Many believe that the greatest address George W. Truett ever delivered was in May, 1920, when he preached from the steps of the United States Capitol in Washington D. C. where many U.S. Presidents have delivered their inaugural addresses. There Dr. Truett held a vast crowd absolutely spell-bound for ninety minutes, most of them standing! Before him on the Capitol steps were gathered Supreme Court Justices, Senators, Ambassadors, Cabinet members, and other Federal leaders surrounded by an enormous audience. There was no public hall large enough to contain the huge crowds attending the Southern Baptist Convention and the tourists they attracted,
Liberty of the Individual
Skillfully drawing materials from the Bible, European and American history, and current society, Truett discussed the principle of an individual’s right to private judgement and the true Christian’s commitment to defend this freedom for all. The values he upheld are now well shared by Christians from many denominations but, as his assigned topic was “Baptists and Religious Liberty” he framed those convictions within his own fellowship saying, in part:
Although the Baptist is the very antithesis of his Catholic neighbor in religious conceptions and contentions, yet the Baptist will whole-heartedly contend that his Catholic neighbor will have his candles and incense and sanctus bell and rosary, and whatever else he wishes in the expression of his worship. A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor and his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else, games, 1939:4).
Such an utterance was typical Truett — one in which he explained and illustrated some biblical truth with a clear representation of its social and cultural implications in behavior while sensitive to the needs and rights of others. Yet, while the content of that speech was in itself compelling, it was his vocal delivery, backed by the persona of the preacher himself which demanded attention from his hearers as his sermons always did.
The Authority of Authenticity
Truett, a large man, made the most of his height and personal strength of character, but also carefully sought to invest his voice with an appropriate confidence and authority in the truths he proclaimed. His convictions were firm, his spiritual commitment high, and his personal maturity full. Without pride or bombast, he specifically determined to project these elements of his personality and character through the words he chose, the clarity of his enunciation, the force with which he focused his ideas, and the energy by which he projected his vocal expression The sincerity, humility, and obvious discipline he exhibited combined with the power of the truths he expounded enabled him to hold that crowd of fifteen thousand spellbound.
But just how did Truett develop such a spiritual and vocal power which enabled him to hold crowds of such magnitude enraptured for one and a half hours?
Over the closing years of the 19th century the exciting growth of First Baptist Church, Dallas, under George W. Truett thrilled his whole Texas congregation, caught the attention of the community, and lifted the dynamic pastor into national prominence as one of America’s greatest pastoral evangelists and pulpit encouragers.
Walking Through the “Valley of the Shadow”
Much of this came through an experience early in his ministry there. When God’s blessing on the church so delighted one long-time member, formerly a Captain in the Texas Rangers and now Dallas Chief of Police, J. C. Arnold, that he invited George to join him and his bird dogs for a day of quail hunting in Johnson County. During their return in the late afternoon, as George trudged behind his host along the forest trail that would lead them home, the relaxed and contented pastor shifted his hunt-ing rifle from one arm to the other and in so doing jolted the trigger on the hammerless gun. The weapon discharged and a full load of bird shot struck Chief Arnold in the calf of one leg. The wound did not appear severe and Captain Arnold made light of it but George Truett felt a strange premonition that the outcome would be serious.
The doctors and nurses they reached in Dallas several hours later also reassured them that all would be well, but George paced the floor day and night for most of the week under an anxiety of self-condemnation for what he felt was his carelessness in handling the gun. He could neither sleep nor eat and by the time of the regular Wednesday evening prayer service supplication for the consolation of their strangely heart-broken pastor matched that offered for the full recovery of the police chief.
His congregation could not understand the strange agony of spirit which gripped their beloved leader. But when Captain Arnold died that very evening, apparently of heart failure which could have been initiated by the accident, all Dallas was shocked at the sudden and unexpected death of their Chief of Police (James, 1939:85-90).
A Sleepless Night
Messages of sympathy for Pastor Truett poured in from all over the city and beyond. Apparently no one except George ever felt that the Chief could die but he was so broken he believed he could never preach again because of the tragedy he had brought upon his dear friend. Although his mother, father, and his wife’s parents all came to offer support he seemed beyond consolation. Truett told his wife, Josephine, that he felt that the blood of his friend had forever stained his character and, accordingly, he planned to leave the ministry. She stood by him quietly as he pored over his Bible, especially searching through the Psalms and the book of Job seeking relief from his agony.
No one knew if he could face the pulpit on the coming Sunday and it was not until the early hours of that morning that he finally fell asleep quoting the text, My times are in Thy hand. Sometime during that night, he later told his wife and close family, Jesus appeared to him vividly and realistically three times in dreams saying, Be not afraid. You are my man from now on. His son-in-law and biographer records that he shared this experience only in private, and then with great reluctance, but that it marked a turning point in his life and ministry. From that point on he lived as one who was now directly commissioned by Christ to proclaim His Word with unusual power. (James, 1939:88-89).
The Vocal Mystery
Pastor friends from the local Methodist and Presbyterian congregations adjourned their Sunday evening services that week in order to worship with Truett and his First Baptist congregation and thus to show their support for a pastor struggling as few are called to do. Hollow-eyed and broken from the week’s sleeplessness, and with his sensitive face marked by deep lines of suffering, Truett began to preach in an unusually strange voice. Sadness seemed to surround every word. Sorrow gave a timber of deep pathos to every syllable. The great congregation sat in solemn silence as he seemed, as one said, To carry the burden of all the grief in the world. (James, 1939: 89).
This event molded him into a pastor with an extraordinary capacity to minister to persons in trouble. It seems as if, for him, no one could struggle with any sorrow that was deeper than his sorrow and, accordingly, he could serve them empathetically from dimensions which others appeared unable to access. Changes which the experience effected in his inner person may be beyond our understanding, but the effect upon his pulpit ministries cannot be gainsaid.
A Fresh Attitude
Prior to his tragic experience George W. Truett was gifted, eloquent, incisive, erudite and greatly used of God. After his walk through the “valley of the shadow” these characteristics continued but the new power of pastoral sensitivity and empathy which entered into his preaching from that time forward transformed a great ministry into a glorious one.
His pulpit manner became markedly different. Hearers crowded into the pews placed closest to the pulpit saying they could gain a special blessing just from close observation of his facial appearance and demeanor. They talked of a “hush of holiness” which they sensed when he preached. An unusual ethos of old-fashioned “godliness” seemed to surround his pulpit ministry. His worship leadership carried a fresh and most remarkable sense of earnestness and seriousness about it that congregations felt themselves confronted by an un-usual sense of the presence of God mediated through His committed servant in an extraordinary manner.
Even more surprising is that the high sense of humor which Dr. Truett continued to exhibit in his daily life and family disappeared completely in the pulpit from this time on so that some who only heard him while preaching exclaimed amazement, “We have never seen him smile”! It seems as if the experience through which he passed had so affected him that everything disappeared from his public ministry except an incredible compassion for the salvation of those who heard him and an intense need to focus on the spiritual needs of those who were hurting souls to whom he preached.
Amazingly this fresh dimension of his ministry did not make him appear to be so stern that others were repelled by the new solemnity. On the contrary his words and bearing carried such authenticity that the crowds thronged to hear him wherever he ministered, especially during the many evangelistic outreach meetings which he regularly conducted for churches across Texas and the nation.
A Southern Country Boy
Truett, born in 1867, grew up on a farm in Hayesville, NC, and in a Christian home. Accordingly, as his father passionately believed in the power of literature to shape character he was exposed early to volumes of spiritual values such as Pilgrim’s Progress. He also became well acquainted with the works of various popular Christian authors and developed a great familiarity with many of the religious periodicals of the period. As his brother, Charles, became deaf from the age of twelve the whole family practiced a special clarity of enunciation in their conversation for his benefit. Many think this early discipline was partially responsible for the high expertise in diction which George exhibited throughout his pulpit ministry in his later years.
Converted at the age of 19, he found personal faith in Christ as Savior during an evangelistic meeting in his home church. As he was being baptized George delivered his testimony at the evening service with such unction that the pastor promptly invited him to preach for the following Wednesday evening service.
At that service, carried along by an obvious passionate concern that others should also share the forgiveness for sins through Christ that he had found, George literally walked up and down the church aisles pleading that some in that packed congregation would receive salvation. After the service, embarrassed at the later realization that his evangelistic passion had carried him to such extremes, the young preacher rushed home to hide in his room humiliated and ashamed. But his godly mother sought him out and greatly encouraged him by saying, “My boy, all that is temptation of Satan, to silence you as a witness for Christ … I doubt if ever in all your after life you will give a more effective testimony for Christ than you gave tonight.” Many were converted as a result of that evening and from that time on people would come to Truett again and again to share their belief that God had called him to be a preacher. (Fant and Pinson, 1971:25-26).
Resisting the Call
But in those days Truett himself was never as sure of his call to the ministry as others appeared to be. An excellent student, he accepted appointment to become a grade school teacher at a country school in Hiawasee in north Georgia upon his own graduation from high school. He then aimed to begin college to study law when a layman, moved by his eloquence concerning the need for children’s education in delivering a report to the Georgia Baptist Convention, offered to pay all his expenses to attend Mercer University. But when his parents relocated to Whitewright, TX, he joined them instead to help with their farm. While there his actual call to preach arose in a most unusual way.
Ordained Without Being Asked
To his surprise the small Baptist church he joined at Whitewright almost immediately expressed a desire to ordain him without discussing it with him first. Without his consent the vote passed unanimously! He then pleaded that he should first consider the matter for six months and tried to declined the honor. But they held to their conviction that now was the time and proceeded assuring him that God’s Will was thus revealed. Truett comments,
… there I was, against the whole church, against a church profoundly moved. There was not a dry eye in the house — one of the supremely solemn hours in a church’s life. I was thrown into the stream, and just had to swim. (Fant and Pinson, 1971:49).
After preaching occasionally in several local pulpits his obvious natural public speaking gifts attracted the attention of the dean of Baylor University in nearby Waco, Dr. B. H. Carroll. Truett entered their theological program while serving as the pastor of the East Waco Baptist Church. In four years that church membership doubled and a new building arose.
Invitations to fill other permanent pulpits came from all directions and were regularly refused. But First Baptist of Dallas persisted in approaching him about their vacant pastorate and then extended an official call despite his protests and refusals. At thirty years of age he finally reconsidered the $12,000 debt under which the 715 member church was laboring with no missions or benevolent budget and no provision for the debt retirement. Moved by the burden it imposed on their growth he finally agreed to serve them. But he made the condition that he could take special offerings for the need and balance these with an increased emphasis on missions and benevolence ministries to match.
The debt reduced quickly, the missionary outreach of the congregation gained new life, many found new Christian faith under his teaching, and the membership grew apace. During his 47 years of ministry at Dallas 7000 new members were brought in — 5,050 by baptism, an average of 112 a year. They erected a new church campus, and Truett led them to give millions to missions. Early in his time with them came the bullet that broke his heart.
An Expanded Ministry
A ministry this effective could not long be restricted just to Dallas. In 1927 he served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and in 1934 President of the Baptist world Alliance then meeting in Berlin. He ministered to missionaries on the field in South America, and elsewhere. The First Baptist Church of Dallas generously released him for such external service from time to time and he continued to serve as their pastor until his death in 1944.
When he finally passed away, after 47 years in the Dallas pastorate, his funeral was the most widely-attended in the city’s history. Flags all over town slipped to half-mast and the County ordering all government offices closed at three p. m. that so employees could attend the services. Most of the city businesses also closed at that same time in tribute to him.
Contemporary Applications
At least five significant values arise for us today when we consider Truett’s life and ministry. These include:
1. The Power of Tenderness: His experience of personal suffering generated a deeper love for the Savior and a pastoral tenderness for the souls of men and women struggling against life’s troubles. He answered pastoral calls in the late hours of the evening. At his invitation, his members poured into his study every afternoon for counsel.
His consistent walk with the Master also enabled him to touch the throne of heaven in prayers. Many hearers affirmed that his public prayers brought a greater blessing than any of his sermons did — just as others had said of England’s greatest evangelical preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. His consistent close walk with God gave him a special capacity to come straight into the pulpit from his personal worship time with his soul burning with the message for that hour.
2. The Authenticity of Commitment: Truett dedicated himself to long hours of sermon preparation, working late into the light in his study at home. So engrossed did he become that Mrs. Truett always pulled back the carpet in their upstairs bedroom precisely at midnight and pounded on the floor to tell him in the study below that it was time to close the books and come to bed! He regularly refused invitations to preach at large churches and address significant conferences in order to visit with small country churches, helping them to raise special funds to discharge their debts; he would then return to participate in the dedication of their buildings. If he was out of town preaching he always sent a message of encouragement to his home congregation expressing his loving concern for them.
3. The Seriousness of Preaching: In contrast to those pastors who regard their responsibilities lightly (many simply appearing to “retail” materials they have taken “wholesale” from others), he always carried a vest-pocket notebook while traveling. He could constantly be found jotting down sermon ideas and themes; he would later study intensely in order to shape them into messages that would encourage hope among those in despair and refresh energy in the weary. Truett focused on themes of encouragement and Christian character and often set out specifically to support the youth of his congregation whom he saw as needing great support because they were so engaged “in the battle of life.”
Truett would often repeat some of the same themes. He was known to perfect blocks of material which others had heard before but loved to hear again, especially his insightful personal anecdotes and illustrations from literature and the conversion experience of others who had responded to his Gospel messages. His well-polished sentences were carefully crafted but he never sought to argue, to orate, or to seek to impress others with eloquence or intelligence. His sermons, as well as his diction, were noted for their clarity and earnestness.
He would often begin conversationally by posing a life situation question conversationally, as if chatting with an individual. He filled these early sentences with words of comfort and encouragement and prepared his hearers for the experience of exploring answers.
4. The Mystery of Communication: Listeners did not describe Truett’s voice as either rich or vibrant. On the contrary it was known as being narrow in compass and lacking any rounded resonance. But his diction, studied selection of exact words, slow and deliberate delivery, and the vigorous energy of his language combined to create a communications dynamic which was effective and compelling. The stories from his childhood and early days, travel experiences, and biblical narrative stirred the foundations of feeling and sentiment. His delivery often reached a point of verbal climax at ten minute intervals, returning to the base line of delivery and then rebuilding to a fresh climax. The strange vocal quality that arose as a direct result of his broken heart made his voice somehow take on a dimension of “pathos” that enlisted rapt attention.1
5. The Place Of Discipline: From his earliest efforts to enunciate clearly for a deaf brother to his mature selflessness in putting others first in all his ministry Truett’s life exhibits an unusual discipline and self control. He carefully and deliberately conformed his outward behavior, human skills, and pulpit demeanor to match the values he felt deeply in his inner soul. Accordingly he nurtured a specific personality, honed his natural gifts and deliberately sought to nourish his personal spiritual growth every day.
Yet, the overwhelming impression one gains from a review of his life is the mystical truth that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, life’s worst sufferings can be captured by a preacher for the refinement of his person, and the expansion of his skills in ministry.
1. This most unusual vocal characteristic may still be discerned today as over the years Word publishers have released recordings of 21 of his sermons many of which are still available through theological seminary libraries. A total of fourteen volumes of his sermons have also been published by Eerdman’s, Revell, Broadman, and others.
For further reading:
See James, Powhatan W. George Washington Truett, A Biography (New York, McMillan Co., 19450; also reprinted three times in later years by Broadman Press and Pinson, William M. and Fant, Clyde E. Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching (volume no. 8 of 13, Word, Waco, Texas: Word, 1971).

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