In the early years of my preparation for Christian ministry, a college professor gave me several books from a deceased Baptist pastor’s library. One of the books was about the life and ministry of George Whitefield, an ordained minister of the Anglican Church who lived in the eighteenth century and was a contemporary of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles.
Following the Protestant Reformation, there was an intense interest in the Bible, and as Whitefield studied it, he discovered his need for the spiritual birth spoken of in John’s gospel, chapter 3. However, he was soon removed from the pulpits of the Church of England for preaching “false doctrine” and thus moved his preaching to open-air meetings. He joyously remarked that he had been banned from preaching to empty pews and sent to the harvest field of hungry human hearts.
Whitefield preached his “you must be born again” message over three thousand times in both Great Britain and the American colonies with great results. It is believed that his open-air meetings in America helped set the stage for the American Revolution. His message is but one example of how God, throughout the history of the church, has allowed neglected Bible truths to be rediscovered and preached to produce a fresh move of His Spirit. He has done so time and time again.
During a missions convention held at Bethany in the 1970s, Lester Sumrall and Daniel Ost both stressed how God had provided guidance to their lives and ministries through dreams, visions, and key Scripture verses. Like these great missionary giants and the gospel heroes of eras gone by, I, too, have discovered life-changing Bible truths and the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. I will share some of these experiences with you in this brief article.
First, I would like to share my firm belief that God does indeed choose some for ministry. As I look back over my life, I see three clear instances of how the Lord protected me from an early death at the hand of the enemy in order that His call upon my life could be fulfilled. At age three, while I was playing in the yard of my home, a horse entered the yard and knocked me to the ground. A hoof struck my forehead, causing profuse bleeding. A neighbor, however, quickly came to my rescue and stopped the flow of blood.
Then, at age six, I was playing with some other children in a flooded street after a heavy rainstorm. I stepped into an open ditch, and a swift current was sweeping me toward a drainpipe when a teenager rescued me.
When I was eighteen, a lumber company in my hometown hired me to work with their crew at a sawmill, cutting pine timber in Nicaragua. We traveled from New Orleans to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and then by coastal schooner to the mouth of the Prinzapolka River. When we arrived, the tide was out, and the schooner could not reach the dock. A riverboat came alongside to take us ashore, but we had to jump from the deck of the schooner to the cabin top of the riverboat. When I jumped, a wave caught the riverboat, pulling it away from the schooner. I was falling between the two ships when a man on the riverboat caught my arm and pulled me to safety.
In 1930, at the age of eleven, I accepted the Lord as my Savior but neglected spiritual growth. The Great Depression, which started in 1929, lasted for about a decade and greatly affected my life, as it did for millions of Americans. It was during the latter years of the Depression that I worked in Nicaragua, spending more than a year with a rough crew of Americans. I returned to my hometown in 1938 and got a job at a service station.
Hitler started World War II in Europe in 1939. America assisted Great Britain with war material but hoped to stay out of the conflict. Nevertheless, since our armed forces were small at that time, an effort to enlist men began. I was influenced by a cousin to volunteer, and I joined the Army Air Corps in September of 1940. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December1941, and our nation found its forces engaged in war with both Japan and Germany.
My unit was sent to Great Britain as a part of the Eighth Air Force in June of 1942. In November of 1942, as part of the Allied army invading North Africa, we landed near Oran, Algeria. The infantry went ahead to capture the air base at Oran, and soon bloody body bags of those killed in battle were returned to our area. The sobering sight caused me to reflect on my need of the Lord.
I had carried a New Testament overseas, and for the first time, I turned to Scripture for comfort. Also, I decided to start tithing. This was my first act of obedience toward spiritual growth.
The decision to tithe put me in contact with my home church. I began receiving news from the pastor, Dr. O. P. Estes. I remember sending money orders and the encouragement that followed my obedience to tithe.
After seventeen months of duty in North Africa and Italy, I was sent home to join a B-29 support group of the Fifteenth Air Force, destined to serve in the war against Japan. I traveled home aboard a naval transport and greatly enjoyed the hot meals and clean living quarters as we crossed the Atlantic. When we arrived at the naval base in Newport, Virginia, I called home and shared the news that I would soon be home on furlough. I rode the train to Pascagoula, Mississippi, and from there was driven by auto to Picayune by a sister and her husband. As we neared home, I saw the figure of a lone man walking toward us—it was Papa! How happy to be united once again with family and friends!
A first cousin, Gladys Stevens, soon introduced me to a beautiful young lady, Ruth Wells. We began dating and fell in love. After furlough, I was stationed in Great Bend, Kansas, but I maintained close contact with Ruth by mail and phone. After a few months, we became engaged, with a decision to wait until I was discharged to be married. I went home for a final visit before a scheduled departure for the Pacific war.
I had not shared the news about my upcoming overseas duty with my family, but a praying dad learned the secret during his early morning prayer time. He came to the bathroom where I was shaving and shared a word of wisdom with me. “Roy,” he said, “don’t worry about going back overseas; you are not going.” With those words, Papa proved the truth of the Scriptures: “For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:8, NKJV).
I had a deep respect for Papa’s prayer life, knowing that he had dedicated his life to the Lord in the early years of his marriage when his fifteen-month-old daughter died in his arms as a victim of pneumonia. From there, he had become a Baptist lay preacher, preaching in small African-American churches. I realized later that my godly Baptist father did indeed have the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Here is a story recalled by my niece, Nancy Burk, giving clear evidence of this:Dear Uncle Roy, Mama told me that one day, when I was two years old, she boiled a big pot of water to wash some sheets. When she took the pot off the stove and set it onto the floor, I ran over and stuck my foot into it. We both screamed in pain, Mama in disbelief of what I had done. Since we lived next door to Papa [my father], he heard our screams and came running. Mama said that he was praying, but she couldn’t understand the words he was saying. As a nurse, she was sure that I had damaged my foot for life, but when Papa finished his prayer, my foot had not even turned red! Love, Nancy
Of course, that day in the bathroom, I knew none of that. I merely thanked Papa for his assurances, but knowing what I did, I saw no possibility of avoiding overseas duty. However, I was about to experience the reality of believing prayer!