He’s befriended presidents, the rich, the famous, but his joy has been telling people about Jesus
JEFFERSON CITY – He’s gone fishing with Harry S. Truman, taken advice from John F. Kennedy, loaned his car to Jimmy Carter, and received golf tips from Ben Hogan, but the satisfaction in Burnell Lewis’ life comes from a lifetime of telling people about Jesus Christ.
“I was just called to preach. I never had a special calling. I was just called to preach,” said the Jefferson City resident.
Lewis, now 90 years old, grew up in a Christian home. His father, Tony, was a Baptist minister. Burnell earned a degree in education at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar prior to being licensed to preach at Hanley Road Baptist, in St. Louis, where his dad was the pastor.
Before he could be ordained, he was called into the Army in 1941. He was officially ordained at Savannah, Ga. Prior to that time, no one had ever been ordained into the ministry while in the Army, so the service was well attended by many well-known Baptist ministers as well as Army personnel.
During his service years, he was on three different oilers that were captured on their way to Trinidad, the first two by the German Army, and the third time by the Nazis. Each time, he and the rest of the crew were put into lifeboats and were later rescued.
Lewis completed his military service in 1946. As a civilian, he taught school, was a salesman, and preached. He also earned a master’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I never tried to get revivals,” he said. “I would go sometimes as an interim pastor, like at Tower Grove, and have to stay two years. I would know it was time to leave when I would have revivals calling in back to back. Then I’d go. If you let the Lord do it, it saves a lot.”
His revival ministry began in smaller churches. “In earlier times, the Sunday School would be involved with revival meetings. Teachers would get their students to bring others. They would go over the plan of salvation.
“On Sunday, we’d have a revival and combine services. Teachers would come with eight or nine kids, knowing which ones were Christians and which ones weren’t.
“If you had a revival, you had it for two weeks or until people got under the burden, as they used to say. I never held a long invitation. The first week of a two-week revival, I’d preach that your boy or your cousin is lost. The second week was directed to the unsaved. I would put it all on that last Sunday and then have a long invitation. I would just preach on the cross.”
He started out staying in people’s homes. On one occasion, his hostess told the pastor that she never wanted to keep another evangelist at her home. Lewis learned that the woman’s son ran a bar and she had taken offense that he had preached about whiskey. From then on, he stayed at motels. “If you’re at somebody’s home, they can tell anything,” he said.
Another lesson he learned was about cars. “Cars are what ruin you. I put 100,000 miles on a car in two years. I would have to hide it when I went to a good church.”
On one occasion, someone loaned him a Cadillac to drive to Mobile, Ala. He parked it next to the pastor’s car. The last night of the revival, the pastor indicated to the congregation that the evangelist was a big-time operator, and the church didn’t want to be embarrassed. The offering that night was large. “I found out they judge you by what you drive,” Lewis said.
Money, though, was not something he wanted to talk about. “I never mentioned money. I just left it with the Lord. I never wanted to be taking up money for me. I never worried, and wonderful things happened. I had lean years but the Lord took care of that.”
Things began to change when he became a protégé of R. G. Lee, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. Lee called all the big churches around on Lewis’ behalf and encouraged them to contact him for revivals.
There were many decisions for Christ, and Lewis’ financial picture improved considerably as well. “I was busy all the time,” he said.
“I had the glory years of Southern Baptist. I’ve preached in every state,” he mused. He’s preached at most Baptist churches in St. Louis and in Ft. Worth, Texas, two cities he has called home. While in Ft. Worth, he earned two additional master’s degrees – one at the University of Texas and the other at Texas Christian University Seminary.
Lewis also preached in a number of foreign countries. In the 1950s, Youth For Christ began holding revivals in Europe. They hired Lewis to go a week ahead of the revival and get the excitement going.
“I got into Liverpool and people in London called me. Then Holland called me. They would invite me into the homes and invite people in. Europe was ripe for revival. Christians were hungry for it. I preached every night.” He spent many summers in Europe after that, reaching people for the Lord Jesus Christ.
One church in Washington, DC invited Lewis to preach once every year for 27 years. At one of those services, a man asked for Lewis to speak to his department at the Pentagon. “I thought they would have a little coffee thing, so I wasn’t particularly nervous,” he said. When he arrived, he found a large room full of people, the Army Band, the Navy Band, and the vice president.
One time, when he was preaching in Sydney, Australia, the invitation lasted from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. as people continue to go to the altar. More than 500 people were saved that day.
Revivals began to change in the late 1960s because churches couldn’t get evangelists. “Gradually, it got to where pastors would have their buddies come as evangelists and they would, in turn, go to their churches.
“They cut revivals down to three days. In that short length of time, you can’t have revival. It takes time for people to get under conviction. Now, when an evangelist comes, he hasn’t got but three days. He has to hold long invitations.” As a result, he said, revivals produce lots of rededications but not so many salvation decisions.
Lewis still believes in the two-week revivals with short invitations. “Until I couldn’t go anymore, I had two weeks. Nothing had changed. It was the same as it’s always been,” he reported.
Southwest Baptist University at Bolivar, his alma mater, awarded him an honorary doctorate in the late 1990s. “They told me it was because I had revivals and didn’t advertise, ask for money or tell how many people were saved,” he said.
For all his success as an evangelist, he gives the glory to God. “I went where the Lord sent me. The Holy Spirit has to do all of it. If you use anything of the world and try to mingle it, it won’t work.”