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Past Masters: Vance Havner: An Unbeaten Path

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.

Havner was neither an orator or considered eloquent. Yet his grasp of language was extraordinary. A skilled wordsmith with an astonishing ability to turn a phrase, he never hesitated for a word. Notice how each of the following quotes by Havner stands on its own.

"The brook would lose its song if you removed the rocks."
"The great tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer."
"If you see a Bible that is falling apart, it probably belongs to someone who isn't."
"The hope of dying is the only thing that keeps me alive."
"God preserves the saints, but He does not pickle them."
"We are always trying to 'find ourselves' when that is exactly what we need to lose."

Havner's preaching focused on revival, holiness, the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the filling of the Holy Spirit. "Nobody…needs a revival more than a bitter-spirited fundamentalist with his dispensations right and his disposition wrong."

His appearance would not naturally endear people to him. He was short, appeared frail and rarely moved once he stood behind the pulpit, his hands resting on top of the lectern. He wrote, "Nowhere is it easier to play with the gospel than in the ministry. With a pleasing personality, a gift of eloquence, a fine moral character and plenty of business sense, one can take the gospel for a football and make a great many goals."

He spoke with a strong voice with little change in pace and modulation and often used self-deprecating humor. He said he never used his diaphragm when speaking because he spoke through his nose. Nonetheless, when he began to preach, everyone grew silent. The congregation's collective gaze fell on Havner as if an unseen hand pointed toward the pulpit.

His most notable (and last) pastorate was the historic First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C., which he served from 1934 to 1939. He was quoted as telling them one Sunday morning, "I could have gotten some of you saved if you hadn't joined the church first."

Though he was a pastor, Havner knew he was no multi-tasker, that God's purpose was that he preach and Havner would not be deterred from it. With many invitations to preach across the country, Havner left the Charleston church in 1940, but his excitement to launch an itinerant preaching ministry was soon dashed. Having fought insomnia and nervous exhaustion his last two years at Charleston, Havner never reached his first engagement in Grand Rapids.

Hospitalized with the flu en route, his doctor advised him to go south and recuperate. The sickly Havner wired the Florida Bible Institute and accepted an invitation he previously declined. There, he preached and rested—and befriended two people he would value forever. One was a student named Billy Graham. The other, an employee of the school, was Sara Allred. They married in 1940. Sara became not only his wife, but Vance's scheduler and driver. They were married for 33 years until a debilitating disease ended Sara's life. Vance's grief prompted his writing Though I Walk Through the Valley in 1973.

Havner loathed busyness and noise—two vices that drove him to solitude and simplicity. Virtually every sermon and book included a grievance about the pace of life and his craving for solitude. "It is high time we learned that in this nerve-wrecking, maddening modern rush, we have let the spirit of the times rob us utterly of meditation, devotion, rest, the passive side of our Christian experience without which we cannot be truly active to the glory of God" (emphasis added).

We err if we view the passive side of our Christian experience as laziness or leisure. Havner said he was the last man he knew who had the ability to meditate, a discipline neither transcendental or accidental. As a boy, Havner "tramped the woods" for solitude and continued to do so all his life. After checking into a hotel for a week of preaching, he immediately went looking for a wooded area, a place to restore his soul daily. Havner defined meditating as "not so much praying, but just thinking about the things of God." He rose early in the morning and went strolling in the woods with God.

Havner understood that ministry is not about the number of sermons you preach, books you write and engagements you fill. "We are not here to turn out a quota of activities. "We are here to glorify God."

When your ministry appears to be going nowhere, remember Havner's advice, "He who waits on God loses no time."

Vance Havner died at age 84, on Aug. 12, 1986. Many of his sermons can be heard here.

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