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James C. Hefley, author of ‘Truth in Crisis’ dies at 73

HANNIBAL, Mo. (BP)–James C. Hefley Jr. was an Ozark man who graduated from college at 17 and eventually became the first chronicler of the conservative resurgence in the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention and a foremost Christian biographer, described by those who knew him as “brilliant” and “insightful.”

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 and founder of both Hannibal Books, an evangelical publishing company, and the Mark Twain Writer’s Conference.

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 five-volume “The Truth in Crisis” series and “The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention” are among the most sought-after resources in the 159-year-old denomination.

Paige Patterson, a key figure in the conservative resurgence and now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, remembered the impact of Hefley’s work then and now, and how, with a “sixth sense,” he cut to the core of important issues.

“Jim Hefley appeared on the scene at a critical moment in the life of the conservative revival,” Patterson said. “He began to write about it at a time when the entire movement had been interpreted through the lens of the opposition. Probably as much as any single avenue, his first volume regarding the conservative movement became the catalyst of understanding for thousands of laypeople. We, in turn, use that volume still today.”

On a personal level, Patterson said Hefley was “a very generous person” in spirit.

“He had a sweet approachableness, yet he swung a big stick,” Patterson said. “It was a great combination.”

Jim Jones, a veteran writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, called Hefley a “passionate, hard-working journalist who courageously spoke up for what he believed.”

Responding to Hefley’s death, Jones said Hefley’s books on the SBC controversy had “a huge impact,” but also said he will be remembered for his writings on former president Jimmy Carter and other subjects, with which he often collaborated with his wife, Marti, to complete.

“What I will remember most about Jim, though, was his warm personality,” Jones recalled. “Until his illness, Jim would be one of the first persons to greet me in the newsroom each year at Southern Baptist Conventions. We would grab a cup of coffee and hash out what was happening in one of the great American denominations. I will miss those conversations and friendly coffee breaks with my friend Jim.”

James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources, said Hefley’s reporting made a difference. Draper was the third conservative president during the conservative resurgence.

“More than anyone else, he impacted the entire movement with his careful chronicle of the resurgence in his books,” Draper said. “He documented the need and the efforts to initiate changes in the SBC. Through all these past 22 years he has been a cherished friend who I have always believed represented the finest in reporting and journalistic endeavors. He will be greatly missed, although his influence will always be evident.”

Morris H. Chapman, Southern Baptist Executive Committee president, said Hefley “represented the best in Christian journalism.”

“For him, journalism was a tool to serve Christ and His church,” Chapman said. “He never allowed journalistic aims to trump his Christian convictions. … Through his series of books, The Truth in Crisis, he helped thousands of ordinary Baptists understand the reformation that was taking place in our denomination and, thus, motivated them to join in the battle for the truth of God’s Word.”

Hefley married Marti Lou Smedley May 8, 1953 in New Orleans. Marti is in hospice care at the family home.

A family spokesperson said Hefley passed away peacefully while in Marti’s arms during a morning scripture reading with family members.

“It was a beautiful, sunny day here, and the first day of spring, which I think is such a wonderful, wonderful day for Dad to have His resurrection into new life,” the spokesperson said.

Plans are pending for a “Celebration of Life” service for Hefley and his wife, Marti, at Immanuel Baptist Church in Hannibal. Pastor Mark Albee and Larry Lewis, former president of both the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) and Hannibal LaGrange College, will officiate.

Lewis, a long-time friend of the Hefleys and the national facilitator for the California-based Mission America Coalition, called Hefley a “brilliant man” who will be missed.

“Betty Jo and I are deeply grieved at his death but rejoice in his faith and the knowledge that he is with the Lord,” Lewis said after hearing of Hefley’s death. “We have considered Jim and Marti to be among our closest friends for the past 20 years and our prayers are with Marti and the family.”

Hefley’s five decades of writing include the colorful autobiographical works “Way Back in the Hills,” “Way Back When,” and a book he co-authored with his brother, Howard, “Way Back in the Ozarks.” Along with his wife, Marti, he also penned the classic “By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs from the Twentieth Century” and “Beyond,” winner of a Gold Medallion from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1980, and the biography of Wycliff Translator’s founder, William Cameron Townsend. Hefley was known as a master storyteller whose tales of presidents and preachers, astronauts, athletes and activists have found their way to the shelves of readers and scholars around the world and in many languages.

After 40 years of free-lance writing, involving travel to over 50 countries to write over 70 books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, Hefley and his wife, Marti, settled in Hannibal, Mo. There they founded Hannibal Books, a small publishing company in 1985 while he was writer-in-residence at Hannibal LaGrange College. He and Marti sold the company to Louis and Kay Moore of Houston, Texas, in 1999.

Lewis said he recalled meeting Hefley at a contentious SBC annual meeting in the 1970s after trying to submit a pro-life resolution to the assembly and being ruled out of order. Hefley was writing articles for Moody Monthly and Christianity Today at the time.

“Every year I would follow [Jim’s] report,” Lewis said. “It was by far the most fair and accurate. He really bent over backwards to give a fair hearing to both sides of the issue.”

After Lewis asked Hefley to join the Hannibal LaGrange staff by promising him a full-time salary if both he and Marti would teach part time, Lewis said he encouraged Hefley to chronicle the resurgence movement — and assured him that no matter the outcome, “as long as this earth stands, there will be interest in a detailed chronicle of what took place.”

The rest is history.

Lewis said he doubts the resurgence would have prevailed without Hefley’s contribution.

“Jim Hefley’s influence through the Truth in Crisis series was as significant as any other one thing in causing the conservative resurgence,” Lewis speculated. “The fact that it continued and prevailed depended on a whole lot of things, but I think the [books] were probably just as important as the leadership of Bill Powell, Paul Pressler or Paige Patterson.”

Lewis said Hefley’s “most insightful” work, The Truth in Crisis series, contains “the whole history of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy and how this has impacted not only the SBC, but a lot of denominations.”

On a more personal note, Lewis said Hefley was oftentimes “thinking of something way off somewhere,” even when a dinner guest at the Lewis’ home.

Recalling a particularly humorous moment with the “typical, absent-minded professor,” Lewis said he once asked Hefley to pass the mashed potatoes three times before the storyteller finally placed a spoonful of mashed potatoes on his own plate.

“I never did get the mashed potatoes,” Lewis chuckled. “He couldn’t remember whether he was coming or going, but he was a really brilliant man.”

But Hefley had a hard road to travel before earning the title “brilliant.” In an interview late last year, he spoke candidly about his life before Christ.

He was born on the grounds of the Chillicothe Federal Reformatory in Ohio, where his father was imprisoned for ordering guns purchased with forged checks. Years after his father’s release, Hefley started his own gambling business in the Ozark town where he grew up.

Known first as “fessor” for graduating from Mt. Judea high school, a one-room schoolhouse, at 13, and later as “blackjack” for running a gambling operation, Hefley said there wasn’t much to learn after being tutored by his schoolteacher mother in their log cabin — especially after the local sheriff shut down his makeshift casino.

It was in that same log cabin where Hefley grew up that Ottis Denney, a Southern Baptist home missionary, challenged the book-smart Arkansas Tech student to read the Bible after he had made a profession of faith. Hefley was hooked.

“I quit the gambling business and smashed up my slot machines,” Hefley smiled, wrapping his thumbs around ever-present suspenders that reminded him of the denim overalls he wore out when he was young.

It took a week at a State Youth Assembly with other young men like Glendon Grover, John McClanahan, T. W. Hunt, Tom McClain and James Pleitz for him to make sense of a religious heritage that included a Pentecostal uncle, Jehovah’s Witness aunt and inactive Church of Christ parents.

“I honestly don’t know where I would be,” Hefley said. “My ambition was to go to Las Vegas or Reno and run a gambling business.”

Hefley recognized God’s call on his life, and after earning a bachelor’s degree at Ouachita Baptist University at age 17, he spent years planting churches, writing radio shows and filling pulpits before his writing career took off.

After being forced to wait until he was 20 to enroll, Hefley earned the master of divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in mass communications from the University of Tennessee.

Hefley said “The Truth in Crisis” series served as an “awakening” for him.

“I had been asleep and didn’t know what was happening,” he said. It wasn’t until the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) banned his book from the Baptist Bookstore that he said he realized the depth of the problem. The book was banned during the heart of the controversy and before conservatives controlled the Baptist Sunday School Board’s board of trustees.

Still, Hefley didn’t get angry. Instead he recalls having a ball cap made that said “I love the Baptist Bookstore” to wear around the convention floor at the 1986 SBC annual meeting in Atlanta. “Evangelicals are a strange race,” he said, laughing.

Throughout the years, Hefley served as pastor of small Baptist churches in Louisiana, Tennessee and Missouri, and in 2000 stepped down from the pulpit of the tiny South Union Baptist Church in Maywood, Mo. He founded both Pontchartrain and Lakeside Baptist Churches in New Orleans.

In addition to his wife, Marti, other survivors include three daughters and their husbands, Cyndi Joy and Kent Taylor, Hannibal; Cecilia Faith and Ernest Benoit, Chattanooga, Tenn.; Cheri Grace and Steve Grubbs, Chattanooga, Tenn.; eight grandchildren; and six younger siblings — Howard Jean Hefley, Kansas City, Mo.; Mary Louise Hefley Stewart, Tullahoma, Tenn. and Lutz, Fla.; Loucille Hefley Burdine, Freddie Hefley Walker, Jimmie Hefley Winstead, and Patsy Hefley Henderson, all of Harrisonville, Ark. He was preceded in death by his parents and a brother, Johnny Hefley.

In light of Marti’s health, the family requests cards in lieu of telephone calls to the Hefley home [31 Holiday Dr., Hannibal, MO 63401]. James O’Donnell Funeral Home in Hannibal, Mo., is handling arrangements. Memorials may be sent to: Mt. Judea Ark. Cemetery Fund, C/P Cecilia Benoit, 31 Holiday Dr., Hannibal, MO 63401.]
— All of Jim Hefley’s books that currently are 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, Texas, 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 the 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.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SIGNING ON and HEFLEY’S CHRONICLE OF CHANGE.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan