Feature

A Rare Bird

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“I think we should smuggle you out for a milkshake!” the distinguished man, familiarly called “Mac” by A. B. Simpson, waggishly suggested. I wasn’t so much impressed by the presence of a founding father of The Alliance, William T. MacArthur, as by his startling proposition—I had been quarantined in my room with whooping cough! I could well have called this unusual man “a rare bird,” as did Simpson when they first met.

In 1896 MacArthur’s first conversation with Simpson proved so lengthy that Simpson’s wife called down to ask what was keeping him so late. He replied, “I’ll be up soon, but this time I’ve caught a rare bird.” The young MacArthur likewise spoke of Simpson as “a man with oil on him,” with “oil” meaning the Holy Spirit. They became bound together by a vision of the living Jesus Christ moving among His people—saving, sanctifying, healing and coming again as King.

MacArthur’s son John has also elicited a nickname—a recent biography of him is titled The Eccentric Billionaire. During his lifetime, John was one of the three wealthiest men in the country. He established a foundation that is worth $7 billion today and distributes some $300 million each year. This knack in accumulating wealth was not inherited from his father, who believed that poverty authenticated his pastoral calling!

If any of MacArthur’s sons “took after” him, it was Charles, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and husband of actress Helen Hayes. William MacArthur knew the power of words and was able to hold his hearers spellbound, often with humor. One early Alliance crowd became so out of control with hilarity that MacArthur, hoping to restore order, pleaded, “I mean it!” As the listeners thought this another “punch line,” MacArthur, in despair, relinquished the podium to Simpson.

The response to his preaching, however, was more often a “holy hush” than laughter. On one occasion, in the midst of his sermon, he sat down, eyes closed. After a seemingly interminable time, the perplexed pastor pleaded, “Brother MacArthur, the people are fascinated and want you to finish your sermon.” MacArthur arose and stated, “I told you it was all in Jesus Christ, and so it is!” The point was made—our Christianity depends not on personalities, programs and procedures but on Jesus Christ Himself.

This vision inspired MacArthur’s deep involvement in The Alliance, where he filled many leadership roles but primarily influenced countless lives through his preaching. One young student, having lost direction in his life, heard MacArthur and rededicated his life to Christian ministry. His name? Billy Graham (The MacArthur Heritage by Barbara Graymount, p. 68).

Although MacArthur powerfully provides us with an example of Christian leadership, A. W. Tozer’s view that every leader has a flaw is proven in MacArthur’s family. MacArthur’s four sons were all spectacularly successful, but none followed in their father’s spiritual footsteps. Could MacArthur’s flaw have been one common to too many leaders: giving themselves to the multitudes while failing to give themselves to the few, their own family?

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