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Colleagues remember Hefley as a model for Christian writers

HANNIBAL, Mo. (BP)–James C. Hefley, Jr., a free-lance writer for more than 40 years, knew what it was like to spin a tale. And Jerry B. Jenkins, a young, impressionable would-be writer at the time, hung on his every word.

Hefley, 73, died Mar. 20 at his family home in Hannibal, Mo., after a lengthy illness. He was the former writer-in-residence at Hannibal LaGrange College, where he taught writing classes and founded the Mark Twain Writer’s Conference. He also was founder of Hannibal Books, an evangelical publishing company.

A prolific writer, teacher, pastor, editor and publisher, Hefley was perhaps best known as the key chronicler of the conservative movement which changed the course of the Southern Baptist Convention. His 5-volume “The Truth in Crisis series” and “The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention” (1985-1994) are among the most sought-after resources in the 159-year-old denomination.

Jenkins, co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series, credits Hefley with being an “early mentor and model.”

The two met through Hefley’s neighbor, Jenkins’ high school Youth For Christ director.

“When Jim showed me the as-told-to autobiographies he’d written, especially with Christian athletes, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Jenkins said. “I did several of those over the years before branching into action and marriage and family titles.”

In an interview late last year, Hefley remembered meeting Jenkins when the writer was a still a teen. Trying to spend time at his ever-beckoning typewriter, Hefley said he asked his wife, Marti, not to answer the door for Jenkins, thinking it was one of the teens who frequented the Hefleys’ home for a twice-weekly Bible study.

Glancing out the window, Hefley said he finally gave in to the very steady knocking.

“He was a big, ole hulk of a guy,” said Hefley, chuckling at the reminder of the eager young writer, Jenkins. “He asked me every question imaginable.”

Ed Plowman, now senior religion writer for WORLD Magazine, said he first met Hefley when he interviewed him for an article in the Christian Times weekly, back in the 1960s, and kept up the relationship while Plowman was news editor at Christianity Today.

“We hung out together at Southern Baptist conventions,” Plowman said. “He was my ready reference resource; his encyclopedic memory always had the data and background I was seeking.”

On a personal level, when Hefley and Plowman were co-writing “Washington: Christians in the Corridors of Power” (Tyndale, 1975), they spent time at the Plowman home in suburban Washington, D.C. and at the Hefley home at Signal Mountain, Tenn.

“We sometimes prayed together and talked theology over fried chicken,” Plowman said. “He had a delightful sense of humor, and we spent as much time laughing as we did working. He often regaled his buddies with stories from boyhood and student days in Arkansas.”

Plowman also remembered that Hefley was not angered by constructive criticism about his writing, but acted on suggestions from his colleague.

“That was Jim — honest and appreciative,” Plowman said. “Down to earth and not mastered by ego. And always a friend.”

Fast forward a few generations to Don Hinkle, editor of The Pathway, the newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

Hinkle said he never met Hefley in person, but he did solicit advice from him over the phone several years back.

“Just prior to finishing my master’s degree at Southern Seminary, I called him at his home in Hannibal,” Hinkle said. “He graciously spent time with me on the phone that day, impressing upon me the need for more journalists with a Christian worldview. He was one of a handful of scholars who encouraged me to pursue a doctoral degree.”

Louis Moore, who purchased Hannibal Books from the Hefleys in 1999, said that after meeting Hefley in 1972 at the SBC annual meeting in Philadelphia, Penn., he was interested in finding out more about the man from Arkansas.

“I was intrigued with his outlook on life and his commitment to Christian journalism,” said Moore, a long-time news writer for the Houston Chronicle and the former news director for the International Mission Board in Richmond, Va. “After a lunch in which he described his successful lifestyle as a freelance writer and author, I went home from the convention and told my wife I had met someone whose lifestyle I wanted to imitate some day.”

And 32 years after his first encounter with Jim, Moore said he believes both men’s dreams have flourished.

“As publisher of Hannibal books, I now share many of Jim’s dreams,” Moore said. “I just now marvel that the words spoken to my wife afterward about him have come true.”

Gary Ledbetter, editor of the Texan, a magazine of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention, said he remembers the writer from Arkansas as “the best storyteller I ever knew.”

Recalling the anticipation people had for reading Hefley’s work, Ledbetter said those who didn’t agree with him or like his perspective “had to admit he was fair in the way he treated them.”

“Jim Hefley was a legend and an example for Southern Baptist journalists,” said Ledbetter, the former editor of the Indiana Baptist where Hefley’s monthly column was a staple throughout the 1980s and 90s. “I don’t know who is going to take his place.”

Hinkle agreed that Hefley’s contribution to Christian journalism has made a difference.

“The Truth in Crisis series will forever be regarded as one of the most important works of 20th century evangelical history because it accurately documents the remarkable effort by conservatives to save the Southern Baptist Convention from the clutches of theological liberalism,” Hinkle said. “Jim was a world-class Christian journalist, a superb teacher and a scholar of the highest order.”

–All of Jim Hefley’s books that are currently in print can be ordered through Hannibal Books’ website (www.hannibalbooks.com) and toll-free number (1-800-747-0738). The company’s mailing address is P.O. Box 461592, Garland, TX 75046-1592. In Hefley’s memory, Hannibal Books has lowered for 90 days the price of the
classic “The Truth in Crisis” 5-volume series from $45.00 to $24.95.
–Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, the weekly newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. She is a 1992 graduate of Hannibal LaGrange College. Go to: www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Haningan