Considered among the top English-speaking preachers of the twentieth century Haddon W. Robinson (ThM, 1955) would be the first to brush away accolades. “There are no great preachers,” he said, “only a great Christ.”
Robinson has proven influential in ways that have left his thumbprint on thousands. He “thinks his way clear to every word” and also possesses a fragrance of grace that lingers in the lives of nearly everyone who has ever known him.
Learning a Lesson
Haddon Robinson’s voice may sound like velvet, but his faith is leather, tested on the streets of Harlem and bound to the ground through a life of hard-won application and a realistic sense of human depravity. Born in New York City in 1931, he grew up in a tenement section of Harlem called Mouse Town. At the time, Reader’s Digest called it the toughest neighborhood in the country. “If it wasn’t,” Robinson added, “it was trying hard.”
His mother died when he was ten. His father, a “righteous man,” worked second shift on the Railway Express. The neighborhood was unsafe—in later years Robinson’s father was beaten up twice by thugs. With little supervision and the need for protection, young Haddon joined a gang. One night, police intercepted the group before a fight. When an officer searched Haddon, he found an ice pick hidden in his clothes. “What do you plan to do with this?” the officer snarled. Haddon replied, “Chop ice.” The police officer sent him sprawling.
Robinson’s Christian conversion occurred unexpectedly during the most practical of quests. “I became a Christian,” he said, “because my cousin Bob and I were on a ‘spiritual’ search: we were looking for a church with a basketball team. We found it at Broadway Presbyterian. Then I discovered that every silver lining has a cloud, because, in order to play on a team, you had to go to Sunday school at least three Sundays a month.”
Faced with the dismal prospect of DBSS—death by Sunday school—Robinson entered the classroom unprepared for what he encountered: teacher John Mygatt and an amazing lesson. Mygatt used a quiz show format and religious pictures cut from funeral home calendars to rivet every boy’s attention. “I learned more in John Mygatt’s Sunday school class than I did at seminary or at a Christian college,” Robinson remarked. “I’ve come closer to being bored out of the faith than reasoned out of it. John Mygatt cared enough about us boys to teach an interesting lesson.”
Mygatt also cherished his boys enough to take an interest in them. He was the only person from church who ever visited Robinson in his rough neighborhood. “My glasses had broken, and I was too lazy to fix them,” recalls Robinson. “John comes to my door and Said, ‘I’ve been saving this money for a new suit, but I don’t need a new suit, and you need new glasses. So take my money and go buy yourself a pair of glasses.” Robinson didn’t take the money—he didn’t need it—but he was profoundly impressed. “John was that kind of person,” he said. “He had a great influence on me.”
The bifocal lesson—care enough about people to teach them an interesting lesson and also to take a personal interest in them—stayed with Haddon Robinson for the rest of his life.
One Big Question
As a lad, Robinson preached to his cat in the living room. “I had the most Christian cat in the community,” he said. If the cat ran under the couch, Robinson would turn on his stained-glass voice and condemn him.
At sixteen he went with a group of men from Broadway Presbyterian Church to a local prison. The men preached first and then young Haddon took a turn. At the end of his message, twenty prisoners came forward to receive Christ. Robinson felt encouraged with what he assumed was a typical response. Then one of the church members told him, “Son, we’ve been preaching here for twenty-five years, and no one has ever come to Christ.”
He once went to hear Harry Ironside—the renowned pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago—preach. It was the closest thing to a calling he would ever receive. “Why I would ever go to listen to a preacher on a Thursday night is a mystery to me,” Robinson said, “but I did.” Afterward he wrote in his journal, “I heard Dr. Ironside tonight. Some people preach for an hour, and it seems like twenty minutes. Others preach for twenty minutes and it seems like an hour. I wonder what the difference is?”
He has spent the rest of his life trying to answer that question.
Sorry for Beaver
Haddon married his college sweetheart, Bonnie Vick, two weeks before moving to DTS. “Not a good way to start a relationship,” he later quipped. The two met at Bob Jones University where Bonnie had almost gotten herself kicked out of school for making “cow-eyes” at Haddon in the lunch room.
“My mother is the most genuinely gracious and kind person I’ve ever met,” said Robinson’s daughter, Vicki Hitzges, now a motivational speaker in Dallas. “I watched Leave It to Beaver and felt sorry for him because he didn’t have a mother who told him she loved him as much as mine did.” Whereas Bonnie grew up in a legalistic family, Haddon clung hard to grace. “Dad was wonderful for Mother,” said Vicki. “He kicked the world wide open to her. And she, in turn, was the most loving wife. She was like Nancy Reagan when he preached—she had that look; she’d lean forward in her chair and just hang on every word.”
Robinson arrived at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) in the fall of 1951 after turning down a scholarship to Princeton. He and Bonnie lived on the third floor of a seminary apartment building where they shared one bathroom with Stan and Maxine Toussaint and two other couples. There was no air conditioning, and the temperature that summer soared well past a hundred degrees. “It was horrid,” said Vicki. “I often think that with his two masters’ and his honors doctorate in radio he could have made millions. Instead, we lived in working-class neighborhoods, and Dad taught preachers how to preach. I think his reward will be amazing.”
While still a student, Robinson headed the seminary’s Heritage radio program and served as director of Dallas Youth for Christ. He also taught his classmates how to preach, since preaching courses at the seminary did not exist at that time. “I have no idea what they got out of those sessions,” he later told Moody Monthly, “but it was a learning experience for me!”
That Book's Alive
Robinson graduated with his ThM from DTS in 1955. After a short stint as an associate pastor in Oregon, he accepted President John Walvoord’s invitation to return to his alma mater to teach preaching. While in Dallas, he earned a master’s degree at Southern Methodist University. He then pursued a doctorate in communications at the University of Illinois. They didn’t have a preaching adviser, so they sent him to Dr. Otto Dieter, a classics scholar.
In the eerie classics library—where “they come and spray cobwebs every so often”—sat Dr. Dieter, a chain smoker wreathed in smoke. Robinson recalls: “I went in, and he said to me, ‘Well, what do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to preach.’ ‘Preach, huh? You believe you need the Holy Spirit to preach?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘You’re out of luck,’ said Dr. Dieter. ‘He hasn’t been on campus for fifty years.’” But on the long library table between them lay a pulpit Bible, covered in dust. Dr. Dieter pointed at it and said, “You know how that book differs from Aristotle, Quintilian, and Plato? I’ll tell you: that book’s alive. I don’t know anybody whose life changed by studying those books, but I do know some people whose lives have been changed by studying that book.”
“That was a word of grace to me,” said Robinson. “Here I was alone, facing this hard-bitten German professor. And that was like God saying to me, ‘Robinson, you need the Holy Spirit, and you need the Bible, don’t forget it.’”
Light in a Blind Spot
Every institution outside of heaven—no matter how holy or helpful—has its peculiar blind spots. DTS is no different. During the Civil Rights movement, the seminary was slow to invite African American students to campus. Robinson looked at the student body and saw nothing but white faces staring back. The sight troubled him enough that he asked an administrator about it. The man said that there were Jim Crow laws in Dallas which prevented DTS from integrating black students with white students, so they couldn’t do it. “Sure we can,” said Robinson. “We just invite them in.” The administrator replied, “No, the law would be against that.” Robinson couldn’t help himself. “That’s an immoral law,” he said. “Let’s break it.”
Later, when the first African American students came to campus, most found themselves in the pastoral ministries department with Robinson. “I think they came because I grew up in Harlem,” he said. “One of the first to come was Tony Evans. I’ve often thought if we had not accepted Tony because he was black, what a loss to the school and the cause of Christ.”
Evans later wrote of Haddon: “Dr. Robinson was more than just a great professor. He also became a personal mentor spending countless hours with me discussing life, family, and ministry. He both encouraged and challenged me to maximize my gifts and calling for the advancement of the gospel and promotion of racial reconciliation. I am but a small part of the great cloud of witnesses that can testify to the eternal impact Dr. Haddon Robinson has made in keeping preachers like me from the sinful extremes of either boring people with the Word of God or exciting them with the words of men.”
The pastoral ministries department grew under Robinson’s leadership. Besides his seminary duties, Robinson also served as general director of the four-thousand-member Christian Medical and Dental Society and edited their journal. For personal rejuvenation, Haddon enjoyed lunches with fellow DTS faculty members, Bruce Waltke, Harold Hoehner, Stanley Toussaint, and Zane Hodges. “It was probably the richest, deepest fellowship that I’ve ever known,” he said. “You can go to college and come away with little more than a memory. You go to seminary, and you come away with an association with some grand-souled men and women of God. Some of them have already entered the kingdom. The rest of us are packing our bags!”
All Preaching is not from the Pulpit
After serving at DTS for nineteen years, Robinson received an invitation to become president of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary (now Denver Theological Seminary). Included in his résumé were testimonials by colleagues and supervisors. One read, “You could not find a people-oriented person who was a better administrator.” Another said simply, “Any organization that takes him out of a teaching situation would be in trouble with the Lord.”
What swayed Robinson to accept was the encouragement of his Dallas colleagues and a desire to risk. “Generally speaking,” he said, “you are wise to consider a change in whatever ministry you’re doing after a twenty-year period. I had come to the place [at DTS] that there was not much of a challenge left here. I hadn’t had to walk on water in a long time.”
Robinson became president of Denver Seminary in 1979. During his twelve-year tenure, he reshaped the seminary in significant ways and served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1984. But like everywhere else he served, it was Robinson’s gracious daily interactions and wise advice that left the most memorable impression on people around him.
In 1991, Robinson left Denver to join Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching. While there he published numerous books and articles, edited journals and magazines, wrote for Our Daily Bread, served briefly as interim president, became chair of the DMin program, and maintained a busy speaking and conference schedule. Together with Dr. Alice Matthews, he also hosted Discover the Word (formerly Radio Bible Class).
Never far from Robinson’s mind, no matter the heights he attained, were Harry Ironside and old John Mygatt—the men so influential in his youth. For this reason, Robinson made every effort to encourage students and younger faculty members. Dr. John Hannah (ThM, 1971; ThD, 1974), now research professor of theology and distinguished professor of Historical Theology at DTS, recalls that Robinson once called to ask his opinion about a particular faculty member whom Gordon-Conwell wanted to hire. “That was revolutionary in my mind,” said Hannah. “Here was a man who sought out the opinion of a younger, far-less-experienced teacher. Haddon gave me the gift of respect.”
Incarnating the Message
The ice-pick-toting gang member from Harlem who dedicated his life to teaching preachers has incarnated his message in the most compelling of manners. “Preaching,” said Phillips Brooks, “is truth poured through personality.” Haddon Robinson understood that. “We affect our message,” he wrote in Biblical Preaching, his best-selling manual now taught in over 140 seminaries and colleges. “The audience does not hear a sermon, they hear a person—they hear you.”
And they have.
“I see Christ in you,” a Chinese student named Abraham wrote to Robinson on his eightieth birthday. “I see the love of Christ in you. Without you, I have no idea how to communicate an idea well. You have taught me how to preach. Moreover, you have taught me life.”