By Andrew Paris
This coming Thursday, October 6, marks the centennial anniversary of the death of John William “J.W.” McGarvey, a great Christian preacher, teacher, author, educator, and Scripture scholar who deserves to be remembered.
McGarvey was a man of only one book—the Bible. He was firmly convinced it was the inerrant Word of God, and so he devoted his life to loving it, teaching it, defending it, and living it. In his day, McGarvey held the respect of all groups emerging from the Restoration Movement, and was recognized as the movement’s greatest scholar and writer. He has been a beacon light of orthodoxy for many believers who have read his books for the past 150 years.
And yet, sadly, today he is largely forgotten. Many have never heard of him.
McGarvey received his biblical training from Alexander Campbell’s Bethany College, then in Virginia, from 1847 to 1850. He graduated with honors, but did not feel ready to preach; he wanted to know more about the Bible. (This insatiable thirst for God’s Word remained with him throughout his long life.) And so for the next three years he followed a strict discipline of diligent Bible study, Scripture memorization, and mastering Greek, until he felt he was ready to preach. After preaching in several churches in Missouri, he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Although McGarvey enjoyed great success in the located ministry as the preacher of several Lexington churches (including Main Street and Broadway), the great work for which he is best known and esteemed began in 1865 when he became professor of sacred history at the College of the Bible, the first full-fledged seminary of the Restoration Movement. McGarvey would spend the final 46 years of his life teaching the Bible at that school, also serving as president his last 16 years.
During his years at the College of the Bible, McGarvey nearly became a household name among Restoration Movement churchgoers. After Campbell died in 1866, Bethany College soon fell into the background, and the College of the Bible took over as the central preacher training school.
McGarvey’s teaching chair was his throne. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture and theology. Each day he taught his Sacred History class, he would memorize the chapter or two of Scripture under discussion and recite it perfectly as he lectured. Students reported they never saw him turn to a text in the Bible and read it aloud, because he recited it from memory.
McGarvey not only knew the Word of God; he lived it daily. He was a man devoted to living for Jesus and to prayer. He sought to instill in his students a pure life. Of all his virtues, his most outstanding trait was his kindness, even to his enemies who attacked his beliefs. He seldom was angry, and never lost his control, even in the heat of debate. Sometimes he felt it necessary to use a harsh pen to attack unbelief (as in his Short Essays on Biblical Criticism), but when the one he had bitterly attacked met McGarvey in person, he was reconciled by McGarvey’s gentle warmth.
McGarvey’s tremendous influence upon the religious world has been felt most keenly through his prodigious writing. There isn’t room to discuss the many books and articles he wrote, many of which are out of print. However, most of his writings can be found at www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/people/jwmcgarvey.html.
This Thursday may we heed the divine advice, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
Andrew Paris serves as preaching minister with the Christian church in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, and as professor of Old Testament at Louisville Bible College.