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FIRST-PERSON: A tribute to Stephen Olford

BOAZ, Ala. (BP)–His was no ordinary life. In fact, the extraordinary happenings that seemed to characterize his life and ministry began when he was still in his mother’s womb.

Stephen Olford was born to missionary parents, Fredrick and Bessie Olford, on March 29, 1918. Fredrick Olford’s basic knowledge of medicine and the experience he had gained on the mission field caused him to anticipate that the birth of their first baby might be accompanied by complications. Rather than take a chance, he and Bessie made up their minds to make the thousand-mile trek from Angola to the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. Fred walked every step of the way while A-Chokwe men carried Bessie in a hammock.

The first 17 years of his life were spent in the heart of Africa where he witnessed the marvelous power of God working through the lives of his godly parents. His experiences in Africa flavored his preaching.

I can remember when I first heard Stephen Olford’s voice on the old reel-to-reel tape player in 1969; I was a senior in high school. His accounts of miracles from God among the A-Chokwe people captured my youthful imagination. I learned later how those experiences forged his character.

Stephen Olford left the home he had known and loved in Angola to live in England where he would pursue a career in engineering. His college thesis project was carburetion. He developed a special carburetion system and took up motorcycle racing to demonstrate the efficiency of his invention. On his way home from a race on a cold rainy night, he crashed his motorcycle and lay injured on the road in the rain for several hours. Pneumonia quickly set in. Doctors announced, “Two weeks to live.”

Lying on his death bed, Stephen Olford received a letter from his father in Africa. Fredrick Olford knew nothing of his son’s condition. It had taken three months for the letter to travel from Africa to England. But in God’s sovereignty, the letter contained words that would forever change the life of Stephen F. Olford.

His father wrote, “Only one Life, ‘Twill soon be past, Only what is done for Christ will last.”

Stephen Olford fell under deep conviction. He slipped out of bed, dropped to his knees and cried out to God. He prayed, “Lord, You have won and I own You as King of Kings and Lord of Lords … and Lord, if you will heal my body, I will serve You anywhere, anytime, and at any cost.”

God answered his prayer and from that day until Aug. 29, 2004, when he went to be with the Lord, Stephen Olford’s life has been ablaze to the glory of God.

Stephen Olford came to the United States to pastor the Calvary Baptist Church in New York City in 1959. He embarked upon this new chapter in his life with his wife, Heather, and sons, Jonathan and David, at his side. It was from the famed Calvary pulpit that Dr. Olford’s anointed expository preaching began to impact people around the world. His days at Calvary made the world his parish.

It is now time that we as Southern Baptists pay tribute to Stephen Olford. His passionate and powerful expository preaching along with his evangelistic zeal made him a favorite on Southern Baptist Convention platforms across the country. He spoke at the SBC Pastors’ Conference a number of times and he was a frequent speaker at state conventions and conferences.

One of my fondest memories will be of the 2001 Alabama Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. I had the privilege of serving as conference president and Stephen Olford was our keynote speaker for two of the sessions. Our conference theme was “Preach the Word.”

It is the testimony of countless pastors and evangelists and missionaries in our Southern Baptist Convention that they really came into the blessings of the Lord under Dr. Olford’s ministry.

I am writing this article on behalf of my fellow Southern Baptists to pay tribute to the life and ministry of God’s faithful servant, Dr. Stephen F. Olford, and to express gratitude to God for giving such a wonderful gift to His church. I also want to express our appreciation to his wife, Heather, and to their two sons, Jonathan and David, for sharing Dr. Olford with us.

In 1988, the Stephen Olford Center for Biblical preaching was founded in Memphis, Tenn. I remember with clarity Dr. Olford casting the vision for a ministry of promoting biblical exposition and practical training for pastors, evangelists and lay leaders. From the beginning, Dr. Olford’s motto was “Ministry to Ministers is Ministry to Multitudes.”

There are three beautiful banners prominently displayed in the Olford Center chapel that contain three foundational truths that guide the Olford ministry.

The three banners contain these words: “Jesus is Lord; Be Ye Holy; and Preach the Word.” The life of Stephen Olford epitomized the truth of each of these banner statements. The powerful anointed preaching that characterized his preaching ministry emerged from a holy life lived under the lordship of Jesus Christ. The passion of his life was to preach the Word. He often said, “The only thing that will ever replace preaching is greater preaching.”

As a Southern Baptist pastor and on behalf of my fellow pastors and ministry colleagues, I want to express our debt of gratitude to God for the life of Stephen F. Olford. He has ministered effectively on our convention and conference platforms, in our churches and in our seminaries. His friendship, his counsel, his godly life and his anointed preaching have made an indelible impression on all of us.

It is true that the world was his parish and he ministered to the masses, but who can forget that beaming smile, that radiant personality, that loving hug. He never lost sight of the value of the individual. I will always remember the many times I have been with him after a conference when everyone else would be gone and Dr. Olford could be found sitting with a hurting pastor in need of counsel. He would embrace the crowd and then he would embrace the individual.

Lord, thank You for the faithful, selfless and sacrificial service of Your servant, Stephen F. Olford. Amen.

He being dead yet speaketh and the admonition is clear: PREACH THE WORD, PREACH THE WORD, PREACH THE WORD….
Roger D. Willmore is pastor of First Baptist Church in Boaz, Ala., and, since 1992, minister-at-large with Olford Ministries International. He also is vice chairman of the trustees of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Roger D. Willmore