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Letter to grandfather prompts professor’s venture to Africa

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Nearly 18 years after his death, the reach of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s first full-time evangelism professor C.E. Autrey continues.

In 2008, a letter addressed to Autrey made its way from Nigeria to Southwestern Seminary and was forwarded to Autrey’s grandson, Denny Autrey, dean and professor of pastoral ministries at the seminary’s Havard School for Theological Studies in Houston.

The letter — a plea for help addressed to his grandfather — prompted Denny Autrey to respond by venturing to Africa this summer.

“A need for help,” the author of the letter, an Anglican theology student, wrote as a heading to his letter.

“Thanks be to God almighty,” the student wrote to the late professor, “for the gift and opportunity given to you for opening the eyes of many towards the understanding of the Scriptures, mostly to seminarians and individuals who are seeking to know the facts of the written word of God.”

For many years, C.E. Autrey equipped men and women to understand and proclaim the Gospel. After receiving master’s and doctoral degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, he served as a pastor and then as director of evangelism for the state of Louisiana. Then, after serving with the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board), Autrey became the seminary’s first full-time professor of evangelism, filling the seminary’s L.R. Scarborough Chair of Evangelism (“The Chair of Fire”). He then returned to the Home Mission Board as an executive director of evangelism, where he wrote his book, “Basic Evangelism.”

In 2008, a guest lecturer at the Ezekiel School of Theology in Ekpoma, Nigeria, drew from C.E. Autrey’s book on evangelism, leaving a photocopy in the library. One of the students, not realizing that Autrey had passed away years before, wrote a letter to the professor and sent it to Southwestern Seminary.

“It was just a plea for help,” Denny Autrey says, summarizing the Nigerian student’s request. “He said, we realize you’re a man of God by what you’ve written in this book, and we were hoping there were other books that you might have that you might make available to us and help us with additional resources for our library.”

“It was really humbling for me to receive the letter,” Autrey says, amazed that his grandfather continues to influence lives on the other side of the world. “My grandfather has been dead almost 18 years, and his legacy, his ministry, his witness continues on through his writing.”

When Autrey received the letter, he had never heard of the Ezekiel School of Theology. But with the help of John Olagbemi, a Nigerian M.Div. student at Southwestern’s Houston campus, Autrey made contact with the Nigerian school and traveled there this summer. He gave them a copy of Basic Evangelism and another of his grandfather’s books, “The Theology of Evangelism,” along with two books by Southwestern Seminary faculty members, “Calling out the Called” and “Text-Driven Preaching.” He also provided a cash donation to help the school continue to build its library collection.

“They were overwhelmed, and they were so grateful,” Autrey said. The president of the school gave Autrey a traditional Nigerian outfit, which he later wore during convocation at the Houston campus.

When he traveled to Nigeria, Autrey also contacted the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary and Bowen University, which is supported by the Nigerian Baptist Convention. He discovered that Southwestern Seminary also has made an impact at both of these Baptist schools.

The provost at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary graduated from Southwestern, Autrey notes, and at Bowen University, he met an 87-year-old retired nursing professor who graduated from Southwestern with her master of religious arts degree in 1949. Her students built her a house on the university campus where she lives to this day.

Autrey was amazed to find such connections to Southwestern Seminary in Nigeria. It reminded him of former seminary President Robert Naylor’s common saying, “The sun never sets on Southwestern.”

Nor has the sun set on the Kingdom impact of Southwesterner C.E. Autrey but it shines on through his writings and through the ministry of his grandson.
Benjamin Hawkins is a writer at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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