Dr Desmond Ford

Desmond Ford: Preacher, Teacher, Writer and Scholar

Friday, March 15, 2019
A former student and colleague reflects on the life of his friend

Dr Desmond Ford did not paint miniatures; he painted murals. He focused on the forest rather than the leaves. There was nothing petty about Ford. Like all humans he had both faults and virtues, but the latter far exceeded the former. If it were otherwise, his students would not have revered him, as they certainly did.

The preacher
Ford was widely sought after as a preacher. If he was rostered to preach at a Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting, the congregations in the other tents were generally substantially reduced in numbers. Avondale’s chapel was packed whenever he was listed as the preacher for Friday evening vespers, and many others beside the students were in attendance. He was in constant demand for high school Weeks of Prayer and other young adult meetings, including gatherings of university students. Why was this? His sermons were fresh, creative, practical, fluent (generally without notes), biblical and, above all, Christ-centred and grace-filled. As well, they were peppered with good humour and engaging illustrations. His preaching influenced many young adults to attend Avondale College, and not only to prepare for the ministry, but also to study across all disciplines.

Ford always emphasised the gospel of the grace of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how obscure the text, the grace of Christ always shone through. He preached the gospel from texts such as: 2 Samuel 14:14 (“we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God . . . will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished for ever from his presence”*); 2 Kings 7:1, 9-18 (“This is a day of good news; if we are silent and wait until the morning light, we will be found guilty”); Daniel 2:11 (“no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals”), and; Philemon 1:18 (“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account”).

On one occasion, Ford was asked to conduct the funeral for the bereft parents of a deceased baby. The text he chose, John 6:12, indicates the gospel orientation of his address (“he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost’”). Typical of Ford’s focus was that he always pointed out to his “D&R” classes that the Book of Revelation concluded with a word of grace (22:21). Another feature of Ford’s preaching was that he never went overtime. During his doctoral research at The University of Manchester, the Central Adventist Church was largely British West Indian in membership, and for them the event was more important than the time of it. Once when Ford was the preacher at the church, the preliminaries were extensive and he did not reach the pulpit until around noon. He apologised for the lateness, read a text and pronounced the benediction. It certainly left the stunned congregation in a meditative spiritual silence.

The teacher
As a lecturer, Ford was very popular with students. In fact, the registrar was sometimes obliged to come to the lecture theatre and request that the unregistered students leave so the legitimate students might find a seat. His style again was fast moving, free flowing and mesmerising, and often at the end of the lecture many attendees were surprised to discover how few notes they had written. He always allowed time for questions, and here he was at his best. He seemed to have a reasonable answer for every one of them. His reading was wide and his memory of references was prodigious. He had an incredible mental store of biblical texts and Ellen White quotations to apply to students’ queries. However, sometimes in his zeal, he would start answering the question before the student had finished asking it, so the question and the answer did not always correlate. But Ford was amazingly patient with students and allowed counter questions, even if it unduly prolonged the exchange.

In warm weather, he often held tutorials for his senior classes down under the trees on the banks of Dora Creek. These were memorable discussion times in an ideal environment for learning and growth. He often announced a meeting point for a Friday afternoon that was open to whomever wished to join him in a walk. Any group of students that turned up was subject to a healthy walk along a bush track at a blistering speed with Ford at the front with his head held high, shoulders back and arms swinging in a considerable arc and at the same time exchanging ideas in unison with the group’s pace. Many students lived better, exercised more frequently and thought clearer as a result of these jaunts with Ford along an Aussie bush trail.

Ford believed no one spoke like Jesus because no one lived like Him. In a similar way, what Ford preached, he also lived. He was a very strict vegetarian and exercise was a lifetime habit for him, including long swims from the convergence of Sandy and Dora Creeks until he reached the overhead high-voltage wires above the creek. Students often joined him in these swims, as did Dr Noel Clapham, a good friend. If diet were the test of orthodoxy, Ford would pass easily. He would place a slice of chocolate cake in his pocket rather than offend by refusing the offer, but eat it, no way. The early morning breakfasts in his home that he and his wife provided for senior students were healthy, natural and very enjoyable. Few, if any, students forget these occasions, as the fellowship and the conversations were as pleasurable as the healthy food.

One student, who had completed “D&R” by correspondence, arrived at Avondale to find he faced an oral examination to complete the subject. The examiner was Ford and it was conducted during a brisk walk down to the Swing Bridge and back. “I could barely keep pace with his stride,” the student lamented, “let alone what he was trying to tell me” about the sanctuary in Revelation. “Even today, after every meal, there is a ‘Fordian’ urge to get up and go for a walk.”

During the 1960s and even into the 70s, “perfectionism” was widely promoted in the Adventist community. Idealistic young adults are prone to this error. Yet it never got started at Avondale, and this was largely due to Ford’s emphasis on Christ’s grace. He did not deny the transformed life in Christ, but he never let it stand alone in isolation from the gospel of grace. For Ford, the work of the Spirit never surpassed nor replaced the achievement of Calvary.

The writer
No doubt Ford, as many other authors, would rather forget the beginning of his writing career. He started writing short stories in his youth and during his time in the editorial section of Associated Newspapers. As a Christian writer, he was prolific. For many years, he wrote a monthly column in Signs of the Times answering readers’ questions and an early book of his was titled, Answers on the Way: Scriptural Answers to your Questions (1977). The range of his writing was considerable. The following is a sample: a commentary on Daniel (1978); the publication of his Manchester doctoral thesis on biblical eschatology (1979); a survey of the Old Testament prophets (1980); a study on the Sabbath (1981); a commentary on Revelation (two volumes, 1982); a tome of 840 pages on preventive medicine (1987), and; a critique of Darwinism (2014).1

The scholar
Some have impugned Ford’s scholarship because they found some reference “either . . . taken out of context or used indiscriminately.” Against such criticisms one must place the reputations of Michigan State University (USA) and The University of Manchester. Michigan State granted Ford his first doctorate in rhetoric in 1960. This is a university of some standing. His thesis topic was A Rhetorical Study of Certain Pauline Addresses. Such a theme is now quite common, but not between 1957 and 1960 when Ford did his research with the advantage of a background in rhetoric. In fact, Professor F F Bruce, on reading his Michigan State doctoral thesis, allowed Ford to start immediately on his research for a PhD in New Testament studies at Manchester. Against those few who question Ford’s scholarship, one must set the expertise and integrity of Ford’s supervisor, Professor Bruce, and his external examiner, Professor D J A Clines. Such reputable scholars are too sharp to let a sloppy thesis pass their scrutiny.

Many Adventists and others owe their commitment to the gospel of God’s grace, as revealed in and through his Son, to the preaching, teaching and writing of this scholarly gentleman. The only perfection Des claimed was the perfection he had in Christ, but highly and deservedly esteemed he certainly was.

* All Bible quotations from the New Revised Standard Version

1. Both his commentary on Daniel and on Revelation contain a foreword by his doctoral supervisor, Professor F F Bruce.

Avondale Remembers Des

Join the Avondale College of Higher Education community in remembering the passing of powerful gospel preacher, Bible scholar and former Head of the Theology Department Dr Desmond Ford. Celebrate the contribution of a long and productive life spent answering the call to serve God and proclaim Christ.

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Author

Norman Young

Dr Norman Young is a Conjoint Associate Professor at Avondale College of Higher Education.

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