1955 to 1960: “How Little Richard gained victory”

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The late ‘50’s saw mission in the Pacific islands continue to be a major focus, with church efforts and institutions in Australia and New Zealand tracking steadily along. 1960 was shaping up to be a big year for evangelism in the Division as the “Jubilee” year. Keep an eye out for the next issue of Record Rewind where we’ll cover this! 

In this instalment of Record Rewind, we wanted to share the following story from March 1959 (vol 63 no 13) titled “How Little Richard gained victory”. This story is from a sermon preached at the Australasian Missionary College (now known as Avondale University) on the first Sabbath of the 1959 college year by Pastor JB Conley, who is remembered as one of the leading evangelists in the South Pacific Division. 

“I think perhaps the supreme victory of my 39 years of public work took place some two years ago in Melbourne. One morning very early I received a phone call. The night before in the West Melbourne Stadium an American rock‘n’roll entertainer, “Little Richard” Penniman, had the building filled to the doors with teenagers yelling and screaming. He came to the stage dressed in royal robes, and then performed his famous striptease act until he almost reached his ebony body. And, strangely, the phone call was from ‘Little Richard’, asking if I could go to his hotel in St Kilda Road and pray with him. I went along wondering what I would find. 

When I got there a young man came to the door of his hotel suite with a Bible in his hand. He said, ‘Come in, elder, I’m so glad you’ve come. I have been fighting myself since early morning. Will you pray with me?’ I said, ‘Tell me the whole story.’ And then he released the fact that he was under contract in Australia of a quarter of a million dollars a year. It was all sealed and signed. He said, ‘Do you know, last night in the middle of my striptease act in the stadium, right out of the yelling crowd, conscience spoke, “If you want to live for the Lord you can’t live for rock‘n’roll.” Right there I made up my mind that, Christ helping me, I’d be through with this thing forever. I looked through the telephone book and found the Seventh-day Adventist headquarters. I knew something about them in America, and I rang the office, and they rang you.” 

“‘Where do we go from here?’ I asked. He replied, ‘I don’t know. You tell me.’ ‘Well, Little Richard,’ I advised, ‘there is only one thing for you to do. Break your contract and let come what will and do it now.’ I have learned through the years not to delay in these matters. Do it now. ‘Well,’ he declared, ‘There’ll be hell to pay.’ ‘Let hell come,’ I said. ‘Christ conquered hell.’ 

And so the day wore on, and he cancelled his Melbourne appearances. He then came to Newcastle, and his saxophonist and he were crossing the ferry to go to a show. He determined that he would not have anything to do with it, and the saxophonist said to him, ‘Do you know, Richard, I don’t believe you’re genuine in this thing. Two hundred and fifty thousand a year for this religion business—what’s going wrong with you?’ Little Richard snatched from his fingers four diamond rings valued each at over one thousand pounds. ‘Will this convince you I’m through?’ he asked as he threw the four of them into the Hunter River. ‘From now on I follow the Lord.’ And inside 12 hours he was on a plane bound for America with a broken contract. He went home to face his mother and his 11 brothers. But, oh, praise God he went home to attend our Oakwood College in America to train for the ministry. 

“I received a series of photographs from the college not long ago showing Little Richard in the study room, his open Bible beside him and other students around him. Little Richard is training to work for God. The morning I visited him he said, ‘I haven’t slept since I came home. I have not slept since the great decision. My mind is in a whirl, and Satan is trying to overthrow me. The only way I have kept myself from a wrong evaluation of things has been by reading the Bible. I don’t know how much I’ve read since two o’clock.’ 

I took his Bible, my friends, stained with tears. That young Negro boy* had had a terrible battle with the powers of darkness that night, but he won. ‘The mind’s the measure of the man.’”

*In this instance, we have chosen not to modify the historical record by updating this phrase, instead, using this opportunity to acknowledge how times have changed and remind all readers of the importance of using language with Christian care to avoid offence.

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