By James P. Needham
I appreciate the editor’s invitation to participate in a tribute to my good and long-time friend and brother, Cecil Willis.
How I Came to Know Cecil
I first heard of Cecil Willis about the time he finished Florida College. I first met him at the Wallace-Ketcherside debate in St. Louis, October 26-30, 1953, sponsored by the West End church. Cecil had just accepted the work at Irvington in Indianapolis in the heart of what was known as “Sommerism,” and the bailiwick of the late W.L. Tony. During the debate, day sessions were held at the building of the West End church at which various preachers were invited to speak. Steril Watson was the local preacher, and he and Totty were good friends, so naturally, he was one of the day speakers. In the course of Totty’s speech, he pounced upon Cecil with a vengeance, accusing him of compromising with Sommerism because he had accepted the work at Irvington which compromised with it. This was not unusual behavior for Totty. He had lived in Indianapolis for years, and saw a “Sommerite” or a Sommer sympathizer or compromiser in just about every pew and behind many pulpits. The only way to fight “Sommerism” according to Tony was to do it just like he did which was often mean spirited.
Cecil was a young preacher, fresh out of college at the time, but he handled himself admirably. He stood up in his place and told Totty and the audience that he was new to the area, and did not know the facts concerning what Totty had charged, but he intended to do what was right, and if he found any irregularities he would most certainly deal with them.
It would be several years before Cecil and I had any intimate contact or relationship. I would see him from time to time in meetings, or at the Florida College lectures. One could say we had a “passing acquaintance.” Our relation-ship grew closer in the early 1960s. The Taylor Boulevard church in Louisville had split over the institutional issues, and something over 200 brethren had separated from the liberal element and were meeting in the building at different times. The conservative brethren were trying to find a preacher to work with them. Cecil had been there to preach and had been invited to take the work, but had not decided to do so since he was not ready to leave Brown Street in Akron. He and I had lunch together at the Florida College lectures, and I told him that the elders had asked me to come and look at the work the next Sunday. He said he was not ready to move from Brown Street but he felt an obligation to move to Louisville and help there, but he said, “If you decide to go, I will be happy.” The rest is history. I decided to go and stayed almost nine years.
Some time later I was invited to hold a meeting at Brown Street in Akron. Bill Wallace came up from Indianapolis for the meeting. He and Cecil had recently taken over Truth Magazine. They had planned before hand to try to persuade me to become an associate editor and staff writer, which I did. This was the beginning of the development of one of the closest friendships my family ever had. Our families became very close. Cecil and I began working together in gospel meetings, debates, and other projects. We were often in each other’s homes. Cecil and I traveled together frequently. If he were in a meeting and it was convenient for me to do so, I would go and spend several days with him as we prepared debate notes, worked on books, or whatever. When I was in a meeting and it was convenient, he did the same.
Cecil always asked me to moderate for him in his de-bates, and to write introductions to his books. He placed me on a much higher pedestal than I ever thought I de-served. He once said I could help him answer an argument by just writing a word or two or a Scripture on a piece of paper. He and the Brown Street elders invited me twice to work with them, but I never accepted it because it would have necessitated my being gone from home even more than I was already. My children were young and the Expressway work was thriving, and I felt I should be at home more.
Cecil was a great fan of my preaching. He used to say, “Needham says more in his introductions than most preachers say in a whole sermon.” He always made me feel ten-feet tall, though I knew my stature was considerably less. I didn’t believe his evaluation of my talents as a preacher and writer, but I sure enjoyed hearing it!
Cecil and I enjoyed some good-natured verbal sparing. After hearing me preach once he came by me at the door and said, “Needham, you could have done worse if you had used more time.” There were also times when we disagreed. We sometimes engaged in vigorous discussions on various subjects. Neither of us held back, but contended earnestly for our point of view. I felt he got the best of the argument most of the time. He had a great mind, but al-ways put himself down. He used to say that if he ever had an original thought, his head would explode! He often quoted our mutual friend, Luther Blackmon, who said, “Originality is forgetting where you got it.”
Cecil as a Gospel Preacher
During the 1960s and 70s, we spent much time together. I heard him preach more than I heard any other man. I came to know him intimately. I knew how he thought, how he ate, and how he slept, or didn’t sleep! I was profoundly impressed with his work and study habits, and most of all, with his preaching and writing. I said to many people on many occasions that “Cecil Willis is the best preacher I know.” I said it because I meant it, and because it was true. His sermons were well thought out, well organized,filled with Scripture, and delivered with simplicity, conviction, power, and kindness. He immersed himself in his work as a preacher, editor, and student of the Word. He worked long hours and slept very little. His work was always on his mind. If he woke up at 3 A.M. and thought of something he needed to do, he would get out of bed and spend the rest of the night in his study. Cecil was an avid reader. He bought and read more books than any preacher I ever knew. He amassed a huge library.
We have all heard the old cliche about one’s “being married to his job.” I think this was true of Cecil. Perhaps to a fault. He worked hard in his local work, held many meetings, edited Truth Magazine, and engaged in debates. He was high strung and it seemed to become more and more difficult for him to relax. His zeal for the work of the Lord was consuming him, and it began to affect his health. He traveled too much, worked too hard, and paid a tremendous price for his lifestyle. He would be so keyed up at night that he suffered terrific headaches and would have to take medication to get any sleep at all. This took its toll. I often massaged his neck and would put it under tension as instructed by chiropractors to try to relieve his headaches.
“The Best of Times and the Worst of Times”
During the 1960s especially, the institutional and cooperative battles were being waged in almost every church. The air was charged with tension during gospel meetings as the two sides grappled with “the issues,” and much time would be spent in the pulpit and from house to house dealing with the problems. The future stand of many churches was being decided during these years. It was the best of times and the worst of times. It was the best of times in the sense that brethren were studying, thinking, and asking questions doing more than just warming the pew. Many brethren were studying their Bibles with greater diligence than ever before. It was the worst of times because of the pressures and the tensions that one felt; the walls that were being built between brethren and families that had never been experienced before. Not only were churches divided, but also families and life-long friends. It was the worst of times because of the party spirit that was manifested by many. There were brethren on both sides who took a particular stand, not on the basis of what they had determined were scriptural principles, but because they liked or disliked the preacher or some brethren. There were cases where churches split, not over the issues, but over personalities, but the issues were used to cover up the real reason for the split. There were tensions that had built up among brethren over many years, and “the issues” simply gave them an excuse to divide, which they wanted to do any-way, but did not want to divide over personalities. Some brethren stayed with or went with a certain “side,” not out of scriptural conviction, but because of a sentimental attachment to the building or the brethren. Friendship and personality clashes often outweighed principle. The highest authority some needed for what they believed was that their favorite preacher believed it. Personal loyalties took precedence over love for truth. There were some brethren on both sides who couldn’t give one scriptural reason for the stand they took. I think this still is true of too many. It was the worst of times because of the misrepresentations, the ugly epithets thrown around, and the bitterness shown by many. There were ugly divisions, ungodly lawsuits, and locks changed on buildings to keep the other side out. There were public debates, some good and some not so good.
It was the worst of times because divisions sometimes occurred supposedly over the issues, when it really was over a power struggle within the church, and all-out effort to determine who was going to be the boss. This is clear now in hindsight, but undetectable at the time. Preachers, including Cecil and I, were sometimes used unwittingly as pawns in these power struggles, thinking all the time that we were helping the “sound” brethren salvage the congregation for truth. We were used and cast aside like a dirty shirt.
It was the best of times because we preached to spell-bound audiences who were trying to learn the principles for which we were contending and there were but few complaints about the length of the sermon. It was the best of times because preachers and brethren willingly made great sacrifices for the truth; were willing to pay any price to stay in the “straight and narrow” way.
Cecil and I and others went from one troubled church to another to help brethren who were trying to hold the line for truth. We traveled much, worked hard, often with little if any remuneration except what our home churches provided. During those years I worked with the Expressway church in Louisville, and the elders said take all the meetings you care to hold and help all the churches you can, we will take care of the work at home. That same sentiment prevailed in the Brown Street church and others.
Often gospel meetings were so filled with tension and so many people were wanting answers or wanting to argue against what was being preached that I used to say to my wife upon arriving home from gospel meetings, “I feel like a rabbit who has been chased and chewed on by a bunch of beagle hounds.” We earned our bread, what little there was, by the sweat of our faces! We fought the battles in the heat of the day!
Then and Now
It is amazing how times can change in the short span of one’s life. In those days preachers didn’t look upon them-selves as smooth talkers, pop psychologists, personal motivators, and self-improvement counselors; we were gospel preachers. We didn’t mount the pulpit to be harsh, unkind, or offensive, but neither did we preach just a positive gospel designed to make people feel good where they were by spewing forth psychobabble gleaned from Calvinian theologians and modem social gospelers, nor did we promote unity in diversity. We exposed error where it was found, and asked no quarter and gave none; we drew a line in the sand, as it were. We preached from open pulpits and invited our opposition to share it with us because we had conviction and were ready at all times to defend what we believed and were not afraid of what the opposition had to say. We refused to close the pulpits or the columns of our periodicals to those who disagreed. We said, “Put it on the table, and let’s see if it is true.” It was our philosophy that the more we rub the truth the brighter it shines, and it has nothing to fear from controversy.
Cecil Willis left his footprints on the sands of time. He has now fell on sleep and has been gathered to his people. His influence will long be felt among those who knew him and who will read his writings in ages to come. I never had a better friend, and though I had very little contact with him in his later years due to circumstances, his influence on my life and that of my family never ceased, and never will his name remains a household word with us and with many brethren throughout the world. My family often says, “Cecil was my favorite.”
As in every case like this, we need to balance our eulogy with the common statement that Cecil, like the rest of us, was not perfect. He made mistakes but he loved God and his own soul enough that he was willing to admit his mistakes and correct them. We can only eulogize our friends, brethren and loved ones from our own knowledge and evaluations. We cannot know people’s hearts, and we must ever remember the God is their judge. With tears in my eyes as I write this, I say, “Farewell, old friend. We fought a good fight, we finished the course, we kept the faith, and we hope and pray that God will look favorably upon our efforts. It is certainly our hope and expectation that you are in a better world, but we are not. Without you and the thousands of other faithful soldiers of the cross who have stacked arms on the plains of eternity, this world has lost some of it’s beauty.”
In almost 50 years of preaching, like other preachers, I have buried many wonderful friends. As I have meditated upon that fact, I wrote a poem about it that seems appropriate just here. I would like to share it with you.
My Friends Are Dying
I see my friends are dying
along life’s rugged way;
I hear the bells a’tolling
I know just what they say.
They say I’m getting older
I’m moving toward the end.
There’s no promise of tomorrow,
Is the message that they send.
The plucking of each flower
For the Master’s great bouquet
Makes heaven ever sweeter
In my struggle every day.
I can see the end is nearing;
The clock of time is running down,
And I know that life is moving
To the place where God is found.
I know that soon I’ll answer
The bell that tolls for me,
And I shall set my sails
To cross death’s trackless sea.
I soon shall see my Maker
Who sits upon the throne;
I hope He bids me welcome
To my eternal home.
If I hear His blessed welcome
To that land that meeds to light
I shall live throughout the ages
With saints who triumphed in the fight.
James P. Needham, 1-8-80
When so many of our Mends from our generation are going the way of all the earth, it is reasonable to conclude that our time upon the earth cannot be long. I challenge you, kind reader, to give this some serious thought.
(Note: The sympathy of my family is extended to Cecil’s fine children: Steve, Dave, Brenda, and Ann. Also to Lewis, Mike, and Don, and the rest of the family whom I do not know personally. Our prayers are for and with you. jpn).
Guardian of Truth XLI: 15 p. 18-21
August 7, 1997