Honoree of the Henry V. Langford Lifetime Service Award
September 24, 2010
Rev. Henry V. Langford is an ordained Baptist minister who dedicated his life and ministry to working with small rural churches. Perhaps that’s because Henry has always had a special concern for those who are often neglected, forgotten, or discriminated against.
A native of northern Florida, Henry grew up in the First Baptist Church, Madison, Florida. With limited funds, he first attended a two year community college. When he felt God calling him into ministry, he transferred to Mercer College, a Baptist School in southern Georgia for his junior year. From there he found his way to a small Congregational college in the mountains of northern Georgia – Piedmont College – where he could attend for $7.50 less per month. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he went to Louisville, Kentucky where he enrolled in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and studied with some of the giants of Baptist scholarship and social justice, receiving his Bachelor of Divinity (now called a Master of Divinity) degree.
Henry describes his student years as very average and has pointed out that, hard as he tried, he never received an “A” in any course taken in elementary, high school, college, or seminary. An elementary school teacher stated to one of her students, who had given an incorrect answer to a question, before her entire class, including Henry, “You are as dumb as Henry Langford.” Through evaluation, as he was completing seminary, Henry learned that he had a learning disability that made him a poor candidate for taking tests. His school experiences probably played an important part in his desire to reach out to marginalized people and to “root” for the underdog.
Upon graduating from seminary, with World War II in full swing, Henry joined the U.S. Army and served as a Chaplin for nearly three years in both the European and Pacific theaters, reaching the rank of Captain. He served in the Army Reserve for an additional 20 years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Henry’s strong commitment to religious freedom, advocacy for marginalized people, deep desire to put feet to Biblical principles, and his love for the earth and nature, found a home in Virginia’s south side. But wherever Henry was, there was bound to be debate. Henry always felt that all sides of an issue should be presented and that decisions should be made with as much knowledge as possible. It’s little wonder that Henry was usually in the midst of controversy. He had a strong sense of fairness.
A turning point in Henry’s life and ministry came in 1954 while he was pastor of a rural Baptist church near Chatham, Virginia. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional. For several years, Henry wrote a regular column for the Chatham Sun-Tribune entitled “Do Unto Others.” Henry’s next article focused on the Supreme Counts decision. He supported the ruling by pointing out that the court really had no other choice if they followed the U.S. Constitution, which they had taken an oath to do. He encouraged the readers to respond with love and patience. Henry wrote:
We, the people, need not be afraid of our constitution. It is our guide and we must abide by it. . . It is true this decision will hurt for a few years, but only to the extent we think it will hurt. After a number of years of adjustment, first in lower grades and later in the upper grades, much prejudice from both races will disappear and we will have better understanding among all the people.
The article was printed one week after the court’s ruling. It caused such violent reaction in the county, that 25 years later, the article was reprinted in the Chatham Sun-Tribune.
Henry’s congregation did not embrace his viewpoint. He lost his pulpit and received many hostile calls and reactions. After being forced to resign, he and his family were going to have to move to a tobacco barn. At the last minute, fortunately, a more suitable place became available. He also discovered that no other church was willing to call him as their pastor. He eventually became Assistant Director and later, Director, of the Drug and Alcohol Council of Virginia Churches, where he worked for 21 years. During these years, Henry spoke to hundreds of school, church and community groups across Virginia about the signs and dangers of substance abuse which was a growing problem during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.
While reforming alcohol and drug addicts as a vocation, Henry was rehabilitating forests as an avocation. During his youth in the midst of the Great Depression, he became concerned about the amount of abandoned, eroded, and cutover land in his native northern Florida. He vowed to do something about it, but it took more than 20 years for he and his wife to save enough from his minister’s salary to buy their first property in 1960. That was the beginning of his efforts to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning tracts of land that he had planted in pine trees. Henry and his wife also saw this as serving a more immediate purpose. They had three young boys who were not old enough to get jobs, but who needed a wholesome project to absorb their energies. He often stated that not only were they raising trees, they were also building character in their sons. Long before the first Earth Day was organized or “green” had become the accepted term for caring for the earth’s natural resources, Henry was committed to transforming marginal, cutover land into rich timberland. After purchasing that first, they added additional tracts and eighteen years later, the Langfords had eleven tracts, located in eight counties, totaling 889 acres. They had planted over 250,000 trees. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter recognized the Langfords as the nation’s top tree farmers, an honor sponsored by the American Forest Institute, which at that time included over 37,000 tree farmers. State winners advanced to regional judgings, where the five finalists were chosen with one being named for the top honor.
At age 91, Henry has still not outlived his thirst for social justice. His advocacy has continued to touch the lives of the marginalized people including religious liberty, racial equality, terminated ministers, equal rights for women – especially women in ministry, and equality regardless of sexual orientation. He continues to be found in the midst of controversy. Henry is one of the most courageous men that I have ever known.
Henry and his wife, who supported him totally in standing for social justice, paid a big price for their stand on integration. Though all three of their sons were scared by the experience, the middle son was affected more than his siblings. At school, his classmates would taunt the middle son and call his father derogatory names. He would come home crying and was left with a great deal of emotional baggage that caused lifelong struggles. Henry has stated that their son was admitted to treatment centers over 100 times and that his psychiatrists all agreed that the forced termination of his father and the trauma surrounding the experience likely contributed to his emotional problems. The son later turned to drugs and alcohol. He died in 1994. Henry states that he and his wife always felt they partially lost him back in 1954 during the trauma inflicted on the entire family.
Henry also battled depression and went through a period of deep depression following the 1954 experience. He credited his beautiful and caring wife with enabling him to keep his head above water during those difficult days.
In the fall of 1993, when Betty and I were in the midst of a church conflict, Henry Langford and his wife knocked on our door, stating that they just wanted to let us know they cared about us and were there for us. Though we only knew them casually, they followed that visit with other visits and phone calls as well as with invitations to their house for meals. They understood the road we were traveling.
Though there is no way to undo painful actions, there can be some redemption of painful events.
In 2007, the Commonwealth of Virginia General Assembly issued a joint resolution recognizing Rev. Henry V. Langford for his long time service to the cause of justice and equality for all citizens. It took more than 50 years before Henry’s courage to speak out against segregation was publicly acknowledged. I’m sure his beautiful wife looked down from heaven with a loving smile as Henry received this belated honor.
Another honor came Henry’s way on February 15, 2009. The Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Richmond, honored Rev. Henry V. Langford with the John Jasper Traiblazer Award for 2009. Rev. John Jasper (1812-1901) was born a slave in Virginia and rose to become one of the most celebrated preachers of his era. The church that he founded and served during his entire ministry gives the award to honor Jasper and share his life and legacy to the public at large. Previous honorees of the Jasper award have been Dr. Wyatt T. Walker, Governor Tim Kaine, and Mr. Oliver Hill, Sr.
In 2010, the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies named the Rev. Henry V. Langford as one of five senior ministers to be honored with Peace-Bearers Awards. These ministers exemplified characteristics of a peace-bearer. His story is told in the book, Profiles of Peace-Bearers in Virginia Baptist Life. The author stated:
Henry’s story is also a story of a peace-bearer whose attempt to create peace resulted in backlash and a period of discouraging times. Henry’s story, however, also demonstrates the ability to keep peace within one’s self. . . Henry Langford attempted to bear peace to other residents of Pittsylvania (county), but instead, courageously won his personal battle to forgive and move on to continue the good works God had planned for him.
I believe the Henry V. Langford Award encompasses the qualities and commitments that the Ministering to Ministers Foundation was founded on. Henry was an ever present source of encouragement for the founding of the organization and for its mission and ministries.
Thank you, Henry, for your life, faith, courage, commitment, and for being who you are, and through the Grace of God, who you have become.
Compiled by Charles H. Chandler, Executive Director, MTM Foundation, Inc.