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THE REV. JOHN A. REDHEAD: A WISE, BELOVED MAN
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THE REV. JOHN A. REDHEAD: A WISE, BELOVED MAN

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This column, written in 1970 by then Editor William D. Snider, is about the Rev. John A. Redhead, who at the time was retiring as pastor of First Presbyterian Church. Dr. Redhead died Wednesday.

For the past 25 years Greensboro has had the good fortune to have in one of its church pulpits a Mississippian who has taught us a lot and who has learned a lot himself.He is Dr. John Agrippa Redhead Jr., one of the most distinguished Presbyterian preachers in America. He is a handsome, imposing figure. He came to the ministry, as he has often explained, reluctantly - pushed by a power greater than himself. A fine athlete endowed with a brilliant mind, he has become one of the nation's outstanding radio preachers on ``The Protestant Hour.' He is also the author of many religious books, mostly collections of his sermons, which are truly works of art and inspiration. In his own church of 3,000 he has become an institution, known for the depth and clarity, the simplicity and power of his sermons. His retirement on Dec. 31 (1970), at the age 65 as he has planned, leaves a sizeable void in the spiritual life of Greensboro.

I have known Dr. Redhead for about 18 years, as a member of his congregation; and I write with that perspective today.

Few ministers deliver week after week sermons containing so much substance and inspiration, so varied in appeal to young and old and in between. Over 18 years I have heard hundreds of Redhead sermons; almost uniformly they were worth hearing. They seldom lack intellectual depth. At the same time they speak to life at the individual's level. Their author understands that the great ideas do not need to be communicated in foggy or murky language.

In the pulpit Dr. Redhead has focused primarily on the individual's relationship to God. His sermons represent personal journeys through fields of psychiatry and self-analysis and intriguing examination of man's triumphs and aspirations and foibles. Personally a man of reserve and detachment - of patrician demeanor - he has served as scholarly philosopher for his flock, always able to translate his intellectualism into personal involvements.

Someone once described Dr. Redhead's as a ``glazed radio voice.' The tone is mellifluous and precise - the voice of a perfectionist. It is also the genuine voice of a Mississippi aristocrat who has extricated himself from the hang-ups of a fallen Deep South plantation society, moving to new levels of a fast-changing world.

I would mention one aspect of that struggle. In remarks made at an informal meeting with members of the First Presbyterian Church in Starkville, Miss., near his hometown, last year, Dr. Redhead expounded on the dilemma of race explicitly and courageously.

His subject concerned the sometimes confusing and misunderstood twin missions of the church - its duty toward the spirituality of the individual and its duty toward the problems of society. He spoke as a Mississippian who recognized that the South 100 years ago had blinded its eyes to the evils of slavery:

``I hate to be so personal,' he said, ``but the first railroad through the Mississippi Valley was built by my grandfather's grandfather to run from Woodville to what is now St. Francisville in order to carry cotton down the river for transportation. And that economy was built on the slave. It somehow changed the thinking of the people toward the institution of slavery.

Our church was organized in 1861 and its concept of its mission was greatly influenced by this institution of slavery. Somehow this doctrine which we call the 'spirituality of the church' (that sounds like a very high-sounding thing but what it means is that the church speaks only to the evangelism of the individual and individual and family morality) came about. The church has nothing to say about social relationships. In other words it has nothing to do with eradicating the evils of society.'

At that time the Southern Presbyterian Church went far toward attempting to justify the sub-humanity of the black man as part of the lawful order of things. The church's seminaries provided a rationalized version of that same ``spirituality' doctrine.

``I never felt that I had any business talking about social actions, social problems,' Dr. Redhead went on. ``I still have an instinctive reaction against it. When I discovered the reason for this doctrine, that it was a defense mechanism, that it was a means of salving the conscience of the church, which was approving something like slavery, then I could no longer hold to (it)...'

Not until 1935 did the Southern Presbyterian Church officially change its position about social action - and then only with great difficulty and opposition.

Scholar that he was, Dr. Redhead had already seen the conflict between the old doctrine and the social actions and teachings of Christ himself. He had traced the activism of his church's own founding fathers - men like John Calvin and John Knox and David Caldwell, who spoke forthrightly against the secular evils of their time.

``Service includes not only what you can do through your job and daily life for the relief of human suffering,' he said in Mississippi, ``but also why we as a church are responsible for establishing justice, right human relations and eradicating evils in society. I can accept that intellectually. I see why this old doctrine of the spirituality of the church was really based not on the Bible but on the church's desire to give its blessings to slavery. But while I can accept it intellectually, I can't respond emotionally. I just can't get out and lead the parades, and that is social action.

``My daughter is married to a minister and they feel entirely differently from the way I feel. That explains why this new generation has a different reaction. I hope it will explain to some of you why your church is saying some things it has never said before which you find difficult to swallow just as I find it difficult to swallow. One of my classmates, Dr. William Gardner, who is retired now and lives down in Greenville, Miss., said to me, 'Jack, the church has gone out beyond you and me.' And it has! I feel that my job now, at home, is to try to be a bridge from the old point of view so that my successor might find some understanding on the part of the people when he comes.'

Dr. Redhead's successor - 46-year-old Joseph B. Mullin of Louisville - will come soon - on Jan. 1, 1971. He will succeed a wise and good and beloved preacher who has by earnest cultivation and practice of the Christian graces of forebearance, patience, humility and persistent good will left a worthy legacy.

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