Always a Fresh Word from the Lord
By Dennis J. Hester
Confident Living – November 1987
It has been said, “The trouble with the old school of the prophets is that the old fellows are gone, but not forgotten; and the trouble with today’s preachers is that we are forgotten, but not gone.
On August 12, 1986, Dr. Vance Havner, one of America’s most beloved preachers, went home to be with the Lord, whom he served for more than 70 years.
Havner is home at last, but he shall never be forgotten. His powerful preaching comforted us when we felt afflicted and afflicted us when we became comfortable with the demands of Christ. His clever and humorous way of “turning-a-phrase,” and his ability to communicate deep spiritual truths in his homespun fashion with clarity and conviction will always stick with us.
When so many preachers are trying to be “everything to everybody,” Havner was satisfied in being who God created him to be-himself. Havner wasn’t disappointed that he wasn’t a “jack-of-all trades,” but neither did he boast in what he did best- preach. Like the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, Havner was created and destined to preach. He said on many occasions, “I’ve never known a time that I didn’t feel called to be a preacher. All I’ve ever wanted to do was to preach all over this country and write books. And God has given me the desires of my heart.”
Havner trusted Christ as his Savior at the age of ten and was baptized in South Fork River in the Backwoods of Vale, “Jugtown,” North Carolina. He was licensed to preach at age 12 by Corinth Baptist Church of Vale and was ordained at age 15. It was an awesome experience for a boy of 12 to stand on a chair at First Baptist Church of Shelby, North Carolina, and preach to a congregation of 1000!
As Havner began preaching, he often heard scoffers say, “Boy preachers never last.” In spite of the critics, Havner continued preaching, later serving as a pastor. He traveled countless miles~ as an itinerant preacher and delivered more than 13,000 sermons during his 72 years as a minister of the Word. Havner often referred to the comment about boy preachers not lasting, and with a grin he would say, “I think I’ve given it a pretty good try.” Havner was still actively preaching at age 82, but had done little preaching two years before his death because of ill health and two broken hips. Havner took a different route from most ministers to prepare himself for his preaching and writing ministry. He never stayed anywhere long enough to graduate. He attended Boiling Springs High School (now Gardner-Webb College, where he was conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1971), Wake Forest Baptist College (now a University), Catawba College, Moody Bible Institute and Florida Bible Institute.
Some evangelists may have considered Havner unorthodox because the only form of advertising that Havner ever remembers doing was in 1924, when he placed an ad in the Biblical Recorder, his home state’s denominational news-paper. He simply stated that he was available to serve as a pastor. Havner was then called to his first pastorate, the Salem Baptist Church, for one year. After resigning and returning to his old home place in the foothills of North Carolina, he preached in the surrounding area and, as Havner put it, “floundered trying to find his way.”
Havner returned to serve the Salem Baptist Church a second time for three years. The little country congregation could tell their pastor was a different man who had matured emotionally and spiritually. Havner commented on his second installment at the Salem Baptist Church in his book Threescore and Ten (Revell). “I stayed upstairs in a plain home, studied by a kerosene lamp, drank water from a pitcher and warmed by a wood burning stove; but I put in three years of the best Bible study I have ever done. God honors the study and preaching of His Word. Pity the preacher who uses a text only as a launching platform from which to blast off into space, departing therefrom and never returning thereto! There is a power in the direct preaching of the Bible that attends no other pulpit exercise.”
Havner’s next divine appointment was to pastor the First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Scott Walker served as an associate pastor when Havner was pastor in Charleston. Walker said of Havner, ‘Havner never was fond of many of the pastoral duties other than preaching. He’d have me to do all of the weddings, funerals and baptisms. Havner was a prophet; all he wanted to do was preach.”
The congregation eventually became concerned about the amount of time their young evangelist-pastor was spending attending revivals and Bible conferences. Havner stayed at the oldest Baptist Church in the South for five years. He then decided that his time had come to launch out on faith and venture into the traveling ministry he had envisioned from boyhood.
Havner began his new ministry in 1940. His first meetings were to be held with the Mel Trotter Mission in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He got as far as Chicago, where he came down with the flu and had to be hospitalized. It would become Havner’s custom to migrate toward Florida to preach during the winter, but at this particular time, as Havner battled the flu in the North, the South’s “land of sunshine” looked especially inviting.
So Havner rearranged his schedule and accepted an invitation to preach in a Bible conference at the Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. As Havner recuperated, he met two people who would become enduring friends. One was the would-be evangelist, Billy Graham, who was a student at the Bible school. The other person was Miss Sara Allred, the dean of women and the manager of the bookstore. Miss Allred nursed Havner back to health with chicken soup, a game of dominoes before a big open fire, and long strolls in the Florida sunshine and moonlight. When Havner left to resume his speaking schedule, the love and letters of Sara Allred followed him. They were married in December, 1940. They set out together in the itinerant ministry for which Havner said, “I was now far better prepared.”
Sara did all of Havner’s driving. Havner never owned, a driver’s license and was 66 before he purchased an automobile!
Havner was 40 years old when he married. He lived with Sara, his companion and coworker, for 33 years. In 1973, she was struck with a dreaded disease that distorted her lovely features and rendered her a helpless invalid. As Havner struggled with the suffering and dying of his beloved Sara, he wrote what became his all-time best seller, Though I Walk Through the Valley. In this intimate book Havner reflected upon the waiting, suffering, loneliness and grief during the nightmare of losing his beloved Sara. He also testified to the peace and love of God that sustained him. Hope Thou in God followed in 1977 and is a continuation of Havner’s struggles and victories as he adjusted to living without Sara.
“It took me 40 years to get married,” said Havner, “but Sara was worth the wait. I loved her so much. People getting married today don’t believe in romance like Sara and I did. All they believe in today is sex.”
As I became better acquainted with Havner through his preaching and his 36 books, and as I visited with him in his home in Greensboro, one supreme characteristic stands out above all the rest: Havner was a holy man of God.
Dr. Alton H. McEachern, Havner’s pastor of First Baptist Church of Greensboro, appropriately described Havner as one who was “intensely spiritual, but perfectly natural.”
Havner nurtured his spiritual nature by rising early in the morning and strolling in the woods to reflect on the things of God, and to watch birds. There was nothing mystical about “bird-watching,” but only a habit that Havner began as a boy and continued all of his life. Havner referred to nature often in his writings and found a joy in identifying countless birds by their color and song. The wood thrush was his favorite.
“Meditation is a lost art among most preachers today,” said Havner. “They’re too busy, wrapped-up with programs and committee meetings. I’m always calling preachers to more meditation, reflection and solitude within this rat race we live in. If we don’t come apart to be with the Lord, we will surely come-apart.”
Havner was a free spirit as God used him like a sword to proclaim the truth with power and purpose. This “ole-time” revivalist never relied on trends or slogans to convict people to love or to serve Jesus. Like a prophet of old, Havner always had a fresh “word from the Lord” that did the convicting and changing.
“We don’t need to be in the novelty shop, as much as we need to be in the antique shop, where we find the old truths of God’s Word,” said Havner. “We don’t need something new today half as much as we need something so old that it would be new if anybody tried it.”
There’s no way this side of heaven to estimate the eternal good and undying challenge Havner’s prophet messages from pulpit and pen have brought to God’s people across our country. He faithfully honored God by courageously speaking to our age, convicting our hearts, revealing our sins, and pointing to “Jesus only” as the remedy.
From a humble beginning in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Vance Havner became one of America’s best loved and most quoted preachers and authors. Churches from various denominations in addition to his own Southern Baptist Convention are indebted to Havner for stirring revival fires in hearts of clergy and laity alike. But with all his success and recognition, he never considered himself to be anything but a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, God for the influence of this rare, remarkable and faithful servant of God.
Used by permission of the Author.