Remembering Junior Hill: Hartselle evangelist, a giant in ministry, dies at 87
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
Hartselle evangelist Junior Hill, the man who shared the Gospel with hundreds of thousands of people at more than 1,800 revivals spanning 48 states and 12 countries, the man described by fellow pastors as a “giant” in the ministry, “one of America’s greatest evangelists” and a mentor, died this past week at the age of 87.
“Junior Hill was one of the most beloved preachers and one of the most influential leaders in the Southern Baptist Conference,” said Craig Carlisle, president of the Alabama Baptist Convention. “God used him in some incredible ways to influence so many people. There is no telling how many people came to know Jesus Christ because of Junior Hill.”
Fellow evangelists and church leaders described Hill, who grew up in Hartselle, as selfless, authentic, genuine, sincere, encouraging and humble.
“For a while when I traveled, the number one question I was asked by preachers was ‘Have you ever met Junior Hill?’” Decatur evangelist Phil Waldrep said. “In all of my years, I’ve only met one person who was not impressed with Junior Hill and that was Junior Hill himself. I think he was so respected and made such an influence on people because he never forgot where he came from.”
Hill’s introduction into the church began at the age of 13.
“My family was not church people, unfortunately,” Hill said in a 2017 interview. “When I was 13, a little lady named Zula Montgomery saw me playing ball in a field and invited me to Sunday school at First Baptist Church. At 17, I was saved.”
In 1955, Hill preached his first sermon at First Baptist Church in Hartselle.
“I was very nervous. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, several people were saved. I began to preach around at local churches and, most every time I preached, someone was saved. I thought people got saved every time. I distinctly remember the first time I preached and no one was saved. It was at Hopewell Baptist Church. I was so discouraged and upset. The preacher said, ‘Well, Junior, remember, people don’t get saved every time you preach,’” Hill recalled.
After graduating from Hartselle High, Hill attended college on a football scholarship at Livingston College (now Huntington University) then transferred to Howard University (now Samford) after accepting his calling into the ministry.
That call came at 19 years old while coming home from a revival at First Baptist.
“I pulled off to the side of the road, across the railroad tracks from where the National Guard used to be. I felt very troubled. I cut on the radio and there was an old country song playing on the radio, ‘Preach the Gospel.’ There, sitting on the side of Hickory Street, I made my decision to be a preacher,” Hill said.
For seminary, Hill attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which named him a distinguished alumnus in 1995. After preaching at Woodlawn Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham from 1962-67, Hill became a traveling evangelist.
Waldrep remembers the first time Hill preached at his childhood church of Enon Baptist in Lawrence County in the late 1960s.
“Even then I was impressed with him as a very gentle, kind and humble servant, yet someone, when he spoke, people just sat up and listened. When you heard Junior Hill speak, you knew he loved the Lord and you sensed he loved you and he did,” Waldrep said. “When I started in the ministry, one of my life’s ambitions was to meet Junior Hill.”
While speaking at a revival at Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Priceville, Waldrep asked Hill’s daughter to invite Hill to a service.
“I never thought he would come, but he came. That was the most nervous I have ever been. He was so gracious to me. I still have the letter he wrote to me after that,” Waldrep said. “I never knew the Lord would allow me to call Junior Hill a friend. I have been so blessed. He was so insightful and had so much wisdom.”
Rob Cain, president of the Hartselle Camp Meeting and associate pastor at Circlewood Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, described Hill as one of the great harvest evangelists. Waldrep agreed.
“Brother Junior was a true evangelist, much like Billy Graham,” Waldrep said. “When he preached, people who were not Christians responded. Junior Hill loved people down the aisle. He let them see the love of God and they saw it through him and through his preaching.”
In the back of his preaching Bible, Hill wrote down the names of individuals who accepted Christ. The Bible is now on display at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Mathena Hall in Texas.
Along with traveling the world as an evangelist for more than 50 years, Hill served as first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention and wrote more than a dozen faith-based books. For his ministry, a room dedicated to Hill exists at Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary and the Alabama Baptist Pastors Conference awarded Hill the inaugural Fred Wolfe Lifetime Pastoral Ministry Award.
From 2006-2017, Hill opened the Hartselle Camp Meeting at Cain’s invitation.
“Every year we wrote a thank you note to Junior and included a $100 check as an honorarium. And every year, he always wrote a thank you note back and returned the check,” Cain said. “Junior Hill was beloved in Hartselle and across the world. I’ve been to 24 different countries on missions and there hasn’t been one country I have gone to that someone hasn’t asked about Junior.”
Tributes to Hill flooded social media sites on Wednesday.
“He was a giant of a man and a giant of a preacher,” senior pastor Matt Haines of Central Park Baptist in Decatur wrote. “Brother Junior was not only a giant of a preacher, but a mentor to so many men in ministry. His impact on the kingdom will never be fully measured. Well done, Brother Junior.”
“Only heaven knows the impact Junior Hill has made on so many lives! Great will be his rewards,” Dusty McLemore, pastor emeritus of Lindsay Lane Baptist in Athens, wrote.
Hill is survived by his wife, Carole, two children and five grandchildren. Peck Funeral Home is handling arrangements.