The Preachers of My Youth
I have often said I had a privileged childhood. Not the temporal privileges of riches, social status or luxury. I enjoyed the atmosphere and environment of godly role models, spiritual values and emphasis on responsibility to God. My parents were Christians and of all the activities and endeavors of our simple lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas in the 1950's, nothing was more important that "church." In the language of that era and in our home that meant: assembling with the saints, studying the Bible, living as a Christian and it meant preachers. When I was a little boy, I had no vision of the profound influences of these things in my future. Now in my fifties, I thank God for these good influences and for the preachers of my youth.
Ward Hogland had a powerful presence in the pulpit and was a mighty debater. My father operated the old wire recorder at some of bro. Hogland's debates in the 1950's. Though little more than a toddler, I went along with my father. While I wasn't able to follow every line of argument or even have a good grasp of the proposition, these experiences helped a little boy to learn that there is a difference between truth and error that cannot be ignored. Bro. Hogland put together a Vacation Bible School that later became the pattern for me when I would conduct VBS's in my early years of preaching.
Cecil Douthitt was a consummate gentleman, and a man who taught me the dignity of the pulpit. In his writings, preaching and debating, he led many people to a clear understanding of the "institutional" issues and what the Bible said about those questions. Just a few months before his death, he gave me wise counsel about being a preacher. Because of his recommendations I received some of my first appointments in Arkansas while attending college in Ft. Smith. Before his stroke, final illness and death, he was preaching every Sunday at the Etna church of Christ. I took his place there, and that became my first local work.
Gene Frost helped me see the value of research and analysis of passages, concepts and issues. I remember being impressed by his energy, organization and prolific publishing. He is the first preacher I remember who used charts with great effect. Fanning Yater Tant was a friend of the family and did some local work in Ft. Smith when I was a boy. After class one Wednesday night - about 1960 - Yater came over to me and said: "You've been thinking seriously about obeying the gospel haven't you?" I agreed and he replied: "You need to go that tonight," and I did. Bill Wallace was at Park Hill for a while. He held special intensive Bible classes for adults on week nights. One class was based on The Gist of the Bible, a handbook by Charles Shook published by Gospel Advocate in 1956. My parents went through that class and used the book to help me understand the sequence of Bible history. My mother gave me the book when I started preaching and I still use it.
We had gospel meetings two or three times a year. In my earliest memories, "protracted meetings," which would go on for over a week. In those days, people from the community would visit and listen; there would be baptisms in every meeting. I remember how preachers would stop the song leader between verses and speak additional exhortations and encouragement. When I was about twelve, I was allowed to go into the baptistry changing room and help bro. Douthitt get into his boots. I probably wasn't much help, but he made be think I was helping. Men like Maurice Barnett, Homer Hailey, Hoyt Houchen and Billy Moore would hold meetings with audiences present beyond the capacity of the huge Park Hill auditorium. All of this "church" activity was the focal point of our lives, and even when I didn't understand all that happened, I knew all of this activity was important to all the people I considered good and wise.
Lewis Willis was a major influence for good later in my life, in the late 1960's. I was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Knox and attending services at Valley Station, where Lewis preached (Louisville area). My first wife died of cancer during those years. We were faithfully and lovingly attended by members at Valley Station and especially by the Willis family (Frankie later died of the same disease). I was thinking about doing some preaching in 1969, and Lewis gave me all the motives and encouragement that moved me in that direction. Lewis taught me how to prepare an outline, and in my early years of preaching gave me so much valuable advice; I surely would have fallen flat on my face without him. (I married Frankie's neice. Paula and I have been married almost 30 years.)
Judson Woodbridge was a friend of the family since before my parents married. He performed the ceremony when my mother and father married. Later, he was preaching at Poteau, Oklahoma when I was at Waldron, Arkansas (early 70's). I drove to Poteau once a week to tape a radio program and would have lunch with Judson. His encouragement and counsel helped me through some difficult times, and he was instrumental in recommending me for the work in Mulvane, Kansas. I lived and worked there for almost ten years. It was what may turn out to be some of my best years of local work. Judson later became my step-father. He was a good man and good preacher whose memory I cherish.
And what's my point? This article is being read by many Christians who have these same kind of memories. May I suggest something? If the preachers of your youth are still alive, find out where they are and send them a note of thanks for the good influence and teaching. (If you don't know where they are, write to me and I'll help you locate them.)
"How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!" (Rom. 10:15).
By Warren E. Berkley
The Final Page
From Expository Files 5.10; October 1998