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FIRST-PERSON: Remembering a great friend, Jim Hefley

HANNIBAL, Mo. (BP)–When I first met James Carl Hefley in 1972 at the Southern Baptist Convention, I was intrigued with his outlook on life and his commitment to Christian journalism. 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 someday.

Little did I realize then how much my life would intertwine with Jim’s during the next three decades.

Over the years I became a fan of Jim’s writings, his wit and his simple but deep faith. I decided he was one of the most colorful individuals I had ever known. His tales of growing up poor in hillbilly country and pulling himself up by the bootstraps through his writing thoroughly enchanted me. I loved to write reviews for the Houston Chronicle about Jim and his wife Marti’s newest books.

My annual trek to the Southern Baptist Convention was never complete without a breakfast, lunch or dinner with Jim, during which he did most of the talking and I sat spellbound by his stories and descriptions of his lifestyle as a freelance writer and author.

Learning about Jim was easy because his books were filled with his own personal stories, beliefs and experiences. And he never was without words to be spoken.

Then in 1986 Jim asked me to write the foreword to the first volume of what was to become his classic, “The Truth in Crisis.” To do this for my friend, I had to shrug off the fact that the SBC establishment at that time — the moderates — were growing more and more agitated by Jim’s straightforward, no-holds-barred, style of reporting and writing. I knew I would probably pick up some of the lightening bolts aimed at him. But I also knew Jim had written an excellent, fair and balanced history of the first years of the conservative resurgence. I noted in that foreword that I didn’t always agree with everything Jim wrote but would fight to defend his right of freedom to express himself journalistically.

I also personally noted with curious interest that the negative institutional reaction against “The Truth in Crisis,” volume 1, prompted Jim to do what he had long dreamed of doing — starting his own Christian publishing company. It was called Hannibal Books and named for his hometown of Hannibal, Mo. Even though by then he had had at least 30 other books published by a host of different Christian publishing companies, no publisher wanted to touch the book for which he would eventually become most famous. So he decided to publish it himself with a loan and a prayer.

Over the years that decision to write the foreword to a book that moderate-controlled Baptist Bookstores once banned linked my name publicly to Jim’s in many denominational minds. Despite the arrows that friendship sometimes provoked, I was proud to be thought of as a friend of Jim’s.

In October 1998, more than 25 years after we first met, I was invited to speak at a banquet honoring Jim in Kansas City hosted by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was then that I discovered he was seriously ill. A conversation at the dinner table that night set the stage for my wife, Kay, and I to purchase Jim and Marti’s beloved Hannibal Books in May 1999.

We have been honored to be able to receive what they founded and to shape it as a part of our own dream. Though now a part of our own family’s tradition, Hannibal Books will always be greatly indebted to Jim and Marti for their tireless efforts in founding the Christian publishing company in the mid-1980s.

Almost daily I talk with someone who has been a fan of Jim’s for many years. Most politicos in the Southern Baptist Convention think of Jim as author of “The Truth in Crisis,” volumes 1 through 5. Most of his other fans, however, know him as the man who wrote and shepherded the “Way Back” series in which he describes life in earlier, more rustic times in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas. His “Way Back in the Hills,” “Way Back When,” “Way Back in the Ozarks,” “Way Back in the ‘Korn’ Fields” and “Country Music Comin’ Home” continue to delight young and old audiences alike. Some were written years before he penned “The Truth in Crisis” series.

Despite my having written the foreword to “The Truth in Crisis” volume 1 and that book’s popularity, I personally consider the “Way Back” series to be his best work. The series is as wholesome and entertaining as the “Little House on the Prairie” series, which my wife and I enjoyed reading to our children when they were young. One of Jim’s fondest dreams was to see the “Way Back” series turned into a television series. I hope that will happen some day.

As publisher of Hannibal Books, I now share many of Jim’s dreams. When I reflect on my first encounter with Jim 32 years ago, I just marvel that the words spoken to my wife afterward about him have come true. Thanks, Jim, for all you and Marti contributed to my and Kay’s lives. You have been wonderful mentors, friends and examples in life. We look forward to seeing you again someday around God’s throne, when we will all be singing the Lord’s praises forever.
Louis Moore was religion editor of the Houston Chronicle from 1972 to 1986 and was president of Religion Newswriters Association 1984-86. He also served on the staffs of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the SBC Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) and the International Missions Board. Visit www.hannibalbooks.com or call 1-800-747-0738 to learn more about Jim and Marti Hefley’s books.

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  • Louis Moore