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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Pat who?
As Pat Boone stepped to the microphone at the recent Religion News Association national conference, not everybody recognized him.
“I know who you are,” Boone, 83, said a fellow speaker told him. “I thought you died.”
The crowd of religion news journalists gathered in Music City — myself included — laughed.
Decades ago, Boone was a household name — a pop singer for whom Elvis Presley opened in the mid-1950s. A star in record, film and television work, Boone had a “squeaky clean image” and “was known as an actor who wouldn’t kiss a woman on the screen other than his wife,” as Los Angeles Times religion writer John Dart noted in a 1994 story.
For members of Churches of Christ in the 1950s and ‘60s, Boone was a big deal because he was one of us.
“A native of Donelson, Tennessee (a suburb of Nashville), a graduate of David Lipscomb High School, and a former student at David Lipscomb College, Boone grew up in the very bosom of Churches of Christ and, at twelve years of age, was baptized by M. Norvel Young,” Restoration Movement scholar Richard T. Hughes wrote in his 1996 book “Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America.”
As a boy, I first heard about Boone from my parents while watching a rerun of a 1969 “Beverly Hillbillies” episode in which the entertainer appears as himself.
In the “Collard Greens An’ Fatback” episode, Boone wanders into the Clampetts’ neighborhood and smells Granny’s cooking. The Clampetts think he’s a hill country man down on his luck and befriend him (Boone arrives at the 8:17 mark in the below YouTube video).
Mom and Dad mentioned that Boone had been a member of Churches of Christ at one time. What they didn’t tell me — or if they did, I don’t recall it — is the story of Boone’s highly publicized falling out with many in our fellowship a half-century ago.
According to Hughes’ book, Boone created a “storm of controversy within Churches of Christ when he revealed that he had received the Holy Spirit and now spoke in tongues.” James Bales, a Bible professor at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., wrote a 1970 book titled “Pat Boone and The Gift of Tongues” in which “he sought to expose Boone’s errors.”
In 1969, Boone went on television with Pentecostal preachers Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard, said John Mark Hicks, a professor of theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville.
“By the middle of 1970, Boone was essentially ‘disfellowshipped’ (or blackballed) among Churches of Christ by the major editors and power brokers,” Hicks said. Boone and his wife, Shirley, “were officially excommunicated from the Inglewood Church of Christ (in California) in April 1971.”
I caught up with him for a few minutes after he spoke.
“I credit my days in the Church of Christ, a cappella, with a major influence on my singing career,” said Boone, who sold more than 45 million records. “As a teenager, I would be singing at church and at gospel meetings.”
Boone fondly recalled leading singing at congregations such as the Nashville-area Pegram Church of Christ — “a little country church.”
His sophomore year, Boone transferred from Lipscomb to the University of North Texas, which he described as a “a big music school.” He said he thought he’d become a teacher and a preacher “like my Christian role models at Lipscomb.”
While in Texas, he delivered sermons at various congregations, including the rural Greenwood Church of Christ near Decatur, Texas, where my father, Bob Ross, preaches. (Yes, it’s a small world in Churches of Christ!)
But Boone gave up his teaching ambition when his musical career took off: He attracted national attention by winning “American Idol”-style singing competitions on Ted Mack’s “Amateur Hour” and Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts.” He “rocketed to stardom and fame” with two gold records in 1955, as Hughes’ book points out.
Boone moved to New York and led singing at the Manhattan Church of Christ from 1955 to 1959.
Boone’s “moral and religious scruples quickly earned him a national reputation as a fundamentally wholesome and clean-cut kid — something unique in the world of Hollywood,” Hughes observed. “Needless to say, Churches of Christ prized Boone as an important symbol of their own rapid ascent to middle-class social respectability.”
The entertainer traces his later strains with Churches of Christ to his embrace of the charismatic movement.
“It was kind of an awakening through Christendom that so much of the churches had ruled out the supernatural, which was very much a part of first century Christianity, because miracles are happening everywhere,” Boone said.
“Paul talked about speaking in tongues and gifts of healing in 1 Corinthians 13, 14 and other places,” the singer added. “When they went in on the Day of Pentecost and said, ‘Brothers, what shall we do, we crucified the Son of Glory?’ and Peter said, ‘Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ … everyone was hearing their own language, even though the apostles didn’t know those languages. They were speaking in tongues, and everyone was hearing it in their own language.
“That was the pattern over the years,” he continued. “Since it wasn’t happening in many places, the doctrine grew that it was not for today. But in our lives, in that that period in the ‘70s, we remember people who were experiencing first century Christianity, including the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
But the church where Boone had served as a deacon, Sunday school teacher and song leader “felt they had to decide between the doctrine and me, so they chose the doctrine and declared us no longer members because they thought I was heretical or something.”
Hugh Fulford preached for Churches of Christ in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas for 42 years.
Fulford recalls seeing Boone at the Lipscomb summer Bible lectures in 1961. Boone was introduced to the audience, and Fulford thinks the singer was asked to say the closing prayer.
“In the early 1970s, while living in Lebanon, Tenn., I preached some sermons on the Holy Spirit and mentioned a number who had defected to the charismatic movement, including Pat Boone,” said Fulford, who retired from full-time work 17 years ago but still preaches for the Mitchellville Church of Christ in Sumner County, Tenn.
Despite his “defection,” Boone has remained an active supporter of higher education institutions associated with Churches of Christ.
In his early years, Boone donated proceeds of his best-selling book “Twixt Twelve and Twenty” to help with the 1957 launch of Northeastern Christian Junior College in Villanova, Pa., near Philadelphia.
That college later became a part of Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., which earlier this year honored Pat and Shirley Boone, who have been married for 63 years, with the Lifetime Achievement for Christian Education Award.
In more recent times, the Boones have funded endowments at Lipscomb University, which invited him to speak at its spring 2015 graduation, and at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. The couple gave $3 million to create the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine.
Pat Boone serves as chairman of Pepperdine’s University Board, an advisory group that is different from the university’s governing body. Most recently, Boone was a major donor for the refurbishment of Pepperdine’s Payson Library, which houses the new the Jerry Rushford Center for Research on Churches of Christ and the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.
After the Inglewood church disfellowshipped him, Boone later served as an elder of the Church on the Way, a “Spirit-filled” congregation in the Los Angeles-area community of Van Nuys.
However, the entertainer — who remains a Christian Chronicle subscriber — insists he never left the “Church of Christ.”
“There’s only one church. I never left,” he told me. “Some disfellowshipped me, but I never disfellowshipped them. There’s only one church, one Lord, one baptism. So I’ve never left anything.”
Bobby Ross Jr. is Chief Correspondent for The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]
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