BURTON W. BARBER

By Richard M. Ellis

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My first recollection of Burton W. Barber ó affectionately called "Brother Barber" ó was when I was 17 years old. The year was 1951 and Tony Hernandez and I were sitting in chapel, the first old house used for Midwestern School of Evangelism. We were seated in those old-fashioned country school desks.

Richard and Nancy Ellis
Richard and Nancy Ellis

Tony turned to me and said, "Listen to this sermon!" Burton started his sermon, like so many others he preached, with an interest-catching illustration. From that sermon on, we students listened to many of his sermons and classes. All were uniquely prepared and presented. You had to listen carefully to digest all that he taught.

Burton W. Barberís preaching and teaching helped draw many students to the school in the early 1950s. Whether it was in chapel at 908 N. Court Street in Ottumwa, Iowa, or the Centerville (Iowa) Rally, or at the old campgrounds in Troutdale, Oregon, people came to hear him in those years because of the challenge he put forth. Some felt that he went too far on certain issues. My own thoughts were that while Burton went an extra mile from the stricter standpoint, many others went ten miles in the opposite direction.

I have no way of knowing the multiplicity of hours I personally spent with this brother in the classroom, in the printing department, in the construction and remodeling of church and school buildings, and in his personal life. I enjoyed all my classroom experiences. The school was not designed to be a typical "Bible College." Rather, it was a preacher training school where faithful men committed the Word of God to other faithful men who in turn would teach others (2 Timothy 2:2). This was a firm conviction of Brother Barber, as well as all of the original three teachers (Barber, Donald G. Hunt, and James McMorrow). For this reason, many of us in the first years of the school had the same convictions and that explains the lingering feeling that the local church is Godís will for Bible leadership training.

My experience with this brother in the printing phase of the school began when the school started printing its own materials. Burton was very skilful in this area as old copies of The Voice of Evangelism reveal in their appearance. He expertly designed its format and layout. For the next 12 years we worked together late into the night, he more than I. It was not uncommon to still be printing at one or two in the morning and then be back to chapel and classes at 7:30 a.m. As this kind of schedule started to wear him down, Burton decided that his exhaustion was telling him to get away and move to Puerto Rico. My own burnout was telling me to devote more time to soul winning in the local congregation, so we departed the school together. His skills were greatly missed in the following years.

Brother Barber was always in the middle of construction and remodeling of the buildings. One major project was getting the chapel ready in the new building at 908 N. Court Street. It took hard work, long hours, all that one could give. Burton was always there working and supervising. Another big project was the razing of a large house so that a church building could be erected on Pennsylvania Avenue ó a seemingly endless undertaking by the school faculty, students, and outside helpers. Burton personally constructed the pulpit and communion table (Oh, the quality!). After its completion, a record attendance of 351 was counted at the January Gathering.

Burton again showed his skills in supervising the major renovation of a huge church building at Promise City, Iowa, with the help of school faculty, students, and congregational help.

As I closely observed this brotherís personal life, I was able to see many things that others did not (or had drawn wrong conclusions). Indeed, he was a strict father, but that was nothing new to me ó my own father was the same (as were many in those years). Sometimes we walked from the school to the womenís dormitory for the noon meal. Walking and talking helped build special relationships. Some felt that Burton was hard to get close to, but I never felt that way. In my first year at school I remember Burton walking through the menís dormitory and stopping at my room for a visit. He had time for a beginner. This was the beginning of many years of fellowship.

Later, he offered me the opportunity to sit and study in his office between classes. Who knows why all these things happen, but God had His reasons. Before I was married I rode with the Barber family from Portland, Oregon, back to Ottumwa. Burton and Opal were as normal and down to earth as any wanting to do Godís will and fulfill Godís purpose in their lives. I remember babysitting little Doug when he was a new arrival. I also talked to Burton about true conversions and whether I should be baptized again. These are some of the many personal experiences I had with one who helped form my faith and develop leadership skills, preparing me to be a fellow-worker in the great work of God.

When I came to Ottumwa, I was "fresh from the farm." In those years money was hard to come by. I remember Burton taking me downtown and buying me two suits that cost $30 each. They were the first suits I ever had. Those dollars must have been a huge sacrifice from Burton and Opal! Our present generation may never know the sacrificial hardships of those early school years. Many preachers like Burton received only $5 or $10 in the Sunday offerings to live on the next week.

Burton was one of the front-runners in the establishing of the convictions in the early years. His mind was keen to analyze and draw biblical conclusions. He never hesitated to preach his conclusions. For this reason he often ran cross-grain with others who had come up with other conclusions. We endeavored to be of the "same mind" and be of "one accord," but when there was such a shift of convictions from the liberal stagnation of the old Christian Church to a return to the "old paths," there was inevitable conflict. When you had Disciples of Christ not believing in the virgin birth of Christ and even taking over some churches of Christ ó changing the locks on the doors ó there was a need for a sweeping revival. Guess what? Burton was there. He and others like him were there protecting the faith ó and the faithful. He was one of the main quarterback on the team. I remember telling him once (in one of his few "down" times) that since he was the quarterback, his opponents would naturally seek to "blitz" him and "sack" him.

Indeed, it is probably difficult for younger brethren today to know there was a time in the early years (like Israel of old) when the Book of God was lost and then discovered again. The "Ladies Aid" ran many congregations, worldliness was rampant, Bible understanding was almost nil, and some church buildings were being hijacked by the Disciples out of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Church income was often as dried up as an old hen in the middle of her molting season. Through all of this ó and out of all this ó came Burton W. Barber, with a few of his preaching companions, who believed God has something much better than this for His Church.

Yes, Burton had weaknesses - but he also had many strengths. God used these strengths as He worked through this brother to fulfill His purpose in his life. God is in the process of doing this in all of us. Brother Barberís life came in Godís own timing. All of this was designed by a Divine Mind for Burton W. Barber to make a difference in his time and generation.

All who read this must believe the same for yourself. God has His purpose for each of us. He has given us a potential we can all grow towards. And God wants us to help others all we can in this developing process. When life closes out for us like it did for Brother Barber, we can feel we have been a success for our Lord and Master as Burton was!


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