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Excerpts from the writings of Ralph Johnson

Burton Barber was one of the most brilliant teachers I have known and he influenced my thinking profoundly. To him, brother Hunt, and James McMorrow, I owe a great debt.

Ralplh Johnson
Ralph Johnson

I first became acquainted with brother Barber in 1950 when he came to the Marshfield Church of Christ in Coos Bay, Oregon, and taught on the subject of instrumental music. He spoke for over two hours, keeping us in rapt attention by his rapid-fire delivery and total mastery of the subject and recall of the facts.

I had returned from San Jose Bible College with Gene Boulton, disgusted with the growing liberalism. After hearing brother Barber, we were so greatly impressed that we decided to go to Midwestern School of Evangelism in Iowa to complete our training.

Burton was impressive, not in physical size, for he was somewhat slight of build, but by his manner of speech, his memory and forceful presentation of facts, and his immaculate dress. I never recall seeing him without dark suit and tie, his black hair slicked straight back, and rimless glasses framing his dark snappy eyes. He delivered sermons in rapid staccato machine-gun bursts with a mid-western accent, standing straight and tense, with quick movements and direct eye contact. He could state more facts in 10 minutes than most people could in an hour. His grasp of issues was keen and he was reputed to have memorized the whole New Testament.

There were some significant differences between the teachers in which they complimented each other in many ways, yet lurking therein were the cracks of the ultimate undoing of their relationship. McMorrow was older, milder, less sharp scholastically and less prone to pursue issues. He was the fatherly type to whom one would go when they wanted understanding.

Brother Barber was the ever-eager controversialist, never willing to pass up a point of debate. Brother Hunt once privately characterized him to me as an "issues man." He excelled in having sharp answers to every question and responding aggressively to anything he considered in error. Every issue was crucial and any deviation from his conclusions was likely to became a confrontation. Students were either with him or they were on the outside. Those who conformed were endorsed and rewarded with roles of responsibility and leadership.

While the teachers were in broad agreement, there is no doubt that Burtonís strong black and white stance pushed brothers Hunt and McMorrow beyond their areas of comfort. In time the attachment became so strained that it snapped. Burton contributed greatly in many ways to the Schoolís success. Had he been just a bit more giving, I have no doubt that what each of them contributed was such that their work together would have been many times greater.

Burton excelled at song leading. His style was fast, energizing music, lead with lots of zip, usually accompanied by Kathy Hansen who attacked the piano with a zest that swept the audience up in enthusiasm. I got some real insight to this when I took Burtonís class on song-leading. He had a fabulous system of arm motions to cover whatever time of the music, led with aggressive style and power.

Burton was also a master of drawing. He made excellent colored charts as well as much of the artwork for the Voice of Evangelism. I was especially impressed by those he made for the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, debate with G.K. Wallace on instrumental music in 1953. It was fascinating to watch him down on the floor drawing with quick sure strokes. I was even more fascinated going to the debate and watching him use them with incredible effect.

The debate was a fiery contest between the two powerful and strong-willed combatants. G. K. was a man with an aggressive shouting attack-delivery. Burton was the rapid-fire challenger who gave not an inch of leeway and kept his adversary off-balance. Burton was highly innovative, attaching his extensive multi-colored charts to a special frame on which they could be rolled up or down from chart to chart with the pull of a rope on the side. He backed his attack with a marvelous index card system in which he could almost instantly pull out answers, arguments and authorities.

His special feature of the debate (about which he boasted to us in advance), was a surprise argument to show that instrumental music was before the law and therefore transcended it. He argued that only through a New Testament prohibition could it have been repealed. G.K. attacked fiercely with all of the vehemence he could muster, sometimes giving the charts a whirl that made them go flying around the frame. Burton stood face-to-face giving blow for blow. Everyone was shocked when in his frenzy Wallace hit the charts with a pointer so hard he tore a hole in one. A strange silence fell over the whole room as G.K. suddenly seemed to lose some of his bluster and tried to dismiss the damage with a few offhand words.

Being at one of Burtonís debates was more exciting than any ball game. You just wanted to stand up and cheer. You never knew what he would pull out next and hung on every word, which he delivered rapid-fire with no anger but relentless drive and punch. He seemed to think of everything and was prepared for anything. In those controversies, while he challenged anti-instrumentalists as arch rivals, in debate style and attitude I had the feeling that he mirrored some of their characteristics more than he would have liked to admit.

Burton also had another side which we greatly admired. That was his devoted and sweet little wife, Opal. The two were a perfect match. While Burton was all business, Opal was the delightful and loyal light of his life. She was fun to talk with, and sometimes revealed some insight into what was behind his austere front.

One time, there had been a lot of controversy about whether couples should kiss before engagement. Burton insisted that doing so was absolutely wrong. While all agreed there were dangers involved, some of us raised the point that if all kissing was inherently wrong, the line should be marriage, not engagement. Burton was adamant, though he seemed unable to give his usual forceful argument other than a sort of inference about engagement being the point of commitment and before that it was only frivolous pleasure.

So, us guys decided to "plow with his heifer" (Judges 14:18). We asked Opal if they kissed before engagement. Opal said they had, and then with a big smile, rolled her eyes and said "óand it SURE WAS GREAT!"


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