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Union joins forces with preaching greatness

The Stephen Olford Center is located on 18 wooded acres in southeast Memphis. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
The Stephen Olford Center is located on 18 wooded acres in southeast Memphis. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.July 9, 2007 – Stephen F. Olford is known as one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century.

His radio and television programs were heard around the world, and countless preachers benefited from the training Olford provided them at the Stephen Olford Center for Biblical Preaching in Memphis.

Now Union University will help to carry on Olford’s legacy, after the board of directors for Olford Ministries International on April 3 approved a transfer of a large majority of the ministry’s assets to Union University. The transfer became final at the end of May.

The gift to Union includes the Stephen Olford Center, located on 18 wooded acres in the heart of southeast Memphis.

“The work of the Stephen Olford Center over recent years has earned the respect of the entire evangelical world,” says Union President David S. Dockery. “We count it a great privilege and a sacred stewardship to be benefactors of the legacy of Stephen Olford. We are excited about the new partnership and trust God’s providential favor to rest on this new aspect of Union University’s expanding outreach.”

The Stephen Olford Center has always exhibited an incarnational, international, interracial, and interdenominational focus. That approach to ministry will continue uninterrupted.

Stephen Olford died in 2004, leaving behind his wife of 56 years, Heather. She still lives on the Stephen Olford Center property and has played a key role in the operation of Olford Ministries since her husband’s death. In addition to their son David, the Olfords have another son, Jonathan, and five grandchildren.

Stephen Olford: A ‘Preacher’s Preacher’

Stephen Olford was born in Zambia in 1918, the son of missionaries Frederick and Bessie Olford. The Olfords had three sons, Stephen, Paul, and John. Stephen was raised in Angola, where he made his Christian commitment at a young age.

He spent his college years in his father’s native England. He was appointed an Army Scripture Reader during Word War II, and launched a Young Peoples Christian fellowship in South Wales. After the war, Olford became a well-traveled, full-time evangelist and preacher in the United Kingdom and across Europe. His preaching during those days touched thousands of lives and led to profound commitments of service.

During Olford’s memorial service in September 2004, Gaetano Sottile provided a touching yet typical personal testimony of Olford’s ministry. Sottile later became the founder and president of Italy for Christ. He first encountered Olford during a crusade in Messina, Sicily:

“I didn’t know a word of English and I saw this little man preaching the Word of God with such a power as I had never seen before,” says Sottile. “I wasn’t interested in the translation. I was caught up with the way this guy was preaching the Word of God.”

Sottile went on a few days later to make a Christian commitment and establish a lifelong relationship with Olford. He says years later, Olford inspired him to start Italy for Christ during a discussion in an Amsterdam pizza parlor.

“He was very instrumental. He was my Papa. Why did I call him Papa? Because my father died right after he basically met the Lord Jesus Christ and Dr. Stephen Olford was so interested in my life that I just felt like he was my spiritual father. I was a son in the faith.”

In 1953, Olford began as pastor at Duke Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Surrey, England. From there he went to Calvary Baptist Church in New York City, where he served for 14 years.

Olford began a Christian television and radio program, “Encounter,” during his years in New York, and his Sunday morning services were broadcast around the world on radio.

His ability to minister to other pastors led him to be regarded as a “preacher’s preacher.” The recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, Olford’s influence was perhaps too large to ever be fully measured. He had a host of unique opportunities to minister across cultural, racial and denominational lines.

Olford and Billy Graham

It would be difficult to find a detailed account of Billy Graham’s early ministry that does not mention Stephen Olford. The two men traveled together in the years after World War II. As Olford was just beginning his ministry at Duke Street Baptist Church, young Graham came to London for a 1954 crusade. Olford offered his own support and the resources of his church members.

But his early meetings with Graham provided far more than friendly encouragement. Olford had lengthy and intense discussions with the young evangelist about his personal prayer life and the Holy Spirit.

In a 1970 oral history archived at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, Olford told interviewer Lois Ferm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that from their first meeting in 1946, Graham “impressed me as somebody who was eager for life in its fullness, ready for adventure.”

Olford’s comments continue later in the same transcript:

“The next day we met again in the same hotel and the theme was the Holy Spirit. I gave him my testimony of how God met with me on the rugged coast of Porthcawl in Wales and completely turned my life inside out; an experience of the Holy Spirit and his anointing. I then explained what I meant by this and went through the Scriptures with him. As I talked (and I can see him now) those eyes glistened with tears. He said ‘that’s what I want, that’s what I want.’ So from talking, we went to praying. From praying, we went to praising until presently it seemed as if all heaven broke loose. And he cried ‘I’m filled, I have it. This is the turning point in my life.’”

Five years later, when Olford was installed as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New York City, Graham was among those celebrating with him.

Olford Ministries in Memphis

The Olfords moved from New York to Memphis in 1985 to develop a training program and a center to encourage and equip preachers and teachers of the Bible. The Stephen Olford Center for Biblical Preaching was dedicated in 1988.

Stephen Olford said his years of missions and evangelistic work led him to conclude that there was not enough expository preaching from the world’s pulpits. The Stephen Olford Center for Biblical Preaching became a teaching resource for ministers around the world. Courses taught them the practicalities of preaching from a biblical text.

The organization’s mission statement reflects that commitment:

“To provide biblical instruction and practical training to equip pastors, preachers, teachers and leaders – anyone who proclaims the Bible – to do so accurately, incarnationally, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. We do this with a global concern to see the church revived and the world reached with the saving Word of Christ.”

What started in 1988 quickly grew into a comprehensive organization. The Olfords welcomed conference participants from around the world to short but intensive on-site training seminars.

Some of the sessions offered in Memphis were then taken to other cities across the United States and to a number of international locations. As technological opportunities advanced, courses became available through live streaming on the Internet.

“We have had, by God’s grace, a continued sense of spiritual blessing upon the ministry over the years, even after the death of my father,” says David Olford. “Seeking to be good stewards of this ministry, we have needed to look seriously at how the ministry can be maintained, improved and expanded in the future.”

Stephen Olford became a close friend of the late Adrian Rogers, the former pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in nearby Cordova. Rogers had these words to say at Olford’s memorial service:

“(The Apostle) Paul finished as a spiritual soldier. Stephen finished as a spiritual soldier. He was a warrior for God. You may not think of him as being a big man but, friend, when he stood behind a pulpit he weighed 300 pounds. What a mighty man of God. And what a warrior this man was.”

Stephen Olford Center and Union

The gift of the Stephen Olford Center is appraised at more than $4.5 million, the largest one-time gift in Union University history.

The 18-acre facility in southeast Memphis includes more than 40 hotel-style rooms for conference attendees; dining facilities; a patio and swimming pool; a newly donated library with about 32,000 volumes; classrooms and offices; and a chapel.

Union will establish the Stephen Olford Chair of Preaching, which will be held by David Olford, Stephen Olford’s son, who will join the Union faculty. David Olford has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Wheaton College and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Sheffield.

“David Olford is an ordained Baptist minister, serious scholar, faithful churchman, dynamic teacher and gifted preacher,” Dockery says. “His commitment to students, his love for the gospel, his international influence and his outstanding publications will all be tremendous additions to the Union University community.”

David Olford recently taught a class in Union’s Master of Christian Studies program in Memphis, and he views his new teaching opportunities as a way to fulfill the commitment to expository preaching that was so important to his late father.

“In the marrying of ministries, we believe more can be accomplished under God’s hand in coming years,” Olford said. “The ability to offer academic credit through an accredited university will meet the needs of many, and strengthen what happens at the center.”

In addition to current program offerings at the Stephen Olford Center, Union will begin its own programming there this fall, with a new emphasis on expository preaching in the university’s offerings. Dockery also said plans are moving forward for Union to establish a Doctor of Ministry degree in expository preaching.

“Olford Ministries is known for delivering life-changing educational experiences to church leaders,” says Charles A. Fowler, Union’s senior vice president for university relations. “Future programming through the Stephen Olford Center at Union University will build upon this legacy of Christ-centered excellence to offer new and enhanced programs that will include both degree and non-degree offerings. We are hopeful that the future will see increased student enrollment, expanded program offerings and a broader constituent base that will honor Stephen Olford and advance the mission of Union University.”

Published in the summer 2007 edition of "Unionite."

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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