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J.T. Elliff, ‘consumate mentor,’ dies at 97

MOORE, Okla. (BP) — J.T. Elliff, father of Southern Baptist leaders Tom, Bill and Jim Elliff and Sandy Smith who is married to evangelist Bailey Smith, died Dec. 12 in Moore, Okla. He was 97.

Tom Elliff, immediate past president of the International Mission Board, recounted in a blog that day, “Just before my father’s bodily tent was unstaked from the bed and transported out of the room, we sang his favorite hymn, ‘My Jesus I Love Thee.’ Though struggling to hold back the tears, we made it through that last verse. ‘In mansions of glory, and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright. I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow, If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, tis now.’

“Bye Dad! So happy that at last you are home!” Elliff, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote.

J.T. Elliff, a pastor’s son, was the founding director of the Arkansas Baptist Convention’s missions department and executive director of the Capitol Baptist Association in Oklahoma City during his ministry. He also pastored churches in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Arizona.

“The remarkable thing about Dad was that he died loving Jesus after 97 years,” Bill Elliff, pastor of The Summit Church in Little Rock, told Baptist Press.

“He was a consummate mentor to all of us even until his death,” Bill Elliff said. “I was in his association in Oklahoma City where hundreds of pastors were helped and encouraged through his ministry. And, in Arkansas now, I have run into numbers of people who were helped by Dad’s ‘Spiritual Life’ weekend conferences in which he taught the basics of walking by the Spirit. This was something he discovered in desperation when he was pastoring in Fordyce, Ark., and it changed his life forever,” an outgrowth, in part, of prayer meetings he led in a sawmill.

“My father was always about evangelism,” Jim Elliff, president of Christian Communicators Worldwide based in Parkville, Mo., said in comments to Baptist Press. “Perhaps this was his principal contribution to the churches he pastored. This was at the forefront also of his ministry in Arkansas as director of missions and evangelism and in Oklahoma City as director of missions.

“When he pastored in Fordyce, Ark., as a young man he set out to talk with someone every day about Christ,” Jim Elliff recounted. “Once this meant getting out of bed to wake up another man already in bed, who opened his heart to Christ. His love for the Gospel continued until the last years of his life when he invited his neighbors to his backyard to eat and hear the truth about Christ. He carried on with a fervor that was found in his parents and that his children hope to pass along as well.”

J.T. Elliff retired in 1971 but another saga in his life began 10 years later when he divorced his wife Jewell and married another woman. Yet, a remarkable story of forgiveness unfolded.

Jewell Elliff was diagnosed with Alzeimer’s disease within two years. As recounted by Ronnie Rogers, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., where Bill Elliff formerly was a pastor, “Jewell exhibited sterling character drawn from her faith in Jesus Christ. On one occasion, for instance, she prayed with son Tom as they both wept over her broken marriage and debilitating disease. Amazingly, her prayer showed no signs of the bitterness one might expect. According to Tom, ‘My mother’s prayer was one great hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. She thanked God for her family, for each of her four children, their spouses and their children, one by one, and she never missed a name. She thanked God for her own marriage, though now broken, and for her husband of 43 years. Then she prayed for my father and his wife, asking God to make His way known to them.'”

In 1985 as Jewell Elliff was on her deathbed, “she summoned the strength to utter three words: ‘Want! Want! Want!'” Rogers continued. “Family members sprung into action immediately, suggesting a litany of items and people she might want. Finally, someone asked whether it was her ex-husband J.T. she wanted, whose infidelity and abandonment had crushed her more than three years previously….. At the mention of him, she uttered another word: ‘Forgive.’ The next morning, he called. And with a family member holding the phone to Jewell’s ear, J.T. spoke words that only she could hear. Her reply was stunning: ‘Of course I forgive you.’ …

“When family members wondered days later why she still clung to life, someone suggested that perhaps she was waiting for J.T.,” Rogers wrote. “So he came to the hospital and asked to be alone with Jewell. Though a closed door prevented family members from hearing the words exchanged, the sound of sobs was unmistakable. Not long after that reunion, Jewell died and J.T. enjoyed the assurance that he stood forgiven despite such grievous sin.”

Elliff also went to each church he had pastored to seek forgiveness and wrote to nearly 240 men who had surrendered to the ministry under his influence, Tom Elliff said.

J.T. Elliff, at age 89, along with his three sons and his grandson Jon, also a minister, were the featured speakers at the 2006 Missouri Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference.

“The Elliffs are filled with Christian graces. There’s humility. There’s kindness,” Vic Borden, the Pastors’ Conference president, said at the time. “There’s a ‘what-can-we-do-for-you’ type of a heart.”

Bill Elliff, in a blog, wrote, “No doubt I will make thousands of mistakes between here and the finish line. I will need to listen to the Coach to correct my trajectory over and over and over again. … And I pray that I will listen to the cries of the great cloud of witnesses who have run the race before us — which now includes my Dad — and end my race well.”

In addition to his three sons and daughter, J.T. Elliff is survived by his wife Wanda; three grown stepchildren; 26 grandchildren; 46 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

Elliff’s memorial service was held Dec. 18 at First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla. The family has suggested memorial donations to the church.