically, socially, educationally, culturally was not a healthy thing with me. I didn’t want to do anything but preach.
What did your mom and dad think about this trajectory in your life?
They were very happy. My Mama said, “I hope you’ll be as good a preacher as your great grandfather was.” He was a Free Will Baptist.
My father didn’t say much because he was not a churchman. I didn’t know his daddy, but everybody seemed to have loved his daddy. He was poor and uneducated but somehow ended up being a Free Will Baptist preacher, rather than a what they call a Missionary Baptist. I remember the first time my father visited me at the seminary. I was preaching in chapel that day, and the students gathered around him and one of them said, “Well, what did you think of that sermon?” My daddy said, “Maybe a B.” [laughter]
That was when you began preaching?
My mentor started sending me to a little group of people that were attached to his church. He was the pastor of the church in town, but there was a little church further out and he would send me there to preach. That’s the way I got started. Over a six month period, I told him I wanted a church. He talked to the district superintendent. My commitment to preaching was so passionate.
The district Superintendent in Atlanta – Nat Long was his name – wanted to plant a church. He felt that if he could get two students from Candler School of Theology in Atlanta to do that, they could get it done – at least get it started. I became one of those students. Elton Smith and I went out into southeast Atlanta, near the federal prison. We organized that church. My colleague felt that he didn’t want to stay with it, and so it was my church after the first year. We planted a good church. That’s where I met Jerry. Her whole family became part of it.
When did you and Jerry get married?
I was married my last year in seminary, and she knew that we would go back to Mississippi. I didn’t know there was anything else to do. You just went back to your home conference and that’s where you served the rest of your life.
After graduation, you were assigned to Gulfport, Mississippi?
Our church in Gulfport really began to grow and get attention. Tom Carruth had been the minister at the First Methodist Church in Biloxi, but he was teaching prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I think Asbury was the first seminary ever to have a full time professor teaching prayer. We had him at the church to do a prayer retreat. Carruth is really the one that recommended that Asbury give me an honorary degree.
Bishop Gerald Kennedy of California had heard about what we young preachers were doing in Mississippi. Some of us went to hear him preach in New Orleans.
What was he doing in New Orleans?
He preached all over the nation. And whenever he was anywhere nearby, I would drive to hear him preach. He said, “If you all want to come to California, we’ll find a place for you.”
While you were pastoring in Mississippi in the early 1960s, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson. The civil rights leader had been helping in James Meredith’s efforts to enroll in the University of Mississippi.
You were one of 28 Methodist ministers in the Mississippi Annual Conference who gathered to present a statement, “Born of Conviction,” to the church in Mississippi.
The civil rights movement was raging in higher education and the first black student, James Meredith, was admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Five of us young ministers decided we had to do something – at least say something publicly to the whole church. When I say the “whole church” I mean the Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Church. We thought it may be good if some of us young preachers voiced our opinions because we were the future of the church. Five of us got together over three days. We wrote this “Born of Conviction” statement. If you read that statement, it really is not a strong statement – but it was clear.
In the context of all that was going on …
Oh, all hell broke loose. Yeah. We issued it to the church – to the Mississippi Annual Conference – through The Methodist Advocate.
What was the reaction?
Oh, Lord. Mercy.
Dr. Joseph T. Reiff, a professor at Emory & Henry College in Virginia has written a book about it called Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford). The issue that we felt we had to address in the statement was, of course, the race issue. But we were being accused of being communist. The three areas of focus were race, freedom of the pulpit, and public education. Looking back on it, it was not really as prophetic as people have credited it being.
By the standards of the day, however, this was a shot across the bow. In God Outwitted Me, you wrote, “Within eighteen months of the signing of the document, eighteen of the twenty-eight signers had left Mississippi, two left later, and only eight continued their total ministry vocation in the state.”
In 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Medgar Evers’ death, the Mississippi Annual Conference presented The Emma Elzy Award, an award celebrating those who had contributed to the improvement of race relations in Mississippi, to “the 28 ministers.” Eight of the twenty-eight signers who were still living were present. You and your colleague, the Rev. Keith Tonkel, accepted the award for the 28. In your remarks, you said, “Fifty years ago some young men, now old men, signed a statement, and now this Annual Conference is saying, ‘We appreciate that.’ God outwits us.”
How do you view your statement today?
Reiff believes the reason that it was so prophetic was that it was the church speaking to the church – but also it was a small group of Methodists speaking to their denomination. He compared it to “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and the response that the pastors made to that. Almost every person that signed the statement – 28 signing it – ended up leaving. Many of us went to California.
These were days of great turmoil.
This was a sign of how dramatic it was: Dow Kirkpatrick – the most liberal pastor in Georgia back then – left to be the pastor at First Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. Back then, it was one of the most liberal churches in Methodism. Dow invited me to be his associate minister. Instead, I chose to plant a church in Southern California.
You felt you had to leave because of threats?
We had threats. We didn’t have crosses burned on our lawn, but Jerry got telephone calls.
My church got angry with me and held special meetings. It was a new congregation. They loved me as the only pastor they ever knew. We were flavored with people from all over the nation because we were in Gulfport – there was a big air base nearby and a big veterans hospital facility and a retirement home. We had people in the congregation from all over the United States. That made it less against me.
My closest friend in the town – in terms of ministers – was the Rev. Henry Clay, Jr. He was black, and he became a leader after all this in the Mississippi Conference. I can’t believe this now, but we never had him in our home and he never had us in his home. He told me later that they didn’t have the sit-in people that were traveling on buses come to our church because they knew where I stood and they didn’t want that threatened. But we never visited in his home until he moved to California. That’s the ugliness beneath the surface.
Bishop Gerald Kennedy called you and invited you to California. Kennedy was a fascinating maverick. He was despised by fundamentalists of his era, but evangelicals within Methodism considered him an ally. Interestingly enough, he wrote an article for the first issue of Good News magazine, became the chair to the Board of Evangelism, and led the crusade committee of the 25-day Billy Graham preaching mission in 1963 when it was held in Los Angeles.
The district superintendent that finally extended the invitation to me was Andy Miller’s father [Andy Miller is the Director of Publishing for Seedbed]. Kennedy was my hero. He was such a great preacher and he was evangelical and orthodox, but he was considered liberal. I think he made it out there because he filled a unique gap culturally.
Let’s talk about Brother E. Stanley Jones. In an earlier era, Jones was a remarkably well-known missionary to India. In the 1930s, Time magazine referred to him as “the world’s greatest Christian missionary.” He is well known for his friendship with Gandhi, his creation of the Christian Ashram Movement, and inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How did you get to know him?
In the midst of the Mississippi crisis, one of the writers of that statement and I went to an Ashram in Florida being led by Stanley Jones. We were with Stanley for a week. Dr. Tom Carruth really loved me and saw things in me that I didn’t see. He’s the one that got me involved with Stanley Jones.
This would have been in the mid 1960s?
Yes, early 1960s. We left Mississippi in 1964. I had been reading Stanley Jones along with a group of people from my church in Gulfport. His little book In Christ really shaped my theology. That’s the crux of my theology. [Editor’s note: The book is a study of the 172 times the phrase “in Christ” or its equivalent is found in the New Testament]. I was with Stanley Jones as much as I could be that week. He was gracious. Tom Carruth thought I needed to spend time with Stanley and tried to make every opportunity he could for me to be with him. Tom invited me to go with him and Stanley Jones to lead ashrams in Europe, and I was to speak to the youth.
That was before the Berlin Wall came down, and we were in Sweden and Germany. I never had a lot of private time with Stanley. That was my fault. I just felt that he didn’t need to be spending his time with me. I regret that now.
You’ve written dozens of books. How did this begin?
I was reminded of Stanley last week when I pulled out the first book I ever wrote. It was a collection of columns I wrote for the church page in the Gulfport newspaper every Saturday. I named it “Channels of Challenge.”
Two women in that church – this is important to my history – mentored me in prayer. One was Nettie Beeson. She was married to one of the Beeson brothers that later gave substantial money to Asbury Theological Seminary. Nettie was in her 80s. The other was Claire May Sales. She was a retired missionary but had taught English and literature all over in little church schools.
Claire May showed up at my office one day with a bundle of these columns that I had written for the newspaper and she said, “You’ve got to publish these as a book.” I didn’t know anything about anything like that. She said, “I think they’re worth publishing and I think you can get them published and I’ll help you organize them.” And she did. Abingdon published it. That book is recommended by Stanley Jones on the back cover.
Wow, he gave you a blurb.
[Laughter] He gave me a blurb. Yeah, pretty great.
No matter what someone’s religion, prayer seems befuddling because you’re basically – to the naked eye – speaking to yourself in hopes that someone invisible is visible in a different realm. Where have you come down on attempting to explain what it is that we’re doing in prayer?
Communion is one word – and extend that to communication. I believe that God is personal, though spirit. God is personal, and persons need to communicate personally. We pray as though he is flesh, or he is our Father. We speak to him in that fashion. In my own pilgrimage, I had difficulty praying. That’s the reason I had to be mentored in prayer.
It’s okay for people to struggle with this?
It would be surprising if they didn’t. I don’t believe any person really ever feels that they have mastered the art of prayer. We look at some people like Frank Laubach, Tom Carruth, and Stanley Jones and believe they know. On second thought, I don’t think Stanley Jones would be on that list.
I’m somewhat embarrassed when people think I know how to pray because I’ve written about it. I pray – but I wish I knew how to pray more effectively.
There are times when Christ is vivid to me. But there are times when I keep on talking to him as though he’s left the room. There is a sense in which I believe that we can’t base our discipline of prayer on what we feel. The Father has told us that he loves us and he wants to be related to us. We just keep on accepting that, even though we may not feel it – and we keep on talking to him and that’s what prayer is. It’s just talking with God.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. In the next issue, we will publish the second half of this interview with Maxie Dunnam and touch upon his work with the Upper Room, some of his heroes, and his hopes for the Global Methodist Church.
Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Into the Arms of Eternity: Remembering Billy Graham
By Steve Beard –
Wherever he landed around the globe, Billy Graham spent his life preaching a simple and sincere message of God’s love for all people, the urgent need for conversion, and the assurance that Jesus Christ walks with believers in the brightest and darkest of times. Throughout his illustrious ministry, Graham preached to nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories via his simulcasts and rallies. His audience exposure leaps exponentially when television, newspaper columns, videos, magazine stories, webcasts, and best-selling books are factored in.
Illustrative of his technological wizardry, Graham once spearheaded an event more than two decades ago that astonishingly utilized 30 satellites broadcasting taped evangelistic messages from Graham in 116 languages to 185 countries.
The news of his death on February 21 at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, at the age of 99, was observed with both joy and sorrow. The lanky world-renowned evangelist was buried in a rudimentary pine plywood coffin made by men convicted of murder from the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
For Christians, Graham was a role model in holding firm to both evangelism and integrated social action, orthodoxy and generous ecumenism, grace and truth, love and repentance. In addition to preaching his life-transforming message, he was pivotal in helping form numerous evangelical institutions that will be remembered as part of his fruitful legacy.
“Billy Graham was a man with beautiful integrity, clothed with humility, and combined with a sterling message of the gospel,” Dr. Robert Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism, told Good News. Coleman was a close friend and associate of Graham for 60 years, leading the Institute of Evangelism in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and serving as Dean of the Billy Graham International Schools of Evangelism. Coleman was one of a handful of United Methodists who attended Graham’s funeral along with Drs. Eddie Fox, Maxie Dunnam, and Timothy Tennent.
“Wherever we traveled around the world, Billy was a master of making a nobody feel like a somebody,” Coleman recalled. “You always felt lifted up in his presence. Whether you were a street sweeper or a king, Billy saw you as someone deeply loved and treasured by God.”
Although most well known as a Baptist, Graham had a special relationship with Methodists dating back to his early friendship with lay evangelist Harry Denman, a man Graham described as “one of the great mentors for evangelism in my own life and ministry – and for countless others in evangelism as well.” Denman, who died in 1976, was the leader of the Commission on Evangelism of the Methodist Church. In the forward to the book Prophetic Evangelist, Graham wrote: “I never knew a man who encouraged more people in the field of evangelism than Harry Denman.”
Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s position as chairman of the Billy Graham rally in Los Angeles in 1963 caused a controversial stir among fundamentalists and others who did not see a place for mainline denominations in Graham’s evangelistic efforts. In the premier issue of Good News in 1967, Kennedy wrote that he had hoped his position would be an opportunity to bring conservative evangelicals and mainline churches closer together. “We never succeeded at eliminating all our differences,” he wrote, “but we did make progress in talking to one another and trying to listen to each other with some appreciation.”
Over the decades, United Methodists were inspired by Graham’s message, temperament, and integrity. “No voice in the past half-century has been more powerful and faithful in pointing clearly to Jesus Christ than the message of Billy Graham,” Dr. Eddie Fox, former World Director of World Methodist Evangelism, said. “His message always led persons to Jesus Christ.” Fox was a speaker at several of the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism.
According to United Methodist News Service, the late Bishop Leontine Kelly, who headed the evangelism unit of the denomination’s Board of Discipleship before her election to the episcopacy in 1984, characterized Graham’s preaching as “electric.” “His purposes were clear and his commitment to Jesus Christ was unwavering,” said Kelly, who died in 2012. “We will always be grateful for television, which enabled his communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ to millions.”
Graham had unparalleled reach. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 16 percent of Americans had heard Graham in person, 52 percent had heard him on radio, and 85 percent had seen him on television.
“Only the large expressive hands seem suited to a titan,” biographer William Martin, author of A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, observed. “But crowning this spindly frame is that most distinctive of heads, with the profile for which God created granite, the perpetual glowing tan, the flowing hair, the towering forehead, the square jaw, the eagle’s brow and eyes, and the warm smile that has melted hearts, tamed opposition, and subdued skeptics on six continents.”
Lived with regrets. With such a high-profile ministry for such a lengthy duration of time, Graham was often under intense scrutiny. Was his version of Christian conversion too simplistic? Was he merely a government mouthpiece when he preached in totalitarian nations? Did he do enough with his platform for the civil rights of African Americans? Was he too comfortable in the White House? Despite the enormous audiences of curious onlookers and spiritual searchers, there were long lists of theological and social critics – both conservative and liberal – who were more than happy to offer a critique of Graham’s ministry. While some of the concerns were superficial, there were others of a more serious nature that had to be addressed.
In hindsight, Graham registered his regret for not participating in civil rights demonstrations. “I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma, [Alabama in 1965],” Graham confessed to the Associated Press in 2005. “I would like to have done more.” It has been properly noted that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered Graham an ally. “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been,” said King. Other African American leaders, however, regret that Graham was not more front-and-center in the struggle.
“Graham clearly felt an obligation to speak against segregation, but he also believed his first duty was to appeal to as many people as possible. Sometimes he found these two convictions difficult to reconcile,” Martin wrote in A Prophet with Honor.
Close proximity to the corridors of political power – especially the Nixon White House – occasionally blindsided Graham. When asked in 2011 by Christianity Today, a magazine he helped launch, if there was anything he would have done differently, Graham responded: “I would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
Of his regrets, those closest to home were the most sensitive. “Ruth says those of us who were off traveling missed the best part of our lives – enjoying the children as they grew. She is probably right. I was too busy preaching all over the world.” Ruth Bell married Graham in 1945 and the couple had five children. “I came through those years much the poorer psychologically and emotionally,” he reflected. “I missed so much by not being home to see the children grow and develop.”
Graham questioned some of the aspects of his jet-setting ministry. “Sometimes we flitted from one part of the country to another, even from one continent to another, in the course of only a few days,” he recalled. “Were all those engagements necessary? Was I as discerning as I might have been about which ones to take and which to turn down? I doubt it. Every day I was absent from my family is gone forever.”
Johnny Cash and Billy Graham. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Although Graham never had regrets about committing his life to preaching a Christian message, he wished he would have spent more time in nurturing his own personal spiritual life. “I would spend more time in prayer, not just for myself but for others,” he said. “I would spend more time studying the Bible and meditating on its truth, not only for sermon preparation but to apply its message to my life. It is far too easy for someone in my position to read the Bible only with an eye on a future sermon, overlooking the message God has for me through its pages.”
Boxing champion Muhammad Ali meets with Ruth and Billy Graham at their North Carolina home. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“He brought down the storm.” Three years ago, Bob Dylan called Graham the “greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did.” The music icon testified in AARP The Magazine to having attended some Graham rallies in the 1950s and ‘60s and described them in a distinctly Dylanesque way: “This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified – volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution – when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved … If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. … I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.”
U2 lead singer Bono wrote a poem for the Grahams. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Although he is most well-known for his relationships with politicians, straight-and-narrow Graham was best of friends with Johnny Cash, the blue-collar troubadour who, when they met in 1969, was making headlines for recording live albums in Folsom State and San Quentin prisons. The Grahams and Cashs grew to be very close. Not only did Johnny and June Cash perform at Graham rallies, but Billy and Ruth joined the Cash family on numerous vacation outings.
“I’ve always been able to share my secrets and problems with Billy, and I’ve benefited greatly from his support and advice,” Cash wrote in his autobiography. “Even during my worst times, when I’ve fallen back into using pills of one sort or another, he’s maintained his friendship with me and given me his ear and advice, always based solidly on the Bible. He’s never pressed me when I’ve been in trouble; he’s waited for me to reveal myself, and then he’s helped me as much as he can.”
Despite what some perceived as a squeaky-clean piety that gravitated to the halls of power, Graham had a deep and abiding love for the outsiders and the spiritual searchers. “It was eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, but I was most definitely not in church,” Graham wrote in his autobiography Just As I Am. “Instead, to the horror of some, I was attending the 1969 Miami Rock Music Festival.” Preaching from the same concert stage as Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, and Santana, Graham wrote about his delight to speak to “young people who probably would have felt uncomfortable in the average church, and yet whose searching questions about life and sharp protests against society’s values echoed from almost every song.”
Graham actually donned a disguise to get a feel for the festival the night before he would preach. “My heart went out to them,” he wrote. “Though I was thankful for their youthful exuberance, I was burdened by their spiritual searching and emptiness.”
Although Graham was prepared to be “shouted down,” he was “greeted with scattered applause. Most listened politely as I spoke.” He told them that he had been listening carefully to their music: “We reject your materialism, it seemed to proclaim, and we want something of the soul.” Graham proclaimed that “Jesus was a nonconformist” and the he could “fill their souls and give them meaning and purpose in life.” As they waited for the upcoming bands, Graham’s message was, “Tune in to God today, and let Him give you faith. Turn on to His power.”
Graham’s well-known message also did not hinder his ability to reach beyond evangelical boundaries. He longed for improved relationships between Roman Catholics and Protestants and was a trusted friend of Catholic television pioneer Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. “We are brothers,” Pope John Paul II told Graham during a visit to the Vatican.
In 1979, the late Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, spent several hours with Graham in the evangelist’s home in North Carolina. “When I arrived at the airport, Mr. Graham himself was waiting for me. I expected to be chauffeured in a Rolls Royce or at least a Mercedes, but we got in his Oldsmobile and he drove it himself,” Ali recalled. “I couldn’t believe he came to the airport driving his own car. When we approached his home I thought he would live on a thousand acre farm and we drove up to his house made of logs. No mansion with crystal chandeliers and gold carpets, it was the kind of house a man of God would live in. I look up to him.”
Ali told the press, “I’ve always admired Mr. Graham, I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but there is so much truth in the message he gives, Americanism, repentance, things about government and country – and truth. I always said if I was a Christian, I’d want to be a Christian like him.”
Generations later, Graham’s magnetism never weakened. One month after the Irish band U2 played an unforgettably emotional halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2002 memorializing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bono responded to an invitation to visit the Grahams at their home. Inside a collection of the work of Irish poet Seamus Heaney given to Ruth and Billy, Bono had written a poem that refers to “the voice of a preacher/loudly soft on my tears” which was the “lyric voice that gave my life/A Rhyme/a meaning that wasn’t there before.” The poem is on display at the Billy Graham Library in North Carolina.
In a touching tribute to Graham three years later, Bono said: “At a time when religion seems so often to get in the way of God’s work with its shopping mall sales pitch and its bumper sticker reductionism, I give thanks just for the sanity of Billy Graham – for that clear empathetic voice of his in that southern accent, part poet, part preacher – a singer of the human spirit, I’d say. Ah, yeah I give thanks for Billy Graham.”
Billy Graham preaches in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Evangelistic energy. In addition to calling men, women, and children – rich and poor, black and white, powerful and humble – all over the globe to a commitment to Christ, Graham was also reminding the institutional church of the foundational need to share the faith. In 1976, his efforts were recognized by the United Methodist Association of Evangelists as one of the earliest recipients of the Philip Award. Four years later, he preached at the denomination’s Congress on Evangelism on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Many have moved from a belief in man’s personal responsibility before God to an entirely new concept that assumes all men and women are already saved,” said Graham in 1980. “There’s a spreading universalism, which has deadened our urgency that was had by John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, E. Stanley Jones, and others like them.
“This new evangelism leads many to reject the idea of conversion in its historical Biblical meaning and the meaning historically held and preached and taught by the Methodist Church.”
Graham concluded his remarks by quoting Methodist leader John Wesley in 1784: “You have nothing to do but to save souls, therefore spend and be spent in this work.” He continued to quote Wesley, “It is not your business to preach so many times and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance and with all your power to build them up in that holiness, without which they will never see the Lord.”
Graham reminded the participants of their heritage. “Let it be remembered that the Methodist church began in the white peak of conversion and intense evangelistic energy,” he said. “Let it be recalled that the Methodist church is an evangelistic movement.”
Good News connection. More than a decade before his address at the Congress on Evangelism, Graham’s preaching played a key role in the conversion of Good News’ founding editor Charles Keysor. The evangelist’s encouragement was also an important inspiration during the ministry’s formative years.
“I have always believed that The United Methodist Church offers tremendous potential as a starting place for a great revival of Biblical Christian faith,” Graham wrote in a personal note of encouragement to the staff and board of directors on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of Good News. “Around the world, millions of people do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and I believe that The United Methodist Church, with its great size and its honorable evangelistic tradition, can be mightily used by God for reaching these lost millions,” wrote Graham in 1977.
“I have been acquainted with the Good News movement and some of its leaders since 1967. To me it represents one of the encouraging signs for the church fulfilling its evangelistic mission, under the Bible’s authority and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. At the forefront of the Good News movement has been Good News magazine. For 10 years it has spoken clearly and prophetically for Scriptural Christianity and renewal in the church. It should be read by every United Methodist.”
Everyone associated with Good News in that era – and subsequent generations – found great inspiration in Graham’s words.
The message and the man. “Billy Graham’s ministry taught me to step out in faith and trust God in all things in my life,” Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, said in a statement after attending Graham’s funeral in North Carolina.
“After preaching in Red Square in what was then the Soviet Union, Billy Graham stopped at Gordon Conwell, where I was a student. Someone asked Mr. Graham if he had been used as part of Soviet propaganda. He replied that he had preached the same Gospel in Red Square as he did around the world. This taught me not to worry about the discouraging naysayers and critics in my ministry. Even Billy Graham’s funeral continued to teach us about the grace and glory of God.”
There was one testimony of poignant grace at Graham’s funeral that caught the attention of the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, former World Editor of The Upper Room and evangelical United Methodist leader. “The most meaningful for me was the sharing of one daughter who had a painful marriage that ended in divorce,” he recalled. “She spoke about her shame and how dreadful it was to think of how this was affecting her Mom and Dad, but how redemptive it was when she was welcomed home by Billy with open arms.”
“It was a powerful prodigal daughter story. There was no pretension of perfection,” Dunnam said. “The feeling was that we were at a large family funeral, friends gathered to remember, to share their grief and celebrate the life of a loved one. Again, the emphasis was not on the man but the message.”
When speaking about the end of his own life, Graham used to like to paraphrase the words of one of his heroes, D. L. Moody, an evangelist of a different era: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Graham’s admirers note the change of address with deep respect and love.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Opening photo: Billy Graham discusses the second issue of Good News with (left to right) Dr. Frank Stanger, president of Asbury Theological Seminary; the Rev. Philip Worth, United Methodist pastor and chairman of the Good News board of directors; and Dr. Charles Keysor, founder of Good News.