Maxie Dunnam:  Revival on the Horizon

Maxie Dunnam: Revival on the Horizon

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.”

Wise advice.

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

Maxie Dunnam: Finding His Pulpit in Life

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.

Mortals and the Divine

Mortals and the Divine

By Steve Beard

Striking Symbolism

Since 1937, a muscle-bound Atlas has been a prominent and provocative art deco centerpiece on Fifth Avenue. The massive statue is surrounded by impressive skyscraper office suites for powerful men and women in New York City. As the focal point of the forecourt of Rockefeller Center, the mighty Titan of Greek mythology is graphically illustrating strength and endurance by singlehandedly holding the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. 

According to a guidebook to the art around Rockefeller Center, artists Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan “designed the muscular Titan standing on a slim, simple pedestal, with knees bent and one leg overhanging his perch. This precarious position accentuates the great effort Atlas is making as he raises his burden. … His face is deeply furrowed as he focuses on his task; he is the quintessence of power and potency.” 

Within the Fifth Avenue context, the gargantuan sculpture – four stories tall and weighing in at seven tons – is seen as the triumph of the indomitable human spirit, the strength of solitary determination, or the necessity of self-reliance. Haven’t we been too often tutored that wealth, power, and prestige comes to the fittest, craftiest, and most resilient? No one would be faulted for believing the statue is a salute to the captains of industry for commanding the chariot of prosperity. That is one way to see it. 

The other way to see Atlas carrying the weight of the heavens on his shoulders is as a dreaded and pitiable life-sentence. While endurance and strength can be virtuous, this piece of art is ultimately about cruelty. Within Greek mythology, Atlas is punished by Zeus for countering him in war. Atlas is not holding the weight of the cosmos out of altruism or love. He is under the burden because he failed to overthrow Zeus. 

The Greeks knew how to weave a celestial drama. Almost eight centuries before Christ, Homer described Atlas in The Odyssey as the one who “knows the depths of all the seas, and he, no other, guards (or holds) the tall pillars that keep the sky and earth apart.” Atlas’s brother Prometheus is distressed for his kin because the “burden is not easy for his arms to grasp.” In Prometheus Bound, Atlas is described as the one “who moans as he supports the vault of heaven on his back.”

The New Testament proposes an alternative cosmic reality. St. Paul introduces Jesus Christ with unrivaled grandeur: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:17).

Having walked up and down Fifth Avenue on a handful of occasions, it is worth noting that mythical Atlas is literally across the street from mystical St. Patrick’s Cathedral – one of my favorite places in Manhattan. When the grand doors of the gothic cathedral are open, parishioners leaving worship are staring straight at Atlas as they depart. The juxtaposition is hard to overlook. 

During a Good Friday sermon at St. Patrick’s long ago, Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979), a legendary television broadcaster and theologian, described Atlas as “bending and groaning and grunting under the weight of the world. That is modern man,” Sheen observed. “The world is too heavy for him and man is breaking under it, trying like a silly child to carry it alone, without any help or grace or faith from God.”

Sheen countered the imagery with that of Jesus Christ taking upon himself the “burden of others and proving that sacrifice for sin, selflessness and love of God and neighbor alone, can remake the world.

“No one will get out of this world without carrying some burden,” Sheen continued. “Atlas will never get out from under that world; the Man who carried the Cross will get out from under it, for it leads to Resurrection and a crown in Life Eternal. This is the choice before us: either try to revolutionize the world and break under it or revolutionize ourselves and remake the world.”

Sheen was not the only observer to point out the striking symbolism. When Presbyterian pastor Bruce Larson (1925-2008) lived in New York City, he used to take people who were considering the Christian faith down to Rockefeller Center. Pointing to Atlas, Larson would emphasize the stress and strain of standing up under life’s burden. “Now that’s one way to live,” he would say to his companion, “trying to carry the world on your shoulders.” 

Writing in his book Believe and Belong (1982), Larson would cross the street to St. Patrick’s and show his friend a small, seemingly inconsequential statue behind the high altar. It depicts Jesus, “perhaps eight or nine years old, and with no effort he is holding the world in one hand,” wrote Larson. 

Complete humanity. Complete divinity. Incarnation. 

“We have a choice,” Larson said. “We can carry the world on our shoulders or we can say, ‘I give up, Lord, here’s my life. I give you my world, the whole world.’”

The statue of the young Jesus was unveiled in St. Patrick’s in 1943 in honor of the ministry of Saint Jean de Brébeuf, an adventurous and compassionate 17th century French missionary to the Huron – Iroquoian Indigenous peoples of North America. Brébeuf studied the Huron/Wendat language and introduced a relatable figure of the Christ child wrapped in rabbit skin. He wrote a poem about the birth of Christ in their native language that is still sung in Canada today (“’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” found in The United Methodist Hymnal #244). 

“Within a lodge of broken bark/ The tender Babe was found/ A ragged robe of rabbit skin/ Enwrapped his beauty ’round.”

All of us can relate to the anxiety-brewing moments when we feel like Atlas precariously trying to keep our balance with what seems like the weight of the world on our shoulders. The simple and inconspicuous statue in the cathedral can be a transformative reminder that we need not carry the burden alone. In seasons of great stress, it can be of considerable relief to remember that the Creator of all things – at one point appearing as an infant wrapped in a “ragged robe of rabbit skin” – holds the cosmos safely in his hand.

“God is on earth, he is among men,” declared St. Basil the Great (330-379). “Not in the fire nor amid the sound of trumpets; not in the smoking mountain, or in the darkness, or in the terrible and roaring tempest giving the Law, but manifested in the flesh, the gentle and good One dwells with those he condescends to make his equals. 

“God is in the flesh,” the revered church father said, “not operating from a distance, as did the prophets, but through his human nature, one with ours, he seeks to bring back all mankind to himself.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

The Spirit of St. Patrick

The Spirit of St. Patrick

By Steve Beard –

While sifting through obscure Spanish colonial records, it was discovered a few years ago that the very first St. Patrick’s Day parade was not conducted in Boston, Chicago, nor New York City. 

Instead, the Irish feast day was celebrated in modern day St. Augustine, Florida, in 1601. 

“They processed through the streets of St. Augustine, and the cannon fired from the fort,” said Prof. J. Michael Francis of the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, who discovered the document. The ancient records named “San Patricio” as “the protector” of the area’s maize fields. “So here you have this Irish saint who becomes the patron protector of a New World crop, corn, in a Spanish garrison settlement,” he said.

This strange twist in the story and celebration of St. Patrick, a fifth century holy man, is really not that surprising. His memory is invoked all around the globe. On March 17, the patron saint of Ireland is celebrated in parades and festivals in surprising places such as Argentina, India, Japan, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, and the West Indies. 

Although the celebration was launched by Irish people scattered all around the world to remember their Celtic heritage, now even non-Irish people claim to be “Irish for a day” – even if it is only a fun excuse to eat corned beef and cabbage, wear green, and order a Guinness. The vast majority of those celebrating have no idea who St. Patrick was or what he did. That is a pity. 

Historians are constantly attempting to set the record straight. After all, Patrick was not Irish (born in Britain of a Romanized family). He was never canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Interestingly, there are two St. Patrick’s Cathedrals in Armagh, Ireland – one Catholic and one Protestant. Remarkably, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is connected to the Church of Ireland, but has both Catholic and Protestant clergy. 

The legacy of Ireland’s patron saint blurs a lot of lines – but, he is notably worth celebrating. 

Patrick was brutally abducted at the age of 16 by pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. For six agonizing years in a foreign land, he largely lived in abject solitude attending animals. The Christian faith of his family that he found unappealing as a teenager became his spiritual lifeline to sanity and survival while in captivity.

“Tending flocks was my daily work, and I would pray constantly during the daylight hours,” he writes in his Confession – one of only two brief documents authentically from Patrick’s own hand. “The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more – and faith grew and the Spirit was roused, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again even while I remained in the woods or on the mountain. I would wake and pray before daybreak – through snow, frost, rain – nor was there any sluggishness in me (such as I experience nowadays) because then the Spirit within me was ardent.” 

Through a divine dream, Patrick was inspired to make his escape. His journey as a fugitive was, according to his testimony, a 200 mile trek to the coast. Further miraculous circumstances allowed him to wrangle himself aboard a ship to escape his imprisonment in Ireland. He finally made it back to the loving embrace of his family. 

Years later, however, another mystical dream launched his trajectory into the ministry and, ultimately, back to Ireland. “We appeal to you, holy servant boy,” said the voice in the dream, “to come and walk among us.”

For many years, he trained to become a priest. Eventually, in 432 A.D., Patrick returned to the shores of the land where he once was held captive. 

“Believe me, I didn’t go to Ireland willingly that first time [when he was taken as a slave] – I almost died there,” he wrote in his Confession. “But it turned out to be good for me in the end, because God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care for others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.” 

Noted classics scholar Philip Freeman, the author of St. Patrick of Ireland, points out the distinguished uniqueness of Patrick’s public vulnerability – a trait that was not characteristic of a man of his stature and notoriety. As an elderly and well-known bishop, Patrick begins his Confession with these words: “I am Patrick – a sinner – the most unsophisticated and unworthy among all the faithful of God. Indeed, to many, I am the most despised.”

“The two letters are in fact the earliest surviving documents written in Ireland and provide us with glimpses of a world full of petty kings, pagan gods, quarreling bishops, brutal slavery, beautiful virgins, and ever-threatening violence,” writes Freeman. “But more than anything else, they allow us to look inside the mind and soul of a remarkable man living in a world that was both falling apart and at the dawn of a new age. There are simply no other documents from ancient times that give us such a clear and heartfelt view of a person’s thoughts and feelings. These are, above all else, letters of hope in a trying and uncertain time.”

While there are many beautiful, miraculous, and fantastical stories about St. Patrick, his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus – the other document authentically written by Patrick – exposes his heart and soul. It portrays the character of a man worthy of emulation and celebration. His humility, empathy, and righteous indignation scorches the letter as he takes up the cause of the voiceless captives and powerless victims of slavery – a common practice in the fifth century. 

The fiery correspondence addresses the horrific news that a group of newly baptized converts were killed or taken into slavery on their way home by a petty British king named Coroticus, known to be at least nominally a Christian. 

“Blood, blood, blood! Your hands drip with the blood of the innocent Christians you have murdered – the very Christians I nourished and brought to God,” Patrick writes. “My newly baptized converts, still in their white robes, the sweet smell of the anointing oil still on their foreheads – you murdered them, cut them down with your swords!”

Violating cultural and ecclesiastical protocols, the letter was sent broadly and caused a stir. Courageously, Patrick launched a public ruckus – outside his governance – over the “hideous, unspeakable crimes” because he believed that God truly loved the Irish – even if church leaders elsewhere did not. Patrick’s vision for the love of God was expansively generous. “I am a stranger and an exile living among barbarians and pagans, because God cares for them,” he writes (emphasis added). 

“Was it my idea to feel God’s love for the Irish and to work for their good?” Patrick writes. “These people enslaved me and devastated my father’s household! I am of noble birth – the son of a Roman decurion – but I sold my nobility. I’m not ashamed of it and I don’t regret it because I did it to help others. Now I am a slave of Christ to a foreign people – but this time for the unspeakable glory of eternal life in Christ Jesus our master.” 

Having been captive, he does not write about slavery whimsically. He was an outspoken voice opposing slavery at a time when it was simply considered commonplace. Furthermore, he was a fierce advocate for those who were most vulnerable and abused in captivity. 

“But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most – and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure,” he writes in his Confession. “The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.” 

When Patrick heard about the bloody attack and abductions after the baptism service, he sought to reason with Coroticus: “The very next day I sent a message to you with a priest l had taught from childhood and some other clergy asking that you return the surviving captives with at least some of their goods – but you only laughed.”

In response, Patrick derides Coroticus and his men as “dogs and sorcerers and murderers, and liars and false swearers  … who distribute baptized girls for a price, and that for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom which truly passes away in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind.” 

In order to make his point, he prays: “God, I know these horrible actions break your heart – even those dwelling in Hell would blush in shame.” 

With pastoral care, Patrick addresses the memory of those killed after their baptism: “And those of my children who were murdered – I weep for you, I weep for you … I can see you now starting on your journey to that place where there is no more sorrow or death. … You will rule with the apostles, prophets, and martyrs in an eternal kingdom.”

Even in an inferno of justifiable rage, Patrick extends an olive branch of redemption: “Perhaps then, even though late, they will repent of all the evil they have done – these murderers of God’s family – and free the Christians they have enslaved. Perhaps then they will deserve to be redeemed and live with God now and forever.” 

“The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery,” writes historian Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization. “Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century.”

All around the globe, St. Patrick’s Day is set aside to honor a great man who overcame fear with faith, overcame hate with love, and overcame prejudice with hope. Although he had every reason in the world to resist the dream to return to “walk among” the Irish, Patrick responded to the God-given impulse of his heart – even when it was most difficult. He knew the dangers and challenges and returned anyway.

Patrick offered himself as a living example of what new life could look like for the Irish. “It is possible to be brave – to expect ‘every day … to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved – whatever may come my way’ – and yet be a man of peace and at peace, a man without sword or desire to harm, a man in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away,” writes Cahill of Patrick. “He was ‘not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.’ Patrick’s peace was no sham: it issued from his person like a fragrance.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Good News. Artwork by Winfield Bevins. Used by permission. 

Liberty’s Hero: Frederick Douglass

Liberty’s Hero: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)

Liberty’s Hero: Frederick Douglass

By Steve Beard – 

Frederick Douglass grew up under the perverse shackles of slavery on a plantation in Maryland 200 years ago. He never knew the identity of his father, barely saw his mother, and witnessed unspeakable violence and bloodshed before he turned 10 years old. He was proselytized under a warped version of Christianity that had a Bible in one hand and a bullwhip in the other. It was piety unrecognizable to the Prince of Peace.   

As one who escaped the bonds of slavery, Douglass (1818-1895) would become the most eloquent abolitionist orator and the most steadfast defender of liberty, equality, and justice. “Douglass spoke as a man born into bondage in America more than forty years after the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that all men were equal and endowed by God with liberty,” historian D. H. Dilbeck reports in Frederick Douglass: American Prophet, a new spiritual autobiography.   

At eight years old, Douglass was sent to live with a Methodist family in Baltimore. The wife, Sophia, was kind and devout and treated Frederick with the love that children deserve. Bible reading, hymn singing, and prayers were commonplace. One night, he heard Sophia reading the Old Testament story of Job aloud. The desolation of Job’s life was spelled out: death, poverty, and relentless calamity.

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.”

“How could this be?” young Frederick asked himself. Why are the righteous stricken with destruction while the evil count their fortune? Where is God? Was this all part of a divine plan? When he should have been identifying with a Sunday school story such as young David slaying the belligerent bully Goliath, instead he connected with the stark horror story of a man whose entire family is decimated.

When asked about their captivity, some fellow slaves repeated the slaveholder’s propaganda that God made white people to be masters and black people to be slaves. Others told him that it was God’s predestined plan for the planet. Douglass rejected these false precepts. “It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery,” Douglass concluded. Judging from the biblical messages of the prophets and the King of Kings, it was greed and spiteful hearts of humans that stole liberty and equality from those who were born free. 

Wanting to learn more about Job, Frederick asked Sophia to teach him to read. He soon mastered the alphabet and began to spell. Sophia was overjoyed – until she announced the progress to her husband. Horrified, he demanded that the lessons end immediately. “Learning would spoil the best n***er in the world,” he said, because slaves who knew how to read – especially the Bible – became “disconsolate and unhappy.” One can only imagine the fear that would run through a slaveholder’s blood as those kept in chains read about Moses telling Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Sophia promptly ended the lessons.

Douglass recalled her transformation as proof that “slavery can change a saint into a sinner, and an angel into a demon.” At the same time that young Fredrick’s heart was searching for a relationship with God, he witnessed firsthand the way that the prevailing slaveholding culture blinded the churchgoers to biblical justice and the gospel of love.

Hidden away at night, Frederick taught himself to read using old copies of Webster’s spelling book and Methodist hymnals. The saga of Job launched Douglass into mastering the language – the written words that held power to unchain the heart – that could literally help free men, women, and children. “Devout masters did all they could to keep the sacred truth of the Gospel from their slaves,” Dilbert wrote. “Yet the confounding experience of Job, who heard God in the whirlwind, proved far too compelling to a young boy who had wrestled with the problem of evil. Nothing could keep Frederick from the Bible and from learning to read.”

Remarkably, Douglass scoured the streets looking for passages of Scripture to piece together. “I have gathered scattered pages from this holy book, from the filthy street gutters of Baltimore, and washed and dried them, that in the moments of my leisure, I might get a word or two of wisdom from them,” he wrote.

Douglass would eventually write three best-selling autobiographies. “I was not more than thirteen years old, when I felt the need of God, as a father and protector,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “My religious nature was awakened by the preaching of a white Methodist minister named Hanson. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God … and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through Christ.”

Douglass was also befriended by Charles Johnson, a black lay preacher, who told him to pray. “I was, for weeks, a poor, brokenhearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fears. I finally found that change of heart which comes by ‘casting all one’s care’ upon God, and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him.”

Douglass testifies that seeking after God transformed his life. “After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new hopes and desires,” he claimed. “I loved all mankind – slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great concern was, now, to have the world converted.”

Douglass spent the rest of his life battling for the rights of those left out and forgotten: women, Native Americans, and immigrants. He preached and published with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet and the grace of a nail-scarred savior. He had a lifelong “lover’s quarrel” with the Christian church in America that defended or looked the other way while men, women, and children were sold on auction blocks. The complicit preachers armed with a false gospel “have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system,” Douglass said.

The message and struggle of Old Testament prophets helped Douglass make sense of the prevailing worldview that devalued and degraded an entire race of people. He “aspired to speak to America as Isaiah and Christ once spoke,” observed Dilbeck, “with words of rebuke and warning, exhortation and encouragement, grace and liberty, hope and truth.” The voice of Christ and the prophets “provided a radical, contrarian vision of righteousness: to care for the marginalized, oppressed, widowed, and orphaned; to heal the brokenhearted; to set free the captives.”

Douglass’s faith was his anchor of hope throughout his life. Preaching in a Methodist church in Washington D.C. near the end of his life, Douglass confessed that when he faced despair about the future of his race and nation, he reminded himself, “God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.” 

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.