Reuel Lemmons: This Generation’s Enigma

By Cecil Willis

It is very interesting to get the Firm Foundation, of which Brother Reuel Lemmons is the Editor. The exciting thing about the Firm Foundation is that one never knows just what might be on page 2, the editorial page. Brother Jimmy Lovell of California has given Brother Lemmons the dubious “honor” of having the unusual ability to be equally strong on both sides of an issue. Brother W. L. Totty has said that Brother Lemmons has been on “both sides” of nearly every issue before us. The most exciting thing about Brother Lemmon’s editorials is that he may switch sides on a subject between publication of issues of the weekly paper which he edits.

This unique phenomenon that we call “Reuel Lemmons” is not judged to be enigmatic only by those of us who oppose the church support of human institutions, and who oppose sponsoring churches. Even the brethren who agree with Lemmons often “joke” about his ability to switch horses from one week till the next, and seemingly he himself is oblivious to any disparity between what he writes when he is “strong”on one side of an issue, and what he writes when he is “strong ” on the other .ride of the same issue the very next week.

In January, 1973 I was invited to speak on “Congregational Cooperation” at the preacher-forum at Abilene Christian College. Brother Lemmons was my respondent. One of the worst ice-storms that ever hit West Texas hit on Sunday, just before the lecture series began. It got down to zero, and about ten inches of snow fell on a thick layer of glassy-like ice. Many were hampered in arriving at the lecture program on time. Quite a few missed the lectures of the first day. Brother Lemmons and I spoke on the first day of the program. Among the late arrivers was Alan Highers, able liberal preacher from Memphis, Tennessee, and who has in the past defended the Herald of Truth cooperative radio and television program in debate. So far as is known to me, there is not a single man in the whole United Slates who has ever defended the Herald of Truth in debate previously who will do so now! If there is, I wish he would speak up. Everything I have seen from the pens of these erstwhile defenders of the Herald of Truth reads something like this: “I have defended it in debate before, but I certainly would not do so now.” Is there a single exception in the entire nation? If so, I would like to hear from that man. We might even arrange for him to defend it again, if he says he will.

But back to my Abilene story. Alan Highers has always been congenial toward me, and we have had three or four brief discussions privately in the years that we have known each other. So Alan came over to me, sometime after I had spoken, and apologized for being unable to get to Abilene in time to hear my speech and that of Brother Lemmons. Alan told me he had ridden down with a car load of (liberal) preachers. He said that one of these preachers asked what they were missing, by getting in late. Alan said he replied, “Oh, Cecil Willis and Reuel Lemmons are discussing the `Cooperation’ question.=” His (liberal) fellow-preacher inquirer then answered, “Reckon which side Brother Lemmons is on today?” When Alan related that incident, he laughed and said, “Now, you will probably go and publish that in your paper!” Well Alan, at least I waited over a year to do so! I also thought his observation was quite humorous. But it indicated that even Brother Lemmons’ fellow-liberal brethren know that he can do the flip-flop quicker than any man in the brotherhood.

In the April 9, 1974 Firm Foundation, Brother Lemmons wrote on “The Church in Alabama.”He reported that there are “some 500 churches in the state . . . .” His article was intended to report how that the Alabama brethren (and we might add “churches, ” Brother Lemmons) who were “once almost totally anti-Christian education” today are supporting Mars Hill Bible School and Alabama Christian College. Brother Lemmons then commented: “Alabama is also a stronghold of conservatism with respect to the church. Conservatism is good only if it is not overdone. Anti-cooperation and anti-orphan elements are perhaps stronger percentage-wise in Alabama than anywhere else. They came by it honestly. It is easy to find somebody who is ‘agin’ it, and with us, this has always been a popular stand. There is not as much risk involved in defending the fort as in spreading the territory. Churches grow more slowly in areas where the emphasis is on defending the status quo.” Then Brother Lemmons descends to give us a little lecture on “brethren (who are) bandying these terms (“conservative” and “liberal”-CW) around and using them as labels in a most unchristian and unholy way.” Yet he took the time, in the same article, to state that the “conservative” preachers (among the “liberals”-CW) “have not made ‘conservatism’ a fetish to the point of becoming hidebound legalists.”

Really, I did not want to use the word “enigma” in my references to Brother Lemmons in this article. The word “enigma ” has been so often applied to him, and applied to him by so many, that I felt it was a little trite to say again that Reuel Lemmons is “This Generation’s Enigma.” So I resorted to my Websters Third New International Dictionary (unabridged) thinking perhaps I could find another not-so-often used word to describe the vacillation of Brother Lemmons. So I looked up the word “enigma. ” thinking that somewhere in the discussion of its meaning a suitable synonym would be used. I learned that “enigma” means “to speak in riddles,” “an intentionally obscure statement,” “an obscure speech or writing,” “an inexplicable circumstance, event or occurrence,” “a person not readily understood,” “one that exhibits an incomprehensible mixture of opposed qualities.” For a synonym, the dictionary suggested, “See ‘mystery.'” But after considering each of the definitions of “enigma,” I decided that there just isn’t any word in the English language that better describes Reuel Lemmons than “enigma,” unless it would be the word “mystery.” So if you will pardon my triteness, I will just have to say Reuel Lemmons is “This Generation’s Enigma.”

The liberal men who write for Mission, and who are the spiritual off-spring of men like Lemmons, Guy N. Woods, B. C. Goodpasture, G. K. Wallace, Tom Warren, etc., look upon Reuel Lemmons as one who has “made `conservatism’ a fetish,” and thus as one who is a “hidebound legalist.” In fact, the Mission new-breed-of-scholars get quite a chuckle out of the fact that Truth Magazine sometimes refers to the Firm Foundation and the Gospel Advocate as “liberal” papers. The only basic difference between Mission, and the Firm Foundation and the Gospel Advocate, is that the Mission fellows are one generation removed from the liberalism Lemmons and his helpers taught them. The Mission men have just been willing to follow the inherent conclusions in the premises they have been taught by Lemmons, Warren, and Woods. Lemmons, Warren, and Woods know “just now far” it is safe to go; the Mission writers either do not know how much the liberal brethren will tolerate, or else they just plain do not care how much the liberal people will tolerate. The Mission fellows do not want anybody calling them a “hidebound legalist,” and they probably will not have anyone doing so for about one more generation. The generation which grows up on the kind of teaching done in Mission might even produce us “our own” A. A. Altizer, Bultmann, Tillich, or Niebuhr; in fact, they might produce us “our own” no-telling-what kind of a modernist.

Lemmons says that we should not use “labels in a most unchristian and unholy way.” Yet he refers to us as the “hidebound legalist.” He calls the faithful brethren in Alabama the “anti-cooperation and anti-orphan home elements . . . .” Now Lemmons knows what kind of cooperation we oppose; he just did not want to tell his readers. The Christian Church would call Lemmons “anti-cooperation” because he opposes cooperation of churches through the missionary society. Guy N. Woods could call Lemmons “anti-orphan home” because Lemmons believes that orphan homes must be under elders (if church supported) and must not be under a separate board. But Lemmons could just fire-back the same “label” of “anti-orphan home” and attach it to Guy N. Woods, for Woods teaches that orphan homes must be under boards, and must not be under elders. About half of the “Homes” are under elders, and half under boards. But Brother Lemmons and Brother Woods get along just fine, for they both can join hands in fighting those “hidebound legalists” who are “anti-orphan home.”

Lemmons implies that the Alabama brethren who stand for the truth have taken the easy and popular course. Now who does he think he is kidding? Lemmons will treat a Christian Church preacher better than he will those of us whom he labels as “anti-orphan home.” At least, Lemmons did call on a Christian Church preacher to lead in prayer at an Abilene Christian College lecture program, but I will guarantee you that if one of those “hidebound legalists” who are “anti-orphan home” had been in the audience, Lemmons would not have called on him to lead a prayer. He knows he dare not do that. Lemmons says that “There is not much risk involved” when you take the “Agin’ it” position. Try it for a little while, Brother Lemmons, and see where the “risk” involvement really is. There is not a “hidebound legalist” in Alabama, or anywhere else, who does not have sense enough to know that it would be to his advantage monetarily and in popularity to leave this “popular stand” (?) which Lemmons and his buddies so affectionately have dubbed the “Antis.” And Lemmons knows that too! I can tell you where there is not much risk involved. Not much risk is involved when you write ‘for” it one week, and ‘agin’ ” it the next week; when you preach it “round” one week and preach it “flat” the next week. When you are willing to do like Brother Lemmons does, you can have butter on both sides of your bread!

On December 30th I received a letter from one of Lemmons’ fellow-liberal brethren. This brother said: “As for Reuel Lemmons’ extolling Roberts (J. W.-CW) after his death, when he had been pressuring him to get off of Mission’s Board of Trustees before his death is, as you put it, `a little strange.’ However, it is consistent with Reuel Lemmons. After all, as Jimmie Lovell so aptly put it, Reuel can write equally well on either side of any issue. Of course, then, too, there is what James said about ‘a double-minded man’. (James 1:8) As for Lemmons’ later optimism about the future of Mission, there did not have to be any improvement whatever for Reuel to get his optimism back. When I consider his optimism about Pat Boone, Campus Evangelism, Don Finto and the Belmont/ Nashville, Tennessee church, Pepperdine and (currently) Highland (in) Abilene, well, if he can shout hallelujahs for these, who not Mission too!”

You see? Reuel Lemmons does not even have his fellow liberal brethren fooled as to how he can do the flip-flop in record time. It seldom ever takes him more than one week to do it. Recently I heard a man say, “You have seen monuments of many great men astraddle a horse, but you never saw a monument to any man astraddle a fence!” That might be true up until now, but if any monument is ever erected to the memory of Reuel Lemmons, if he is not depicted as being astraddle a fence, it will be a complete misrepresentation of his person,. his preaching, and his writings. Brother Lemmons, if I had wobbled around on as many different issues as you have, I would not have the gall to charge those faithful Alabama brethren with having taken “a popular stand.” It is very evident who has taken the popular stand, and who is standing for his sincere convictions, and then who is paying the price for the stand he has taken.

I can just see that monument now: Reuel Lemmons, astraddle a big white fence! I suggest that a suitable location for such a monument would be out on the lawn, just in front of the Administrative Building on the Abilene Christian College Campus, or on the lawn in front of the Highland Avenue building, or in the middle of the cotton farm owned by the Tipton, Oklahoma church whose elders oversee the Tipton Childrens’ Home, and which home Lemmons so avidly promotes. It will be a great monument to commemorate a great life; half of it spent teaching truth, and the other half of it spent teaching error. Whether popular or not. . . having been a perpetual compromiser is not the way I want to meet my Maker, or to be remembered by my brethren, if indeed I were to happen to be remembered by them at all.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:30, p. 3-5
May 30, 1974