Almost until his death on Nov. 22, John Spencer, 92, was often seen serving at Wednesday-night church dinners or teaching Vacation Bible School at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala.
“John Spencer was an unusual Christian man who served Christ faithfully as a Christian businessman, citizen, community leader and churchman all undergirded by an undeniable love to his Savior and servant leadership in his family,” wrote Briarwood senior pastor Harry Reeder in a memoriam on Spencer published in The Aquila Report.
During the last half century, Spencer left marks of his servant’s heart all across the PCA — in the memories of countless children he taught in Sunday School to the professors he influenced as Covenant Theological Seminary board member to those he led to Christ through his passion for evangelism.
During the last half century, Spencer left marks of his servant’s heart all across the PCA.
Spencer was born April 16, 1920, in Palatka, Florida. After graduating from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a B.S. in electrical engineering, he served during World War II as a captain in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Spencer later was hired by Southern Bell (later BellSouth), where he worked for 42 years. In 1948, a year after moving to Birmingham, Spencer married Emalyn.
In 1964, he, Emalyn, and their three children — John, Jane, and Virginia — began attending Briarwood Presbyterian Church, then a part of the PCUS, the southern branch of the mainline Presbyterian Church. Not long after joining Briarwood, Spencer was selected to be an elder, Briarwood pastor Harry Reeder said, because of his “quiet yet influential leadership.”
In the early 1970s, as tensions grew between the theologically conservative and theologically liberal members of the Presbyterian Church, Briarwood played a significant role in the PCA’s formation and in 1973 hosted the first General Assembly. Spencer was in the forefront of this movement away from the mainline church and was one of the first signers of “A Letter to All the Churches,” which stated firmly the PCA’s commitment to the faithfulness of Scripture, the truth of the Reformed faith, and pre-eminence of the gospel.
As years passed from that crucial moment, Spencer’s passion for communicating this truth to future generations remained strong as he taught many children’s and adult Sunday School classes and small groups. He shared this passion with Emalyn, who wrote and published numerous books and Bible studies for women through Great Commission Publications, on whose board John served for many years. Spencer’s natural curiosity and love of learning led him to pursue and complete a master’s degree from Birmingham Theological Seminary when he was in his 60s.
“His desire was to see the next generation prepared to lead and serve,” said Tom Cheely, missions pastor at Briarwood. “John was always thinking ahead.”
John served on the Covenant Theological Seminary board for more than 20 years and was influential in recruiting Dr. Bryan Chapell to be the chancellor. During this time, John and Emalyn traveled with Covenant on various study/teaching tours of Europe and the Holy Land.
“I have so many images of them on travels with us in remote parts of the world, always hand in hand. So sweet and yet so powerful was their mutual witness of the gospel,” Dr. Chapell remembered. “Both knew their Bibles very well, loved learning the history of the church, and were tremendous encouragers to everyone traveling with them.”
In remembering Spencer’s contributions to the seminary, Chapell said, “John led us in whole-hearted commitment to pastoral training with an irenic spirit that was nonetheless strong as steel in commitment to the truth of Scripture.”
With this same fervor, Spencer was committed both to sharing the gospel locally and sending it abroad. In addition, he taught others how to do so as a trainer for Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Four Spiritual Laws” and later for the “Bridge to Life” evangelism initiative. He also provided leadership for Briarwood’s Global Missions Team.
“The loss of a man like John Spencer will be and should be felt deeply in his family, the community, his church, and denomination,” said Harry Reeder.
“The loss of a man like John Spencer will be and should be felt deeply in his family, the community, his church, and denomination,” said Reeder. “Men of God like John Spencer are needed in even greater numbers for the church-at-large and the PCA in particular. John Spencer, by the grace of God, was a man of God, moved out of love to God, who ran with endurance the race set before him with his ‘eyes fixed on Jesus’ persevering to the end with the joy of his salvation.”
Concluded Frank Barker, Briarwood’s founding pastor: “Every church needs a John Spencer.”