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Seminary days provided Ark. governor opportunity for Christian growth


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–The governor of Arkansas once subsisted on canned soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but he wouldn’t trade his memories of the experience for the world.

Re-elected last year to another term as governor, Mike Huckabee was once a seminary student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and familiar with the economic strains of seminary life.

“Moving to Fort Worth was moving there with nothing, and when I say ‘nothing’ I mean I had one pair of shoes. By the end of the first semester there was a pretty significant hole in them,” Huckabee said in a recent interview.

Huckabee graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., in 1976 after only two years of study, and knew that God was calling him to attend seminary. The first decision he faced was choosing a seminary.

“I really had decided between Southwestern and a very small, missionary Baptist seminary down in east Texas,” he said. “So my wife and I took off on a trip to visit both campuses. The first one we visited was in east Texas, and it was nice and the people were pleasant. Then we drove to Fort Worth.”

When the couple turned onto the Southwestern Seminary campus from Seminary Drive, Huckabee said he was in awe.


“I thought I was at the state capitol,” said Huckabee, who was 20 at the time. “… My first thought was, ‘This is way too big league for you, boy.’

“I literally think I may have been the youngest kid on the campus. … There were people there old enough to be my grandfather that I was having class with, and many old enough to be my father.”

The man who years later would become governor found the atmosphere on the campus “extraordinary.”

“While other people maybe made fun of Southwestern as the three-year camp meeting, I thought that was the greatest compliment they could have ever given the atmosphere of Southwestern — that it was more of a revival atmosphere and not just sterile.”

His time at the seminary — only a year — was enough to be “indoctrinated with that fervent spirit, the missionary spirit and evangelistic spirit that I think has always been the hallmark of Southwestern.”

But obstacles stood in his way, among them his wife’s surgery and radiation therapy for spinal cancer. Mounting medical bills strained the couple’s finances.

“We lost everything we had financially,” Huckabee said. But he and his wife, Janet, never lost their faith. “We didn’t own anything and we didn’t borrow anything because we couldn’t have afforded it. But we lived, and we literally would go from month to month and God would give us sometimes some amazing provisions — lessons that I will never forget.”

For instance, on one occasion the Huckabees received a $12 refund from an electric bill they had overpaid in Arkadelphia two years before. At the time the couple needed food for their newborn baby. The food cost $12.

“I learned that God would provide,” he said. “… I also learned that if I would be faithful he would open a door and he would open a way.”

As with many students who attend seminary, an open door to ministry meant that Huckabee would have to leave the campus. He had been offered an opportunity to direct the television ministries of James Robison, then a Southern Baptist evangelist. Huckabee sought the advice of one of his favorite evangelism professors at Southwestern, Oscar Thompson.

“I went to Dr. Thompson because I knew that he was going to tell me, ‘You stay in school, son.'”

Thompson instead asked why Huckabee had come to seminary. He answered that he wanted to be involved in Christian broadcasting.

“So what are you being offered an opportunity to do?” Thompson asked.

Huckabee told him that he would be able to do everything he’d wanted to do, from advertising to running a national television ministry. Thompson’s next statement sent Huckabee packing — “Okay, so what’s your question?”

Thompson, who later died of cancer, reminded Huckabee that the seminary would still be in Fort Worth if he didn’t enjoy the television ministry. “Dr. Thompson oddly enough persuaded me that the opportunity was one that I really couldn’t pass up, and it was the beginning of a whole chain of events in my life that eventually led me to the governor’s office of Arkansas,” Huckabee said. “I will forever cherish the fact that he didn’t tell me what I expected to hear nor tell me what I think he was probably expected to say as a seminary professor.”

Thompson was indicative of the other professors at the seminary as well, Huckabee said. He recalled sitting under Boo Heflin for Old Testament survey and a course on the prophets, and under Tom Urrey for New Testament Greek.

“Now I can say this that I’m so far away from his class, but we affectionately called him ‘Hurry Urrey.’

“One of the professors I truly fell in love with,” he said, “was Dr. William Estep, a church history professor who could take what, for many people, may be one of the driest subjects in the world and … suddenly make it so alive that I was on the edge of my seat.”

Huckabee was also fond of Roy Fish, whose “passion for people and passion for evangelism is contagious.”

All of the seminary professors he took influenced his spiritual growth, Huckabee said. They also taught him that God has a purpose for every single thing in life — a lesson that has influenced Huckabee’s faith and the way in which he governs.

“There are many things I learned on that campus that I think prepared me to be governor,” he said. “One of them is that God has a purpose for every experience in life. There’s nothing really wasted. And I learned to have a deep appreciation for the heritage of my faith that I don’t think I ever understood before.

“Faith for me, when I first went to seminary, was much more of a contemporary relationship — right now. Seminary broadened that perspective in everything from archaeology to church history to give me a sense that this faith is authentic because it is rooted in something much, much bigger than today, and that it is traceable, it’s reliable, it’s historic, it can be documented.”

Huckabee later became a pastor in Texarkana, Ark., utilizing the training he received in seminary. When he entered politics, he was surprised to discover that he still had ample opportunities to use his pastoral skills. When natural disasters occur or when a young child is murdered — events he has dealt with in the past year — faith guides the manner in which he responds to the citizens of his state, he said.

“It [pastoral care] sometimes follows a natural disaster, a flood or a tornado,” he said. “I found that my pastoral background has helped me through more than anything else because that’s really what people need at that particular point — comfort. They don’t need a 27-page booklet on how to apply for federal aide or for a grant after a disaster. First they need some hope, some assurance, encouragement.”

Pastoral experience also is indispensable when Huckabee comes into contact with crime victims, inmates seeking clemency, and even a legislator working through a crisis.

“I’m not saying that it’s the kind of role where every day I can pull out a Bible and read from the book of Romans,” Huckabee said. “It’s not quite like that, but there’s still a very definite opportunity on a regular basis to share faith and to really be a witness to people.”

Being available for those pastoral moments is important, Huckabee said. They are all a part of God’s larger plan, he said.

God’s plan for Huckabee’s life was far different from what he expected as a 21-year-old seminary student. But he is confident that he is where God wants him to be.

When asked what advice he would give a young seminary student contemplating a career in politics today, his answer was simple.

“Don’t do it. That’s the first thing I’d tell him,” Huckabee said, laughing.

Huckabee, though, did say that Christians can and should serve in politics, although they should be open to God’s will for their lives. He recommended that seminary students say, ‘I want to serve God wherever it takes me” and “I’m willing to serve God whether it’s on the mission field in Tanzania or the mission field of the state capitol.”

“Don’t limit God,” he said. “Don’t put God in a box. … I think that’s where we really make huge mistakes.”

Service to God, Huckabee said, might involve preaching, politics or being a missionary.

“That is to me the great adventure of faith,” he said. “Don’t ever say this, ‘I’m 21 years old and this is what God wants me to do,’ because you may be surprised.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MIKE HUCKABEE.