Jimmy Allen was intense in the pulpit. He was an old-school preacher and could paint a terrifying picture of life without God. His children joked that it was not always easy growing up with a man whose first book was titled “What is Hell Like?” Plus, he thought nothing of preaching for an hour and a half each night, for up to 10 nights a week during a gospel meeting. More than once, the invitation song lasted 45 minutes as people continued to respond. He was a fierce debater in an era when doctrinal disputes were often aired in public forums. His style could be blunt and forceful, and I remember the last time he spoke in chapel. He told his own story powerfully, but he also delivered a sharp critique of trends he felt were threatening the church. His fiery rhetoric that day may have scorched the eyebrows of those sitting near the front.
But at the same time, Allen felt that to resist all change was not to grow. “If you haven’t changed any of your Biblical views in the last 25 years,” he said. “Then you haven’t had your head in the Bible.” And he believed that for unity to occur among Christians, there must be room for some diversity in thought. And while he was adamant that certain beliefs cannot be compromised, he devoted an entire chapter in his 2004 memoir, “Fire in My Bones,” to previous theological positions that he had since abandoned after years of study and thought.
As he continued to grow in his faith, Allen even regretted having written the book on Hell — not that he stopped believing in it, but because he felt he had put too much emphasis on the subject in his early ministry. His reputation as a “hellfire and damnation” preacher amused him since, as he put it, his students heard him talk about grace more than any other subject.
It was all part of a perspective that sought to see the world through God’s eyes. He would ask his classes, “Are you going to live life with the short view or the long view?” The short view is merely reactive, living one day at a time. The long view, he felt, was the life of meaning and purpose, the life of intentional direction.
You can’t talk about Jimmy Allen without mentioning his love of sports. He was passionate about playing flag football and pick-up basketball on faculty teams at Harding. He shared with Dr. Clifton L. Ganus a fierce competitive streak. They played to win and wielded sharp elbows. Sometimes after a game that pitted faculty against students, there might be a slight uptick in guys visiting the school nurse with bruises the next day. Once a student grumbled about having to play ball with “old men.” Allen noted that moments later the boy was knocked cold and carried off the field. But neither Allen nor Ganus ever admitted to a foul. “Your nose fouled my hand,” Jimmy once told Cliff.
In fact, the two men shared a love of joking. They were neighbors for decades. At the memorial service, Dr. Jerry Jones, former chair of the Bible Department, shared this story. One August Dr. Ganus took his family on vacation for two weeks. Since the August sun can be brutal on grass, he asked the groundskeepers to water his lawn each day. They did, but it also rained the whole two weeks. Soon the grass was knee-high. Before Dr. Ganus came home, Jimmy Allen put a sign in his yard that said, “White County Cow Pasture of the Month.”
In his 50 years of teaching at Harding, Jimmy Allen was most famous for his class on Romans. He often said that he would rather teach Romans than eat. After his death on August 5 at the age of 90, testimonials poured in from former students whose lives had been changed by his passionate teaching from Scripture. Many said he had more influence on their spiritual formation than anyone else. He encouraged boldness in the Christian walk, echoing Paul’s words in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” Because he lived that truth, so many others had the chance to live it, too.
He was excited about going to Heaven and fishing in the River of Life. “God made that river,” he once said. “So He must have stocked it with fish.” It will be his reward for taking the long view.