An Interview with Gene Edwards:
A brief introduction and history of Gene Edwards:
Gene Edwards is of French parentage; Louisiana Cajun in particular. In the year 1790 a Frenchman named Joseph Edoir jumped ship in New Orleans harbor and so began the Edwards family in America. His father, J.C. “Blackie” Edwards, an oil field worker, moved to Texas while following the oil boom. In 1927 he married Gladys Brewer. They had two sons, the second son being Gene. At the time of his marriage Blackie Edwards was illiterate, as were all of his people throughout the previous generations. Gene’s mother was the daughter of a migrant farm worker; that is, the family made its living moving from one place to another picking cotton. Her father had a phobia about tornadoes, therefore Gladys grew up in a storm cellar, an underground dugout, about six feet by eight feet. Gene’s mother was the first person ever to go to high school in her family. On the basis of her high school diploma she was able to teach school. Her whole life she had but one dream—that of becoming a writer; a dream never fulfilled. But it was her gift of writing that was passed on to her youngest son.
Because Gene’s dad was an oilfield worker, Gene grew up in a man’s world—a tough, brawling, no-nonsense, unpretentious world of oil field roughnecks. This fact has left its influence on his whole life, both as a Christian and as a minister.
At the age of three, while living in Conroe, Texas, Gene contracted scarlet fever. Both his lungs filled with fluid, breathing became impossible. He was near death. The doctor gave him no hope whatsoever of living. Visiting the Edwards’ home the doctor thought, on three occasions, that Gene had died. (There was no heartbeat and his body had turned blue.)
At that time, in two separate places, his father and his mother both gave Gene to the Lord with the prayer: “Lord, if You let him live, we give him wholly and completely to You.” (Gene was not aware of this drama until the time he entered the ministry. It was then his father told him this story. Later his mother reaffirmed it.)
Gene went to grammar school in Bay City, Texas. He was, unknown to him, labeled with a “learning problem”, handicapped with a severe case of dyslexia. He was also colorblind. And, no one – including himself – could read his handwriting. Further, even until this day, he cannot spell. What he did know was that he was incredibly shy. To say the least, he was very forgettable.
“I was very forgettable. I always sat on the back row, never uttered a word, and hoped no one asked me a question.”
At the age of thirteen, his mother and dad divorced. Each went their separate ways. Gene requested that he be allowed to go to a military academy. His freshman year was spent at San Marcus Baptist Military Academy in San Marcus, Texas.
“I did not know that the school was basically a reformatory. Most of the boys there had a police record and had been given the choice of either going to a military academy or to reform school. It was a rough year to say the least, but it was one more of those sovereign acts of God in molding my life.”
The next two years Gene lived alone in Cleveland, Texas. Those were hard years because there was an extrovert down inside him trying to get out.
What he did not know about himself was that he had a prodigious memory and had a passion for history and literature. On July 17, 1949, the day before his seventeenth birthday, Gene had, as he describes it, “a head on collision with Jesus Christ.” He was converted to Christ in the backseat floorboard of a 1934 Chevrolet, parked out in a cemetery where he had gone to be alone. Among many, many other things that his conversion wrought, he began soon to tear away from the moorings of shyness.
At that time he planned on being a lawyer. His plans included graduating from law school at Baylor University. He planned on going into politics! In the summer of 1950, just one semester from graduating, Gene met Helen Rogers. He was still 17, she was 19. She was planning to go to the mission field.
In late January, 1951 Gene graduated from college, at the age of eighteen. That was on Saturday. On Sunday, January 21, he made public his entrance into the ministry, and on Monday he enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He was, at that time, the youngest college graduate ever to enroll in the school of theology at SWBTS.
In the meantime, Helen was offered a job at the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville. At the same time, Gene was offered the privilege of being the one American selected to be the student representing America at the European International Baptist Theological Seminary in Zurich, Switzerland. He arrived there in September of 1951, about the same time Helen moved to Nashville.
His first full year of theological training was in Europe, in the very city that was the site of the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. Most of the courses he took while in Zurich were on church history. That summer he traveled from Zurich to the Holy Lands. That trip was providential. Before Gene was 20 years old, he had visited virtually every place Paul ever went to.
“I went fourth class, which meant I slept on the deck of the ship. I thumbed my way through the Holy Lands. The danger of hitchhiking in nations at war, six of which hated Americans at the time, did not occur to me until years later.”
Returning to Europe from Israel, Gene spent a long time living in Rome. He spent his twentieth birthday doing what no twenty-year-old Protestant had ever done. He spent the day in the Vatican doing research!
In 1952 Gene returned to Southwestern Seminary. Again, all his elective courses he took in church history.
At the age of twenty-one Gene married Helen on national television! They were married in Studio B at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. In those days, there was a TV program on NBC called “Bride and Groom.” On this program couples with interesting love stories were invited to tell their love story. After that they were married there on NBC before 6,000,000 television viewers.
The minister who married Gene and Helen was Frank Laubach, who, at that time was probably one of the three or four best-known people in the world. Dr. Laubach had traveled to almost every nation on earth, at government invitations, to help those nations set up programs to teach their illiterates how to read and write. For instance, in India, Laubach was considered a hero as well as a legend.
The previous summer Gene had taken a course in “How to write for semi-literates” at Scarritt College in Nashville. He was not aware that the class he took that summer would affect his writing style for the rest of his life. “I write books on about a fourth grade level . . . the same level I do mathematics!”
In 1954 he graduated from Southwestern. (He holds a language B.S. and M.Div.) “In retrospect, I never really fit into the typical ministerial mold. I had grown up an east Texas oilfield roughneck. I never understood why ministers changed their voices when they prayed, the way they held their hands, or why they prayed in a ‘stained glass window’ English, and a gothic voice when they preached. And why do we pray in King James English? I simply did not fit this image. As a pastor, this was the consternation of my congregation. I also seemed to make other ministers nervous.
During summers I had worked my way through college roughnecking. The oil fields “birthed” me. That makes for a lousy ministerial role model. Nothing about the pretentiousness of the ministry ever stuck. This was to do me much harm as a pastor. Think of the problems it created with the people in the church. This non-pretentiousness was to dog—even plague—my life right on up to the age of 30 when I stepped out of the traditional church. It still shocks some who think I should be wearing a halo.”
After seminary Gene pastored a total of two churches. He has many a story to tell about that period of his life.
“I never belonged in the pastorate! Nor was there ever a moment in my life when I felt that I should be a pastor. It is only that this is what was expected. I knew nothing else. It is what men called of God were supposed to do.”
Gene entered evangelism at the age of twenty-five. By the time he was twenty-seven he was holding city-wide campaigns and had authored two books, both of which became best sellers. (And both of which he later took out of print after he left the institutional church.)
Gene’s evangelistic ministry zoomed to the point that he was not only holding multi-church campaigns but even being invited into many denominations’ headquarters to train their leaders in personal evangelism.
But during all this there was a desperation going on inside of Gene, a sense that he worked from out of the soul, not the spirit. This he also saw as true throughout the ministerial world.
“None of us knew Christ very well.”
Gene had a driving desire to know his Lord better. He was not aware that deep within his being there beat the heart and hunger of a Christian mystic. There would have been no way he could have known that fact, as he had always been a “do-er”, and nothing of a “be-er.”
Some of the things Gene learned as an evangelist were (in Gene’s words): “That all Sunday morning church services were boring, regardless of the denomination.” That there seemed no relationship between our modern church practices when compared with what took place in the first century. “Further, no one seemed to have any interest in knowing the Lord better. This last part troubled me. Would I level off at so shallow a place in my Christian walk?
“Every message I heard preached, and every “new” idea to which I was exposed, was nothing but retreads of things of the past. There was nothing new out there.”
(Gene once remarked that after the age twenty-three he never heard a message or heard of a new idea in organized Christianity but what he had already heard, or read of.)
In 1962, at age twenty-nine, desperate to know the Lord better, and desperate to find a first-century expression of the church, Gene cancelled all his conferences. He then took the next year off.
During that year, sitting at his desk at 1620 S. Snead Street in Tyler, Texas, he wrote out the entire first-century story. He left out nothing, not a single person’s name, or place or event. He used every book that he could find in print – in English – that would have any bearing on first-century history. Out of all this, Gene wove together what turned out to be the first complete story of the first Christian century. Everyday there was a growing consciousness that there was no similarity between the first-century church and modern-day Christianity.
The impact of that simple fact was to change his life forever.
A few years later Gene wrote a volume entitled Revolution: The First 17 Years of the Early Church. It was his third book. Since then he finished telling the first-century story in a five volume set…though it would be nearly forty years before Gene began publishing all of that story. These books are entitled The First-Century Diaries. In these books, Edwards weaves together not only the story of the early Christians, but brings together the full collage of the customs and conditions of that day. So also the nautical, political, meteorological, religious, and military world of that century. (See more about these diaries under the section “Books Gene Has Written.”)
When that momentous year came to an end, Gene knew he could not go on being part of the organized church and keep a clear conscience. His exposure to churches in a dozen different denominations, his own desperate desire to know Christ better, his recent grasp of what the first century was really like, and his desire to experience church life “first-century style,” all combined—along with some intangible work in his heart—to create this crisis. Add to that, he had saturated himself in the history of the ancient dissenters, who had left institutional Christianity, such as the Anabaptists, etc. Gene had also been tracing the origin of virtually all Protestant practices. But above all else, his heart was aflame with a desire to know his Lord better.
“There was no way to continue in the traditional path except to compromise. To retain integrity I had to depart. In 1963 I set out on an ocean rarely sailed upon, and into oceans which had no charts.
“I did not depart evangelical theology. The historical doctrines of the Protestant faith are mine for as long as I live. What I left was the practice of evangelical Protestantism. It is a decision I have never regretted. Rather, I only wish the Lord would lead more men called of God to tread this path.”
During the next five years Gene Edwards ploughed this nation, as well as making a trip to the Far East, looking for people who knew anything about a first-century type Christian practice, and always seeking out anyone who could tell him more about how to know the Lord. These are the dynamics, the forces which shaped his life.
“On the day I left the traditional ministry I said to the Lord, ‘I will never serve you again as long as I live. Not for one day, not for one minute. Here is my carcass—if you want to live your life out from me, then you are free to do so. But you will be the one living that life, I will not. I shall never serve you again! From this moment on, whatever happens will be what you do.’
The Lord’s response to these works? He shelved me for over five years, not to mention taking away my health, forever.”
Gene has often said that as a pastor and evangelist, like so many other ministers . . . “We followed the wrong god! Our god is not Jesus Christ. The real god to whom we bow down to is the god of serving God. We are far more tied up in serving Christ, fulfilling those things which we think He wants, and the things we think He emphasized, the things we think He expects of us, while at the same time serving a Lord we hardly know. I gave up that god, the god of serving Christ. Now it is Christ!”
In late December of 1968, five years later, Gene brought a message to college students gathered in an auditorium at U.C.L.A. The audio tape of that message came to be known as “The U.C.L.A. tape.” It became the most listened to tape of “The Jesus Movement.”
In March, 1969 Gene was invited to Santa Barbara, California by a group of students at the University of California at Santa Barbara. They met in the little village of Isla Vista which adjoined the UCSB campus.
“There was nothing I ever did until that time that is worthy of being classified as ministry. The books I had penned as a youth, the city-wide campaigns – all of these – were really of little or no eternal value.”
Beyond that, Gene is an author of some thirty books. His books can be found in virtually every Christian bookstore in the English-speaking world. To order Gene’s books, go to SeedSowers Publishing House. ” Just recently a poll was taken of bookstore managers. The bookstore managers were asked: “What books written in the twentieth century do you think are timeless? Which ones do you believe will still be on bookstore shelves 100 years from now? Still in print? Still popular?”
This was the response: Only three books consistently made that list. They were: “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers, “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis, and “The Divine Romance” by Gene Edwards.
The House Churches
Since that time Gene has been involved in planting house churches; that is, helping Christians to meet in homes. At the present moment there is a gathering of believers that Gene and his co-workers are involved with in each of the following cities: Lithia Springs (Atlanta), Georgia; Jacksonville, Florida; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Dearborn (Detroit), Michigan; Ventura, California; Arlington, Texas; St. Paul, Minnesota; Lacey, Washington; Vancouver, Washington; Amsterdam, Holland; Auckland, New Zealand; Bournemouth, England; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Johannesburg/Pretoria, South Africa; Witrivier, South Africa; Timisoara, Romania. Gene holds conferences on church life as well as conferences on the deeper Christian life.
If you would like to visit one of these churches, click here.
Gene Edwards lives with his wife Helen in Florida.