By Irvin Himmel
“Now in the very beginning of my part of this service . . .” With booming voice, twinkling eyes, and those familiar words, he would begin. Like a fine race horse anxiously awaiting a signal to start the running, he showed an eagerness to start to work on his audience. Usually he would be speaking before he reached the pulpit stand.
He knew how to move an audience. Never did he lack for a good story to illustrate his point. His hearers would laugh heartily at his old Kentucky anecdotes, but when he preached about the price of redemption, the love of God for sinners, or the blood-bought church, and these were his favorite themes, his voice would break with emotion and tears would come to the eyes of his hearers.
Born in Hazel, Kentucky, July 1, 1915, he was one of two sons of J. R. and Mattie Parker Miller. His mother had a degree in Elocution and Oratory, and from early childhood James Parker was put on the platform and coached and trained by her. His old-style oratory, used with great effect in preaching and debating, was as natural with him as eating and breathing. His father instilled in him a love for good poetry.
His education included college work at Murray State, only seven miles from his native town. He attended Freed-Hardeman College at Henderson, Tennessee, for one quarter, then enrolled in Union University at Jackson, Tennessee, for his junior and senior years. Debating was his principal interest during those college years.
It was in 1936 at Murray, Kentucky, that James Parker preached his first sermon. Soon he made a reputation as an energetic young preacher in Western Kentucky and Western Tennessee. Many brethren knew him only as James Parker or Brother Parker.
The Thayer St. Church in Akron, Ohio, one of the largest congregations north of the Ohio River at that time, invited him to work with them on a temporary basis in the fall of 1937. He stayed two and one-half years and baptized 187 people.
For five years, 1940-45, he worked with the 56th St. and Warrington Ave. Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was one of several churches of Christ started in North America by British brethren. Most of its members had come to the United States from Birmingham, England, where they were members of the Old Gate St. Church of Christ. They brought with them certain British customs and peculiarities. For example, they believed in the mutual ministry system. Strangely, they let Miller preach week after week but never admitted that he was them located preacher. Each Sunday, he would be introduced as James P. Miller, an evangelist from Akron, Ohio, or as James P. Miller, an evangelist from Hazel, Kentucky.
During the Philadelphia years, he would go home to Kentucky to hold meetings. At Williams Chapel in Galloway County he met Robbie Nell Myers. They were soon married. Their only child, Rodney, was born in Philadelphia, in 1943 while the father was in Detroit, Michigan, peaching in a meeting. Miller did extensive radio work while in Philadelphia. His first book was Philadelphia Radio Sermons.
The family moved from Philadelphia to Evansville, Indiana, in 1945, and for two years James preached for the Bellemeade Ave. Church. In 1947, they moved to their own little place called “Hideaway,” between Hazel and Murray, but soon James was preaching at Clements St. in Paducah. Wherever they lived, he always spent a lot of time away from home in gospel meetings.
In the fall of 1949, this writer first crossed paths with the subject of this sketch. I came to Florida Christian College, then a four-year school, as a junior. In August of that year, the Millers had moved to Florida from Kentucky, and Bobbie was employed by the college to teach home economics. James preached here and there and held meetings. I first heard him preach in a meeting with the old Howard Ave. church in Tampa. A few weeks before his death I asked him if he remembered a sermon that he preached at Howard Ave. on “The Last Days.” He had completely forgotten it. I told him that it was the only sermon I ever heard him preach that I could outline it, and I still have the outline. He put the references on the blackboard, showing that Isa. 2, Dan. 2, and Joel 2 were fulfilled in Acts 2.
For about 21 months in 1952-53 the Millers lived in Orlando, Florida. James worked with the Jefferson St. Church and did an exceptionally effective radio broadcast on WORZ. I lived in nearby DeLand during Bart of that time and was among his early morning listeners via radio.
The Miller family returned to Tampa in 1953 where they remained until 1969. Bobbie returned to her work in the classroom at Florida College, and her devoted husband preached for the Seminole Church. During these years the Seminole brethren relocated and erected a spacious new building. Jim Miller gave his heart and soul to building up the Seminole Congregation, although he was away for extended preiods preaching in meetings.
The first time I saw Miller after moving to Temple Terrace in 1968, he blurted out, “Now I want to tell you one thing. We are glad to have you in the Tampa area, but I want you to understand that I am going to cut your throat every chance I get!” He knew that I knew he was joking. James P. Miller was not one to build up a congregation at the expense of taking members from a neighboring congregation. He deplored such a practice and called it “sheepstealing.”
For nearly five years, 1969-73, Bobbie and James P. were back in their native Kentucky. He preached for the 12th St. Church in Bowling Green.
The next four years were spent on the east coast of Florida. Following this period of labor with the Merritt Island Church, it was back to Tampa. Declining health curtailed his activities, but the Del Rio Church was blessed with his preaching in the last few months of 1977. He kept on trying to hold meetings when he was not really able to go. He wore himself out doing what he loved — preaching the gospel.
Having made the debate team at Hazel when ten years old and in the seventh grade, James P. debated while in high school and won many honors on debate teams in college. This gave him experience that he put to good use in later years.
While preaching in Philadelphia, he had a two-night skirmish with Bishop S. C. Johnson, founder of the “Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.” He engaged Paul Mackey in a Sunday afternoon discussion at Pottstown, Pennsylvania, on the subject of cups and classes. In 1946 while living at Evansville, he met “Red” Bingham, a Missionary Baptist, in a fournight clash. Not long after coming to Florida in 1949, he was defending the truth in this area. In Feb., 1950, at Zephyrhills, he had a three-night debate with Clarence C. Hamm, a Landmark Baptist. Clinton D. Hamilton moderated for him, and later reported in the Gospel Advocate, “Brother Miller is one of the most convincing and forceful debaters in his generation.”
In the summer of 1950 he had a four-night discussion with L. R. Riley, Missionary Baptist, at Mayfield, Kentucky. It was reported that five to eight thousand people jammed the fairgrounds grandstand to hear the debate. Pat Hardeman was Miller’s moderator.
Nashville, Georgia, was the arena for a four-night debate with W. T. Cook in October, 1954. Cook was a Progressive Primitive Baptist. Telling about this debate later, Miller would say, “That is a contradiction in terms if ever there was such. Progressive means going forward. Primitives requires going backward. Mr. Cook was a going-forward going-backward Baptist!”
Orlando, Florida, was the scene of a three-night debate in May, 1955. Morris Butler Book of the “Christian Church” affirmed the use of instrumental music in worship. Franklin T. Puckett moderated for Miller. About a thousand people heard each session and the entire debate was published.
In the fall of 1955, he had a four-night debate with Thomas O. Dennis of the “Church of God” at Charleston, South Carolina. This was followed in the spring of 1956 with another four-night battle with Billy Sunday Myers at Lancaster, South Carolina. Myers and Dennis took the “holiness” positions.
A five-night discussion was conducted with L. Chester Guinn, Baptist, at Clute, Texas, in December, 1959. _W. Curtis Porter was scheduled for this debate, but an injury made it necessary for someone to take his place. Earlier, Miller had debated another Baptist, Albert Garner, for four nights in Miami, Florida.
In August, 1965, Miller debated G. K. Wallace in Tampa for four nights on church support of human institutions and the Herald of Truth type of cooperation. The same issues were debated with Guy N. Woods in Montgomery, Alabama, in the summer of 1966. It was my privilege to hear this debate from beginning to end. Another Montgomery debate with Woods was conducted in February, 1972. In the first encounter with Woods, James P.’s brother, Bob Miller, moderated for most of the discussion.
James P. was highly effective as a debater. When the esteemed W. Curtis Porter passed away, Miller wrote, “Brethren who want the blood-bought church to do her work through human institutions could not answer his arguments in his life and they can not answer them in his death.” The same may be said now of Miller’s arguments.
While living in Evansville, James P. became editor of the Christian Leader. That journal was in its 60th year and the aging F. L. Rowe could carry the burden no longer. Realizing that the men associated with the Leader were too liberal for him, James P. terminated his work as editor in a relatively short time.
In 1957, H. E. Phillips and James P. began publishing the Florida Newsletter which soon became the Southeastern Newsletter. They launched a full-size periodical in January, 1960, and called it Searching the Scriptures. For a full decade their names appeared as co-editors. They made a good team. Phillips had the skill, patience, and determination to edit and write. Miller had the brass and steam to interest brethren in subscribing. Today, that publication, capably edited by Connie W. Adams, enjoys the largest circulation of any conservative subscription-type periodical. It was started to fight institutionalism but developed into more general use.
James P. Miller had the courage of a lion and the gentleness of a lamb. His words were sometimes blunt but he was bighearted and full of humor. He was not the most logical man ever born, but he had a ready answer, He gave no appearance of being a scholar, but he loved the Bible and preached it well.
There was an earnestness about him despite a lot of foolishness. He was cheerful and optimistic. He could inspire and encourage when others saw only gloom.
I remember riding back to the college campus with him one night after hearing him preach at old Howard Ave. That was in about 1950 or 1951. I asked him a question about the fight over institutionalism which was then gaining momentum. He replied that years before he had come under the influence of Foy E. Wallace, Jr., who had taught him well, and he therefore had no problem in deciding on the issues. When division came, he stood firmly for the all-sufficiency of the church to do its God-given work.
On October 14, 1977, I talked with him and heard him speak for the last time. It was a social meeting of the Tampa -Bay Chapter of Florida College Alumni. James P. quoted poetry to entertain the group. When quoting a poem with some lines about being true to oneself, he paused in sober reflection. “You know,” he said, “when the issues arose that divided the church, we had to be true to ourselves.” Looking directly at the aging Harry Pickup, St., he remarked, “I don’t know what other course we could have taken and still have been true to ourselves, Harry.” Then he added, “I am willing to go to judgment on it.”
The sun set on his earthly day, Saturday, January 7, 1978. The following Tuesday afternoon a large crowd of Christians’ gathered at the Seminole meeting house for his funeral. His longtime friend and brother in the Lord, James R. Cope, delivered a moving tribute. Everett Mann read a section of Scripture that James P. had chosen previously.
In 1971, Rodney M. Miller published an interesting little book about his father. The title is Pap -The Broken Mold. If you knew James P., you will enjoy reading the book.
Brother Miller loved poetry. The following lines from William Cullen Bryant seem appropriate here:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Truth Magazine XXII: 10, pp. 167-169
March 9, 1978