Dr. Thurman Wisdom: A Gentle Man, a Humble Servant
On May 4, 2022, God watched with joy. His son and servant, Thurman Wisdom, rose from his body and knelt renewed in His presence. His death was sudden and his convalescence brief — no long lingering illness and gradual physical weakening to the end. His departure to heaven was a triumphal entry, a mercy in its brevity, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones” (Ps. 116:15). No doubt, knowing Dr. Wisdom — only when he heard the words of the Lord Jesus, “Well done!” — did he lift his face from bowing low before Him, his face averting the Master’s gaze up to that very moment. This had been the posture and countenance of a lifetime, likely no different then.
He was 90 years old when he was transformed into full strength and striking countenance that day, though he was a man of remarkable stature and surprising youthfulness throughout his adult life, a kind of timelessness physically and a permanent magnetic poise and statuesque countenance. He was the image of ideal manliness, yet never harsh, overbearing or bullying like some great men become through the accumulation of years and elevation to leadership. His was a great heart, a humble heart.
A Servant Leading Men
Dr. Wisdom was born in Ratcliffe, Arkansas, on July 18, 1931, early in the Great Depression. It was three years after the death of his three infant siblings in 1928, just after the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. He was one of eight children in the family altogether, with a brother and three other sisters, like him, living on into adulthood. He was a young teenager during World War II, too young to enlist, a special trial for teenage boys of that era who “missed the war” they longed to fight in. But he entered the U.S. Air Force after graduating from East Detroit High School and was stationed in 1949 in England until 1955 when he was honorably discharged. He often joked that he flew a “Royal” typewriter in the Air Force, a brand of manual typewriter in use in the service at the time (a subtle allusion to the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom). Self-deprecating humor and witticisms were always a staple in his friendly conversations with those he befriended despite their position in life.
Right after his discharge from the Air Force, he “landed” at Bob Jones University in 1955, graduating with a BA in Bible with honors in 1959, then an MA in Bible in 1960, and a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation in 1975. He began teaching in the Institute of Christian Service at BJU in 1961, a three-year degree program, and continued there through 1978, having become its director in 1968. While there, he met his wife and life partner in ministry, Mary.
His administrative abilities and leadership qualities of humility and selfless service to others commended him to men. In 1978, then BJU President Bob Jones III asked Dr. Wisdom to serve as the dean of the School of Religion, a position he filled with skill for 22 years until 2000, when he was named dean emeritus. After teaching Bible for four more years and authoring a remarkable book titled A Royal Destiny: The Reign of Man in God’s Kingdom, Dr. Wisdom retired with a total of 42 years of service at BJU. He finished his course well as an administrative leader at the University.
All who served on his faculty during his tenure knew their good fortune and the rarity of it. Never a harsh word, never an unkind act, never an intimidating glance, always a presumption of good, constant encouragement, and only gentle correction when needed. He was my “boss” for 24 years as a faculty member. I experienced his leadership year after year and came to realize that all my colleagues had the same sense that we were being served by him always, not serving in response to the whims and dictates of an authoritarian manager. We watched him day in and day out, year in and year out — always a humble servant. In 2000, I became the dean of the Seminary and Graduate School of Religion, assuming only half of the responsibilities he carried for all those years. How he served all the undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Religion at the University so effectively over all those years can only be understood by one word, grace — knowing God’s favor and gaining His strength. He was the living embodiment of that grace.
A Humble Servant of the Word
During all the 42 years of his service at BJU, 32 of them as an administrator, he taught a substantial number of courses in Bible and theology every semester. The one year he didn’t teach near the end of his career, he authored the major book on theology mentioned above. He regularly contributed articles on Scripture topics to Biblical Viewpoint, the semi-annual journal of the School of Religion.
For years, every year, he preached frequently and powerfully in daily University chapel and the Sunday worship services held for our students on the BJU campus during that era. He was a favorite as a preacher at our annual Bible Conference. Whenever he spoke, there was fresh insight into the Word, both its meaning and its life application. Younger people found him engaging and interesting as a teacher and preacher.
Bob Jones III, BJU president during Dr. Wisdom’s tenure, summarized his impact on others well: “The warmth of his personality and his geniality coupled with his uncommon knowledge of the Scriptures, which made him wise and humble, were gifts from God and evidenced the filling of the Spirit in his life.” Dr. Bruce McAllister, former director of ministerial training at BJU, further noted, “His public ministry in chapel and worship services was marked by dignity, warmth, and humility.”
Before and after his retirement at 73, which lasted 17 years until his death, he traveled to Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Mexico and Costa Rica to preach and teach the Word. Remarkably during this time, he taught the Word 20 times during multi-week trips to Russia and Ukraine, preaching in churches and training pastors across those countries in desperate need of the Gospel.
Until his entrance into heaven, he could be found virtually every Sunday when in Greenville preaching the Word at Shepherd’s Care Assisted Living Center, a ministry of BJU. Over all his years of service, he taught and preached at Hampton Park Baptist Church just a few miles from our campus, where he was a faithful member and leader.
His example as a servant of the Word left an indelible mark on his own children — Stephanie, Stephen and Daryl — who are all followers of Christ. Daryl, a graduate of BJU Seminary, has served now as a missionary teacher in South Korea for 10 years.
Dr. Wisdom’s heart of compassion and humility drew him often to serve at Greenville Rescue Mission, where he gently and graciously taught and preached the Word, touching the lives of people in difficult circumstances. One of those men, who met him at the mission, recalled in his testimony at the funeral being invited by Dr. Wisdom to his home for a personal Bible study. That continued every week for six years, a personal Bible study for him alone with Dr. Wisdom, until the servant of the Word went to his final home. This man with deep emotion spoke of the humility, kindness, gentleness and generosity of Dr. Wisdom with his time and attention toward him over many years.
Once on an overnight layover in Frankfurt, Germany, while flying to Ukraine to preach and teach with Dr. Wisdom, we settled into our motel for the night and had a nice dinner in the dining room there. After all the hours of trans-Atlantic and trans-European flying, he thought it was a good idea to go for a walk in the neighborhood, which happened to be a nice residential area — with homes that all looked alike. It was a rich opportunity to just talk to him, I thought. He was my dean and admired superior at the time.
So we began to walk, and the rich conversation began about life, about the Lord Jesus, about the ministry we would have with our Ukrainian brothers. Engrossed in conversation, we walked many blocks, thoughtlessly turned corners, and turned more corners. Before long we were hopelessly lost. Two mature American men, both University professors, wandering the streets of what was now the very Middle Eastern part of Frankfurt, Germany. Finally, in semi-desperation, smiling at each other nervously, we managed to flag down a speeding taxi and request help in very broken German to get back to our motel. We arrived safely there 15 minutes later, laughing and teasing each other over what we had just done.
There he was, my superior and 20 years my senior, laughing with me, with no pretension, with no sense of self-importance, just an older brother to a younger man, enjoying life and service — what a humble, gentle, kind friend. What a servant to me — an undeserving friend. All of us who were served by him are missing him now that he’s gone, but it won’t be long. That’s the best part — serving again in the future with a great servant of the Word and men, our friend Dr. Wisdom.
by Steve Hankins, former dean of BJU Seminary