REMEMBERING BILLY ABRAHAM
By Dr. Riley B. Case
Dr. William J “Billy” Abraham, known to many across United Methodism and the Christian world, died October 7 at the age of 73. Billy was known for many things—twenty-five books edited or written, his many friendships across the church, not only with traditionalists but also with progressives and those who did not always agree with him, and as the person who held the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies at Perkins Theological Seminary from 1995 to 2021. But for those of us in the Confessing Movement, he was known as a guiding light in the formation of the Confessing Movement, a defender of United Methodist doctrinal integrity, and as a speaker at several Confessing Movement convocations. He was also a Confessing Movement board member.
The Confessing Movement can trace the beginnings of its origin to a “Consultation on the Future of the United Methodist Church” that gathered church leaders in Atlanta, Georgia in April 1994. Moderators for the sessions included not only Billy Abraham but also Bishop William Cannon, Bishop Mack Stokes, John Ed Mathison, Maxie Dunnam, and David Seamonds. A second gathering called “An Invitation to the Church” asked others to join in “exalting Jesus Christ as we confront the crisis of faith within the United Methodist Church.” Billy Abraham was on the committee that drafted the invitation. A year later in April 1995, 900 persons gathered in Atlanta and adopted a confessional statement. Billy gave a major address at that gathering entitled, “Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church.” Good News magazine featured Billy and the address in an issue under the rubric, “Healing our Doctrinal Amnesia.”
It is noteworthy that so many tributes to Billy’s life have been forthcoming. UM News has published a lengthy and complimentary article about Billy in a release dated October 12. Sam Hodges, the writer of the article, credits Billy with helping to shape the traditionalist movement that is now working toward forming a new Methodist denomination. Hodges also comments that Billy never shied from a debate but maintained friendships across the theological divide.
Other major articles have come from Good News, from David Watson of United Theological Seminary (see Firebrand magazine), and from Keith Boyette of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Firebrand magazine also is carrying a major article with tributes by Ken Collins, Bill Arnold, Gene Lemcio, Robes Wall, Ted Campbell, Ran Danker, David Bundy, Doug Koskela, Andy Miller III, Susanne Nicholus, and Andrew Kinsey. Tributes have also come from Bishop Scott Jones and Rev. Craig Hill, dean of Perkins Seminary.
Despite his long tenure at Perkins and his relationships with numbers of bishops and other leaders of the United Methodist Church, Billy has strongly supported the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation which, if passed by the General Conference, would lead to an amicable separation within the denomination resulting in two churches, the Global Methodist Church and what would be a revised continuation of the present UM Church. Billy has a statement on this which can be found on the Confessing Movement web page entitled, “A Happy Death and a Hopeful Future.”
Many who will read this article have a favorite story about Billy. My own story is about a chance encounter my wife Ruth and I had with Billy at Granger Community UM Church (near South Bend, IN) several years ago. Granger, the largest UM church in the jurisdiction, was worshipping about 5,000 per week at the time (it has since disaffiliated with the United Methodist Church) and on several occasions, I would find time to visit (and be blessed). Billy was there because he was spending three months or so at Notre Dame and this was his church during that time. It was between one of the several services the church offered on Sunday morning and Billy was in the restaurant (megachurches don’t have fellowship halls, they have restaurants) and so neither of us was schedule pressured. In the thirty minutes or so we had we discussed Granger Church, the Notre Dame philosophy department, why so many evangelicals are attracted to Notre Dame, what was going on at Perkins, Catholic charismatics (and probably more). I give witness to what others have said: to spend time with Billy was to be enriched, stimulated, and blessed.
A memorial service for Billy Abraham will be held on Saturday, October 30, at 10:00 at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.