A Johnny Appleseed of church planters
Published February 15, 2007
I remember Benny Delmar.
“Benny who?” you might ask. “Who was he?”
O.R. “Benny” Delmar. One of the most influential church planters in Southern Baptist history, a veritable Johnny Appleseed who sewed churches wherever he traveled through the denomination’s historic days in the West.
Benny was one of those individuals who, without his sacrifice, we would not have what is known today as the Wyoming Baptist Convention. Or, for that matter, the Montana or even the Dakota Baptist Convention.
You see, in the “old days” of the Southern Baptist Convention we sent missionaries out to sew churches in the hard soil of the American West. It was hard work. It was thankless work. It was work that was reimbursed with only the minimum amount of salary that Southern Baptists, with gratitude to the Woman’s Missionary Union, could scrape together to send to the field.
We were a different denomination in those days. We were leaner. We were more humble. We got along together.
And that unanimity of purpose is what empowered and undergirded grassroots individuals like soft-spoken, softhearted Oliver Raymond Delmar to pull up roots from the Oklahoma oilfields and cast his eyes to the West where people were hurting without the gospel. “Americans without the gospel 60 years ago?” some may ask. Of course. Today we may think they are only new immigrants and inner city residents who do not have a Christian Bible or church background.
But there was a time not so far in our past when Americans, born and bred right here in our midst, still lived and died without a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We called those areas “pioneer missions” and it was individuals like Benny Delmar – and others like B.E. and Rachel Pitts – who left their homes in Oklahoma to take the gospel to the hard places in America, pulling their families behind them like so many Airstream trailers.
I remember like it was yesterday the first time I had the pleasure of meeting Benny Delmar. I was 40 years old in 1991 and I was on assignment for MissionsUSAmagazine, published by the former Home Mission Board. It was a bitter cold morning in February when I walked up to the small church in Casper, Wyo. My breath hung in the air as I stepped from my warm rental car into the freezing 10-degree morning. I’ll never forget that below-zero wind chill as I hurried into the presumed warmth of the small church where Benny had just arrived.
Not many folks showed up that morning, but that was OK for Benny. He wasn’t there for the crowds, he was there for the souls; just a couple of adults and seven or eight children. We huddled together in cold folding metal chairs, coats firmly buttoned, our breath still hanging like a light fog in front of our faces. Benny turned up the heat in the room but it never got very warm. I’d say the temperature never rose above 35 degrees on that still, quiet morning. We sat with coats snuggly buttoned, faces lightly flushed, and cheeks pink from the cold as we sang hymns and listened to Benny bring the morning sermon.
I was sitting in the midst of greatness that I still didn’t understand. Here was a man who defied all the stereotypes of greatness I had come to accept. He was not bigger than life, an eloquent preacher, or a great statesman. He didn’t even have a television ministry. But he loved Jesus, and he loved telling girls and boys, as well as hardened ranchers and oil field workers, about Him.
And here he was, just two years into his retirement in his early 70s, still going strong and looking after his wife who was in failing health. This silent saint was credited with starting more than 140 churches throughout the upper Midwest, placing him in the forefront of historical Southern Baptist work.
He was often referred to as the last of the “suitcase missionaries” when he began his ministry in Arizona before moving into Wyoming in 1951 – the year I was born – responding to a Macedonian call for a pastor from a struggling group of Southern Baptists in Casper.
He was a product of strong preaching in his “growing up” years in Seminole, Okla., and told me his life was shaped by strong Sunday School teachers and Royal Ambassadors programs. He was a strong advocate of Southern Baptist missions education and the values it instilled in young people. And that exposure to learning about God’s calling very likely played a foundational role in his eventual response to the call that God placed on his life.
We Baptists are uncomfortable with labeling folks as saints for fear of putting them on a pedestal, but its OK to call them spiritual heroes – and that’s exactly what Benny Delmar soon became to me, and to many of those throughout the West.
Benny wasn’t perfect and he will be the first to tell you that he wasn’t a saint. He will tell you that he started numerous churches that died shortly after birth. But he was humble, and he had his priorities straight. He was stubborn for Christ, if you will allow me to be blunt. Wherever there were people, Benny saw an opportunity to plant a church.
We need more Benny Delmars if we are going to reach North America for Christ.
They are worthy of our funding them. They are worthy of our sacrifice so they can make a difference in a corner of a world that we will only read about in a missions publication.
They are worthy of our support of the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.
Now here’s the bittersweet end of my story. On a frozen winter day earlier this month – on Feb. 2, exactly 16 years from the month when I first met Benny, he was laid to rest in Casper. He was 88 years old and, though slowed with failing health, was just as dedicated to reaching the lost for Christ.
Benny is gone. But in my mind’s eye I can see the frozen ground over his snow-covered grave beginning to thaw from the warmth of his heart, and spring daffodils – surrounded by a massive Easter lily – blooming for all the world to see.
It may be February, but Easter is coming! That is Benny’s testimony.