Joseph William Henley
The Life of J. Will Henley
by his son Robert Henley
At Brother Morgan's request, I shall try to give a brief summary of the life and work of J. Will Henley, my father. I find that I can approach the subject only as a son. Avoiding all flattery I shall try to let you see this man who, to me, was the greatest of the great, the Barton Stone of his time.
Dad was born in Boone County, Arkansas, near Harrison, the son of Joe and Elizabeth Henley. His father, a Confederate veteran, left homeless and impoverished by the Civil War, had migrated to this section in the late 1860's, from South Georgia. He later moved to Arkana, Ark., near the town of Mt. Home where he lived until Dad was grown. Dad married my mother, who was Kate Duncan, in 1897. To that union were born: Pauline (Mrs. Ray Wilds of Mt. Home); Raymond, now deceased, and myself. Mother died in my early childhood and I have but little rememberance of her. Later, Dad married Rosa Higginbotham of Ravenden Springs, Ark., a great and good woman, wife and mother. (I personally feel that in gaining her as my mother I was accorded a great blessing. No boy could have been more fortunate. R. H.) To this union came Ralph, deceased; Ruth, Rubye, Joe, Ada and Jack, and at present residing in the vicinity of Nashville, Tenn.
Dad's education, academically speaking, was slight, just that offered in the rural schools of his time. Yet, I think of him as being the most completely educated man that I ever knew. He was taught and coached by my mother who was well educated and a teacher. He was evidently an apt pupil as I never heard him make a mistake in English and he had an astounding vocabulary.
In his youth, Dad had a great desire to be a minister. As he was of a Methodist family he naturally began his training for the Methodist ministry, and was preaching at different congregations over the country. In discussions with the bishop of that area concerning Acts 2:38 and the Great Commission, he was warned to leave those scriptures alone as they were pure "Campbellism." Dad said if that was Campbellism it was in the Bible and he wanted to learn more about it. He contacted the elders of the local church who taught him the Word of God more perfectly and in the wee small hours of the morning went with them to nearby Big Creek where he was baptized into the Lord. The following Sunday, cancelling an appointment to preach at the Methodist church at Salem, he preached his first gospel sermon at the Arkana Church of Christ. Thus began a career that brought the Christ and him crucified not only to his own family but to countless thousands of others.
In 1911, we moved to Southwest Texas where we lived for many years, residing at Sabinal, Uvalde and Mathis. We moved later to Oklahoma where Dad assisted in reestablishing the old Cordell Christian College at Cordell. Then back to Arkansas to Randolph County near Pocahontas where he lived until his death.
Dad, as the Apostle Paul, did not want to depend entirely upon the church for his livelihood. He preferred the farm and stock raising. Sometimes it was rough going. He hated the long absences from his family but he had his work that he must do. Most of his work as an evangelist was in Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
As a man, Dad was big, coarse featured yet of excellent appearance. He was a partner and companion of his children, a great hunter and fisherman. (How many wonderful hours I have spent with him in woods, in the mountains, in the fields and on the streams). He was a good citizen, honest and upright in all his dealings. He had a deep love for his family and sought to bind them close together. They are still a close-knit group. He was emotional, yet controlled, slightly moody at times, and at such times was not at his best. I think his health was responsible for this more than anything else. His hatred for corruption in high places caused him to take an active part in some political campaigns which gained him some enemies both in and out of the church. His intense patriotism led him to take a lead in the Liberty Loan Campaigns of World War 1 in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. In this work he was assisted by Governor Brough of Arkansas, and in some instances by William Jennings Bryan. I personally remember an early breakfast in a Harvey House, at Texarkana, along with Dad, Governor Brough and the "Great Commoner." Later, Mr. Bryan bought me a red "soda pop." This occasion remains a cherished memory of my childhood. It was during this work that Dad was stricken by paralysis, depriving him of the use of one side. Many months of treatment at Hot Springs and his own dogged determination brought about an almost complete recovery. During his convalescence at Hot Springs, from a wheel chair rolled out on a second floor balcony, he addressed what was then estimated to be, the largest crowd ever assembled in Arkansas. This War Bond work was severely criticized by many ministers of that time.
During the early years of this century, religious prejudice ran very high over much of the country. Evangelistic tents were destroyed, song books torn to shreds and even Bibles literally torn to pieces. Once in Arkansas, when a tent Dad was using was slashed to ribbons, the following evening services were held under the open sky and Dad preached to a little shred of canvas tacked to the blackboard. He used the same technique again when vandals had destroyed the song books and Bibles. That time he used a torn fragment of the Bible. He was a dedicated enemy of Catholicism (not Catholics) and as much of his work in West Texas was in localities that were predominantly Catholic, the persecution was high, usually consisting of heckling but at one time reaching attempted physical violence. He baptized many Catholics in that section of the country.
As an evangelist, he ranks among the great. It is said of many that knew him that he had baptized more people than any other living evangelist of his time. He, personally, never kept record. He did not think much of it. He very seldom even "wrote up" his meetings. He used no press agents and sought no great publicity. Though he baptized thousands he was always more interested in quality than quantity. The following excerpts from "In Memory of J. Will Henley," by Bynum Black, in the Christian Worker of March 3rd, 1932, may give some insight into the regard in which he was held as an evangelist and a man.
"Brother Henley was no writer and gained no notoriety through the press, only by reports of his work, and reports of many great meetings that he held were never widely published. Just a few months before his death he conducted a meeting in the community in which he lived. I was informed he baptized more than sixty persons, (actually 69). Most of these people were previously members of denominational groups. This is mentioned to impress the reader with the confidence his neighbors had in him as a man. The last meeting I heard him in was at Ward Springs, Oklahoma, twelve years ago. He had to sit in a chair to preach during the entire meeting. He gave some great lessons that I have kept in memory. He had not lost that fire and power and spoke with great eloquence and force.
I have heard hundreds of men who were considered great orators, but I have never heard J. Will Henley's equal when he was at his best. He was truly one of the greatest speakers of his age. All who have heard Henley at his best will bear me out in saying that he had but few, if any, equals as a real orator. I esteemed him as the greatest word painter and one of the most eloquent men living. He had a charming voice and knew how to use it to affect his hearers. He was a rapid speaker but not too fast. One would sit and wonder at his marvelous vocabulary and gift of human speech. He could move hundreds of people, sway them with his magnetism and voice, like a high wind moves the trees of a forest. I have never witnessed anything like it under the efforts of our preachers of national reputation. He will be remembered by thousands as the greatest speaker they ever heard. He was truly a great fighter and made some enemies, but so did Paul. Like his Master, whom he loved, he used the most withering and scathing words of rebuke at times. He fought the battle and won the victory, I believe.
Once when Bro. W.W. Slater was singing for Bro. Henley in a great meeting when Bro. Henley was at the height of his power, he preached on the subject "The Home of the Soul," and Slater was so overpowered at the masterful sermon that he could not sleep until he had written the song that bears that title. A song which has since been sung by hundreds of thousands all over the United States. Let us hope that the song will live to be sung by millions, a song to cheer us on to that Home of the Soul, where we will meet J. Will Henley in the Joy of Heaven. "----------Bynum Black.
In connection with the "scathing rebuke" as mentioned by Bro. Black, I recall an incident when Dad was preaching to an "oil field" congregation in Oklahoma. His first two nights ended in failure to attract and hold the attention of his hearers. It was possibly the "black gold" from the ground that held their thoughts. The third night he dramatically told a story, a true story, of a little girl about three years old, the child of a woodcutter and suspected moonshiner, who had wandered from her home in the mountains of Arkansas. She was never seen again though hundreds of men searched the forest, day and night, for many miles around. As he described the heart broken mother and family the audience was reduced to tears. After a dramatic pause during which he looked out over the audience, quietly, he launched into the story of the death of our Lord. He described the heart broken mother and friends and the terrible agony of the cross. By that time the audience had again drifted away from him, dry-eyed. Raising his hands as he gazed out over them he suddenly cried out, "Oh, you hard-hearted generation, the story of a lost child, who as far as her soul was concerned, is better off, reduces you to tears, yet the story of the death of the Immaculate Son of God, who died for you, leaves you sitting there like knots on a log. How long, Oh God, how long shall your mercy be extended to this stiff-necked and rebellious generation?" That broke the ice of indifference and he went on to conclude a very successful meeting.
Dad was a humorous man and posed a ready wit. Once in a meeting in Missouri he kept a "question box" where interested people could drop in their written questions, signed or unsigned, and he would endeavor, nightly, to answer them before the regular services. One evening he found among the questions this one, "What is the difference between a Campbellite preacher as yourself and a Missouri Jackass?" One of the local church leaders thought he knew who the author was and pointed him out near the back of the tent among a group of young men. When Dad started answering the questions he became sure of the person from the look of joyful anticipation on his face, and the whispering going on around him. When Dad came to the above question he read it out and admitted his inability to answer it, but went on to say, "lf the young man who submitted this question, and he is here, will come forward and stand beside me on this platform, we will let the audience see the difference." The audience was convulsed with laughter except for one very red-faced young man.
As a debater, Dad met many, mainly of the Baptist faith. He attended many great debates and was a moderator at the famous Russell-White debate in 1908. His greatest work according to his own evaluation, was the debate with Dr. Jones of the First Baptist Church of Morrillton. According to all reports this debate resulted in many souls being brought into the Lord. At the conclusion of this debate, Dad was in great pain and very weak. He told my wife and me that he had finished his work, and that his last was his greatest. He died soon after this.
During his life Dad said many times, that when his hour came that he prayed that it would be on a Lord's Day. This wish was granted. Stricken by cancer, we had taken him to Uvalde, Texas for treatment. There death came to him on the morning of Sunday, February 14, 1932. His last words were, "Tell Mother and the kiddies that everything is OK. Goodby Mamma, goodby kiddies." Thus was cut short at the age of 54, a career dedicated to Christ and His church.
-Boyd E. Morgan, Arkansas Christians, Second Printing, Paragould: College Bookstore and Press, 1967, pages 95-100.
J. Will Henley
Lawrence Dalton stated that many preachers devoted long years of service in the task of spreading Christian influence in Randolph County and J. Will Henley was one of them.1 (1 Dalton, History. p. 125.)
Henley was not only loved and appreciated in Randolph County, nationally known gospel preacher Rue Porter was especially fond of him. Perhaps it was because both of them were born and reared in the poverty-stricken hills of Boone County, found their way out of denominationalism and became widely recognized as powerful ministers with the Church of Christ. It is also possible that Rue Porter's father had been married to a relative of Henley's first wife, Kate Duncan.2 (2 David N. Porter's first wife was Catherine Duncan of Carroll County. Arkansas. Don Deffenbaugh, "Uncle Rue" A Biography of Roland Rudolph Porter (Neosho. MO.: Don Deffenbaugh, 1995), p. 6.)
J. Will Henley married Kate Duncan in 1897. Three children were born to that union: Pauline, Raymond, and Robert. Kate passed away shortly after the birth of Robert, and Henley married Rosa Higginbotham in 1906.3 (3 Directory, (1910), p. 85.) Six children were born to this union: Ralph, Ruth, Rubye, Joe, Ada, and Jack. Robert (of Mountain Home Arkansas) became a song leader, Raymond and Ralph became recognized ministers. Joe and Jack also preached on occasion.4 (4 Phone conversation with Jack Henley. January 20, 1996.)
Henley spent most of his time as a preacher in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. He preached for many churches in Northeast Arkansas while he lived in Ravenden Springs, Maynard and Pocahontas. He was living near the Skaggs Church in Randolph County at the time of his death. February 14, 1932. He was a man that thousands called a "brother," one U. S. President (Woodrow Wilson) called a "friend," and "The Great Commoner" (William Jennings Bryan) called a "co-worker." J. Will Henley's death occurred in the middle of the Depression years. There was no money for extras in those days, and Rosa Henley had none to buy a suitable monument. Will M. Thompson, W. L. Oliphant, and Joe H. Blue, preacher friends of J. Will Henley, appealed in the Gospel Advocate for money from the many friends of J. Will Henley "to pay for a monument erected to his memory."5 (5 An appeal to the Friends of J. Will Henley." Gospel Advocate (Jan. 26. 1933):7.) Money was collected and a beautiful monument was placed at his gravesite in the Masonic Cemetery in Pocahontas.
Mrs. Rosa Henley died in 1959 while visiting in Paragould, Arkansas. She was buried in Goodlettsville, Tennessee.
-Dr. Michael L. Wilson, Arkansas Christians:A History of the Restoration Movement in Randolph County, Arkansas 1800-1995, c.1997, Delight: Gospel Light Publishing Co., pages 224,225.
Directions To The Grave of J. Will Henley
J. Will Henley is buried in Pocohontas, Arkansas. The Masonic Cemtery is located in the western part of the town on the corner of W. Pyburn St. & N. Park St. Enter from the W. Pyburn side. Enter the western entrance and head back to the rear of the cemetery and loop back to your left. Contine to bear to the left and heading back up the hill, begin looking to the left. There is a large rock mausoleum on the left. In the foreground and to the left is the Henley plot. You should be able to see a marker with the words J. Will Henley easily seen. See photos below to help. Also, the GPS location below is the actual location of the grave.
Photos Taken 11.14.2014
Webpage Produced 02.18.2015
Courtesy of Scott Harp
*Special thanks to Tom L. Childers and Charlie Wayne Kilpatrick for assisting in the burial location. They, along with your web editor, took a trip into northern Arkansas to find the graves of gospel preachers of yesteryear in November, 2014. We traveled together three days and located the final resting places of nearly forty preachers and their families. It was a great trip. Many of the personalities we researched were chronicled in Boyd E. Morgan's book, Arkansas Angels, or later in Dr. Michael L. Wilson's book, Arkansas Christians: A History of the Restoration Movement in Randolph County, 1800-1995.