By Connie W. Adams
Cecil Willis moved to Akron, Ohio in 1958 to work with the Brown Street congregation which had begun in 1941 as a peaceful “swarm” from Thayer Street. Charles M. Campbell had preached there for several years. Cecil followed Jesse Wiseman. The church had grown to over 300 in attendance by the time Cecil came. During his years at Brown Street, attendance often ran to 350-360. Akron was then the rubber capitol of the world with a number of large plants producing tires.
During the early part of his work here, he preached a series on Masonry. After the first sermon, one of the men asked to meet with the elders and told them that there were a number of Masons in the congregation and that if they did not shut that preacher up about it, he would see to it that they withheld their contributions so they would not be able to pay his salary. He also told them that if any of them told what he said he would deny it. The elders met with Cecil and passed on the information. He told them they could decide whether he could occupy the pulpit or not, but they could not determine what he would preach and that if allowed to continue he would proceed with his series. They assured him they knew he would say that and stood behind him. Before Cecil left Brown Street there were no Masons in the congregation.
The Situation in the Ohio Valley
The division over church support of private institutions and sponsoring churches had become a reality in most parts of the nation by the late 50s, except for the Ohio Valley. Many congregations were oblivious to the issues which received so much attention elsewhere. There were well known and highly respected men who took a neutral position, and many congregations attempted to follow that lead. In the early 1960s the Ohio Valley College was founded in Parkersburg, West Virginia and it soon became evident that the school would be managed by men sympathetic with the institutional movement. Through the influence of the school, a number of men who were well known in the south and southwest for their convictions in favor of the innovations, were brought into the Valley to teach at the school (J.M. Powell, brother-in-law of B.C. Goodpasture, editor of the Gospel Advocate, served as president for several years, and Clifton Inman became head of the Bible Department), speak on annual lecture programs, or conduct meetings throughout the Valley.
A Counter Offensive
In September 1962, Cecil Willis began his work as editor of Truth Magazine. In time this paper, then based in Akron, became a powerful influence in awakening brethren throughout the Ohio Valley as to what was taking place and provided a forum through which the issues could be studied. A number of strong men in the 1960s added the weight of their influence to ground as many churches in the truth as possible. Franklin T. Puckett preached at Thayer Street, followed by Guy Roberson and then Truman Smith. O.C. Birdwell preached at Barberton, Weldon Warnock at Kenmore where he followed Paul Casebolt. Morris Norman worked at Southeast in Akron. George LeMasters had considerable influence. Largely through the influence of Cecil Willis, Luther Blackmon came to preach at Bedford, Ohio. A.E. Dicus was at Lorain Avenue in Cleveland and Paul Kelsey was at Berea. Austin Mobley came to work at Tallmadge. Earl Robertson published a bulletin and had a radio program at Moundsville with wide influences. William E. Wallace worked in the area. Strong men were brought into the area for gospel meetings.
In 1965 the elders at Brown Street decided to support two preachers and I was invited to join Cecil Willis in this work. The plan was to have one of us free to go anywhere a door opened for us to preach. For five years this work continued. We conducted 30-40 meetings a year. We also began a bulletin published monthly called The Enlightener which was sent free to any who requested it. We developed a mailing list of 9,000. We gave the institutional issues heavy attention. Some were irate. Preachers condemned it from the pulpit and urged members to “throw it in the trash.” But many read, at first out of curiosity, then developed interest and many learned the truth. Few were ambivalent toward such efforts.
We were warned in some places not to speak on “the issues.” That was the surest way to get us to do exactly that! Preaching the principles was fine. Some would readily agree until they realized what the application involved. Cecil used to say, “You have to draw a picture of a pig on the board, and then right down under in big letters you have to write P-I-G.”
When one of the Willis children developed a serious illness, Cecil moved his family to Indiana so he could be home more until that situation was stabilized. We arranged for Ferrell Jenkins to join us in the work and the same arrangements continued. Lest anyone think all we ever did was preach on “the issues” during those years, we averaged baptizing 120 people a year between the meetings and the work at Brown Street. We began a series of special winter classes out of which came a number of preachers and teachers. Many of our meetings were ten or eleven day meetings and most of the baptisms came the last two or three days of the meetings. We preached in nice buildings but also wherever the brethren had to meet. In one year I conducted meetings in a small house with partitions removed to provide seating space (in Michigan), in a court house, (Illinois), in an American Legion building (also in Illinois),and in a store front (Ohio). Cecil and I alternated in going to Salem, Ohio on Thursday nights to teach a mid-week Bible class. We drove many miles just to meet and study with interested brethren. Many came to Akron to study with us.
Three Significant Debates
In September 1966, Cecil Willis met Clifton Inman of Ohio Valley College in a four nights debate in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The debate was conducted in a school auditorium with a large, attentive and respectful crowd present each night. This debate was printed in 1968 with the introduction written by James P. Needham who moderated for Cecil Willis. A second debate between these two men took place the following spring in Dayton, Ohio.
In December 1967, Ferrell Jenkins met Bill Heinselman in debate in Akron, with two nights in the Brown Street building and two at Westside in Akron. 500-600 attended each night of this discussion. Good order prevailed and much good was done. The December 1967 issue of The Enlightener carried the debate charts used by Ferrell Jenkins.
The combined impact of all these efforts was significant. I know of twenty-five congregations which got off the fence and took a stand for the truth during those years. While many factors came together to bring that about, there is no doubt that Cecil Willis and his influence played a dominant role in that.
One of the Brown Street elders paid Cecil a compliment when, after seven years of work there at that time, he said “Cecil’s preaching is as fresh now as it was when he first came here.” The reason for that was that Cecil Willis never stopped studying. While he was not opposed to using good material he had prepared and used at other places, in local work he made it a point to prepare at least one new sermon every week and always reworked material he had used before.
Our work together was most pleasant. We traded the pulpit back and forth, leaving each other notes as to what we had preached on and where we stopped in the Bible classes we each taught. Each of us trusted the other to cover the material assigned in the Bible classes, so that we would not be in a continual review and make no progress. Both of us ruffled a few feathers with some folks. When someone came to me and complained about Cecil, I immediately began to praise his work. When some came to him and complained about me, he did the same thing and the complainers got nowhere and soon stopped. When we had an honest disagreement on the application of a passage, we each presented what we believed about it and left it to the class or congregation to study the matter and reach their own conclusion. We never had one cross word between us. Our friendship began in college days at Florida Christian College. But our work together in Akron was one of the most productive periods of my life as a preacher and I shall ever be grateful to Cecil for the influence he had on my life. For eight years I worked with him on Truth Magazine and benefitted greatly from that association.
Others have detailed the tragic circumstances of about ten years in his life when he entered an unscriptural marriage and was not faithful to the Lord. Those were painful years for his family and close friends. Along with other friends, I made several attempts at reasoning with him about his life. These were all rebuffed. But in 1986, his unscriptural marriage ended. I was in a meeting in East Texas in June 1986 and called to see if I could come to Woodlake and see him. I made it clear that I wanted to talk to him about his soul. He told me to come on, he would be glad to see me. For several hours we sat on the back of a farm wagon at the Willis homeplace and talked. He admitted to me that his second marriage was adulterous and that he had “rationalized” his situation partly out of loneliness and frustration. He stated that he knew he had caused a lot of heartache for a lot of people. We discussed steps to make it right with the Lord and with brethren. Not long after that, he went before the church at Groveton, Texas where he had obeyed the gospel, preached his first sermon, where his parents then attended, and made a statement of repentance for any and all sins and for the damage they had done to so many. A copy of that statement was sent to the church at Huntsville, Texas (which had withdrawn from him), to other congregations where he had worked and where much pain and anguish had been caused. He sought the forgiveness of family members. A statement was published in Searching the Scriptures and in Guardian of Truth to let a wider audience know.
He accepted a very low profile the rest of his life. The eagle with the broken wing never soared as high again. If there was any resentment because he was not as widely called upon as before, I never saw any trace of it. He blamed himself for the damage done to his reputation. For awhile he worked with the small church in Fairbanks, Alaska. Then he came back to Woodlake, Texas to take care of his aging parents and was asked to preach for the small church at Groveton, which he did for several years. During these years he battled with increasing health problems and lived on the verge of kidney dialysis with only one kidney functioning at about 15%. His work at Salem, Ohio was off to a good start when health problems worsened and death resulted.
I shall miss my good friend. He left giant footprints on the sands of time in spite of the those tragic ten years. Good men can do wrong and damage their once powerful influence. God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and then he requires that we forgive even as the Lord has forgiven us when we repent (Col. 3:13). I hope good brethren will remember the great good done by my good friend and brother. “The judgments of God are according to truth” (Rom. 2:2).
Guardian of Truth XLI: 15 p. 3-5
August 7, 1997