October 12, 2021 | ONE News
• The Rev. William J. “Billy” Abraham helped shape the traditionalist movement that is now working to create a new Methodist denomination.
• Perkins, a longtime professor at the Theological School, never shied away from debate, but maintained friendships throughout the theological division.
• He died suddenly at the age of 73.
Reverend William J. “Billy” Abraham brought a terrifying intellect and tremendous science to help shape the traditionalist renewal movement within the United Methodism.
The retired professor of the Perkins Theological School was also an arrested person – he spoke with the lips of his native Northern Ireland and wore a long white-gray beard in his old age.
Along the way, Abraham found plenty of theological sparring partners, and most appeared grateful for the experience.
“He was so graceful in his ability not to agree, but also to make us think critically about all kinds of issues,” said the Rev. Ted Campbell, a colleague from Perkins.
Abraham collapsed and died suddenly in Dallas on October 7, his daughter Siobhan Abraham said. He was 73 years old.
A member of Perkins College from 1985 until his retirement in May, Abraham most recently ran the new Wesley House of Study at Baylor University at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
Many within the United Methodist Church in recent days share memories of Abraham. Among them is Bishop of the Texas Conference Scott Jones, who was a student member of the search committee that brought him to Perkins.
“I found Billy handsome, loyal, friendly and very articulate in defending his views,” Jones said. “I will miss him deeply.”
Perkins ’dean, the Reverend Craig Hill, commented on Abraham’s long work at the school.
“He was a Christ-bearer, both at the academy and at the local church — to which he was deeply committed — and his death is a huge loss for Perkins and the wider community,” Hill said.
Abraham grew up in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and became a Christian in the Methodist church there. He was a young man at the beginning of “The Problem,” a deadly Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, and would later write a book entitled “Handling the Devil: A Crossroads of Terrorism and Theology.”
After graduating with honors from Queen’s University in Belfast, Abraham came to the United States in 1970 to study at Asbury Theological Seminary, where he earned a master’s degree in divinity and was president of the student body. He went to Oxford University, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy.
“He had this sharp mind, and it perfected his philosophical study,” Campbell said.
Abraham was twice a minister in the Methodist Church in Ireland and became an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. But he was mostly a professor who taught at Seattle Pacific University before joining Perkins, part of Dallas ’Southern Methodist University, as an associate professor of evangelization.
He would later be Perkins ’Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies.
Outler, a legendary professor from Perkins, devised the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, drawing on the writings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to emphasize the importance of Scripture, Christian tradition, reason, and Christian experience in resolving theological disputes.
But Abraham was a critic of the Wesleyan quadrangle, describing it once as “akin to the theory of a flat earth.” He felt it wasn’t really Wesleyan and undermined reliance on Scripture.
“He never gave up trying to talk about the authority of Scripture in the life of the church,” Jones said.
Abraham was an early critic of what he considered the doctrinal zeal of the United Methodist Church, and offered a different vision in the influential book Awakening from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church.
He was also active at the beginning of the Confession Movement, which challenged the United Methodist Church and other major denominations to maintain doctrinal standards and traditional views on theology, including an understanding of marriage between one man and one woman.
Abraham wrote on a variety of topics — book titles included “The Logic of Evangelization,” “The Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology,” “Celtic Fire: Evangelization in Wisdom and the Power of the Spirit,” and “Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation” – while winning Best Teacher award at SMU and was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School.
For many years he taught Sunday school at Highland Park United Methodist Church, right next to SMU.
“Whenever I saw someone enter a service from one of Billy’s Sunday schools, I just assumed I would play for second place,” said the Rev. Paul Rasmussen, a senior church official. “He was such an outstanding Bible teacher and he taught with such wisdom and warmth. Its impact on our assembly is impossible to quantify. ”
Within the traditionalist wing of United Methodism, Abraham was esteemed as a top scholar who articulated the view that the United Methodist Church had lost its way. In recent years, he has written to look forward to creating a Methodist denomination that would emphasize evangelization and teach an “industry-based version of Christianity”.
Abraham was a prominent speaker at Wesleyan Covenant Association meetings, who supported the proposed split of the United Methodist Church and took steps to create a new traditionalist denomination to be called the Global Methodist Church.
“Billy’s legacy will continue to shape the hearts and minds of those who follow Jesus through generations to come,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the WCA. “He left us a deep and extensive reservoir of funds on which the church will rely for years.”
Abraham’s views, especially on human sexuality, brought him into conflict with many in Perkins. But Perkins Perspective, a theological publication, wrote an article titled “Valuable Opponents” about how he and Susanne Scholz, a fellow professor, team-led a course in postmodern biblical historiography and other friends despite thinking differently.
Reverend Natalya Cherry was another who strongly disagreed with Abraham, but watched him with love and gratitude. Abraham was her dissertation advisor, and he and his wife, Muriel, were among those members of the Perkins / SMU community who came together to help her and her family when a tornado destroyed their home in late 2015. The Abrahams brought a table and chairs for a temporary place.
Cherry said that Abraham, as a consultant, never tried to impose his ideas, but worked to get the best version of her and encouraged her.
“The word I can come up with for him is‘ generous, ’” said Cherry, who teaches at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, and whose dissertation has evolved into a new book, Believing I Christ: Relational Faith and Human Flourishing. “He enjoyed the opportunity to be in a relationship with people whether or not they agreed with him.”
Discussions about Abraham almost inevitably touch on La Madeleine, a French bakery and café near SMU, where he operated a corner table and brought books for reading, assessment papers, and visits with students and teachers.
“He was there almost every morning,” Campbell said. “We wonder if La Madeleine will just fail now that they don’t have Billy.”
In addition to the daughter, Abraham was left by his wife and son Shaun. Another son, Timothy, died in 2012.
A service for Abraham is still planned.
Sam Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News.