Author, historian, University professor, gospel preacher, and our beloved brother in Christ, David Edwin Harrell, Jr. passed from this life to his eternal reward last Monday afternoon, March 15th.
Today there will be a short graveside service for brother Harrell at 2:00 p.m. at Mandarin Cemetery in Jacksonville. Saturday, there will be an online service that you can register to view by linking here.
Almost 20 years my senior, I have known Ed Harrell since my college years. Like anyone who knew him, I was impressed with his unique intellectual insights combined with genuine humility. Sometimes preachers with educational credentials take simple truths and complicate them. Ed possessed the ability to simplify the complex.
The obituary from the Florida Times-Union provides the details of Ed’s life. However, for a more intimate insight into his professional and personal life, there’s a wonderful piece from al.com by Greg Garrison. In the article, Garrison quotes a colleague, retired UAB historian, Margaret Armbrester.
“When I think of Ed, I think of him as the most gregarious and normal historian I’d ever met. He brought balance, fairness, objectivity to everything. He was a good administrator, a good colleague. I personally just loved his sense of humor.”
The author of several books on religious history in America, Ed co-authored with 5 other historians, a textbook emphasizing the role of faith in our culture. After the book was released in 2006, he made this pointed observation. “You can read American history books and not know people were religious. Religion plays good roles and bad roles. It’s there in very prominent places. If you miss it, you miss a lot.’’
While I don’t claim to have been a part of Ed’s intimate inner circle of friends, we were friends. Co-workers in preaching the Gospel. And brothers in Christ. I’d heard him preach or speak at the Florida College Lectures many times. I did feel close enough to ask a favor one year when Dee Bowman was scheduled to speak for us at North Boulevard during the week of the FC Lectures. Dee was taken to the hospital with a heart issue on the very day he was supposed to preach.
That morning, I saw Ed in front of Hutchinson auditorium and asked him, “Where are you preaching tonight ?”
“Nowhere.” He replied.
“Really? Dee was supposed to speak tonight. Would you be willing to fill-in?” I asked.
Ed grinned. And agreed.
That night, while expressing well wishes for Dee’s recovery, he told about a time when Dee was holding a meeting in Birmingham and took sick after the first night. The brethren called on Ed to fill in, which he did the rest of the week. At the end of the week, when visiting with him in the hospital, Dee asked how the meeting was going.
With his trademark sense of humor, Ed replied that the brethren were saying this is the best meeting Dee Bowman ever held. Ed implied that his lesson that night would follow a similar vein.
If you’re facebook friends with Steve Wolfgang, who was a close personal friend of Ed’s and considered him a mentor, you can find some neat stories and quotes regarding our departed brother.
My last time to hear Ed speak was the opening night of the 2018 Florida College Lectures. He delivered the keynote address, “What Shall We Do With History? His address moved me and I published a blog entitled “We Are Not Alone,” a refrain he forcefully repeated several times to drive home his point.
“We are part of a trail of Christians who’ve gone on before,” Ed emphasized. From the inspired apostolic record of men like Peter, Paul, and John to the secular accounts of the courageous men of the Reformation Era to the American Restoration movement, Ed encouraged us that we can find strength and courage in their quest for Truth.
It was in that Lecture that Ed read his closing remarks from a conference at Abilene Christian University on The American Quest for the Primitive Church., later published as a book by Richard T. Hughes. Following 17 leading historians of American religion, Ed was asked to deliver an extemporaneous closing address summarizing the previous presentations. Ed felt it was almost a “hopeless” task. As he prayerfully considered his response, here’s what he said.
I am a restorer – unbowed, undaunted, extremist, and eccentric–a period piece in a Disciples of Christ movement grown increasingly uncomfortable with the intellectual, social, and psychological pitfalls of restoring New Testament Christianity.
The centerpiece of my intellectual universe is Biblical primitivism, a search for the first pure truths and ordinances. I am seeking that illusive, pristine image of Christianity as it came from the mind of God.
You say it is not there; it is an illusion. I have decided to seek it anyway. We live in a world of illusions. You say I will not find it because I carry on my back the baggage of my own past, of the culture in which I live, of the language with which I think. Self-consciously and with as much self-awareness as possible, I have decided to try. You say I shall fail and be disillusioned. So far, I have not.
In a sense, all restorers are seekers, though sometimes we may think otherwise. Yet I shall not become cynical and despairing because all truths are not readily apparent, but rather I am joyous and thankful that we have come this far by faith.
To be a restorer has always meant to be an explorer in search of Zion, bound to grope in our own human and cultural maze, never finishing our task, but ever learning through struggle and commitment to the truth. But I have never been alone; God has provided others of like mind to be my fellow travelers.
It has been a rigorous journey, but I know existentially no other way. The search has served me well, and should you come to look for me, you will find me a bit further down the same road.
Ed related that at the conclusion of his remarks the ACU section “rose and applauded in unison.” Then “the academics followed and applauded politely.”
In concluding the FC Lecture, Ed admonished,” So as I leave you this evening I can assure you that the historical studies of Christian soldiers from centuries past and the stories you are imprinting in your life today will serve you well. They will assure you that “We Are Not Alone.”
Ed Harrell has now come to the end of the road in this life. But he was not alone. Neither was his beloved wife, Deedee, nor his children, or his comrades in Christ.
I think I can hear heaven’s applause welcoming Ed Harrell home from his earthly journey.
We. Are. Not. Alone.
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman