They called him Mister Vick

by David R. Stokes

He was never ordained, though he pastored one of the largest churches in the United States. He preached Sunday morning sermons to his congregation a mere ten times a year. His early ministry success came before he was 25 years old, when he built a church youth ministry to more than 1,000 teenagers. He once was responsible for 100 teenagers joining that church on a single Sunday. He never attended college, but he founded one. He was not a musician, but he led the music for two of the most prominent American evangelists of the 21st century. He loved the Detroit Tigers, ping pong, Sunday lunches at The Nau’s Sno-White Dining Room, poetry, shuffleboard, and hot-fudge creampuffs from Sanders in Detroit. And he was possibly the last known person to speak to Jimmy Hoffa at Machus Red Fox restaurant before the labor leader vanished on July 30, 1975.

His name was G. Beauchamp Vick. The G was for George. In the 1930s and 1940s, people called him, simply, Mister Vick. The “Doctor” came later, an honorific that was an overdue acknowledgement of his skills, vision, and accomplishments. The “reverend” title never came.

G. B. Vick was born January 5, 1901, in Russellville, KY. When he was very young, his father traded a career as a lawyer-politician for the pulpit at the age of 37. Eben Vick led his sixth child to the Lord and baptized him in 1910. He would often take young George on pastoral visits. But the preacher died suddenly in his prime, suffering a massive heart attack while preaching a sermon in his pulpit at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Nashville, TN, in 1912. The family then moved to Louisville, KY, and entered a protracted period of privation.

As the world went to war, Vick was attracted to a military career and joined a preparatory program at Louisville Male High School, where he became the ranking cadet. He set his sights on West Point. But, by the time of his early graduation, The Great War had come to an end, and Vick sought other ways to make his mark on the world. He landed a job in the auditor’s office at the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. He went home after work one day and told his mother, “I met the cutest girl at L & N today.” Her name was Eloise Baker. Though she was engaged to someone else, it was love at first sight for Vick. He was determined to marry her, which he did May 26, 1919. She was 20 and he was 18.

The next year, Vick wrote to a number of railroad companies based in Fort Worth, TX, about potential employment. Cowtown was in the midst of an oil boom, and the pay was better. The Fort Worth & Denver Railroad hired him, and he and Eloise moved to Texas. They were drawn to Fort Worth’s famous First Baptist Church, where the fascinating, though polarizing preacher, J. Frank Norris, was building America’s original entrepreneurial megachurch.

Norris was a gifted communicator, brilliant ministry strategist, and ministry populist. But he also had a dark side, including a penchant for ruthlessness toward those who dared to opposed him, whether in local government, business, or even his own church. He used his pulpit and pen (he published a tabloid newspaper for several decades) to denounce all critics. His nickname seemed appropriate: The Texas Tornado. He was one part Billy Sunday, two parts P. T. Barnum, with an unquantified measure of Al Capone.

Norris saw qualities in young G. B. Vick he knew would serve him and his church well. He pursued the young railroad executive, inviting him to join the church’s paid staff. Vick resisted until 1924. Then, at the age of 23, he took the first steps in a ministry journey that would span more than half a century.

Vick would spend the better part of the next 25 years working with Norris. The only gap would be a detour into the world of large-campaign evangelism in the 1930s.

How did G. B. Vick manage to survive so long in Norris’s world? One historical parallel may be when Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower —the future hero of D-Day and two-term President of the United States — served as General Douglas MacArthur’s Chief of Staff, first in Washington, D.C., then later in the Philippines. MacArthur was aloof, with a massive ego, whereas Eisenhower, though he had an iron will, was approachable and humble. Years later, Ike recalled, “I studied dramatics under him (MacArthur) for five years in Washington and four years in the Philippines.”

G. B. Vick certainly studied dramatics under J. Frank Norris, but he learned other things from him as well — things like organization, motivation, church building, communication, persuasion, and promotion. And, after a few years on Norris’s staff, Vick was recruited by nationally known evangelist Wade House to work as an advance man and music director.

In 1934, Norris accepted a call to the pastorate of Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, MI, located at Fourteenth and Marquette streets. He did so with the understanding that he would remain as pastor of his Texas church and commute the 1,300 miles back and forth. He began to look for someone who could be a general superintendent, running day-to-day operations in Detroit.

In the providence of God, Norris invited Mordecai Ham to Detroit. The evangelist dispatched G. B. Vick, now his advance man, to work out the details. When the man Norris would soon brand as “The World’s Greatest Layman” walked into his office, he knew his search was over, and he applied all his celebrated powers of persuasion on his former associate. Vick agreed.

Together again.

In the mid-1930s, Detroit was the fourth most populous city in the United States. As G. B. Vick prepared to relocate his family, now including a ten-year-old daughter named Evelyn Rae and a three-year-old son named Jimmy, the city was trying to claw its way back from the worst of The Great Depression.

The mood in town was surprisingly upbeat, as the masses found diversion in sports. Over a six-month period, from Autumn 1935 through Spring 1936, Detroit teams achieved something no American city ever had (or has ever since) — a championship “hat-trick” during a season/cycle. Beginning with the Detroit Tigers, who beat the Chicago Cubs in the October 1935 World Series — the franchise’s first title — the Motor City was on a roll. The Detroit Lions beat the New York Giants that December to win the NFL Championship. The Detroit Red Wings then won their first-ever Stanley Cup hockey championship in April. There was also a local prizefighter by the name of Joe Louis who was well on his way to an extended tenure as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Temple Baptist Church was gearing up for a championship run of its own. As Vick organized and Norris energized the congregation, the church began to experience dramatic growth. The Texas preacher came to Detroit twice a month for several years. He knew how to get the attention of local media and draw curious crowds. But the ultimate reason for Temple’s numerical success was the cultivation of a dedicated cadre of volunteer workers. That was Vick’s forte.

Vick also learned from Norris the value of house-to-house visitation, which was highly effective at a time when people sat on front porches, kids played ball in the streets, and few felt the need to ever lock the front door. It worked very well in 1930s Detroit. Average attendance at Temple grew from 761 in 1935 to 2057 in 1937. Ten years later it averaged 2,994. The trend would continue through the next decade, moving toward the 5,000 mark.

But success would not come without problems.

As numeric success in Detroit began to rival, then surpass, what was happening in the Fort Worth church, Norris grew envious of Vick’s success and the clear affection of the people for him. It was like a Saul-David thing. As Norris’s physical health declined in the late 1940s, his communication and behavior became increasingly erratic and impulsive. More than ever, he seemed to relish feuds and conflicts.

One area of concern and conflict was his seminary. It had always been a poorly organized operation, at the mercy of Norris’s whims, but by 1948, it was threatened with financial collapse. Norris turned to Vick for help.

By this time, Temple Baptist Church, with Norris’s blessing, had given Vick the title of co-pastor, an obvious recognition of his role and contributions. But he was reluctant to get involved in the Fort Worth school. He even told Norris it could mean their eventual break with each other. Norris was desperate and waved off such talk. Vick eventually yielded and became president of the seminary. His management skills brought the Fort Worth school back to financial stability in less than two years.

Norris, however, was unraveling. He saw conspiracies everywhere and was losing his grip on his empire. So he schemed to push Vick out and take the seminary back. This did not sit well with many pastors. Things came to a head in May 1950, when a group of preachers met at the famous Hotel Texas in Fort Worth to separate from Norris’s orbit and begin a new movement: The Baptist Bible Fellowship. A few weeks later, Temple Baptist Church voted to oust J. Frank Norris and install G. B. Vick as sole pastor by a vote of 3,000 to 7.

That fall, Baptist Bible College opened for business in Springfield, MO, with 107 students and G. B. Vick as its founding president.

Vick did not preach most Sundays at Temple Baptist Church, at the most only ten or so times a year during the main 11:00 a.m. service. The remaining 40-plus Sundays would feature speakers from across America and around the world. For preachers in the 1950s and 1960s an invitation to preach at the Detroit church was akin to “playing the Palace.”

Mr. Vick was also a great communicator in his own right. His Sunday school class, sometimes reaching 900 in attendance, was the largest in the church. He taught through books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. All the Sunday school classes followed his lead. The Wednesday gatherings were largely given to preparation for Sunday, as Vick would teach the teachers and workers the lesson he and the rest of them would share with their classes the next Lord’s day. The pastor also preached on radio, and eventually television each week.

G. B. Vick was strong, but not mercurial. He was frugal, but not stingy. He was self-confident, but not egotistical. He was consistent, but not inflexible. He was private, but not unapproachable. He was reserved, but not aloof. He was decisive, but not impulsive. He was a boss, but not a bully. He was humble, but not servile. He was blameless, but not self-righteous. He was betrayed, but not bitter. He was self-confident, but not arrogant. He was not formally educated, but he was a life-long reader and learner. He became older, but never tired of giving younger men great opportunities. He was the ultimate servant-leader.

His successor at Temple Baptist, Dr. A. V. Henderson, described Vick as “the essence of grace.” Gary Grey remembers flying into Detroit’s Metro Airport from Pueblo, CO, for his first speaking opportunity at Temple. “Dr. Vick met me at the airport and started to pick up my suitcase. I told him, ‘I got my suitcase Dr. Vick.’ He told me he would carry it to his car. I said, ‘I can carry my own suitcase, Dr. Vick.’ And he said, ‘Gary, are you my guest?’ I answered, ‘Yes sir, I am.’ He said, ‘Then I will carry your suitcase.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir.’” Similar stories abounded.

In 1954, Temple Baptist Church moved into a brand new $1.9 million building at 10100 Grand River in Detroit, and the church continued to grow, reporting an attendance of 5,718 one Sunday shortly after the move. The facility was outfitted with fixed theater-type seating for 4,000, with room for more than 1,200 overflow chairs. LIFE Magazine featured a two-page photograph of the opening service in its December 26, 1955, issue.

More than a decade later, and at an age when most preachers are thinking of retirement — or are already there — Vick conceived a bold new plan to lead his flock through yet another massive relocation and building program. In August 1966, he personally conducted negotiations with the city of Detroit for the sale of the Grand River property and facility to the Board of Education for $1,150,000. A 16-acre tract of land in nearby Redford Township was purchased, and a beautiful state-of-the-art facility, featuring a plush 4,500 seat auditorium (with a beautiful wrap-around balcony), was designed and built for $4.5 million ($32 million in today’s dollars). The church moved in October 1968. And under Vick’s wise financial stewardship, they were debt free less than six years later.

In May 1969, G. Beauchamp and Eloise Vick celebrated 50 years of marriage. President and Mrs. Richard Nixon sent a congratulatory telegram. Sadly, a few months later, on October 1, Mrs. Vick, affectionately known to her grandchildren as “Gamommie,” suffered a heart attack and went home to be with the Lord. Mr. Vick would finish his course in the years ahead without her unwavering love, strength, and wisdom.

J. Frank Norris was 74 years old when he passed away in 1952, after having nearly destroyed everything he had built. The Fort Worth church was a shell of its former self, and his seminary was barely alive.

In contrast, 74-year-old G. B. Vick sat at his desk in his office at Baptist Bible College in Springfield on Monday, September 29, 1975, with plenty to rejoice about. Just three weeks earlier he had marked his 40th anniversary with Temple Baptist Church. More than 300 men had been called to preach out of the church during his tenure. The day before, on just an ordinary Sunday with no special emphasis, Temple recorded 4,224 in attendance. There was a report on his desk about the current enrollment at BBC for that fall semester — 2,371 students studying for the ministry.

As the clock on his office wall crawled to the next groove, indicating the time to be 20 minutes past noon, George Beauchamp Vick was suddenly released from his earthly body and ushered into the presence of the Lord. At some point, I suspect he heard the words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Or maybe, servant-leader.

David R. Stokes has served as the senior pastor of the ministry now known as Expectation Church in Fairfax, VA, since 1998. He is the author of 14 books, including: The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America. David’s website is David thanks Billy Vick Bartlett, grandson of Mr. Vick, for being a wonderful “sounding board” as this article was being researched and written.