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Book review:
For All the People: Selected sermons of Reverend Clegg W. Avett (1914-1976)

By Jim Spiceland

“There are people who have many masks but no face of their own”  – Rev. Clegg Avett

For nearly 40 years the people of rural and small town Methodist Churches in Western North Carolina were enriched by the ministry ofthe Rev. Clegg Avett. Although his family had encouraged him to publish a book of his sermons, this plain, down to earth pastor must have been too busy caring for the souls of his people to invest time in his files. This task was left to be carried out by his beloved wife, Martha, his oldest son Wallace Avett, and other family members after his untimely death in 1976. The result of their work is this book, a collection of 26 sermons which are simply chock full of wisdom and spiritual insight.

The cover of this small paperback features a picture of the face of Reverend Avett. In my view, that face is itself a sermon. His eyes reveal depth of character and uncomplicated integrity. There is no mask here, just a real face, his own face. In spite of the popular maxim, there are times when you can tell a book by its cover. This man had his own face. There was no guile in him. If he ever wore a mask it must have been as a small boy on Halloween.

These sermons cover a wide range of topics from expected Christmas and Easter exhortations to topics like stubbornness, death and dying, tithing (he counters the bumper sticker “honk if you love Jesus” with his own suggestion: “Tithe if you love Jesus, anyone can honk”), family life, race relations, and many more.

He was a prophet ahead of his time. A sermon on integration, “An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” preached in the early fifties, offended some church members. On that Sunday morning he confessed

“It will be hard for me to get used to desegregation, but I do not see how the United States Supreme Court could have ruled otherwise and believed in democracy. The question is not ‘do we like it, but is it right? Is it the will of God?’”

Such a statement form the pulpit in 2010 would hardly be a radical one. Rev. Avett, however, was preaching in the rural south in the 1950s. These were courageous words.

In an interesting sermon cleverly entitled “Tied-Down Rudders,”using II Corinthians 3:6 as a text, he reminds parishioners of the need to understand that while the “letter kills” the “spirit gives life.” The Christian life is not defined by rigid rules cast in concrete. Fastening their beliefs dogmatically may make them feel safe. But this is a false security. “When the winds rise the rudder must be free. Those who stubbornly keep the rudder down may capsize.”

This little book exudes the relevance and energy of a preacher who is intellectually and spiritually alive. Christians, he claimed, have the responsibility to make the gospel relevant to the challenges of their contemporary culture, and every generation brings new challenges. This makes the Christian pilgrimage an exciting one in every age. Rooted in scripture, Rev. Avett reminded his people that Jesus said, “…I have other things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now” “…When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into truth.” (John 16:12). The truth Christians know and love cannot be tied down to one denomination or even one book. “God is the God of truth and if it is true inside the Bible or outside the Bible it is still God’s truth” (page 16).

The energy of this truth is boundless and expresses itself in diverse ways. We should not fear new truth. This preacher very plainly says, “…don’t tie your rudder down and say, ‘if he isn’t just where I expect him, it can’t be God.’ Don’t demand that God’s guidance come in the way you prescribe or you will refuse to accept it.”

If the church is to serve its true mission it must not retreat from the rough and tumble of life in this world. Although the church is not of the world, it is certainly in it, and therefore responsible to minister to its needs.

The Reverend Clegg Avett was clearly a loving pastor to his parishioners in the towns and rural areas of Western North Carolina. Just as clearly, however, this volume demonstrates that he was, in the deepest biblical sense, a man For All The People.

Jim Spiceland is a retired professor of religion and philosophy. He lives in Salisbury, NC

The book, For All the People, is available for purchase at Proceeds after printing costs go to the Clegg Avett Memorial Scholarship fund at Brevard College.