DULUTH, Ga. (BP) – She turned around. Teresa Ovaline York was sitting in a high back chair watching television on her lunch break in August 1975 at the former Truett McConnell College.
“When she got up and turned around, I was done,” James Gregory Merritt tells the story to Baptist Press. “My mouth dropped, and I thought, ‘You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life.’”
On their first date a week later at Tasty Freez in Cleveland, Ga., Teresa never managed to get her ice cream cone. They never got out of the car in the parking lot, the Bible between them on the front seat and Merritt grilling her nearly two hours on soteriology and the like.
“When I went on this first date with her, I already knew in my heart I’m not letting this girl go. So I was finding out all I could about her spiritually because unbeknownst to really both of us, the next night I was going to propose to her,” Merritt said. “I wasn’t thinking about it at this time.”
Neither was Teresa. When he proposed on their second date – professing his love at a Bible study he was leading at Truett McConnell – Teresa did not respond with the same proclamation.
“I started dating someone else,” Teresa told Baptist Press.
James lived a two-hour drive away. Their last conversation had been on the front porch of her parents’ home two weeks after his proposal.
“Unbeknownst to me, she had planned to break it off,” James told Baptist Press. “She had planned to tell me to hit the road, and she just couldn’t do it. She just could not get the words out.”
Either their proposed union was of God, or it wasn’t, James figured. He asked Teresa to pray about it.
“I said, ‘You’re not going to hear from me. I will not call you. I will not write you. I will not come to see you. I will pray for you. Let me know, do I need to move on with my life or whatever, and I’ll just trust the Lord.’ When I said that, this is no joke, she walked up to me and she got nose-to-nose and here’s the way she said it, ‘You’ll be back.’
“The truth of the matter is, I probably would have had she not said that. I’ll put it mildly,” he said. “At that point, Hades was going to freeze over before I was going to come back.”
Teresa dated the other guy for a short while.
“This person was a Christian, but not a dedicated Christian. In a way it was a great thing, because I could compare the two. It was just like an eye-opener. And I thought, even though this man is a Christian, he doesn’t have the qualities of the James Merritt.”
Teresa wrote James what he just knew was a “Dear John” letter. But instead, she said she missed him and wanted to talk. They talked more than three hours on the phone, running up a $100 bill at 1975 long-distance rates.
Teresa was a sophomore at Truett McConnell and worked as the administrative assistant to then-President Ronald Weitman. She was a cheerleader and planned to attend the University of Georgia and major in business.
“I was just thinking about dating and having a good time, and not thinking about commitment. After he proposed I kind of was running from that, because I didn’t want to settle down at that time in my life. So I just started praying and saying God, if this is the man for me, you’ll show me.”
James describes himself as shy in personal matters. The one date he had in high school occurred because his mother Miriam, now deceased, insisted.
“I was never shy about my faith,” he said. “I took a girl to the prom for one reason. My mother made me go to the prom. My mother said you’re not going to graduate high school and not go to the prom. Go find some girl. And I did, and it was a disaster. I wasn’t even interested in her at all.”
Had it not been for the counselors in James’ youth group at First Baptist Church of Smyrna, where he served as youth minister, James believes he and Teresa never would have become a couple.
“I couldn’t get up the nerve to ask her out. One of my high school seniors went behind my back.” The student asked Teresa enough questions to discern she was single and available and told James to ask her out.
Five weeks after his proposal, James was speechless when Teresa showed up one Sunday at First Baptist Smyrna.
“My mouth dropped and I mouthed out the words, ‘What are you doing here?’”
“We walked into the service together,” Teresa said, “and you could hear a hush go over the whole congregation because everybody knew that we were together.” He had not dated anyone, he said, in the two years he had served at the church.
Teresa called James after she returned to Cleveland with her college roommate, who had driven the car to Smyrna.
“When I called him, I told him I loved him and he made me repeat it three or four times.”
They wed March 13, 1976, at First Baptist Church in Cornelia, Ga., and will celebrate their 47th anniversary in a month. They have three sons and four grandchildren.
James is longtime pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth. He served as Southern Baptist Convention president from 2000-2002 and as chairman of the SBC Resolutions Committee in 2021. He describes Teresa as a Proverbs 31 woman, a much better wife to him than he has been a husband to her. The two were headed to Chattanooga, Tenn., to lead a married couples’ retreat at Brainerd Baptist Church when they told Baptist Press about their courtship.
James is quick to say that marriage is not for everyone.
“I don’t want to sound at all that there’s anything wrong with being single. Because there certainly is not. Jesus was single. Paul was single. Some of the great people in the Bible were single,” he said. “Nothing wrong with that at all and I want to make that plain. And that’s a calling that God brings to people and I admire that.”
But both he and Teresa find much about marriage to commend the union. Their personalities and preferences fit well together. They lean on one another. He enjoys spending hours in his office studying and preparing lessons. She is comfortable spending time alone, but they’re available to one another.
“We just really have learned to focus on one another more in the later years of our life,” she said. “Where before, we had numerous distractions. We had little kids, teenagers then, and now it’s just us.”
Would he recommend to others their path to the altar?
Absolutely not. “I can’t explain it,” James said. “I’m just telling you it was a God thing.”
Here’s his advice to young couples approaching marriage.
“I believe in somewhat of a reasonable dating period, if you will. I do not believe in long engagements. I think that’s where you get in trouble. Because there’s something mentally, physically, emotionally that changes when you put the engagement ring on. And then you’re tempted to say well, we’re going to get married and so … etc.
“Is my way the model way? No. And is it generally the way that it should go or God operates it? No. But, it can happen,” he said.
“The important thing is whether you propose on the second date or the 20th date, whether you get married in six months or it takes you two years, the most important thing that we both agreed on from the very beginning – ‘cause she’s got divorce in her family, I’ve got divorce in mine – we said let’s make each other one covenant before we even get married.
“The D word never comes into our vocabulary. No matter how tough things get, how hard things are, we will never, ever … I mean that word’s a dirty word at our house.”
He describes their marriage as “literally a fairytale,” and is still thankful she said yes.
“This is one reason I love her the way I love her – she gave up a tremendous amount to marry a guy she’d only known for six months. I thank her every day. She’ll tell you this, I thank her every single day that she married me. I thank her every day. Don’t I?”
She nodded yes.