July 3, 2006
ABILENE, Texas -- James Burton Coffman died on Friday, June 30, at age 101. A native of Taylor County, he has been described by some as one of the most influential figures among Churches of Christ in the 20th century. He was a prolific author, preacher, teacher and leader.
He was born May 24, 1905, in Taylor County to pioneer West Texans "so far out in the country it took two days to go to town and back."
Coffman graduated from Abilene High School and enrolled in Abilene Christian College (now University), graduating in 1927 with a B.A. in history and music. He was baptized during the Abilene Christian Lectureship in 1923. In 1971 he was named the university's Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.
After graduating from ACU, Coffman served as a high school principal for two years in Callahan County, then taught history and English at Abilene High School.
Coffman preached his first sermon at the College Church in Abilene, now University Church of Christ. In 1930 he was offered a position as associate minister and song leader in Wichita Falls, the beginning of his career as minister. He married Thelma "Sissy" Bradford, a native of Arlington, in 1931.
Coffman preached for congregations in Wichita Falls; Lawton, Okla.; Sherman; Houston; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. The Coffmans served two congregations a total of 30 years, Central Church of Christ in Houston and Manhattan Church of Christ in New York City.
While in Houston, he helped raise the funds to build a facility for the Central Church of Christ on Montrose Boulevard. As minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ in New York City, he helped raise $2 million to build that congregation's home at East 80th Street and Madison Avenue. It was the first building constructed specifically for a Church of Christ in New York County.
Noting the relevance of the construction of the Manhattan church, Coffman said, "For 100 years, Churches of Christ in (New York City) have worshipped in converted residences, lodge halls, mortuaries, theaters and other make-shift facilities. A hundred years is long enough to prove that success cannot be attained by such means."
Along with being ACU's Outstanding Alumnus in 1971, his honors and accomplishments include receiving honorary doctorates from ACU, Pepperdine University and Magic Valley Christian College in Albion, Idaho.
Coffman spent a year as vice president of Harding College in Searcy, Ark., where he was offered tenure, but he refused the offer to serve Churches of Christ in congregational capacities.
While in Washington, he was offered the opportunity to serve as guest chaplain for the U.S. Armed Forces in Japan and Korea and served 90 days, holding Gospel meetings throughout both countries.
In 1952 he initiated a crusade to increase the number of U.S. Air Force chaplains with Church of Christ backgrounds. At that point, only one Air Force chaplain was affiliated with the Church of Christ.
Coffman conducted hundreds of gospel meetings throughout the U.S. and, at one count, baptized more than 3,000 souls.
In 1992, Dr. John C. Stevens, chancellor emeritus at ACU, said, "One thing is certain: Burton Coffman can look back over a lifetime of work as a preacher, teacher, personal worker, scholar, author, friend to humanity and, above all, as a servant in the kingdom of God and be thankful that he has been able to make a difference in the lives of so many people."
Retiring in 1971, he returned to Houston. One of his most notable accomplishments was writing a 37-volume commentary of the entire Bible, verse by verse, which was finished in 1992. This commentary is published by ACU Press and is being sold all over the world.
Coffman and his first wife received the prestigious Christian Service Award from ACU in 1987. He also was honored with the Burton Coffman Chair of Biblical Research at ACU. The chair provides support for the academic disciplines in the College of Biblical Studies, supplementing subjects with biblical research activities.
His wife of 64 years, Thelma "Sissy" Bradford; his parents; three brothers; and a sister preceded Coffman in death.
He is survived by his second wife, June Bristow Coffman; three daughters, Cynthia Shry, Mary Glenn Kochendefer and her husband, Wayne, and Nancy Willis and her husband Corky; eight grandchildren; six great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
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