By Cecil Willis
In Genesis 25:8, these words are penned, chronicling the death of Abraham: “And Abraham . . . died in a good old age, and old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” These words very well express the passing of another great man, W. W. Otey of Winfield, Kansas. It is probable that the next few months, yea even the coming years, will witness many words this stalwart soldier in being penned about the Lord’s army.
His Early Life
William Wesley Otey was born March 14, 1867 in Pulaski County, Virginia, the sixth in a family of seven sons and three daughters. His parents were J. W. and Sarah A. Otey. W. W. Otey (as he was known during all his public life) was born shortly after the great conflict between the States. In his early childhood, he heard many stories of blood and battle yet so fresh on the minds of those thousands who fought in that great struggle. His father was a hard workingman, being what we would call a tenant farmer. He supplemented his earnings by carpentering, as did Bro. W. W. Otey.
J. W. Otey moved almost every year. Thus W. W. Otey and his brothers and sisters had little opportunity for education. In fact, brother Otey’s formal schooling lasted only about four or five months. Yet his life had made a tremendous impact upon the lives of thousands of members of the Lord’s church through his preaching, and more especially, through his writings in religious periodicals, books and tracts.
There were few books in J. W. Otey’s home. W. W. Otey could only remember a few spelling books, two readers, two arithmetics and the Bible. No newspapers came into this home. So the Bible was about the only thing there was to read. As we think about it, this might not be such a tragedy!
Gradually, brother Otey learned to read. At fourteen years of age he read the Bible through. This Bro. Otey regarded as the greatest and most important event in his life. I think I remember Bro. Otey telling me that he learned to write his own name after he was married. Yet one cannot call brother Otey an uneducated man. He, like so many other great preachers of this and past generations who had little or no formal education, was certainly an educated man.
Bro. Otey’s parents obeyed the gospel in the 1850’s. But in their moving about, they seldom had the opportunity to hear gospel preaching. Otey said he only heard three or four sermons by gospel preachers before he was married. When he was about twenty, W. W. Otey sent word to J. T. Showalter, the father of G. H. P. Showalter, that he wanted to obey the gospel. Bro. Showalter came and baptized him. Otey and a few others began meeting in a schoolhouse, and from the beginning, the chief work of teaching and making public talks devolved on him.
One of the most beautiful things about brother Otey’s life was his tremendous devotion to his wife of more than seventy years. In his later years, brother Otey liked to tell of the first time he saw Minnie Showalter. He wrote of this first time he met her: “I turned in the direction of the girl, who was perhaps 8 or 10 feet distant. Our eyes met and held a brief moment as if by magic. If I were an artist I could paint that girl as true as if I had a living person before me.” One year after this first meeting they were married. Bro. Otey probably made many mistakes in his life, as we all do, but he made no mistake when he married Minnie Showalter. Bro. Otey wrote me a few months ago that Minnie Showalter was the only girl “I ever even walked with.” And as he told of those touching scenes, he added, “Even now I am trying to type these lines through blinding tears of which I am unashamed.”
Eight children were born to Bro. and Sis. Otey, of whom seven yet live. The Oteys in 1955 had a nice celebration observing seventy years of married life. The Governor of Kansas wrote them a letter of congratulations. But on July 23, 1956, Sis. Otey died. The last four years of Bro. Otey’s life were exceedingly lonely years. But he did not complain. He only longed to be absent in the flesh, and present with the Lord.
Brother Otey proclaimed the gospel by word and pen for over seventy years. He was never what some might call a “professional” preacher. In fact, very few of his seventy years of preaching were spent in what we would call full-time work. Most of the time he supported himself with his own hands. He had a sturdy constitution. Much of the time he farmed during the day and preached at night–and that at his own charge. When he was over seventy years of age, Bro. Otey ceased “full time preaching,” having spent about ten years in Oklahoma and Texas in full time work. He came back to Kansas and bought a farm. He and sister Otey saved a little money, most of which they earned with their own hands after they were eighty years of age. They bought a modest home and moved into Winfield, Kansas in September 1953. Here they lived their last days in as much comfort as this modern age can provide. Yet they lived a very simple life.
The greatest single work that Brother Otey ever did for the cause of Christ was to attempt to stop digression. Of course, once digression has set in or the seeds of digression have been sown, no man can prevent the harvest. But Bro. Otey did a wonderful job of defending the truth against innovationists. After lengthy negotiation involving more than a year of writing letters, Bro. Otey forced J. B. Briney to debate him in Louisville in 1908 on the instruments of music and missionary societies. Briney was at this time the outstanding debater among the liberals in the church. Bro. Otey was not too well known at this time. He was yet relatively young, only 41 years old. Briney was a seasoned debater. Otey was a beginner. This debate marked one of the first times any reputable man in the Christian Church attempted to uphold his innovations in public debate. Briney probably agreed to meet Otey in Louisville because he though it would be impossible for Bro. Otey to get endorsement in Louisville. But the necessary endorsement was secured and finally the debate was conducted. Immediately it was printed, and has since been a classic on the subject. The Gospel Guardian reprinted it in 1955. Brother Otey never held many debates–only four or five. But the Otey-Briney Debate will cause his name long to be remembered by conservative brethren.
Truth Magazine, VI: 3, pp.23-24