Dr. Frank Farrell, True Greatness

The following was written to Del and Nancy Belcher upon last week’s death of Nancy’s father, Frank Farrell. Frank and Marjorie “retired” to Orlando where he taught church history and Christian classics at Reformed Theological Seminary’s new campus during its first decade. A link to Frank’s obituary can be found at the end of the letter. A lovely window on Frank’s life can be found in an interview in Reformation & Revival 11:4 (2002): 145-169.

Dear Del and Nancy,

The beginning of another busy day at the beginning of another busy week in the middle of another busy semester must yield to the news of the passing of Frank. In fact, if it were up to me, the whole world would stop and take notice of the passing of true greatness from this world into the world to come, for Frank Farrell epitomized our Lord’s dictum, “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

According to this measure Frank was among the greatest men I have ever known. He was living, walking, talking history and yet there was never a time where a random or meritless thought of mine did not meet with his interest and appreciation. He who had so much to teach young men – especially and including a young and newly-begun seminary professor such as I – remained always eager to learn from an unworthy source. But I never made the mistake of valuing my own opinions over his and I hung on every word he had to say – whether his counsel on Christians classics, especially biography, or his recollections of the rise of twentieth century evangelicalism of which he was a living artifact. Therefore, I want to share a few of the more memorable anecdotes of my time of privilege teaching with him here at RTS.

There was a running joke about Frank to which he was not privy – that if God handed out humility prizes, Frank would get the gold…but of course he would never accept it. His humility was remarkable. I recall a few stories from Edinburgh, including the description of his impoverished student life in the cold, wet climate off the North Sea. He could afford little coal for the fire that heated his room so he slept in hat and gloves and often wrote with stiff fingers in the dim light he could afford.

The faculty would read a book together each semester and on one occasion it was George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism, the story of the founding and later developments at Fuller Seminary. We thought as a new campus situated similarly to Fuller that we might have some lessons to learn. During the discussion we began to ask one another who we might imagine ourselves to be in that story. Various faculty suggested one name or another for themselves but then John Muether observed, “Frank could be Frank!” since Frank indeed was a student at Fuller in those early formative years. His early career spanned the Battle for the Bible. So many times I have wished for his opinion on more recent developments in evangelical history.

The most memorable anecdote occurred during a long drive back from the Florida panhandle following a faculty retreat. Just a few of us were in a large passenger van. Our conversation began almost as musings, and principally about various professional sports. It had the potential of devolving into the typical implied competition of sports trivia that is typical of men until Frank dropped an anecdote. And then another. And another. Frank’s knowledge of twentieth century sports was just as encyclopedic as his knowledge of church history!

He had seen George Mikan play in Minneapolis before the Lakers went to L.A. He had seen the great “Kraut line,” the storied front line of the Boston Bruins who won the Stanley Cup in 1939 and 1940. These and many other stories were often bound up with his travels as a correspondent for Carl Henry and the newly-founded Christianity Today. They were rich in interesting details and circumstances – all of which he remembered vividly – such as the time he was in Philadelphia. On a tight budget, he inquired at the jail as he often did for cheap overnight accommodation. In the process he heard that Joe Louis, toward the end of his career, would be fighting an exhibition only blocks away and so he went. After the exhibition Frank returned to his jail cell for the night.

This conversation, like a winding lazy river, lasted well over an hour and made the time pass quickly. But then there was a pause, a moment of musing. Someone broke the silence by asking, “Do you think Pete Rose will ever get into the Hall of Fame.” Frank, completely without presumption, said, “I saw Pete Rose last week.” We all burst out laughing. It seems that Frank and Marjorie had recently been to South Florida for something and had stopped in at Rose’s restaurant for lunch. There sat the owner in the lobby signing autographs (for a fee)! We marveled. What did Frank not know and who had he not seen play? And this was the mere earthly subject of professional sports.

As many will testify, his knowledge of Christian history was unsurpassed. But that day we decided that if there every truly was a Forrest Gump – at least in terms of being there when history was made – it was Frank Farrell!

It deserves mentioning, too, how much Frank and Marjorie together provided a loving example to Vicki and me. And Marjorie along with Annette Nicole delighted in our children on occasional dinners in our home.

What a gift Frank was to me, and to all of his colleagues, in the founding years of RTS Orlando. He lives today in Christ and will live again in the resurrection, but in spirit he remains alive to his former colleagues as a profound example of humble yet outstanding Christian scholarship. We are with you in your grief and in your hope.

In Christ,


Frank Farrell’s obituary can be found at http://lynchfuneraldirectors.com/(S(4nb0qlnc3imojkijrs54b4ia))/death_notice.aspx?Operation=preview&noticeid=4053&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1 





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