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Past Masters: Vance Havner: An Unbeaten Path

By Tim Wilkins | executive director of Cross Ministry in North Carolina.

Vance Havner was nothing more than a country preacher whom God gifted him to preach all over the country—and what a preacher he was!

Born Oct. 17, 1901, in Jugtown, N.C. (near Hickory), Vance Houston Havner took an unbeaten path. He attended a few schools, but graduated from none of them. He served as pastor of a few Baptist churches—all of them as a single man, a rarity then and now. He wrote more than 35 books, travelled hundreds of thousands of miles in more than 72 years of ministry to preach more than 13,000 times—and he never owned a driver's license. His devoted wife Sara, whom he married when he was age 39, did the driving. Wrote Havner, "Sara drove and I prayed." He did not own a car until age 65. He never owned a home; he and Sara lived in a small upstairs apartment in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Havner's interest in preaching was nourished by devoted Christian parents. As Havner wrote, "My father's home was the staying place for the preachers." He later said, "We had only one sermon a month—some of them were long enough to last a month." On those Saturday nights, his father allowed Vance to sit up late by the fireplace listening to his father and the preacher talk about the Bible.

Those fireplace doctrinal discussions stirred the embers of Vance's heart to preach. Add to that the intrigue of a travelling preacher, and is it any wonder this young boy became a travelling preacher?

Sunday School talks at age 9 were Havner's initiation into public speaking. He was baptized at age 10, licensed to ministry at age 12 and ordained at age 15. First Baptist Church of Hickory was the site of Havner's first sermon at age 12. Some 1,800 people crowded into the church while 200 stood outside to hear the boy preacher on a Sunday night. Havner wrote, "Dad and I went over in an early Ford with thirty horsepower, twenty of them dead."

Standing on a chair behind the pulpit, Havner was supported by the pastor on one side and an evangelist on the other. The support was to keep the pre-teen from falling off his perch, not to keep him from forgetting his message. The local newspaper wrote Havner "held the audience spellbound for over an hour" as he outlined Jesus' life.

Havner believed in "the direct preaching of the Bible" versus using a text as a springboard. He could preach one text, but often would weave several texts together—as in his sermons "Look Who's Here" or "Getting Used to the Dark." We might categorize these sermons as topical, but in pulling several Old and New Testament verses together, Havner did not kidnap a verse from its context.

Having been grounded in conservative theology, he eventually took a rural pastorate and a decisive turn toward German liberalism, which eventually left him disillusioned. He resigned that pastorate in less than a year and returned to his boyhood home; but he returned to his conservative roots and the rural church to preach the gospel for three more years.

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