Church histories often focus on measurements of success more appropriate for a corporation than a church: large building projects; budget increases; growth in church membership. But if current Auburn First Baptist members conducted a referendum, they probably would select the team of Jeffers and Jeffers the most successful co-pastors ever.
That outcome defies conventional wisdom. Although John led a renovation of the recreation building at AFBC, made possible by a large bequest from the estate of Miss Willie Huguley, he planned no major construction efforts despite the longest pastorate in church history (28 years, from 1958 until 1986). The church budget expanded steadily but slowly, reflecting the prosperity of the four decades during which he served. Because of changes in the church’s relationship to the Baptist Student Union, rapid growth by its mission churches, the church’s more transparent record keeping (a purge of “nonresident members” who had long since moved away from Auburn), and increasing conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (in which AFBC was considered a heretical “moderate” congregation), membership actually declined from a record high of 1,500 members to slightly more than 500. The active, resident membership remained fairly constant though the names and backgrounds changed. More were moderate Baptists or drawn from a variety of denominational backgrounds.
In the absence of these traditional “success” markers, what made the Jeffers beloved? Auburn folk referred to them by a variety of names. The most common for him was simply “Brother John”, an indication that he was not a man of degrees who flaunted education or erudition to distance himself from his flock. As a team, no term fit them better than the frequently heard “Mutt and Jeff.” Based on “two mismatched tinhorns” created by cartoonist Bud Fisher in 1907, the cartoon featured one extremely tall, lean figure, the other short and rotund. It was literally true that when John held his arms straight out, Jeanette could walk under them without touching either. Standing six-and-a-half feet tall, John towered above his below-five-feet tall wife.
Born in Glencoe, Etowah County, Alabama, in 1921, to working class parents, John’s family moved early in his life to Tarrant City, an industrial Birmingham suburb. His father worked in a plant, and when John graduated high school in 1939, he also began factory work at American Cast Iron Pipe Company. Tall in any generation, he was a veritable giant as a teen-ager in the late 1930s. Raised in a conventional, devout Baptist family, he early felt called to preach and gleefully accepted a modest basketball scholarship to the little Baptist college in nearby East Lake.
For four years John majored in economics while playing forward for the “Battling Bulldogs” of Howard College. As the team’s tallest player, he enjoyed a solid freshman season in 1939—the team’s 16-10 record included victories over Mississippi State and Loyola—and they won second place in the Dixie Conference with a 13-1 record. John had an even better sophomore year when Howard defeated API in Auburn, 37-33, led the University of Alabama for three quarters before falling 39-32, beat the Dixie Conference champs, and lost by only five points (45-40) to the traveling Boston Celtics. John never talked about his stellar college basketball career, even when fanatical basketball fans at church pressed him on the subject. In truth, he was never a team “star”. He spent his time like he spent his life, as a quiet team player, a thoughtful man who led by example.
John married his high school sweetheart, Jeanette Thomason, while they were both at Howard College. She was one of nine children whose father had once been mayor of Tarrant City. They began their family as soon as they departed for seminary, which complicated already difficult economic circumstances. As a result, John never completed seminary despite attendance at both Southwestern and Southern and an honorary doctorate from Judson College that validated his description as “Doctor Jeffers.” In later years, John often spent his time in the presence of “Doctors” of theology, philosophy, education, and other credentialed religious leaders. Perhaps in the early years, the lack of a seminary degree made him uncomfortable, and when the pulpit committee from AFBC offered him the pastorate, he emphasized that he did not have the requisite seminary degree. It is a compliment both to the man and the church that it never mattered. As he grew older, he confided to friends that he thought the absence of the degree had been more asset than liability. Without a piece of paper to rely on, he had to read widely, study hard, think deeply, exchanging ideas not with teachers but with some of the greatest writers, theologians, and philosophers in the world. No one who knew him well doubted either his wisdom or his learning. The only person in whose presence he sometimes wilted was his diminutive wife, Jeanette. Not one to suffer fools gladly, Jeanette was a woman of strong opinions freely shared. As outgoing as John was reserved, she spent her early married years mothering five children.
Their return to Alabama brought them to pastorates in Collinsville, Hartford, and Andalusia, as well as the directorship of the state Baptist Training Union. But their tenure at AFBC nearly didn’t happen. As long-term member Bob Stevenson tells the story, he was a young member of the pulpit committee at Opelika First Baptist who visited Andalusia to hear the young pastor preach. The men on the committee liked him, but the older women rejected him because Jeanette had stayed home with a colicky baby instead of attending church that Sunday. Shortly thereafter, Bob and Frances Stevenson joined AFBC, which was also in a pastor’s search. Legendary layman, L. M. Ware, co-chaired the committee, which journeyed to south Alabama to hear the 37 year old minister. They were impressed despite the presence of a bird that flew in the window and soared around the sanctuary until John began his sermon, when the bird immediately roosted and went to sleep. Ware joked that the committee was impressed with his ability to tranquilize the feathered visitor with his sermon.
The arrival of the 7 Jeffers considerably enlarged the membership of AFBC and brought just the man for four stormy decades ahead. John’s excellent history of the church essentially contains his memoir of those years. His love of missions found fulfillment in the launching of Lakeview, Parkway, and West Auburn Baptist churches. His sermons cited not only theologians but also famous novelists. His criticism of an attempt to teach creationism in public schools and his growing resistance to fundamentalist take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention began his withdrawal from the SBC into the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Dale Peterson, John’s long term colleague, described John as “much a Christ-like figure as I have ever known. He had a pastor’s heart. On many controversial issues, he preferred not to press the issue to a vote, to wait, to expect people to change their minds. He told me that one of his professors at Howard College said, ‘Boys, be there when the people need you, and members will put up with a heap of poor sermons.’” Thankfully, AFBC never had to worry about that.