Two Strikingly Different Preachers, One Supremely Matchless Savior

In the fall of 2007 at Southern Seminary, I was a first semester doctoral student and a newlywed.  My preaching professor Hershael York chose the topic "African American Preaching" for our doctoral studies colloquium.  Our main assignment was to choose one African American preacher and study his life, his doctrine, and his preaching.  One of the names on the list was D. J. Ward.  I immediately chose him.

D. J. Ward had preached in Southern's chapel service in February of 2004, my second semester of seminary, and I had been amazed by him.  Here was an elder black man, one who seemed to hold to Reformed Theology, one who dressed like a Puritan, with a voice that thundered the Word of God in Alumni Memorial Chapel.  I'll never forget that can listen to it below.

D. J. Ward at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - February 2004

That fall of 2007, I was able to travel to Lexington, Kentucky, and visit the historic Main Street Baptist Church where Elder Ward served as pastor.  I was able to spend about a half-day with him and hear about his life and his heart for the Lord and his Word.  I was, in many ways, forever changed by those few hours with Elder Ward.  

When my wife Sally came back to pick me up she took a picture of me and Elder Ward. It sits on my book shelf in my office and I truly cherish it.  I'm not sure any picture could capture two more strikingly different least externally.  But what a joy to know we both preach the same matchless Savior!  Less than a year later, lung cancer would take Elder Ward's life and send him on to the glory of which he preached for decades.  In April of 2008, shortly after Ward's passing, John Piper wrote this short and moving tribute to him.

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Recently at the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, short video and audio clips were shown at the beginning of our sessions of various preachers proclaiming the excellencies of Christ.  I was overwhelmed, and almost driven to tears, when I heard his voice.  I assumed most of the men who were there had no idea who Elder D. J. Ward was. Most knew Lloyd-Jones, and Boice, and Criswell...but few knew Ward.  

This little four minute clip, that has now been passed around all over the web, is a wonderful example of Elder Ward's heart and his preaching.  Watch it and be blessed!  If you'd like to read or know more about Elder D. J. Ward, you can read below the short biography I wrote of Elder Ward for my doctoral studies colloquium.


Childhood and Conversion

Dennis Joseph Ward was born from an adulterous relationship in Murray, Kentucky, to a very poor mother.  He lived with his mother, younger brother, and grandparents in a three room shotgun house in Callaway County along the Ohio River.  He was born in the 1940’s to a family of hardworking sharecroppers.  He remembers sharecropping as a “form of modern slavery,” where the workers were never whipped, “but were often times treated just as harshly.”  Almost every black person in his community became a tobacco farmer, yet he dreamed of going to college for he was “tired of staring at the back end of a mule.” 

D. J. Ward was an inquisitive boy.  He loved to read, but he also loved to watch television.  His mother worked for a wealthy family who had given a television set to the Ward family.  They were the only family on their dirt road with a television.  Young Dennis did not like the programs for the stories, but for the people.  He would sit for hours listening to the anchors delivering the nightly news.  He was enthralled by the way they talked, and he soon began imitating every movement of their mouths and tongues.  Although he did not know the meaning of tenses, D. J. Ward confesses that his first grammar and speech teachers were Edward R. Murrow and Douglas Edwards of the CBS Nightly News.  His mother began to worry that the white folks were going to make her son crazy.

Her worries would only increase as neighbors began to observe the five-year-old boy’s peculiar behaviors.  The youngster would shun the neighborhood ballgames.  Instead of playing, he would preach the funeral sermons of dead animals, imagining the dry, whipping corn stalks were his lively audience.  These eccentric actions led more of his relatives to believe he was “a little touched in the head.”  In later years, however, his mother would recall these times and remark that her son had always been a preacher. 

D. J. Ward lived in shame for much of his early life.  Local children would laugh at the young illegitimate child, and parents would often shield their own children from any relationship with the boy.  God’s work in the life of this precious boy would one day allow Ward’s mother to declare, “My bastard showed your legitimate children the way to Christ.”  Elder Ward believes that God’s choice for the direction of his life was a partial vindication for the shame his mother knew.

In addition to his family, the earliest spiritual influence for D. J. Ward came from Reverend C. E. Martin of the St. John’s Baptist Church in Murray.  He was a dignified man, a humble soul, and a powerful preacher.  He was astute in Greek, and held a Master’s degree.  Pastors from the surrounding areas, and as far as Memphis, would often come to converse with Father Martin.  D. J. Ward watched and listened to the lengthy sermons from his beloved pastor.  St. John’s was a “shouting church,” and no attendee ever dared leave early.  His mother would pack a biscuit for him to nibble on, just in case the service went long. 

God used the sound, biblical preaching of Father Martin as the means to draw young D. J. Ward to Christ on June 19, 1952.  Testifying of his conversion, Elder Ward says,

I don’t consider my early years important.  I tell people, with a very modest grin, that I was born in 1952.  And of course nobody believes that.  You got to be older than 55 years old.  That is when the Lord saved me.  I didn’t simply walk down an aisle and join a church and fill out some silly little card.  I was brought under the conviction of sin, I was shown our blessed Savior by the Holy Spirit, and I was given faith from God to believe in the atoning work of Christ.  I believed in Him, and I was justified by that faith and brought into a covenant relationship with Him, that I learned later, that I had because of His choice of me before the foundations of the world.

For a time, D. J. Ward rejected the notion of becoming a pastor.  He was captivated by a young woman, and he knew that she did not want to marry a preacher.  He also knew that pastors did not make very much money.  In 1962, however, D. J. Ward would hear the irresistible call of God and surrender his life to preach.  Becoming a pastor, however, would mean receiving a good education.

D. J. Ward had always desired to attend college.  After surrendering to preach, he went to the local bank to pursue a loan from its president, who was also the mayor of Murray.  Mayor Hart laughed in the boy’s face and commended him to the tobacco fields like the rest of his people.  This discrimination from the powerful Western Kentucky leader was the catalyst that drove D. J. Ward to fulfill his dream.  He returned to tell his mother of his intentions to travel to Nashville to attend the American Baptist College of the Bible.  He packed up all that he had.  He placed sixty-five dollars, four pairs of pants, four shirts, and two coats in a cardboard box.  He kissed his mother goodbye saying, “I’m gonna make it momma.” 

College and Calvinism

The American Baptist College of the Bible was built by Southern Baptists in cooperation with African American Baptists.  Black students could not attend some schools of Southern Baptists, so the institution was created for black students to do college and seminary studies simultaneously, although none of it was even accredited.

One of D. J. Ward’s favorite professors was Dr. Don McCoy.  Before coming to Nashville, Dr. McCoy had been a missionary to the Philippines and had taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  D. J. Ward was gaining a reputation as a fiery and feisty individual, and Dr. McCoy one day labeled him a “little Spurgeon.”  The young preacher was perplexed at such a statement, for he did not know who or what a Spurgeon was.  It would take a two week suspension for him to learn.

Ward took Old Testament with a Dr. Richardson of Vanderbilt.  As they began Genesis, Dr. Richardson informed the class the best thing they could do with the first eleven chapters of Genesis was tear them out and burn them.  Unaware that students were not to take issue with professors, D. J. Ward promptly rebuked his instructor calling him an “an unsaved, lying, uncircumcised Philistine.”  After being sentenced to a two week suspension, Dr. McCoy once again, within earshot of young Ward, uttered, “little Charles Haddon Spurgeon.” 

D. J. Ward spent two weeks in the library writing a paper on Charles Spurgeon.  It was in the biographies, sermons, and writings of Spurgeon that the theology of this young pastor really began to take shape.  His research was so thorough and his insights so keen, the faculty graduated him early.    He had met a lovely young woman named Brenda, and the two were married and soon called to pastor their first rural church.  The poor boy from Murray, Dennis Joseph Ward, was now Elder D. J. Ward. 

One day while shopping in a bookstore, Elder Ward picked up a copy of Duane Edward Spencer’s Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture.  Although he had been exposed to the doctrines of grace in the writings of Spurgeon, Ward was outraged at the strange claims of Calvinistic doctrine in Spencer’s work, primarily that of limited atonement, and quickly threw the book in the fireplace.  The next day he went back to the bookstore to buy a fresh copy, hoping to refute Spencer point for point.  The more he studied, the more God began to open his eyes to truths he could no longer deny were in the Bible. 

After pastoring his first church for several years, Elder Ward became pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in November of 1972.  He faithfully served that congregation for seventeen years.  During the late 1980’s, Elder Ward and several other theologically akin pastors began organizing a Bible conference for pastors.  They appropriately named the meetings “Sovereign Grace Conference.” 

In 1989, the historic Main Street Baptist Church of Lexington, Kentucky, called Elder Ward to be their pastor.  While faithfully preaching and leading this flock for the past eighteen years, Elder Ward has continued to preside over the annual Sovereign Grace Conference, which is nearing its 25th year.  After purchasing property adjacent to the church, Elder Ward led the congregation to construct a beautiful new chapel, appropriately named “Sovereign Grace Chapel.”  

The passionate, God-centered, Calvinistic preaching has made Elder Ward a loner among many other pastors.  He has been the topic of controversy and disgust by many other black pastors, and predominantly white Baptist associations, such as the Elk Horn Association of Kentucky, have often made him feel very unwelcome. 

These same attributes, however, have endeared him to many other great men of God.  For three years, Elder Ward was the preacher at the John Bunyan Conference in Reingold, Pennsylvania.  Sinclair Ferguson, S. Lewis Johnson, and D. A. Carson have all lectured at this conference.  In September of 2003, Elder Ward preached at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky at the invitation of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.  Because of these various friendships, Elder Ward refers to himself as a “little house cat with big friends.” 

Elder Ward on Preaching and the Ministry

Elder Ward told Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., he believes that one could often not tell the difference in the worship of many Baptist and Methodist churches because their services and their sermons are “cold, dead, and dry.”  The pulpit should be a place for men who know God, and yet often the pulpit becomes “the best place for a crook to hide.”  The preaching of the gospel is not effective in many churches today because, “Everybody is a doctor,” but there is no balm in Gilead.  Another weakness in preaching today is the rampant use of Greek by pastors whose desire is for their audiences to be impressed with them.  For Elder Ward, the young man and young woman who have just conceived a child, or the eighty and ninety-year-old saints cannot be changed or edified by the gospel through the presentation of facts about Greek grammar. 

Furthermore, he believes the pulpits have gone to two tragic extremes.  The first extreme is that of the supreme intellectual, who knows much except his God, and thus says nothing of real importance.  The second case is that of the ignoramus who “spits, and thumps, and calls out clichés, and sweats until he is a mess” but does not fool the God who knows he is fake. 

The pastor is to take all of life’s problems and struggles and use them to enhance his preaching.  When asked if personal or family struggles ever interfere with his preaching, Elder Ward replied, “I have always taken my lemons, and put sugar and water to them.”  He adds, “The softie will never be a real preacher.”  Believing and preaching the sovereignty of God, prohibits Elder Ward from a ministry of grumbling and self-pity.  In his office hangs a framed reminder:

I need constantly to remind myself that “all things are of God.”  Let me not preach sovereignty and then complain of my lot in life.  Let me not talk of Divine purpose and then spend my days murmuring about my trials and troubles. It is totally inconsistent with faith in the sovereign Christ for me to question His good providence.  Paul called covetousness “idolatry” and said “I have learned in whatever state I am, therewith to be content (Phil. 4:1).  I pray for submission for with it come peace and rest.

Elder Ward believes the purpose of preaching is not to present the facts of Scripture, but the lesson of Scripture.  The preacher should take a text, ask questions of the text, and then tell the answers to the congregation.  The goal of the preacher is to make the great truths of the Bible plain for all who hear.  In the words of Elder Ward, “The art of preaching is to take the profound, deliver it in simplicity, and yet not disturb the profundity.”  People should not think preachers are intellectual without first admiring their pastors as men who have hearts for God.  The preacher should always stay humble in his attempt.  Of his own life and preaching Elder Ward proclaims, “God has taken an instrument of one string and played a divine melody,” and “only God can take a crooked stick and hit a straight lick.” 


[1]All of the information presented here was gathered during an interview with Elder D. J. Ward on September 13, 2007, at the Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.  

Cody McNutt