A Prince and a Great Man Is Fallen Vestal Chaffin (1913-97)

By Ron Halbrook

When Abner died, King David lamented, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?” (2 Sam. 3:38). That lament was heard again on January 22, 1997 in Charleston, West Virginia when brother Vestal Chaffin laid his armor down in death. He will be sorely missed in his family circle, in the Oakwood Road Church of Christ, and among brethren around the country who knew and loved him. I will personally miss the love and fellowship we shared for twenty years. He was a source of great encouragement, always urging me onward in the work of the Lord. We shall always remember his unwavering steadfastness in the truth and his example of devoted, sacrificial service in proclaiming the gospel of Christ.

Humble, Hard Origins

Silas Narl and Mary Etta Petty Chaffin were the proud parents of Otha Vestal, born on January 25, 1913 near Gainesboro in Jackson County, Tennessee. Small farm owners like Silas struggled to make a living in the rolling and often rocky hills of middle Tennessee. The gospel of Christ had been preached for generations in this region and Vestal’s parents were Christians. Among his earliest memories were “playing church” and “trying to preach” when he was four or five-years old. Visiting neighbors would join the family in singing “and sometimes they would give me two or three pennies or a nickel to persuade me to preach.” His youthful preaching efforts continued during his early elementary school days. “At school at the lunch period and recess periods, a group of us kids would go down to the edge of the creek and build us a brush arbor and I would preach” (Vestal Chaffin, The History of My Early Life, unpublished manuscript, 1993, slightly edited in spelling and grammar, 1).

The Chaffins’ lot in life was typical of rural middle Tennessee during the early twentieth century. The 1918 “influenza” epidemic raged for several years, killing thou-sands of Americans. Five of the Chaffins were stricken at the same time in 1922 when Vestal was nine. “My mother was in bed more than thirty days and died.” Like so many other southern families, the Chaffins sought relief from the struggle of eking out a living from the soil by going to the industrial cities of the North. Relatives in Detroit, Michigan ran a restaurant where Vestal’s sister Settie went to work in 1924. When a gospel meeting was in progress in 1927 and Narl was about to visit Detroit, he told young Vestal, “Son, if you want to obey the gospel, go ahead and I’ll be back to assist you in living the Christian life” (History, 1). The fourteen-year old took this encouragement to heart and was baptized.

Shortly after Narl returned from Detroit, he sold his Jack-son County farm to buy one in Putnam County. In the spring of 1928, the family spent six months in Detroit so that Narl and Vestal could work in the factories. Vestal was fifteen when he got his first factory job. The family repeated this experience in 1929. Just after the Chaffins returned to the Putnam County farm, the Great Depression hit in the fall of 1929.

It was hard to get hold of a dime in those days. I re-member on one occasion, I took a quite large basket of nice, sweet plums into the town of Baxter, and went from door to door offering the whole basket full for 10 cents, and nobody would buy them. I plowed for a neighbor all day for 25 cents. People today do not know what “hard times” means (History, 1).

After two hard years, Narl sold his farm at a huge loss and bought one in Jackson County “way up in what was called Peters Hollow. We farmed those old rough hills. I plowed many a day with a hillside plow and a team of mules” (History, 2).

Vestal rode a mule to visit his sweetheart, Willie Opal Chaffin (no relation). He borrowed money to go to Detroit to work in the factory for six months in 1934, then returned and married Willie on September 14. Their first son, Guilford, was born in August of the next year. After alternating between farming in middle Tennessee and seeking factory work in Detroit, Vestal landed a regular job with the Temprite Corporation and moved his family to Detroit in 1937. He worked with Temprite for eight years. His second son, Ronald, was born in June of 1940. Carolyn was born in November of 1943 and Kathleen in October of 1947 during the Detroit years.

Beginning the Work of an Evangelist

During the Detroit years, under very trying circumstances, Vestal began doing the work of an evangelist. He preached his first gospel sermon in 1938 at the East End church where he worshiped regularly. Almost immediately he was called upon to fill preaching appointments in the area continually. It was suggested that a new congregation was needed about three miles from East End and that Vestal should be the preacher. The new work began in a rented school building:

We met for the first time on April 3, 1943, and we had 93 present for the first service. I continued to work and preach twice each Sunday. In 1944, I almost had a nervous breakdown. The doctor said I would have to give up preaching or quit working. We were having 250 to 275 in attendance on Sunday morning. So the brethren told me if I wanted to give up work and continue to preach, they would support me full time (History, 3).

In August of 1948, the family moved to Lincoln Park, Michigan, where Vestal continued his full-time preaching. “After only a few months there, Daddy was fired for preaching against taking the Lord’s money to support a baseball team. He always stood for what was right, no matter what the consequences were” (Carolyn Chaffin Linville, As I Recall  Die With Mom and Dad, unpublished manuscript, 1993, slightly edited in spelling and grammar, 1). Vestal always believed the root of the problem at Lincoln Park was some “she elders” as he called them.

Vestal moved to McMinnville, Tennessee in 1948 to work with the East End church. These were busy years and all the family shared in the sacrifices made for the cause of Christ. Large Vacation Bible Schools were held and Vestal often was gone in gospel meetings. Carolyn recalls,

Mom was always a very hard working woman. I never recall her sitting down and resting. She was always doing something. She made all of our clothes, made a garden in the summer, canned practically all of our food, and did her share of church work, too (Recall, 2).

Since the house had only two bedrooms, the dining room doubled as the girls’ bedroom. “Every evening, and I mean every evening, before going to bed, our family gathered together and the Bible was read and Daddy led us in prayer” (Recall, 2). Larry was born here in June of 1951.

The same year, the Chaffins moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to work with the Warner’s Chapel church.

In addition to the constant press of his preaching duties, Vestal made time to go hunting and fishing with his children. Some of the family members picked cotton for one to two cents a pound at times, which was common in those days. The next move was to Bruceton, Tennessee in 1953. More lessons about sacrifices for Christ were learned there. After a young man and his wife obeyed the gospel, her parents rejected her and he shortly died of leukemia. Someone poisoned the Chaffin’s dog.

In the summer of 1957 Vestal moved his family to Charleston, West Virginia to work with the Park and Main St. church. Carolyn remembers her father’s uncompromising stand for the truth here during the years when institutional liberalism was spreading.

Daddy worked hard in Charleston building up the church here and fighting the liberal issues that were invading the church at that period of time. Daddy always stood firm in his belief that if you do things not authorized by God to do in the church, then you might as well not go to church. . . . If we add things men say are okay and/or leave off things that men want to leave off, then we do not have a “church built by Christ”  we have a mixture of men and Christ, and we can’t mix them (Re-call, 5).

 In June of 1961 the Chaffins moved to Chicago and Vestal preached for the Grand Avenue church. While he was there, the institutional issues continued to rage. Brethren often had a “Question Box” during those years and some-one submitted a question requesting information on 2 Peter 2:13 and Jude 12, passages often twisted to justify social meals and other forms of entertainment sponsored by the church. This led Vestal to write an excellent article entitled “Love Feasts” which was published in Truth Magazine. He reviewed historical information and the context of the pas-sages, showing that if they refer to social meals, the meals were provided by individuals and not the church. His article explained,

There is nothing in these verses or any other verses to suggest that these “feasts” were put on by the church, or sponsored by the church. There is not a passage of scripture in the Bible that even begins to justify the church furnishing “entertainment” as such, for anybody, at any time, under any circumstance. If there is, let those who advocate and practice such things produce the passage. It is not the mission of the Lord’s church to engage in social activities. Let some one affirm that it is, and I will flatly deny it, either in a public or private discussion.

Men who pervert the Scriptures to try to justify church entertainment, church kitchens, church socials, and such like, are in the same class as those who are described by Jude as being “spots in your feasts of charity.” He warned that even Enoch prophesied of the terrible judgment that will come upon such people (Vestal Chaffin, “Love Feasts,” Truth Magazine, October 1963, 20-21).

In 1964 Vestal moved from Chicago to Dickson, Tennessee to labor with the Academy Street church (now known as Oak Avenue). Tragedy struck in Dickson. Carolyn re-counts what happened when the Chaffins got a call about a fire at the church building.

They called Daddy sometime during the night and told him the building was on fire. Of course, he got up and went straight to the building. Mom was on pins and needles. She knew if he could possibly see any chance of saving his books, he would go right into that burning building. But it was too far gone when he got there. Daddy lost all of his books, papers, outlines, Bibles, etc. He had some very unique books, etc. that were destroyed at that time. That was a very sad time in our lives (Recall, 5).

As news of this tragedy spread, many brethren aided Vestal in replacing some of his lost study materials, but only another preacher can fully appreciate how irreplaceable most of those materials would be. Vestal did not let this setback hinder him but pressed forward in preaching the gospel of Christ.

Next, Vestal moved to Louisville, Kentucky to work with the Shively church in 1966. While there, the Chaffm’s youngest son married, leaving the family nest empty. In 1970 Vestal began work with the Powers Ferry Road church in Marietta, Georgia, and then preached in Paden City, West Virginia for two years (1972-74). In 1974 he began his labors with the Southeast church in Akron, Ohio. He published a powerful bulletin while there, as he had always done before, and also served as an elder. I stayed with the Chaffins while preaching in a gospel meeting there in April of 1978. We remained close friends from that time forward.

When the Chaffins moved in 1979 to the Perrin church in Miami, Florida, they enjoyed being near two of their fourteen grandchildren. Jerry and Kathy (Chaffin) Pascall lived there. During this time, Vestal began to experience some health problems.

Finishing the Work He Had Begun

In April of 1982 Vestal went back to Charleston to preach for the Oakwood Road church. Frank and Carolyn (Chaffin) Linville were members there, and Ronald and Rose Chaffin lived in town (Ronald preached for the church at Chesapeake). In November Vestal suffered a debilitating stroke and was in the hospital for 39 days. The doctor said he would never talk or walk again, but he eventually did both by his own determination and the loving help of other family members, especially Carolyn’s intensive therapy work. He learned to talk again by singing whatever he wanted to say. Though his 45 years of full-time preaching was ended, he continued to speak occasionally at Oakwood Road, Chesapeake, and elsewhere. With the help of loved ones, he continued to prepare articles for publication from lime to time. His last article, “The Unity of the Spirit,” appeared in the Guardian of Truth, April 6, 1995 (206-207).

In September of 1984 Vestal and Willie celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, a joyous occasion. On April 5, 1986 he faced the greatest tragedy of his life when his wife suddenly died. Marshall Patton and Lowell Kibler conducted her funeral (“Obituary: Willie Opal Chaffin At Rest,” Guardian of Truth, May 15, 1986, 313). A few days later I stayed with Vestal and preached in a gospel meeting at Oakwood Road. Neither bitter nor resentful, he was determined to keep on keeping on in the service of the Lord. This he did until he laid his armor down in death on January 22, 1997.

Important lessons can be learned by reflecting on the lives of faithful saints like Vestal Chaffin. He became an evangelist not by obtaining special theological schooling but by learning the Scriptures, growing as a faithful Christian, observing the work of sound preachers, receiving the encouragement of brethren, loving the lost, and developing and using his talents wherever he was needed. That has always been God’s way of raising up gospel preachers. Brother Chaffin started out preaching while supporting him-self. More gospel preachers have made this kind of sacrifice to spread the truth than have been supported by churches through the years. Later, he was supported to preach, but he did not preach in order to obtain support, as can be seen from the occasion when he was fired for preaching the truth. No matter how supported, God expects all who preach to do so with that same kind of faith and conviction rather than from the motives of popularity and money. Sin and error were directly confronted by Vestal’s preaching as can be seen from his tract, “25 Reasons Why the Baptist Church Cannot Be the New Testament Church.” Having seen one apostasy develop, he was keenly aware of and deeply concerned about the signs of softness, compromise, and worldliness developing in the church in recent years. He had no sympathy for or patience with the misuse of Romans 14 as a vehicle for compromise on divorce and remarriage or similar doctrinal issues, and he discussed this danger with me a number of times.

Vestal’s children testify that the Bible was at the center of his home and daily life because he lived what he preached. In passing through Charleston, I often visited with brother Chaffin and always was impressed by his sincerity, genuine warmth, dedication to Christ, resilience, and good spirits in the face of declining health. He always had a ready smile. His good sense of humor was not marred by vulgar stories or off-color jokes. All who truly knew him will remember “Vestal’s strength of character, his wisdom in resolving problems in harmony with the will of the Lord, and his patient persistence in contending earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). Through both mountain tops of joy and deep valleys of sorrow, sister Chaffin has walked faithfully by his side and contributed greatly to his success” (Patton, “Obituary,” 313). It thrills the heart to know through the gospel that brother and sister Chaffin now are together again, and that very soon we all shall rejoin them in serving and praising God!

Shannon Shaffer, evangelist with the Oakwood Road church, and myself shared the privilege of speaking at brother Chaffin’s funeral. Shannon wrote and read a stir-ring tribute to brother Chaffin entitled “Soldiers of Christ.” Since it will stir the hearts of others, it is being published along with this report (p. 10). My sermon was entitled “The Great Battle for Souls.” As faithful saints pass from the scene, let us who remain press onward in the great battle for souls, always speaking the truth in love with boldness and great plainness of speech. May the spirit of love, sacrifice, and dedication to the cause of Christ be found in us, as it can be seen in the lives of beloved soldiers of the cross such as brother Vestal Chaffin!

Guardian of Truth XLI: 13 p. 
July 3, 1997