Retired Bible professor Dr. Harold Willmington reflects on his legacy
- Willmington is the longest-serving original faculty at Liberty University and currently teaches a Bible class at TRBC on Sunday mornings.
- Willmington’s Project SWORD, set for release in January, will be fully accessible and free online for Bible education.
“Now, Harold,” Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. said on April 7, 2007. “How long have you been with me?”
Dr. Harold Willmington had just turned 75 that day, evident in how his secretary Eva Middleton prepared his office for a small faculty party to celebrate. Dr. Falwell made a point of coming, as Willmington had been with Liberty almost from the very beginning of the school, going from Indiana preacher to the longest-serving original faculty in Liberty’s history.
“Thirty-five years,” Willmington responded.
Dr. Falwell paused a while. “Let’s make a deal—you promise not to foul up, I promise not to fire you.”
The two men laughed and shook on it, but Falwell’s countenance dimmed a bit more seriously.
“You often hear me say that I ask God to give me another 15 years with option to renew,” Falwell said. “I’ll include you in that prayer, too.”
Willmington smiled to himself. How many others had Big Jerry made that same promise to?
“By that time, we’ll be in our nineties,” Falwell continued. “Our boys can help us up on our horses, and we’ll ride off into the sunset.”
Almost six weeks later, Dr. Falwell died at age 73. That sun had set sooner than Willmington expected.
“I thought, what a legacy that man left,” Willmington said, sitting in his office ten years later and reflecting on his friend. “Then I thought, what kind of legacy am I leaving?”
When Willmington first arrived at what was then Lynchburg Baptist College to teach at the then-Thomas Road Bible Institute, his supreme goal, as he puts it, was “to raise the level of Bible knowledge among God’s people.”
“I think it’s the only way to help America,” Willmington said. “It has to start not only with the unsaved getting saved, but also with revival—when Christians get ready for God. In the Old Testament, we read where (God) said, ‘If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, then I’ll bring revival to the land.’”
About 46 years later, having taught at what’s now the Willmington School of the Bible, the vision has not changed. The means and timeline, however, have changed.
Just last year, the seed of urgency planted in Willmington’s vision in 2007 sprouted into a working reality. Jerry Falwell Jr. called Willington to a special meeting with him, marketing, the provost and others. Willmington laid out his idea and mission to the group. It would be far different from the 20 books and the Willmington Guides he had done before. This would be a series of articles overviewing the entirety of the Old Testament, New Testament and systematic theology.
Today, it is Project SWORD —“Scripture Wisdom Organized and Rightly Divided”— and it is in full-swing development, set for a tentative January release.
The clincher? SWORD will be fully accessible and free to the world online. It would be the most far-reaching free Bible program on the internet.
“I said (at that meeting) that I wanted to reach two groups of people: the faculty, and the church planters,” Willmington said. “It’s nice to sell books, but I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to leave a legacy. And I think this will be my legacy. Not nearly as much as Dr. Falwell’s legacy, but it’s a little thing I can do.”
Willmington left that meeting in 2016 “walking on air,” as he put it. But he later received news that threatened to uproot his work, and take his life with it.
Two weeks before Christmas, Willmington was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He had been given anywhere from six months to a year to live. It wasn’t the happiest of Christmases in the Willmington home that year, but Dr. Willmington made an even more startling discovery than his prognosis through it all.
“There are several kinds of grace in the Bible,” Willmington said. “But there’s a special type of grace that the puritans would call the ‘boiling oil grace.’ You don’t get boiling oil grace until you’re in the boiling oil. Well, God gave me that grace and assurance. I never really prayed that God would heal me, but I did pray ‘Please, give me dying grace.’ But I felt this inner voice saying ‘Do not pray for dying grace.’ I didn’t question it, but I interpreted it as I’m not dying right away.”
In other words, God was not done with him.
It’s been a year since Willmington’s prognosis. He undergoes immunotherapy every three weeks with intermittent CAT scans. He feels no pain throughout his work days, but experiences extreme fatigue. After a few hours of work he will retreat to a back room and rest. When people come in to look for him, his secretary Eva Middleton will say, “He’s in China right now.”
Willmington doesn’t teach classes at Liberty anymore, but he does teach a Bible class every Sunday at Thomas Road Baptist Church, and he can still be found in his office working at Project SWORD.
Willmington speaks about his life and work as if the sunset he is riding toward is another lifetime away.
“When I get into the Scriptures to study them, and learn something brand new every time, that gives me the joy and hope,” Willmington said. “I’m part of a worldwide ministry here now.”
The Willmington School of the Bible is headed up by Dr. Rick Raspberry now. Willmington’s son Matt is the director of ministries at TRBC. Willmington’s wife Sue began her ministry to the deaf at TRBC as director, then established a deaf ministry at Liberty Christian Academy, Liberty Bible Institute and Liberty University. The Willmingtons have three grandchildren — Nathan, Carissa and Abigail — who have all been involved in Liberty to some capacity.
While the world, the school and his family move on with outreach, Willmington’s focus stays with setting a foundation for this generation and leaving a legacy for them to follow.
“I think what I would like on my tombstone is a statement that Simon Peter made in the book of Acts when he addressed some of the Jews: ‘So David served his own generation in the will of God, and fell asleep,’” Willmington said. “I would like it said of me that Willmington tried to serve his generation in the will of God.”