Cecil Willis: Preaching Christ Through the Written Word

By Ron Halbrook

Cecil Willis (March 4, 1932-May 17, 1997) used to say he did not expect to live much beyond forty years, but by God’s grace and providence we were blessed to have him sixty-five years. In the prime years of his work, he was the most devoted, dedicated, and determined preacher of the gospel I have ever known. Like Paul, he truly could say, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” and, “I am set for the defense of the gospel” (1 Cor. 2:2; Phil. 1:17). His every thought seemed to be focused on spreading and defending the gospel of Christ in its original purity and simplicity. Many, many souls will be in heaven because of his dedicated efforts (including mine, if I am faithful to the end).

Tragically, Cecil’s voice and pen were silenced for a decade among brethren generally. A lack of rest broke his health and family stress broke his spirit in 1976-77, which was compounded by an unscriptural divorce and remarriage. Utterly humiliated, he publicly confessed his sins in July of 1986 and ended the second marriage which began in December of 1980. Literally hundreds of letters and other expressions of encouragement helped him continue on the road to spiritual recovery. Little by little his efforts to preach Christ through both the spoken and the written word were renewed. Death has stilled his voice and pen again, but the influence of the truth he taught will continue for generations to come.

Early Life and Convictions

Cecil grew up understanding that sacrifices must be made in order to stand for the truth. His home community was Groveton in Trinity County in the piney woods of east Texas. The church there divided over the introduction of instrumental music into the worship in 1920. The new church met in a borrowed building, then in the Courthouse, and finally in a church building on Highway 94 purchased from the Baptists in 1924. Cecil was born in 1932 and born againwhen baptized in a farm pond by Ned Fairbairn in August of 1945. He worked the whole summer of 1948 helping demolish that old building and erecting a new one in its place.

Cecil was early influenced by men of ability and deep conviction such as Roy E. Cogdill (1907-85), Luther Blackmon (1907-77), and William Thompson. Cogdill often held meetings in Groveton, Blackmon drove out from Houston to preach there for a time, and Thompson moved to Groveton to preach in 1946.

Cecil’s first sermon was preached at the Possum Walk Church of Christ on March 28, 1948. He led singing for many gospel meetings at the Antioch church conducted by Silas Moody from Lufkin. When Cecil himself conducted a meeting there in 1950, the attendance reached 180. With Roy Cogdill’s encouragement and help, Cecil attended Florida Christian College and went into full time preaching, never looking back. He was an excellent pulpit preacher, presenting lessons suited to “the common people,” yet challenging even those with higher education (Mark 12:37; 1 Cor. 1:23-24). His lessons were simple, to the point, and practical. He did not meander up in the clouds trying to impress people without convicting the sinner of his sins. The last time I heard him preach in January of 1997, his lesson on “Speaking as We Ought to Speak” urged preachers to make plain, pointed, specific applications contrasting truth and righteousness with error and sin. Above all, Cecil will be remembered for preaching Christ through the writ-ten word.

Preaching Christ through Truth Magazine

Truth Magazine resulted from the efforts of Leslie Diestelkamp (1911-95) and Bryan Vinson, Jr. in 1956. They designed the paper to be balanced, militant, and evangelistic. From the beginning it had an open door policy toward the discussion of both sides of controversial issues as it focused on the rise of modernism and institutionalism. It also provided a forum for news regarding foreign evangelism. The paper was a monthly under Vinson as editor.

The September 1958 issue was a special edition entitled “Return Ye Unto God,” to encourage the recovery of erring saints. It included Cecil’s first article, “Be Thou Faithful,” which concluded: “His we are; His we ever shall be if we profitably serve Him ‘unto death.’ The next month he defended the inspiration and authority of Scripture in an article entitled, “Holy Men Spoke From God,” followed by three similar articles on Isaiah (May-July 1959). The all-sufficiency of God’s redemptive plan was discussed in a twelve-part series covering the Savior, the Bible, and the church (Dec. 1959-May 1961). In recognition of the quality of his material, Cecil was added to the Staff Writers at the ripe age of 28 in October of 1960.

Just two years later in August, the editorship of Truth Magazine was turned over to Cecil with William E. Wallace as the new Associate Editor, replacing the old staff. Cecil began a series on “Problems in the Church” the following month including sensualism, materialism, and centralization. Under his able leadership, by April of 1964 the circulation of the paper had nearly quadrupled; it topped 4,200 in 1970 and peaked at 5,900 the next year.

Cecil’s deep convictions and leadership ability caused him to seek out sound, strong men to join him in proclaiming the gospel of Christ through the pages of Truth Magazine. Some of the men whose voices were heard include James P. Needham, Connie W. Adams, O.C. Birdwell, Luther Blackmon, Karl Diestelkamp, Earl Robertson, James W. Adams, Roy E. Cogdill, Ferrell Jenkins, Larry Halley, and Irvin Himmel. The journal’s influence for good further increased when it became a weekly publication (Nov. 6, 1969). Reaching out to a new generation, Cecil added younger writers to the staff: Bruce Edwards, Jr., Ron Halbrook, Jeffery Kingry, John McCort, Harry Ozmont, and Steve Wolfgang (Nov. 7, 1974). When I submitted my first article for such a journal in 1964, en-tided “Immorality Won’t Work,” he said, “I have 500 pages of manuscript now on hand,” but published it the next spring (Willis to Halbrook, Nov. 11, 1964). While some of these men disappointed Cecil later, he was gratified to see several others become editors of other journals (May 31, 1973). William Wallace and James W. Adams edited the Gospel Guardian at separate periods; James P. Needham edited Torch Magazine; Connie W. Adams edited Searching the Scriptures.

1960s: The Institutional Battle

Only eternity will reveal how many precious souls were saved from the dangers of institutional liberalism through Cecil’s work in Truth Magazine. The innovations which swept the country after World War II involved centralization and social gospel concepts (churches donating money to such human institutions as colleges, child-care agencies, and retirement centers; elderships of larger churches transforming themselves into boards which sponsored evangelistic projects with money from other churches, such as the Herald of Truth Radio Program; churches providing social meals, “fellowship halls,” gyms, and all sorts of social and recreational services; churches donating money to needy people who are not Christians). Cecil was a major participant in this battle as it continued to rage in the 1960s.

His two oral debates with Clifton Inman were reported and his two written debates with William L. Carrell were published in the paper (Jan. 1967; July-Sept. 1967 and Dec. 1968-Feb. 1969). Cecil contrasted truth and error in the plainest terms, yet these debates were conducted on the highest plane: “His preparation for these discussions was very evident. His part … was also carried on in a very fine spirit of brotherliness, and high esteem for his opponent” (James P. Needham, Jan. 1967, 77). Scores of articles on the institutional issues were published by many able writers under Cecil’s editorship.

1970s: The New Unity Movement

In the decade of the 1970s, conservative-minded brethren were shaken by the rise of a generation affected by the cultural winds of the time. A social and moral upheaval occurred in America beginning in the mid-1960s. It was driven by a spirit of anarchy, hatred for all symbols of authority, and rebellion against traditional standards in morality and religion. This new generation blurred the line between right and wrong, tried to erase all rigid standards on moral issues, and advocated peace at any price on religious differences. This was the age of situation ethics and the ecumenical movement.

Among conservative churches, this new generation denigrated rather than appreciated the battles fought by their fathers. Their fathers were caricatured as too rigid, too traditional, too authoritarian, and even mean-spirited, which caused the institutional division. The new generation imagined themselves as forging new trails to peace, unity, love, and rapprochement with alienated brethren. The fact is that this new ecumenical spirit was another disguise for compromise, but it affected many brethren  not all of them young. My wife and I once listed forty preachers known to us who were seriously affected by this error, most of whom eventually joined liberalism, denominational bodies, or cults. Many others affected were unknown to us.

Cecil Willis immediately saw this “new unity” or “grace-unity” movement for what it was, another form of apostasy. Carl Ketcherside (1908-89) and Leroy Garrett, once noted for their divisive extremism, embraced an ever-widening spirit of ecumenical compromise in the 1950s. They separated “gospel” from “doctrine” in the New Testament, applied Romans 14 to contradictory beliefs and practices on moral and doctrinal issues, and popularized the concept of doctrinal “unity in diversity.” They said the New Testament is a “love letter,” not an exact pattern of truth. As they broadened the borders of unity and fellowship, they also broadened the realm of grace and salvation to include all “wings of the restoration movement”  The Disciples of Christ, independent Christian churches, and all professed churches of Christ (one-cup, no-class, premillennial, institutional, etc.). Next, they widened the circle to include the Protestant denominations and sects, various branches of Catholicism (Roman, Greek Orthodox, etc.), and even people in pagan idolatry.

Ketcherside and Garrett influenced Edward Fudge and a few other young men among us in the late 60s and early 70s, which became a dangerous leaven, but the strongest factor in the spread of this movement was the anti-authority, anti-tradition atmosphere of the social climate. Peace at any price was simply an idea whose time had come and many among us were caught up in the spirit of the time (Rom. 12:2). As early as July of 1962, Leslie Diestelkamp warned against “The Ketcherside Unity Plea”: “Toleration is his theme . . . not only with regard to men but with regard to principles. The actual crux of his appeal is not only that we be patient with men in error, but that we be tolerant with the error they advocate and practice” (194). Roy Cogdill pointed out that Ketcherside and Garrett had swung from being “nothingarian” to “anythingarian” (Nov. 13, 1969, 20).

In recognition of the seriousness of this spreading error, James W. Adams began a lengthy series with “The Birth of a Movement” in the March 22, 1973 issue. Cecil’s “Editorial Note” added that 1,000 extra copies of each article in the series was being printed for wider distribution. Beginning later that year, under Fudge’s influence as Associate Editor, the Gospel Guardian professed that no new unity movement existed, the discussion was politically motivated, lies were being told, and second generation preachers were turned off by the whole thing. Knowing that many younger men were upholding the truth, Cecil’s editorial on June 14, 1973 responded, “Turning Off `Which’ Second Generation Preachers.” After an introductory article, I wrote a five-part series as “An Appeal in Love to Edward Fudge: Clarify Please,” quoting extensively from his own pen (Sept. 20-Oct. 25, 1973). As a result, my character was attacked as being dishonest and dishonorable, but Cecil felt these articles provided documentation of “the erroneous positions of Edward Fudge, but which documentation we did not have readily accessible” (Nov. 7, 1974, 8).

These were dark and difficult days for Cecil, myself, and others directly involved in this controversy as our motives and character were constantly impugned. Cecil was a stabilizing force because of his calm, consistent, persistent appeal to the text of Scripture and his refusal to be sidetracked from the Bible issues confronting us (1 Pet. 4:11; 1 John 4:6). Though he was painted as political, arrogant, and mean-spirited, I saw up close through constant contact the heart of a man whose only desire was to up-hold the truth of the gospel of Christ. While some said his motive was to increase the circulation of the paper, some of these battles actually cost us subscriptions, but he was willing to press the battle for truth if it meant the death of the paper. He commented,

I deeply resent the fact that some naive brethren think we are pressing this issue to gain some kind of financial ad-vantage…. I am resolved that brethren who misunderstand what we are trying to do, or who see no need for what we are doing, will not stop the effort being made. . . . I am not afraid of this fight tarnishing our reputation; that is a part of the price of spiritual warfare (Willis to Halbrook, Nov. 14, 1973).

Maintaining an Open, Balanced, Evangelistic Posture

Cecil also maintained the open door philosophy of the paper instituted in its beginning, not as a matter of mere policy but because openness to study, discussion, and de-bate is essential to biblical faith in Christ (Acts 15:1-7; 17:11; Gal. 2:11-14; 1 Thess. 5:23; 1 Pet. 3:15; 1 John 4:1-6). If the paper ever lost its commitment to militant evangelism with open debate of current Bible issues, Cecil believed it deserved to die. While meeting the issues of institutionalism and the new unity movement, he also worked hard to maintain a balance with a wide range of subject matter, as a review of the annual indices abundantly demonstrates.

To encourage evangelism in the U.S. and abroad, Cecil published a constant flow of reports from “Japan, South America, South Africa, Ireland, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Philip-pine Islands, Mexico, Norway, Canada, England, Vietnam, India, Australia, Italy, the Bahamas and perhaps other lands that do not readily come to mind” (July 8, 1971, 531). So great was his interest that he made two trips to the Philip-pines, first in 1970. It is some measure of the good effect of that trip that the liberals bombarded him for years after-ward in the Philippine Christian, and he answered at times through another Philippine paper, the Gospel Preacher edited by Romulo B. Agduma.

Cecil’s doctor warned him not to go to the Philippines and Australia in 1975 just before he left because of “involuntary shaking” caused by “dangerously high blood pressure,” but he went any way “and was ill at nearly every place I went.” After cutting short this trip because he was so ill, he tried to hold a couple of meetings and finally checked into a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, where he learned he had suffered two strokes. The doctor required him to cancel all his work “for the remainder of this year” and he was told he needed a year’s bed rest. Cecil explained all this because an American liberal named Bob Buchanon at the Philippine Bible College was saying Cecil was so afraid to debate him he was visibly shaking (Willis letter to Luis Calipayan in the Philippines, Nov. 21, 1975). Actually, Cecil’s repeated efforts to get Bob to debate had been rebuffed for years. Over the years, Cecil spent and sent thousands of dollars out of his own pocket, and raised much more from others, to provide literature and support to Filipino brethren for the spread of the gospel. Such efforts continued until his death. Only God knows how many Filipino children have been named for him because of his love and generosity for the cause of Christ. He will be sorely missed there as here.

Beset by failing health and family problems, Cecil formally resigned the editorship of Truth Magazine on April 1, 1977 at the age of 45, having served for fifteen years. His son Steve and his brother Mike had already been helping with editorial duties behind the scenes. As its next editor, Mike kept it on a steady course as a well-balanced, militant, open, and evangelistic paper. After returning to the Lord, Cecil wrote only occasionally, including “Can Sin Be Inherited?”, an expression of “Gratitude to Brethren,” “A Report on James P. Needham’s Health,” and a few other news items about his work (Jan. 1, 1987, 17-18, 21; Mar. 19, 1987, 179; Apr. 7, 1994, 211).

The Written Word in Tracts, Workbooks, and Books

Time and space fail me to give an adequate survey of the work accomplished by Cecil Willis in proclaiming the gospel of Christ through the pages of Truth Magazine. In addition, his proclamation of the gospel was extended over land and sea by reprinting many of his articles as tracts  thousands upon thousands of them through the years on such subjects as Can We Understand the Bible Alike?, What is Conversion?, What Must One Do to be Saved?, Reviewing a Baptist Tract, The Law of Moses and The Gospel of Christ, But What About the Thief on the Cross?, What Is Wrong with Denominational Baptism?, Scriptural Worship, Church Discipline, Is the Herald of Truth Expedient?, The Tipton Home Story, The Tap-root of Digression: “No Pattern-ism,” Dancing, and The “New Morality” Reviewed.

Another far-reaching effort was “The New Series of Bible Class Literature,” a project announced November 27, 1969 and presented as complete on July 12, 1973. Not only was the old “Journeys Through the Bible” revised as “Walking With God,” but also a great number of brethren  many connected with Truth Magazine  worked to produce the all new “Truth in Life” series. Ferrell Jenkins and Cecil worked as Associate Editors of “Truth in Life,” and Cecil wrote an excellent Senior High book suitable for adults as well, entitled “How to Study the Bible.”

Three books by Cecil were published. His 425 page biography of W. W. Otey: Contender for the Faith, subtitled A History of Controversies in the Church of Christ From 1860-1960, appeared in 1964. It contains the most extensive account of the institutional division to date. In 1968, the first of two oral debates with Clifton Inman over institutionalism in 1966 was published as The Willis-Inman Debate: A Discussion on Congregational Cooperation and Benevolent Organizations. I have always regarded it as the clearest and simplest of the debate books on these issues. His 1974 debate with Jesse G. Jenkins appeared in 1976 as The Willis-Jenkins Debate, in which Cecil de-fended the right of individuals to conduct “liberal arts educational enterprises, in which the Bible is taught as a regular part of the curriculum (as is practiced by Florida College).” Each man submitted his personal conscience and conviction to this test without dividing churches over it, and so the matter rests to this day, which is a credit to them both. Cecil also wrote a chapter on “The Churches of Christ in Trinity County” in Trinity County Beginnings (1986), which includes some family history along with church history.

Reflecting on Cecil Willis’ work renews precious and powerful memories which strengthen my faith and which I will take to the grave. Our gratitude to Cecil extends to his family who shared his sacrifices, triumphs, and tragedies. His use of the written word to spread and defend the gospel of Christ will continue to bear fruit for time and eternity.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 15 p. 6-9
August 7, 1997