Friday, Apr. 15, 2005
A powerful voice
He was there on the local television station in upper east Tennessee every week for as long as I could remember. He was a coal miner from West Virginia, he said. God had "touched me," he told the viewing audience and had "made me what I am today." What he was, was a preacher. I think he was a Baptist, but I don't remember if he ever said. Outside of Billy Graham, he was the first TV preacher I ever saw.
Today, radio and television preachers are a dime a dozen. I've even had a radio program myself in years past. In those days, however, such a thing was a rarity. "Proper" ministers preached from the pulpit of a "proper" church. They were "sophisticated," clever, kept their emotions in check, and well-spoken. They were called "Reverend," or "Doctor," or "Pastor."
Maybe that's why I was critical of this man that came into my parents home each Sunday morning. He was plain spoken, passionate, preached into a TV camera, and was called "Brother." Yet, nearly every Sunday, as I prepared to go to my "proper" church, Brother Leonard Repass would preach the simple, unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ to any who would watch.
He was among the first, way back in the 1960s, to bring the message of salvation to the non-churched of eastern Tennessee via the radio and television. He was a friend of Billy Graham, I'm told, but he never "name-dropped" on his TV program, as I recall. He may not have said anything about his relationship with Reverend Graham, but he spoke a great deal about his relationship with Jesus Christ, and how viewers could have a relationship, too.
His first church was on top of a local bar. While that may not seem like a "proper" setting for a church, there were many times that someone who had been drinking at the bar would drift up to the church services and meet Brother Repass. As often as not, he would lead them to Christ and they would "throw out their alcohol and come to church." His granddaughter, Katrina Farmer, recently related, "He never went on a revival that someone somewhere didn't come home with him and no one ever came to his home with out feeling a welcome and they always were fed."
Once, Brother and Mrs. Repass brought home a young man from a revival that had a chemical dependency problem. His situation was so bad that his family had disowned him. The young man walked into the tent revival being conducted by Brother Repass and ended up going home with them to Princeton, W.V. Within a year the young man was clean and was doing his own individual work for the Lord. When he finally went home to the family that had disowned him, he was clean and sober. His family said that he was now "a joy to be around." Unknown to the Repass family, the young man's father was very wealthy and, in gratitude, sent a check for a large sum to Brother Repass who promptly tore it up. He said that his payment for helping this young man was awaiting him in heaven.
By 1979, his program was broadcast on at least 39 television stations, including in Atlanta, and one commentator noted that Repass was especially interested in making "a real effort to get his message to those in hospitals and prisons."
I don't know just why, as a teenager, I kept tuning in to the Leonard Repass broadcast week after week. Television evangelists weren't held in very high esteem in those days. Maybe that's because most of them preached a message that many of us didn't want to hear. Leonard Repass talked about the "love of God and the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ." But he also talked about hell, and sin, and judgment.
It would have been easy to have turned him off each week, but I didn't. I kept watching. My way of diluting the validity of his message was to mock him. I made fun of his West Virginia coal field accent (in spite of the fact that I had an east Tennessee mountain twang to my speech) and poked fun of his passion. Still, I kept watching. Over 35 years later, I still remember his name.
It's hard to say how many millions of people heard the message of Jesus Christ on all those stations in the years that Repass preached. A number of Christian Gospel music groups claim to have gotten their start on the Repass broadcasts. Reverend Leonard Repass died 12 years ago and left a visible legacy of seven children and 14 grandchildren. His invisible legacy, the impact he had on his viewers and listeners, is not so easy to measure.
I don't mock or make fun of Leonard Repass anymore. He preached, in one broadcast, to more people than I am likely to speak to in a lifetime. He may not have been a polished man but he was a genuine man; the kind of man I'd like to be. His life was living proof that God, could indeed, touch a coal miner from West Virginia and make him into a powerful voice for the Kingdom of God.
Copyright 2004-Fayette Publishing, Inc.