J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988) was the grandson of a Scots-Irish immigrant whose family became prominent in the American Southeast. Among them were clergy and educators. But McGee’s father was one of ten children and considered a bit of a black-sheep in the family. McGee was called “ J. Vernon” because his father’s name was John too. His mother was Carrie Belle Linger. She and her husband met on a train trip and after a short courtship were married in Tyler Texas. J. Vernon was born in Hillsboro Texas, but his father moved the family a lot because he was a cotton-ginner. Most of Vernon’s growing up years was spent between Texas and Oklahoma.
The McGee family lived in extreme poverty which motivated J. Vernon. He had no desire to be rich, but he wanted to rise above the level of subsistence. Because of his background, he had great sympathy for the poor but was against a lot of the government programs to help the poor because they furnished no incentive for trying to climb out of poverty but rather encouraged idleness.
He lost his father in a cotton gin accident when he was age 14. His father was known to be an alcoholic and did not ever go to church but insisted that his children go to Sunday school. Vernon McGee said that shortly after his father’s death he rode his bike out to the grave and in a childish fashion, offered himself to God as his servant. Although he didn’t understand the full implications of this and he had some difficult struggles as a teenager with sin, God did take him up on his offer leading him into the pastorate as a young man.
Without any income, J. Vernon went to work to support the family. He wanted to go to school and this door opened up to him later, but he supported his mother the rest of her life in some way. This responsibility gave him a late start on education and marriage, but he said he never regretted it because his mother sacrificed for him and he felt it an honor to sacrifice for her.
Vernon came fully to Christ at around age 16 as the result of talking to one of his friends whose father was pastor of the local Presbyterian Church. Later, another man in this same church, who happened to be a banker, found out that Vernon wanted to go to college, and backed him up through helping him find jobs and arranging for loans for his tuition. Both of these men invested greatly in his life and when he completed seminary, they insisted the denomination hire him as the pastor in their church.
Vernon McGee and his wife Ruth were fixed up by mutual friends. McGee said it was love at first sight for him and asked her to marry him on their second date. She said no, not because she wasn’t interested but because she felt they should make certain their marriage was God’s will for them. After a year- long courtship they eventually married. Their first daughter was stillborn which was a heart-break for both of them. Several years later they had one daughter named Lynda. She grew up to be a faithful Christian.
Early in his career as a preacher J. Vernon McGee had an assignment to a small church in rural Georgia that would shape his future ministry. After preaching a lengthy sermon, a young farm boy came up to him following the service to tell him through tears, “I had no idea Jesus was so wonderful”. Dr. McGee from that day forward made it his prayer to always preach in a way that would make people discover how wonderful Jesus really is.
While Vernon McGee sounds rather homespun and simple on the radio, he was in actuality highly educated. He was chairman of the Bible department at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and also pastored several churches including the Church of the Open Door in L.A.. Later he was also a graduate and lecturer at Dallas Theological Seminary. One of the great secrets to his success was that Dr. McGee studied the Bible 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. He would arise at 4 am and begin his studies and then at 9 would finish and have breakfast. This constant nourishment and meditation is what overflowed into his preaching, broadcasts, and the many books that flowed from his pen.
One of the great influences on Dr. McGee’s preaching and broadcasts was Dr. Harry Ironside who was himself a famous preacher and writer in Chicago. Ironside was also a scholar but always said he put the cookies on the bottom shelf where the children can reach them. Ironside also said Christ told us to feed his sheep, not his giraffes. This inspired Dr. McGee to always seek to preach in a way that reached the common man not just the highly educated.
During the years of his pastorate, he always had a small radio ministry going. One show on one station. One show was called the Open Bible Hour and the other was the Hi-Noon Bible Class. These broadcasts were developing his style and philosophy which was to make the scriptures understandable and accessible to the average American. The original programs in many ways tried to mimic the style of Charles E. Fuller, but McGee wanted to emphasize Bible teaching. He started the original program when he was hired as the pastor of the Church of the Open Door in downtown LA. He found this was important in building that congregation which at its peak it had 3000 in attendance on Sunday mornings.
In 1967 he founded the “Thru the Bible Radio Network” which featured his Bible sermons from Genesis to Revelation every 2.5 years. This was to be J. Vernon McGee’s retirement project. He had no idea that the show would connect with so many people. He also produced a much more in-depth Bible study series that took 5 years to go through. This series he intended to air after his death and then close out the ministry, but this series continues today to be aired on radio stations, short-wave broadcasters, and the internet.
In his last years he was in ill health. He had a bout with cancer in his mid-fifties which was successfully treated but in the course of it they discovered he had a congenital heart defect. This was repaired but the doctors gave him 6 months to live. Instead he lived another 23 years with a slowly failing heart and died in his office chair while taking a siesta after a meeting.
McGee’s thru-the-Bible program was produced in over 100 different languages. The foreign language speakers would be given the sermons and his books from which to derive their material. Many of them loved his sense of humor and stories so much that they would add them in their own languages.
To be honest, one of the things I have always been most grateful for with Dr. McGee’s ministry, was his helpful, clear, and inexpensive Bible commentaries. As a young and fledgling minister I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a library, but $2 could buy you a reliable McGee commentary on virtually any book of the Bible you wanted to study.
Through a generous website in Canada, the entire 5 year series of Dr. McGee’s program can be downloaded for free: www.thruthebible.ca