There was this lady…
She was not one to throw around words or sentiments with abandon, though she had plenty of both. She was not tall by any means, but she was stately and she cast a long shadow over thousands of lives around the globe.
She seemed to age at roughly half the rate of other humans, maybe less. Her mind was keen. Her wit was sharp. Her love was deep. Her faith was strong. Her influence was extensive.
I am not qualified to tell her story in enough detail to do her justice. Many others are and will, including her daughter, who is herself a prolific writer.
To be honest, she was not much on my radar or in my life until she was…and that, right in the nick of time.
Virginia Louise Cress Oldham was just a couple of months shy of 98 when she passed a week ago. She was a renowned pastor’s wife, college professor, mentor to Christian teens and young women, and wife to the inimitable giant of the independent Baptist movement, Dr. Earl K. Oldham.
There was this man…
Dr. Oldham was much more impactful on my ministry, since my interactions with Mrs. O were few and far between. Oldham was the protege of the world-famous Fort Worth minister, J. Frank Norris.
Norris was the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention fundamentalist movement. A graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, he received the Masters of Theology degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
Norris would become the editor of the Baptist Standard, a highly influential Convention paper. He is credited with moving the seminary from Louisville to Fort Worth. He also led the charge to get racetrack betting abolished in Texas. His stance against “modernism,” liberalism, and the teaching of evolution on Baptist college campuses eventually led to his separation from the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 1909, Norris would assume the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth and through an aggressive Sunday School commitment, lead it to become the largest Baptist congregation in the world. He led that church until his death in 1952.
In 1935, Norris assumed the pastorate of Temple Baptist Church, Detroit, while remaining the pastor of First Baptist in Fort Worth. This resulted in his pastoring two of the largest congregations in the world simultaneously. The combined membership of the two churches was more than 26,000.
Norris founded the Baptist Bible Institute, which would later become the Arlington Baptist College. Norris had an audience with Pope Pius XII in 1947, encouraging the Pope to stand against Communism. He influenced President Harry Truman to recognize the newly-established state of Israel in 1948. He was a giant of his time, a man of influence, and the most controversial Christian leader in the world. Some have dubbed him “the forgotten figure of the 20th Century.”
When his church burned, J. Frank Norris was accused of arson…and acquitted. When he shot a man to death right there in the pastor’s study – a man he alleged had come to kill him – Norris was tried for murder…and acquitted.
At least 11 J. Frank Norris biographies have been published.
Earl K. Oldham was one of Dr. Norris’s most important proteges. Oldham built the Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas from a small congregation to one that averaged well over 1,000 in attendance. He led that church for more than a half-century. He also assumed the presidency of the Arlington Baptist College and led that school to its most glorious and influential era during his quarter-century tenure. Oldham was the face of the World Baptist Fellowship until his death in 1994.
My father-in-law, Tommy Weir, was a protege of Dr. Oldham. He would become an associate pastor on Oldham’s church staff and work with the renowned preacher throughout the final years of Oldham’s life. He continued to work on that staff another 15 or so years after Oldham’s passing. Tommy and Mary, his wife, assumed the role of looking out for Mrs. O and attending to whatever needs they could.
I said that, early on, Dr. Oldham was way more an influence on me than Mrs. O. I neither grew up in the World Baptist Fellowship nor attended Arlington Baptist College. Yet, he became a major player in my formative years in the pastorate.
There was this kid…
I was a ridiculous 23 years old when I assumed the pastorate of a small church in north-central California. The church was tiny and could not support a pastor. I would need to raise money from outside sources or get a secular job to support my family. I made several calls to pastors with whom I had worked or under whom I had studied. None were prepared to make a financial commitment.
Unknown to me, Dr. Oldham had inquired of my father-in-law how his kids were doing out in California. He told him. I never made a call to ask Oldham for support, but the next week, I received a $50 check from the Calvary Baptist Church. That continued every week for two years. The checks only stopped coming when I called him to thank him for his faithful support of our ministry and to tell him the church had grown and voted to put me on a full-time salary.
He thanked me and told me I was the first one to ever call him and tell him to stop the support checks. That made me feel good about me.
I didn’t talk to Dr. Oldham a great deal, but every time I did, he was a source of inspiration and encouragement. I will never get over the investment he made in a kid preacher who wasn’t even one of his own, who had come out of another school and a different fellowship of churches.
There was this match made in Heaven…
Back to Mrs. O.
She was a tremendous influence on Calvary Baptist Church, Arlington Baptist College, and the World Baptist Fellowship. She was a beloved professor of English and Christian ethics at the college. She taught Teen Ethics and led an impactful ladies’ prayer group at the church. And she was, along with Dr. Oldham, the face of the World Baptist Fellowship of churches and missionaries, whose influence was worldwide.
Mrs. O was a prolific writer. She wrote for a number of publications. but the one place her writing was a regular feature was the Calvary News, a weekly newsletter published by Calvary Baptist Church. That publication enjoyed a global distribution.
A peek into her heart for the man she loved and ministered alongside for decades can be found in the tribute she wrote to him on Heritage Sunday, 1994. Heritage Sunday was the annual celebration of Calvary Baptist Church’s anniversary. The following excerpts are taken from her article in the Calvary News, November 30, 1994. It was, in essence, an open letter to her late husband:
“It is ANNIVERSARY DAY…1994. As you know, before you left, here at Calvary we now call it Heritage Day…”
“You were a good teacher, Honey. You taught us all to love the legacy of our heritage. I don’t think you ever even began to realize how splendidly you gave our church our strong and sure identity.”
“You passed it on, Preacher. You filled your space in time to its fullest. I would to God those who now follow will do the same.”
“Ah, sweet one, little did you know, nor did your deepest soul imagine, that your name – EARL K. OLDHAM – would be listed among the greats. But your name is there. On your grave marker, Johnny, Kenney, and I had a description of your life inscribed in bronze:
“I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith.” II Tim 4:7
There was this letter…
Fast-forward to sometime around the turn of the century, circa 2001. I have spent four years in a sort of self-made Hell, in exile, licking my wounds and reeling from dreams dashed and hope vanished. For the first – and last – time in my life, I am a member of the Calvary Baptist Church. Dr. Oldham is long gone, but Mrs. O remains.
Every Sunday, without fail, she finds me in the crowd. Sometimes, it is to give me a hard time about this or that. Sometimes, it is to tell me about vitamins I need in my diet. But EVERY time, underneath the playful banter or stern advice, it is to encourage me.
I think I knew it then. I know I knew it later.
I have looked high and low for the hand-written letter she sent me. As all things written by Mrs. O, it was verbose – three pages or so. I do not remember the words, but I do remember the message. I could summarize it this way: “Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. You are still here; therefore, God is not done with you yet.”
Mrs. O was my friend when I most needed a friend like her. I think she knew that way before I did. She called me the same thing she called the man she loved and honored so well. She called me, “Preacher.”
If Mrs. O calls you Preacher, then, rest assured, that is what you are.
There was this word…
Everyone who ever knew her or read an article or letter she wrote, knows she always ended with the same salutation: “Maranatha.”
That is a Koine Greek New Testament word. It means, ‘The Lord is coming…” or, “Come, oh Lord.”
She lived her life under the influence of that word and its message. She lived it with urgency, focus, commitment, and contentment.
I am glad I know Mrs. O. I am glad we had our moments, however brief. I am and will always be better for it.
See you later, Mrs. O.