An Illiterate Southern Baptist Preacher; To Whom Jesus Was Everything.

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew [7:12]

Last week we began our four-part series called Jesus Is Our Everything. Today we continue this series with a story about an illiterate preacher. An everyday person, who followed Jesus to the pulpit, to run a  successful racially mixed small church in the deep south.

One of my favorite preachers I use to give me inspiration is Clarence Jordan. Clarence was the inspirational founder of Habit for Humanity. He was the father of Hamilton Jordan, who was Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff. Clarence was a pioneer in social justice in the mid-20th century, at a time when our country was deeply divided racially. His main message was to bring Jesus’s words to life with action and not rhetoric. A peace-seeking man, who in every way lived this life. One of his formative learning moments occurred when he visited and preached at a Southern Baptist church in the deep south.

The church, Clarence visited and asked to preach at, was in a suburb near a large southern town. Clarence was positive that the church contained affluent white people who spoke the gospel, but did not live the gospel. As such, Clarence prepared a sermon for the church that would be hard hitting to teach them a lesson.

When he arrived at the church he found quite the opposite of his preconceived notion. He was amazed that a church that only had seating for three hundred, held six hundred. Not only that, both the black and white parishioners sat amongst each other. Seeing this he was startled and immediately knew he had to change his sermon on the fly.

When he was done preaching that Sunday, the church’s preacher asked him to stay and eat Sunday dinner with the parishioners. Once again, Clarence had an assumption that would be proven wrong. He assumed that the dinner would be held away from the main street and in the back of the church, where the local townspeople would not be able to see the diners. He also thought the parishioners would eat divided along racial lines. Instead, they ate together on the lawn in front of the church, where everyone in town could see. Quite remarkable in the mid-20th century of the deep south.

After the dinner, Clarence was compelled to discover more, asking the preacher to tell his story of how he achieved this unusual racial harmony. The humble preacher told Clarence his life story.

He revealed to Clarence that he had worked in the local mills before he became the church’s preacher. He also had never learned to read or write before he started preaching. He was just an ordinary person struggling to make a life with little resources. One Sunday he attended this church and became moved to learn more about the Bible and Jesus. At first, his friends read him the Bible and over time he learned the lessons of the Gospel. He also learned how to read and write. When the previous preacher left the church and there was no one to lead the Sunday service, he volunteered. Being the only one to volunteer, the church deacons said okay.

His first sermon was a hard-hitting message about loving all people. Not to look at the color of their skin, but to look at all people as equals. After delivering the sermon, a group of Deacons approached him and asked him not to preach that message again. Then the preacher did something very unusual, he told the deacons he would continue to preach this universal message of equality. He was a volunteer and they held no power over him. Some of the deacons left the church and others stayed. For a while he still had trouble, but as he said to Clarence; I preached awfully hard and I finally convinced all the members they were giving their lives to Jesus. And they were to be serious about it. What you see here today is a result of that.

And it wasn’t just that the white attendees understood this message. It was also that the black attendees understood. Everyone had to change their view of each other. One common thread was to view each other as neighbors and to love each other. The other important message was; Jesus was the only source of the truth, not the existing societal norm.

The reason this preaching style worked was the preacher’s insistence that they not only know the words of the Gospel but to also be serious about living the Gospel. He helped them see Jesus as their only guiding light.

This simple man with no education and limited worldly experience transformed a church by making Jesus the center point and everything to the parishioners. He faithfully resisted the societal norms of the day and stuck to his message. A simple message; in all that we do, we do for Jesus. Through his firm and resolute weekly messages, he eroded the built-up plaque of historical social divides and taught that all people are equally the people of God.

Clarence observed that the preacher had an important advantage in his task. He wasn’t educated at a university, where his faith could have tempered. He didn’t learn to read until after he found Jesus. He was pure and unaffected by those who could have steered him off course. Allowing him to stay completely focused on Jesus.

As a preacher, Jesus was his everything. He knew little about human theories and doctrine. He only knew a lot about Jesus. In this simple man, Clarence saw a purity of purpose untarnished by human thought. A person free from the lure of the world, who had nothing but Jesus. A message Clarence took with him on a day he thought he would be the teacher. A message that making Jesus everything, was the true course of his life.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash