By Cecil Willis
Just this afternoon, I returned from a hurried trip to Florence, Alabama to attend the funeral services for that well-known and much beloved gospel preacher, Franklin T. Puckett. A few years ago, Boyd E. Morgan published a book about early preachers of the gospel in Arkansas. This book he entitled, Arkansas Angels. I am sure that by his usage of the word “Angel” when applied to a gospel preacher, he alluded to its primary meaning; that of “messenger.” Somehow, in my mind, Franklin Puckett has always been one, of those “Arkansas Angels,” though he was not mentioned in Morgan’s book which was published in 1967. By that time, the name of Franklin T. Puckett had become a “hiss and a by-word” to all those purveyors of digression in Arkansas and elsewhere.
Franklin Thomas Puckett was born near Melbourne, Arkansas June 21, 1908. But as long as I can remember knowing him, he has always called Calico Rock, Arkansas “home.” On December 25, 1974, Brother and Sister Puckett were spending a holiday with their daughter, Editha, and her family. Editha is married to Olin Kern, able preacher in his own right, who now works with the fine Plainfield, Indiana congregation. Brother Puckett became ill, and decided that it would be best for him to get back as soon as possible to Florence, Alabama, where he has lived and worked for the past several years with the College View congregation. After consulting his doctor, he was told that he had not yet suffered a heart attack, but conditions were such that he could have one to occur at any moment. Soon thereafter Frank did have a heart attack. It was so massive in nature that it ruptured the frontal part of his heart. Perhaps he suffered a stroke at the same time, or virtually at the same time. An aneurysm resulted, and he was in critical condition thereafter. Prior to his death, his temperature had risen to 107 degrees, which had he lived, would have very likely left him with brain damage. The brittle thread of life for him severed at about 2 A.M. on Thursday, January 16th. Funeral services were held on Friday the 17th at 2 P.M. at the College View meeting house, and his earthly remains were deposited in the bosom of mother earth in Florence, Alabama, a city which he much loved and where he twice had served as a full-time evangelist.
The College View meeting house, which probably can seat 500 people,- was filled and over-flowing. Several remarked that they had never seen so many gospel preachers at anyone’s funeral. Certainly more preachers would have attended had they known of his passing. The funeral service was conducted the day following his death. It seemed so appropriate that two men whom I also somehow think of as Arkansas preachers (Paul Keller and Eugene Britnell) should be chosen to speak at the funeral service. Like Puckett, Britnell and Keller have preached in many states, but much of their work has been done in Arkansas.
Frank Puckett was a Bible-preaching man. His lessons always were crammed full of Bible quotations, appropriately chosen and correctly used. Thus, fittingly, the funeral service was lavish with Scripture. I doubt if I ever attended a funeral service where more passages of Scripture were cited than were used as we met to honor the memory and the work of Franklin T. Puckett.
Frank and I were nearly kin-folks. He is related to Dwight King’s family, and Dwight married my wife’s sister, Aloah. So since 1949, I have known and been quite closely associated with Frank Puckett. There are many lessons to be garnered from the consideration of a long, useful, and steadfast life in God’s service. Please forgive me if I make this article a little longer than you might think befitting. But Frank Puckett was no ordinary man. We shall not soon see his equal again. A wide gap has been created in the ranks of the soldiers of Christ, and it will take some gallant service, perhaps by several men, to clue the ranks and to protect that part of the battle line which for so many years has been filled by that massive spiritual man, Franklin T. Puckett.
Isn’t it strange how many great men came from such unpretentious and unprestigous backgrounds? It seems that most of the great men are men who climbed from the lowest rung of the ladder. No knowledgeable Bible student would ever leave an assembly where Frank Puckett had done the preaching feeling that he had just listened to an uneducated preacher. Brother Puckett, I am told, finished only the ninth grade. Sometime later he completed his studies and took the necessary, test and was given teaching credentials and he taught in the public schools for ten years-from 1927 to 1937. Later on in life, he did additional college work, and taught in the Bible Department at Florida College from 19541957. But preaching was too much in his blood for him to stay tied down to a classroom. Thus, his teaching career was cut short by the impulsion he had to preach. Yet there are scores of gospel preachers who will carry and disseminate throughout their lives those great Bible lessons they learned at the feet of Franklin T. Puckett.
Frank began preaching in 1933. He often has told me of the influence that men like Joe Blue of Arkansas had on him. I shall long remember Frank telling about attending the famous Hardeman-Bogard Debate in Little Rock in 1938. Hardeman and Bogard (Baptist) were about the ablest men that could meet on the same platform on those subjects. Frank said the crowds were so large that one had to go two hours early in order to get a seat. One night when he walked in, the auditorium was completely filled and already the aisles were filled around the sides of the auditorium. Seated on the rostrum with Hardeman and Bogard were that trio of terrors to false teaching, J. D. Tant, Joe S, Warlick, and Joe Blue. Brother Blue happened to spot Frank, as he was standing in the doorway looking in vain for an empty seat. There just happened to be one extra chair on the rostrum, and Brother Blue motioned for Frank to come to sit there.
Hardeman and Bogard were both experienced debaters. Bogard had participated in nearly 300 debates, about 100 of them with our brethren, or so I have been told. In his introductory remarks, Bogard cautioned the audience to leave the debating to himself and to Brother Hardeman. He said they were capable of handling it. Bogard then began to talk about how many debates he and Joe Warlick had conducted. They had debated seventeen times, and yet Bogard said they were still good friends: Bogard said they frequently exchanged setters and that whenever he went through the place where Warlick lived, he stopped by for a visit with Warlick, whenever possible. He continued by reporting that he and Warlick had even stayed at the same house during one debate; in fact, they even slept together. But Bogard said, “Of course, I was very careful to get up early the next morning and take a bath.” Brother Warlick commented: “And I would have slept a lot better if he had taken that bath the night before!”
J. D. Tant brought the evening paper with him and very obviously read it, page by page, while Bogard was making his first speech. Warlick, who was sitting right next to the pulpit stand, appeared to have gone to sleep. Puckett said Warlick’s enormously large head fell backward, and his mouth popped open, as though he were sound asleep. During Bogard’s speech, he misquoted a passage of Scripture. Brother Warlick just opened one eye, and with his head still flopped back, said quite loudly, “Quote it right, now!” And Bogard went back and correctly quoted the passage. But those were the days. It was in this kind of furnace that the mettle of Franklin T. Puckett was forged.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of you personally knew Frank Puckett, but for those of you who did not have that good fortune, let me tell you just a little bit about him. He was a robust man, and was white headed as long as I can remember him. Just his appearance immediately conveyed to you a sense of quiet, but very strong and perhaps stern dignity. Some might say that he, bore the air of Southern Aristocracy. He was about as dignified a preacher as I ever knew . . . until he got his country fiddle out!! And then all that dignity left. What a time he then could have if there were a few others who would join with him in making some good country music.
Someone commented that Frank Puckett reminded them of what a Supreme Court Judge should look like. I suppose that would describe him about as well as anything I might try to put on paper. Yet with this somber and stern dignity, there was a tender-heart inside. Gene Britnell said at the funeral, “No man could be around Frank Puckett very long without feeling close to him.” He cared for other people. In many ways, Frank Puckett and Curtis .Porter made similar impressions upon me. When I first met them, I was awed by what I had heard of them, and now to be in their presence. One of the things that made me know those two men were different was that they sincerely seemed interested in what I, as a very unlearned and inexperienced preacher, had to say. I do not mean that they particularly thought I was about to teach them anything. They both forgot more than I will ever know. But they had time and the disposition to listen to me. This pulled them from this imaginary pedestal upon which I had supposed they sat, and made them lovable, ordinary gospel preachers to me. But they were by no means ordinary gospel preachers. Frank Puckett once in private conversation shortly after Brother Porter’s death said to me of W. Curtis Porter, “He was a great man, but he did not know it!” I can think of no more appropriate way to describe Frank Puckett.
During the early 1950’s, when the institutional issues were really being fought out, sizable elements of the liberals attended the Florida College Annual Lectures. During the “Open Forum” period, for several years they tried just to take over the discussion. Brother Puckett had been chosen as Moderator, and a fairer but sterner one, you never saw. It made no difference who the liberal preacher was, he was not about to bully Frank Puckett around in the Open Forum. Frank never once lost his composure, but neither did he ever once lose control over the Open Forum. His quiet, but strong, dignity never shined brighter in my estimation than on those heated and even hostile occasions.
Franklin T. Puckett was preeminently a gospel preacher. He taught school a while, farmed a while, taught in college a while, but he could not leave his love for gospel preaching. The appraisal of gospel preachers, I know, is a very subjective thing. I have said on several occasions that I thought that Roy E. Cogdill was the ablest preacher of the gospel in my generation. Other than Roy Cogdill, there was no other man whom I ever heard who approached such thoroughness in covering a subject in a sermon than Frank Puckett. Having heard him preach many times, whenever he finished one felt, “Well, now, that subject has been well covered.”
Brother Puckett did not enter the pulpit with three jokes he wanted to relate in his introduction. He was no imitation comedian. Did you ever see a preacher who was a good comedian? When Puckett got up to preach, he opened the Bible, and from that moment onward he amassed Scriptural evidence to set out the thesis which he had proposed for consideration on that occasion. A word much on the mind of Brother Puckett as a preacher was “balance.” He did not want to be an extremist on any issue. Other than by those who would have perverted the work arid the organization of the church, my guess is that you never heard anyone charge Frank Puckett with radicalism, or extremism. But somehow, when the smoke of battle had cleared away, it seems that Frank Puckett always came out of the fray standing for the truth.
I never heard Brother Puckett in debate, though he was principal participant in several and moderated for many others. Among his debates were the “BmersonPuckett” debate on Women Preachers and instrumental music in 1940. The “Puckett-Weaver” debate on baptism, sanctification, and miraculous healing occurred in 1944. In 1949 he debated a denominational preacher named Crowder on instrumental music. W. Curtis Porter was the best negative debater I ever heard, or after whom I have read. On the other hand, Alexander Campbell made a massive affirmative argument that simply overwhelmed his opponent. Roy Cogdill, in this regard, debated after the manner of Alexander Campbell. Though I never heard Puckett in debate, but judging from having heard him speak on many occasions, I know Franklin T. Puckett was a debater who amassed an insuperable affirmative that completely engulfed his opponent.
But primarily, one would have to say that Frank Puckett was a great Bible expositor. When he chose a paragraph of Scripture and proposed to discourse upon it from one to two hours, you could know that you were in for a real treat if you were one of those “whose delight is in the law of the Lord.”
One certainly could count on one hand (and it probably would not take all five fingers in order to do so) the men who were held in higher esteem by the brethren nation-wide than Frank Puckett. He had preached in hundreds of gospel meetings in about 80% of the States of this nation. Frank did not commit himself on a position until he was sure he was on solid ground.
He was without doubt the most informed man among us on Calvinism. For two or three years, I have again and again literally begged him to step into this current discussion and help to expose those who have accepted Calvinism or Neo-Calvinism; whether they accepted this false doctrine deliberately or inadvertently, the result of its teaching is the same. The greatest tragedy of the sudden death of Frank Puckett, in my judgment, is that he took all this now so badly needed knowledge to the grave with him. Had several men of Puckett’s knowledge and spiritual stature used the pages of the various journals available to them, this new wave of Calvinism sweeping across the churches could have been reduced to a mere ripple. Make no doubt about it: Frank Puckett taught against the errors of accepting the doctrine of the imputed personal righteousness of Christ to the Christian, and against the error that God unconditionally forgives sin. In fact, probably the very day you are reading this article, Frank Puckett (had he lived) would have been engaged in teaching an intensive series of studies on Calvinism in Florence.
Frank was a thorough student. Whenever he attacked a problem, he drove to the,heart of it. When he decided that he wanted to learn Greek and Hebrew, he simply persisted until he had become competent in both languages. In fact, he also was scheduled to be teaching a class in Biblical Greek at this very moment, had he not been snatched from our midst.
Just to illustrate the type of student he was, elsewhere in this issue I am publishing a long letter that he wrote me in response to a request I made that he do some research for me in regard to a textual variant in the reading of Acts 12:25. This was just prior to my debate with Clifton Inman on sponsoring churches in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1966. Back then, the liberals felt they should at least try to find authority for a sponsoring church in the Bible. In the interim of nearly a decade, they have come to the place where they find it easier to deny the binding nature of apostolic examples or necessary inferences than to try to present Biblical authority, either generically or specifically, for a sponsoring church.
But nearly ten years ago, these liberal brethren were looking as closely as possible at every verse in the Bible to try to find something that looked like a 42nd cousin to a sponsoring church. So some of them learned that some of the ancient manuscripts on Acts 12:25 indicated that Paul and Barnabas returned `from Jerusalem,” supposedly having delivered to the Jerusalem elders the relief sent by the brethren in Antioch for all the needy brethren in Judea. You say, you don’t see a sponsoring church in `from Jerusalem”? Well, you see, you have to supply a little missing information, which the brother who is looking for Bible authority for a sponsoring church is plenty ready to do.
So . . . they suppose that since some copies of the ancient manuscripts state ?hat Paul and Barnabas returned `from Jerusalem,” this therefore proves that Jerusalem was the sponsoring church. Paul and Barnabas supposedly delivered the relief to the Jerusalem elders, and they distributed it to the brethren throughout Judea. A liberal preacher who has nothing better to offer than this kind of an argument is no better off than the Baptist who denies the inspiration of Mark 16:9-20 in an effort to deny that baptism is essential to salvation. Perhaps others of you might need access sometime to this same information, so I am now publishing Brother Puckett’s letter to me. This gives you some idea of the thoroughness of his scholarship, when he felt he must really dig into a question. Keep in mind that he was merely doing some private study to help a friend. He was not writing an article for public consumption. But this type of work was typical of Frank Puckett’s thoroughness. And . . . there just might be a liberal or two still around who is naive enough to think that he can build a castle upon the flimsy textual controversy of whether Acts 12:25 says “from Jerusalem” or “to Jerusalem.” When I make a trip to Texas, I usually return “from Houston,” but that does not mean that I did not visit any other city in Texas.
On various occasions, when I have been trying to convince some competent brother that it does not take superhuman power to preach the gospel, I frequently have said that ‘preaching is about 90 percent work, and 10 percent ability.” I still sincerely believe that. But the tools of trade to a gospel preacher are books, carefully chosen and with which he is well familiar-and I might add, paid for by dollars that his wife and family might like to have seen used for some other urgent need.
Those who know me probably would say that I have some kind of “hang-up” on old books that deal with divine truth. Ah!! It was there that Frank and I could strike up a warm discussion. He had the best collection of religious debates owned by any individual known to me. I have heard that his close friend and protoge, Paul Keller, also has a tremendously valuable collection of debates. If I may bragg a little, Frank’s was the only collection of debates privately owned that I ever saw that was more complete than my own. He had some debates that I just thought I had to have!! I offered him nearly anything that I could get my hands upon for certain select ones, but he always wanted twice their worth in return, but in debate books. I became so exasperated at times trying to trade with him that I was nearly tempted to swipe the ones I wanted But Frank Puckett loved good books, and his shelves were not filled’ with a lot of worthless denominational trash. Define the word however you will, it must still be said that Franklin T. Puckett was indeed a Bible “scholar.” His was a degree of scholarship and knowledge of the Word, but predicated upon his constant implicit trust in its verbal inspiration, which few men before him have attained, and which very few after him are likely to attain.
Aside from being, the light of his life and the love of his heart, Sister Puckett was also a partner in the work of Frank Puckett. Eugene Britnell best expressed it at the funeral:. “There could never have been a Frank Puckett without an Evelyn Puckett.” For several years, he and I lived in the same city, and I had the chance to see not only him, but also her at work. Sister Puckett made no great fanfare about her portion- in the Lord’s work. In fact, most would hardly know she was so deeply engaged in it.
The life of a preacher’s wife is not easy. Particularly is this true of that wife who happens to be’ married to a preacher who does a lot of travel in connection with his gospel work. There are scores of things about which such a wife could whine and complain. But in all the days that I have known Sister Puckett, never once did I hear any remark indicative that she would have Frank doing anything else. Though she went about her work quietly, yet it was obvious that she supplied that quiet, serene strength that every gospel preacher needs is order to do his work well.
Though Frank is now gone from our midst here on earth, Sister Puckett is the kind of woman that will go on living and go on doing what her Lord (and Frank) would have her to sio. Wherever she is, she will be one of those “worthy” women who continues quietly to go about doing her Master’s work.
Brother and Sister Puckett had but one child, a daughter named Editha. She is married to Olin Kern, an Indiana-born preacher, who recently returned to work with the Plainfield church just West of Indianapolis. Olin worked in Marion previous to my coming here in 1966. Most recently, he has spent several years in Blytheville, Arkansas. Olin and Editha have two children whom they are nurturing is the chastening and admonition of the Lord. The influence of Frank Puckett’s “sojourn” upon this earth will be evidenced in the lives and work of Olin and Editha and their children for years to come. My only regret for the grandchildren is that perhaps they are not yet old enough to know what a truly great servant of the Lord their grandfather was, and perhaps they will not remember all those noble traits that made him the great man that he was.
The preaching of Frank Puckett is not finished. Even his oral preaching is not finished, for there are scores of brethren who have tapes of sermons that Frank has preached that they will now cherish as never before. Though every preacher wants to “be his own man” so to speak, none of us really is. Even subconsciously we seem to emulate the characteristics of the men whom we admire. Having spent fifteen years or so in close association with a preacher of Frank’s calibre, certainly Olin will have been made a better preacher thereby.
Then think of the scores of preachers, both young and old, who have sat at his feet and absorbed the wonderful lessons Frank taught. I shall never forget the lessons he preached on Romans and Ephesians. That which he taught shall be used again and again as we attempt to attend to those duties assigned to us by the Captain of our salvation. Already I have heard of several who now are hurriedly seeking to acquire tape recordings of certain lessons Brother Puckett taught. Indeed it must be said of him that, like Abel, “he being dead yet speaketh.”
Though there was weeping at his death, as did those at the death of Lazarus (John 11), yet there also was rejoicing at his hope of glory. The very first song sung by the congregation assembled for the funeral was “Blessed Be the Name.” That must have pleased Frank! He would have had everyone concentrating on Him who is our hope, rather than on him who so recently had died in the hope of glory.
Little of my time is spent in reading poetry, except that which was written by divine inspiration. But a few pertinent quotes comes to mind as I reflect upon the life, labors, and legacy of Franklin T. Puckett. Emily Dickinson said:
“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Upon his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”
It is wonderful just to contemplate the number of redeemed souls who will be in heaven because there was a man named Frank Puckett who preached Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
Frank’s life had been spent in preparation for this transition that we call “death.” He knew its inevitability. Some may ask “Why” as he was stricken in the strength of mature manhood. As has been said of the soldier or cowboy, “He died with his boots on.” If each one of us could choose his way to leave this world, many of us would choose to leave it as did Frank, without having to endure those painful and helpless years of wasting into nothingness. Alfred Tennyson’s poem, “Crossing the Bar, ” seems appropriate here.
“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me,
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.
“But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns Again home.
“Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
“For tho’ from out our bourne of time and place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.”
But Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” seems even more poignant to me as I reflect upon Frank’s “Home-going.”
“Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
“Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
“Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
“Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
“In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
“Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
“Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
“Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.”
Partings here are indeed sad, but won’t it be wonderful over there, where we can meet to part no more? Frank Puckett in his life did help somebody (thousands of them!), and thus his living was not in vain. Having crossed the bar, he now has gone to meet his Pilot face to face, a meeting for which he had been decades in preparing. Blessed thought it is, “Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.” That vibrant spirit, which sojourned in that robust tabernacle of clay that we thought of as Frank Puckett, lives on. Frank left his “Footprints on the sands of time.” Every time his footprint fitted exactly into the footprints of Jesus, let us likewise walk therein. The song writer put it beautifully when it was said, “We’ll say Good night here, but Good morning up there.” Let us thank God that there was a Frank Puckett, and may his tribe increase.
Truth Magazine XIX: 15, pp. 227-232
February 20, 1975