Harry Denman: An Icon of Evangelism
By Hal Knight
Every year many annual conferences honor clergy and laity who have an exceptional ministry of evangelism with Denman Awards. Sponsored by the Foundation for Evangelism, they are named for Harry Denman (1813–1976), who was the premier advocate and practitioner of personal evangelism in mid-century Methodism.
Denman was born into a family of working class English immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama. His father abandoned the family when Harry was 9 years old, and at age 10 he quit school to support his mother. His minister and Sunday school teacher both urged him to return to school, which he did in 1904, eventually earning a master’s degree.
His passion for evangelism led to his becoming Secretary of the Commission on Evangelism of the Methodist Church in 1939 and General Secretary of the General Board of Evangelism in 1944. He retired in 1965.
Among his many accomplishments was beginning publication of The Upper Room and building the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville. He also mentored many of the most prominent figures in United Methodist evangelism in the next generation.
As with Wesley, Denman believed love is central to evangelism. In 1949 he wrote:
Today the only way one can see love is to see it wrapped up in a person. This is true of faith. The only way we can see Christ is to see him wrapped in a person...We need to become a package of love, a package of faith, a package of Christ; then we will be a package of evangelism. (cited in Harold Rogers, Harry Denman, The Upper Room, 1977, p. 47)
How do we become people of love? For Denman, a devotional life was central. Just as Wesley read through the entire Bible every year, Denman copied portions of scripture every day.
He prayed regularly and believed praying for others was the key to loving others: “From experience I have learned that when I pray for an individual or a family, or a nation, I fall in love with that person, or that family, or that nation.” (p. 41)
Denman traveled continually and sought out people everywhere he went. He cared about peoples’ lives and asked about their jobs and families. He would turn the conversation to matters of faith by asking about their church, offering to pray for them, or more often asking them to pray for him. Although he was a lay person, he loved to preach.
He believed the witness of the church was compromised by materialism and racism. Denman owned only one suit and traveled with a single briefcase containing essentials like pajamas, an extra shirt, a change of underwear and socks. What he acquired, he gave away, and, like Wesley, when he died he left few possessions. He also belonged to two Methodist Churches, his all-white church in Alabama and an African-American congregation in Nashville.
His remarkable ministry is both an example and a challenge to United Methodists today. Its impact lives on in the many clergy and laity whose lives he touched and shaped.