Pop: The Practicing Preacher

With a few changes in verb tense from present to past, here’s an essay I wrote way back while studying at Moody Bible Institute. Dad went to be with the Lord in February of 2002. Happy Father’s Day to his sons, grandsons, great grandsons (many of whom didn’t get to know him) and to the many young men whose life he influenced through the years.

The fifth and last child of the Marshall A. Williams, Sr. family arrived on August 11, 1915, and the family’s general store in Osman, Illinois soon had another clerk. He was named Marshall Andrew, Jr., but quickly became the object of the tiny town’s person-in-charge-of-giving-nicknames. When Dad was only two or three years old when one of the straps of his bib overalls was hanging over his shoulder just like his grandfather’s had had a habit of doing. “Well, if it isn’t little Jacob Williams” was the man’s comment, and Dad became “Jake” to family and friends.

Either it was the influence of his older brothers or Aunt Kate’s sugar cookies (that no one could ever duplicate) or the freedom of growing up in that tiny Illinois village made him confident and a little precocious. He loved having a good time–and that included pranks on his classmates even into his seminary days. Since he skipped fourth grade in his early academic career, he was not quite seventeen when he traveled north to attend Moody Bible Institute and spent his first months away from home. No one from back home would have recognized him as outgoing and full of fun those first weeks of school, though. He missed home so much he felt like a little boy lost in the holiday crowds of Christmas shoppers.

Speech class with Talmadge J. Bittikofer didn’t ease his nerves as a frightened freshman. His first direct confrontation with the prof found him reading a Scripture passage under the scrutinizing eyes and ears of his peers. He finished the reading and sheepishly looked up at Professor Bittikofer. Condescendingly, the teacher took the Bible from Dad’s hands, dramatically read the passage, and shoved the book back to the trembling freshman with, “Okay, now let’s hear it with a little life in it!” To recover the humiliation in front of his classmates, he accepted the challenge. Grasping the Bible, he stretched to his full 5′ 10″ and read the passage exactly as his teacher had demonstrated. He joined his smiling classmates while his astonished prof fumbled through his notes.

He balanced his reputation for being a joker, though, with responsibility. After graduating from MBI’s Pastors Course in 1935, he had a student pastorate at a small Methodist church in Saybrook, Illinois while he attended Illinois Wesleyan University. During his years at Wesleyan, he heard a radio program on WMBI produced by young people from a church he had worked at in Chicago. Lizetta Gerhardt prayed during the program and both her name and her voice were unfamiliar to him, but both made him ask his roommate, Justice Olson, who this girl (from Justice’s home church) was. The flippant answer, “She’s not my type–too quiet” helped Dad determine to find out more about her. They met that summer where they were both counselors at a youth camp and were married 5 1/2 years later after his graduation from Dallas Theological Seminary.

With four more pastorates behind him, Marshall found himself in 1955 as director of the Bible Witness Camp in rural Pembroke Township about 55 miles south of Chicago–called to continue a fledgling ministry to the African-American community there. Against all human reasoning and in spite of outbursts (like “you’ll be throwing your life away; your children will suffer”) from his family and friends, he moved his wife and four children to the middle of 32 acres of oak trees with a finality of purpose common to men who are convinced of God’s leading.

It was in this role that I got to know Dad best. After twins were born to complete the family, we three girls and three boys were to grow up and appreciate the example Dad displayed. Although we had family devotions twice a day and were taken to Sunday School and church from the first months of our lives, it’s not the sermons I remember. I suppose he told us not to lose our tempers, but the fact that he rarely lost his saved him a lot of words. At times he probably told us to believe that God would supply our needs, but as we watched him and Mom trust the Lord for food and clothes, verbalization was unnecessary. Besides family devotions we were told and shown how to have our own quiet times with God, but Dad’s time with the Lord in his study every day after breakfast spoke louder than any telling.

His sensitivity amazed me. He never spent hours of preachy admonition, but carefully gave instruction in practical situations. When several of my grade school friends became pregnant, and I shared this information with him, he casually explained the motives of many fellows and gave me ideals and standards of purity which haven’t wavered. He could also size up a person almost immediately upon meeting them for the first time, and with his spiritual gift of discernment, he almost seemed to know what we were thinking at times!

With a ministry to children, Dad showed God’s love to hundreds of them illustrating how our heavenly Father promises to be a father to the fatherless. Driving a bus (often crowded beyond capacity) to bring children to Sunday School was one of his responsibilities in his younger years at BWC. Once a visiting friend rode along for the experience. Later she told Mom, “The Lord sure knew what He was doing when He put your husband in this work. Most directors would give that noisy, nerve-racking job to someone else at the first chance.” Dad found it worth every mile of the bumpy, noisy ride particularly when a little girl, whose father was often drunk and cruel, hugged him as the bus was loading, saying, “Mr. Williams, I sure wish you were my Daddy,”

As the years passed, he was not the thin, practical-joker-basketball-player he had been during his college years. Gray fringed his dark brown hair, and the right combination of stomach and lap made him a perfect grandpa. Always witty and ready for a good laugh, time gave him wisdom that kept his children coming to him for advice. He had his weak spots, admittedly, but love and grace were his trademarks.

While I was a student at MBI, one of my professors, Dr. Harold Garner, attended a missionary conference with Dad after not having seen him for many years since they had been in camp work together. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a group of pastors moved the way they were after you father spoke … you have a goodly heritage.”

Several weeks of my freshman year of college had become history before I got a letter from my father. After sharing news of the high school football team’s progress and the latest family happenings, he finished with, “Keep the Lord first. Love, Pop.” I didn’t rebel at another sermon. I cried because his life backed up that sentence.

That was my dad, the preacher who lived his sermons!

By Rebecca McMillan

As a child of God, blessed with rich spiritual legacies in my family and in my husband, David's family, I want to tell "of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it." Psalm 22:30-31

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