bishop-bevel-jones-story.jpgLet us celebrate the life of Lewis Bevel Jones III—Bev, as his friends called him: Georgian by birth, Christian by faith, Methodist by conviction, proud Emory alumnus, seeker of justice, advocate for peace and unity among peoples, engaging teacher, eloquent preacher, and pastor to the despairing and dispossessed as well as to the powerful and the privileged. Ever ready with a humorous story for any topic of the moment, he also understood the pain silently carried by many, and he drew from a well of compassion to help soothe their anguish. His own long passing from this life through stages of decline seemed a cruel fate for one whose light had so often brightened the lives of others. Yet, in the fastness of his faith, he may have seen it all as the blessing of divine grace and mercy.

Born in a Methodist parsonage in Gracewood, Georgia, on July 22, 1926, he came early to his calling to the ministry. He entered Emory College as a freshman at the tender age of sixteen and earned his BA degree in 1946. Continuing at Emory in the Candler School of Theology, he not only earned his divinity degree but also played baseball on the “Theologs” intramural team. Decades later, he could still recall one game when he was tagged out while sliding into home. The catcher on the opposing medical school team was a future physician and fellow trustee, Linton Bishop. The tag line they both recounted long afterward was, “You’re out, preacher!” And they chuckled that a Bishop had tagged out a future bishop.

The year 1949 marked the end of his formal education, as he graduated from Candler, but that ending also brought a beginning, as he married Mildred Hawkins and began their lifelong partnership. Tuck, as she was known, would move with him many times and offer indispensable support of his ministry. Along the way they reared three children, who would bring them the joy of six grandchildren.

His ministry began even before he finished seminary, as he served in 1948-49 as associate pastor of First Methodist Church in Decatur, Georgia. Following graduation, he was appointed pastor of a new church in southwest Atlanta, Audubon Forest Methodist, which he served for the next decade. After other pastorates in LaGrange, Decatur, Athens, and Atlanta, Bevel was elected to the episcopacy by the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church in 1984. As bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference residing in Charlotte, he brought to that heavy responsibility the same intense engagement with community, civic affairs, and ecumenism that had marked his pastorates. He was vice chair of the General Commission on Religion and Race (1984–88), president of United Methodist Communications (1992–96), and president of the North American Section of the World Methodist Council (1991–96).

Bev was elected to the Emory board of trustees in 1971, more than a decade prior to his elevation to the episcopacy. This was an unusual, almost unprecedented recognition of a clergy leader who was not a Methodist bishop, and it bespoke not only his active involvement with Candler and Emory but also the regard in which he was held throughout the community. During the next quarter of a century, he gave endless hours to committee work that went to the core of the university’s mission—first the Student and Academic Services Committee, then, when that committee was reorganized, the Campus Life Committee and the Academic Affairs Committee. He thought about and gave his best advice on the whole range of student life, from fraternities and sororities to health services and athletics—everything that most closely affected the social and emotional well-being of Emory students. He also read hundreds of faculty files, as the board reviewed appointments to tenure and distinguished faculty chairs—appointments that would determine the academic rigor and quality of Emory for decades.

Besides Emory, he served on the boards of seven other United Methodist institutions of higher education and was an Emory-appointed member of the board of The Carter Center. In gratitude for his wise and sustained leadership, LaGrange College, High Point University, and Pfeiffer University awarded him honorary doctoral degrees, as did his alma mater, Emory. Following his retirement from the episcopacy in 1996, he and Tuck returned to Atlanta, where he began a decade of teaching at Candler as the Loida E. Willett Churchman in Residence. Later, as he stepped down from that role of teaching, which he relished, the school created an endowed professorship in his name with the support of the William H. and Lula E. Pitts Foundation—the L. Bevel Jones III Chair in the Practice of Ministry.

All of this might be the outline of any bishop’s life—the pastorates, the trusteeships, the civic engagement, the ecumenical dialogue, the public prayers and homiletical forays throughout the Southeast and beyond, not to mention the endless administrative tasks. What set Bevel Jones apart was his charming fearlessness. His engaging smile and witty stories played on the surface of a soul that wanted to get to the heart of matters. Take, for example, his question about the Emory ethos.

In 1986, as Bishop William Cannon retired from the Emory board after eighteen years, Bev succeeded him as vice chair, the position customarily reserved for the senior bishop on the board. In that capacity, he filled an important role on the presidential search committee charged with the formidable task of finding the successor to President James Laney in 1993–94. Almost his first question in the process, directed to me as the person staffing the search, was about the character of the institution the president would serve. “How would you describe the ethos of Emory?” he asked.

It was a question he himself answered eloquently a few years later in his valedictory to the board, when he was elected to emeritus status in 1996. Speaking to trustees, administrators, and benefactors of the university on November 13 that year, he gave the keynote talk at the dinner the evening before his final board meeting. Waxing a bit nostalgic, he set the ethos of Emory in terms of his own formation as a Christian, as a thinker, and as a human being. He recalled that he had come to the Druid Hills campus in 1942 at a tender age and left seven years later to begin his career. Yet, he said, “I have never really left Emory. My life has been inextricably interwoven with it as student, alumnus, trustee, and now adjunct professor. There is no way I can measure, let alone convey, what I have gotten out of Emory University. Suffice it to say that from these hallowed marbled halls in Druid Hills, I have gotten, and still get, my orientation to life. Here I have established friendships, developed ideas, espoused causes and struggled with issues that have shaped my very being. Through its liberal arts program I was set free without being set adrift. In the untrammeled search for truth, I have come to see life steady and to see it whole. Here my vocational calling has been formed and informed. . . . Now I have the added joy and satisfaction of helping to educate and equip scores of leaders for the church under the auspices of my alma mater.”

To understand the magnificence of that tribute to his alma mater—the “nurturing mother” that formed his vocation—we need only remember the power of what he came to view as the most important moment in his pastoral career. It was November 3, 1957, almost 39 years to the day before his retirement speech to the trustees. Bevel Jones had been out of college just eleven years and a Methodist pastor for little more than nine. He was thirty-one.

Three years earlier, the US Supreme Court had handed down its landmark decision in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. Across the Deep South, the decision was met with massive resistance, as states declared their determination to hold on to segregated education. In Georgia, the legislature passed a constitutional amendment allowing the privatization of all public schools in the event of court-ordered desegregation. In Arkansas, the opening of the 1957 school year witnessed the ugly scene of National Guardsmen, ordered in place by Governor Orval Faubus, preventing the court-ordered admission of black students into Little Rock Central High School.

Stunned by the hateful mob scene shown in the news, eighty white clergy in Atlanta drafted a manifesto that appeared on the front page of the Atlanta newspapers on November 3, 1957. A large proportion of them were graduates of Emory College or the Candler School of Theology, and among them was Bevel Jones. The Ministers’ Manifesto, as it came to be dubbed, appealed to the citizenry of Georgia to uphold the right to free speech, obedience to law, mutual respect, and preservation of public education. Writing in “a spirit of deep humility and penitence for our own failures,” the ministers urged their fellow Georgians to be guided by prayer. The manifesto did not resolve the crisis but injected into a highly fraught racial storm a course-correcting reminder of common decency, democratic principles, and Christian charity.

While all of the signatories of the manifesto were Christian, a significant hand in its drafting was that of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, senior rabbi of the oldest Jewish congregation in Atlanta, The Temple. The heavy Christological tone of the document prevented him from signing, but he wrote a separate endorsement of its principles. This collaboration presaged a commitment to interfaith understanding and mutual support that would stay with Bevel throughout his career. I well recall the frustration he expressed during the break in a meeting of the Emory board. It is customary for those meetings to begin and close with prayer, and as Methodist bishops outnumber the occasional rabbi or other prospective supplicants, the bishops are called on frequently. At this particular meeting, a new episcopal member of the board rose at the request of the chair to invoke divine blessing on the meeting and concluded, “All this we pray in the name of Jesus the Christ.” On his way for coffee at the break, Bevel pulled me aside and said, “I’m going to have to speak to him. I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, too, but not when we have Jewish trustees present. It’s just not respectful.”

Bev searched constantly for commonalities that bind us rather than differences that divide us, and that habit rings out in some of his own finest prayers. Invited to pray at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, held in Atlanta, he invoked “a vision that will unite us and lift us above narrow loyalties and provincial interests.” In language that seems apt for our own day, he asked not “that you bless what we do, but that we shall do what you can bless.”

Yet while he could speak the language of faith and of doctrine, the vocabulary of ecclesia and episcopos, he was always clear that such language had to be directed at a purpose. In a sermon in Cannon Chapel ten years ago, he remarked, “Nothing is quite as uninteresting as a religious moralist, always on the side of angels but never fighting any devil. We must be willing to take sides on moral issues of the moment. And our ideas must be linked to actions that address specifics, tangibles.”

Bev was gifted at being able to meet people where they are. This talent made him a critical steward of the commitment of significant benefactors to the Candler School of Theology when they sometimes felt that the school took positions at odds with their theological or social views. He even displayed his common touch in moments of personal crisis. After Bev underwent surgery at Emory Hospital to have his aortic valve replaced in 2005, I stopped in to visit him briefly. Unsurprisingly, given his inherent and irrepressible affability and interest in people, I came away thinking that despite his discomfort and perhaps even pain, he had gotten to know the names, family trees, countries of origin, and professional aspirations of every nurse and orderly who was looking after him during his recovery. And while the physicians were pleased with his progress, he of course appeared highly pleased with them, and no doubt he regaled each of them with an apt story prompted by every probe or test or procedure they administered. While the experience was a literal opening of his heart, he was already well practiced in having an open heart.

On a personal note, I recall vividly and gratefully his visit to me in Hospice Atlanta, where my son lay in a coma during the last weeks of his young life in August 2002. Bev’s face and posture displayed a sorrow that did not simply mirror my own but expressed his genuine deep grief at the inexplicable mystery of death.

At Commencement in 1997, the year after his retirement from the Emory board and from the episcopacy, the university bestowed an honorary degree on Bevel. He was not going anywhere but was looking forward to new challenges, new joys, as an adjunct faculty member and bishop in residence at the school of theology. Perhaps with slight alterations, the citation read during the presentation of the degree might serve as a farewell to our beloved Bishop Jones.

Dedicated Alumnus, Devoted Churchman: During nearly a third of Emory’s history, you have written a place for yourself in its pages: as student, trustee, and now teacher. Your stewardship of Emory's welfare has placed on you the burdens of duty, wisdom, and judgment, which you have exercised with charity and great good humor. Your shepherding of those in Emory's ecclesial fellowship has benefitted mutually the Church and the University, informing faith while giving haven to faithful critical inquiry. By your words and example, you have encouraged the timid and indifferent in all your sundry communities to work in behalf of the common weal. Now, as you define once more your place in your native city and your academic home, we bestow on you, with gratitude and great affection, the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa.

His beloved Tuck preceded him in death, passing from this life just a few weeks after their sixty-sixth wedding anniversary in 2015. As he joins her in the embrace of God’s loving presence, I remember his last words to me in a visit I paid to him at his room in Budd Terrace about a year ago. His body was frail, his memory fragile, but he valiantly dug into the resources of personal presence built up over years as a pastor. We talked of many things, including the fact that he and my father were born on exactly the same day, just hours apart. As I prepared to leave, he said goodbye with a quip and a chuckle that told me the real Bev Jones was still very much present. “Gary,” he said—“you’re a scholar and a gentleman. And there aren’t very many of us left anymore.”

Now there is one less. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Read an obituary for Bishop Jones at, including funeral information.