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Hefley followed God from Ozarks into wide-ranging writing career


KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Raised in northern Arkansas in a family of seven brothers and sisters as the son of a champion coon hunter, Jim Hefley loves to tell tales of life in the Ozarks. Though he is best known among Southern Baptists for offering a historical account of the conservative resurgence, Hefley has traveled the world over to learn the stories of Christian leaders, missionaries, athletes and politicians and then putting them into print.
He has authored more than 70 books, teaming up with his wife, Marti, for many of them. “By Their Blood,” for example, tells of Christian martyrs of the 20th century, while a biography of William Cameron Townsend traces the life of the founder of Wycliff Bible Translators. Aside from spending $18 on a correspondence course for writers, Hefley was self-taught.
For years he covered his own denomination for Christianity Today, earning a reputation for thorough reporting. When messengers to the 1979 Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly approved a motion clarifying that the Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement on the Bible meant “God’s revelation was perfect and without error — doctrinally, historically, scientifically and philosophically,” Baptist Press chose not to report the action. Hefley questioned how the then-director of the news service could doubt the importance of what was regarded a controversial motion, but was told “the folks in the churches don’t care about such detail.” Hefley, though, reported the action in an article for Moody Monthly magazine.
“In the middle of the Southern Baptist Convention controversy, Jim Hefley stepped forward and in dispassionate tones told the story,” said Mark Coppenger, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in introducing Hefley as a Nov. 17 chapel speaker. “The ‘Truth in Crisis’ series is the best accounting of what happened in those years and what it was all about.”
Earlier this year, Midwestern announced the creation of the James C. Hefley Program of Christian Writing which honors Hefley’s legacy by encouraging the writing ability of ministerial students. Coppenger said, “It is my prayer that God would call out among you new Jim Hefleys and all of us would sharpen our writing in light of his influence.”
Hefley was born on the grounds of the Chilicothe Federal Reformatory in Ohio where his father was imprisoned for ordering guns purchased with forged checks. His mother saved her schoolteacher earnings to catch a train from northern Arkansas to Ohio and worked as a housekeeper in a prison official’s home until James Carl Hefley was delivered.
After the family returned to Arkansas, Hefley lived in a log cabin, walking four miles to a school where eight grades were taught in one room. “I was fortunate or unfortunate to graduate from high school at age 13,” Hefley recounted to his Midwestern audience in Kansas City, Mo.
“It wasn’t that I was all that smart,” he said. “There just wasn’t that much to learn at Mount Judea.” He enrolled at Arkansas Tech and was known as “‘fessor” because of his academic achievement at such an early age. But he soon earned the nickname “blackjack” for running a gambling operation on the side.
When his sideline caught the attention of a school official who publicly declared Hefley to be “the worst influence on campus,” the child prodigy took notice. But it wasn’t until a couple of summer missionaries persisted in teaching him the Bible that his life began to turn toward God.
Trying to make sense of a religious heritage that included a Pentecostal uncle, Jehovah’s Witness aunt and inactive Church of Christ parents, Hefley recalled, “I’d just as soon spit in a preacher’s eye.”
Since the sheriff closed down his gambling business, Hefley was passing time pitching horseshoes when his mother told him to come in the house to hear a traveling preacher she’d invited to stay over.
The Southern Baptist home missionary named Otis Denny was just “some old windy preacher” to Hefley who still can’t remember all that he said that day. “But I can tell you God’s spirit got to me.” Not long after being saved, Hefley recognized God’s call on his life and spent many years planting churches and filling pulpits before his writing career took off.
He expressed gratitude for the encouragement of friends he met at the Siloam Springs (Ark.) State Youth Assembly who pushed him to enroll at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. Among the group were men who became well-known in Southern Baptist life, including Glendon Grover, John McClanahan, T. W. Hunt, Tom McClain and James Pleitz. “They were just country boys who knew the Lord and they blessed me more than anybody else.”
His zeal for evangelism was developed during those years of conducting street meetings with other students. “Today, we’ve gotten too sophisticated,” Hefley said. “That’s the real problem with Baptists. We’ve got too much polish. We like to be like the Methodists and Presbyterians. And very often the Spirit doesn’t move us. If the Spirit moves us, he’s got to shove us because we’ve gotten so stiff.”
After enrolling at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Hefley got involved in producing religious drama, unhindered by the efforts of a Woman’s Missionary Union group that ran his group out for “desecrating the church” and interfering with their meeting downstairs. “If you’re a kid and want to serve Jesus, you don’t worry about stumbling blocks in your way. You just go on bumbling along.”
Admitting he could be labeled a “bumbler,” Hefley responded, “If the slick guys don’t get it done, who else is left to get it down but the bumblers?”
Turning to Galatians 5:13, Hefley urged his audience to “serve one another through love.” As he got to know Townsend when writing his biography, Hefley said he observed a servant in action, calling him the greatest missionary of this generation.
“Being a good Southern Baptist,” Hefley said he didn’t know anything about Wycliff translators. He credited the conservative resurgence with helping Southern Baptists to “finally come around to admit that Campus Crusade and Wycliffe and other evangelical para-church groups are doing something.”
While out in the field writing for years, Hefley learned what other evangelicals were doing “when we Southern Baptists were off in our corner. God deliver us from corner mentality.” Adding much is accomplished in God’s kingdom beyond the work of Southern Baptists, Hefley said, “God’s bigger than we are and sometimes we can learn some things from other folks. It doesn’t always come out of Nashville.”
Hefley urged students to demonstrate an attitude of service. “Do you approach people with an attitude, whether spoken or not, asking, ‘How can I help you?’ Do you have an idea of serving in your class, professor or student?”
Individuals interested in supporting the James C. Hefley Program of Christian Writing may call Midwestern at 1-800-MBTS123 or visit the seminary’s Internet site at www.mbts.edu. Information on books Hefley has published are available at his Internet site, www.hefley.org.

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  • Tammi Ledbetter