The first time I attended the Southern Christian Writer’s conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Literary Agent Bruce Barbour was the keynote speaker. When a friend signed up to sit at his dinner table, she added my name. During dinner, Bruce told delightful stories about his exploits in publishing. I regretted leaving my video camera at home. Two years later, I was filling out the registration to sell Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot at the conference and saw Bruce Barbour in the roster of speakers. This time I packed my camera hoping to get a coveted spot at Bruce’s dinner table.
Arriving at the conference early to set up my books proved to be an asset. The sign-up sheet for dinner with Bruce had four spots available. I added my name with little hope of accomplishing my goal. I had researched Bruce several times and found nothing beyond his website and a comment on a blog. Both revealed little about him personally. I assumed he guarded his privacy and expected him to decline my request.
I decided to approach Bruce after the opening session. The short inspirational message they scheduled me to give during the session would make me less of a stranger. We were gathering our belongings to go to the first workshop when I spotted Bruce. I joined the line of people waiting to talk to him. My turn came. He spoke first. Bruce liked my inspirational message. The positive comments emboldened me to make my request and go a step further. Ask if I could write his story. My assumptions about Bruce proved wrong. He allowed me to video his comments during dinner and agreed to meet with me later that evening to share his salvation story.
His last appointment of the day departed, and I took her place at the table. I started our conversation with another erroneous assumption. “No doubt you were raised in a Christian home,” I said.
“I wasn’t,” said Bruce.
Push eyes back into sockets pick chin up off floor. That thought would have never entered my mind considering I was speaking to a nephew of D L Moody, and Fleming Revell.
Dwight Lyman Moody is one of America’s greatest evangelist. He married Emma Charlotte Revell, the daughter of a ship construction worker, in 1862. After the Civil War, Moody recruited Josephine Barbour to make a three-year commitment to General O. O. Howard’s missionary work to ex-slaves in Tennessee. At the conclusion of her commitment, she visited the Moody’s in Chicago where she fell in love with Emma’s brother, Fleming Revell.
Fleming Revell had started a publishing company after Moody convinced him to take over the publication of Everybody’s Paper used in Moody’s Sunday schools. The 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed Revell’s offices. He married Josephine Barbour the following year. They remained in Chicago to rebuild his publishing house and expand its catalog to include books. Revell Publishing later moved its operations to New York. Fifty years after founding his company, Fleming’s colleagues honored him with a surprise anniversary dinner in New York. A poetic tribute prepared for the occasion began:
“All hail, true Christian! In your life you’ve sought
To put in practice what the Master taught.
In quiet ways, in spirit free from pride
His principles you have exemplified.”
Bruce’s great grandfather William Rinehart Barbour Sr. assumed leadership of Revell in 1931. As a youth, Barbour Sr. had lived with his Aunt Josephine and Uncle Fleming. After graduating from Wesleyan University, he moved to New York to work for his uncle’s company. He started as a clerk and worked his way up the corporate ladder to President. A position he held for thirty-one years. Bruce’s father, William Rinehart Barbour Jr. started his career at Revell as a salesman. He also worked his way up the corporate ladder to become president of Revell.
Barbour Jr. married Mary Munsell, and they had three children. Among the children of William and Mary was the man I sat across the table from in an Alabama church shocked to learn a famous Christian publishing house was not run by Christians. My shock turned to awe of a mighty God by the end of Bruce’s story.
“My grandfather and my grandmother probably were, not evangelicals, but fairly conservative Christians,” said Bruce. “My Dad was not an Evangelical Christian. He dropped us off at a Methodist Sunday School occasionally. When my sister and I said we didn’t want to go, he stopped bringing us. We went to Christian things because that was the business we were in. We had a lot of Christian friends who assumed we were Christian because we owned the largest Christian publishing company in the world.”
Bruce made his first business trip at twelve years of age. His father dropped him off at LaGuardia to take the Boston shuttle and then catch a cab to The Parker House, home of the infamous Saturday Club frequented by literary dignitaries such as Charles Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bruce’s mission: deliver the galleys of Come Help Change the World to Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Bruce’s family times were filled with talk about work. He never thought about the business being Christian, to Bruce it was “the family business” with perks. He had many fun friends, like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
“The first time I heard the gospel,” said Bruce, “I had gone to Jacksonville for spring break, a couple of guys came, we were not doing anything crazy, drinking, a little drugs but nothing crazy.”
At this point, Bruce was still talking but “drinking and drugs” had short circuited my thoughts. I needed to be sure I understood what I had just heard. “Excuse me, Bruce, did you just tell me you did a little drinking and drugs?”
Bruce smiled. “Yes, I did. Nothing big. We lived in a little Jersey town on the New York border. Back then New York’s drinking age was 18. Jersey’s was 21. My friends and I went to New York to drink on occasion, but we didn’t get drunk. So, we were down in Jacksonville hanging out on the beach. This guy clad in a white T-shirt, black shorts, black socks and white sneakers comes up and starts talking about Jesus.” Bruce listened but did not respond to the salvation message. The seed planted in his heart grew for months before it bore fruit in a barn.
That summer, Bruce and his friends planned a road trip to California. He made arrangements to stay with his father’s west coast field representative, whom Bruce called Uncle Ernie. “In the south family friends are called mister. In the north they are called uncle or aunt,” Bruce explained. “He wasn’t a blood relative, but I called him Uncle Ernie. He had a daughter name Marlene who was two years younger than I was, so I spent a lot of time at Uncle Ernie’s house.”
Uncle Ernie and his family were Christians as were some of the employees of Revell. He asked Bruce to take Marlene to a youth function on a Saturday night. Bruce drove his car into the parking lot of First Baptist Church of Van Nuys. The church looked like a convention center to Bruce. Huge spotlights lit up dozens of school buses. He asked Marlene why the church needed so many buses.
They are used to pick up children for church explained Marlene and instructed Bruce to drop her off near one of the buses. “As we got closer, I saw maybe a hundred kids, guys and girls, washing the buses. There were a lot of young ladies with wet T-shirts, and I thought maybe there is something to this church thing,” said Bruce.
The next day, Uncle Ernie and his family went to church. Bruce went to the beach. On Monday, Marlene approached Bruce with an invitation. “Would you like to go to a college program at the church?”
“Buses,” said Bruce.
“A barn,” she replied.
The barn was located behind the college pastor’s house. Marlene introduced Bruce to some of her college age friends, and then they found seats to listen to the evening’s message.
Bruce reminisced about the sermon he heard that night. “The guy spoke on “Faith or Fate” and did the old trust thing. You fall backward and trust someone to catch you. He picked me for the demonstration. Then he said, ‘You really have a choice. You are in college now. We are not playing games anymore. Life is important. We make choices that we will live with for the rest of our lives. You need to decide if you are going to live a life of faith in God’s promise never to forsake you and equip you to live a life that will honor him, or live a life of fate where you go through life like a pin-ball machine bouncing from one meaningless experience to another. What he said made sense to me.”
At the conclusion of the message, the speaker invited anyone with questions to come forward. Bruce walked to the waiting ministers and prayed for salvation with one stipulation. God had thirty days to make a difference in his life. Marlene left with friends, and Bruce drove home alone. “On the way home I was praying, really talking because I didn’t know how to pray. I remember saying, ‘Now what?’ Then I got this sense. It was not audible, but it was real, ‘You are going to publish Christian books for me.’ I thought of course I am, I am going to work for the family business.”
Bruce kept his thirty-day commitment. The next day, two Christians from the barn met with Bruce from 8 a.m. till dinner, six days a week, teaching him about the things of God. Thirty-one years later, Bruce remains committed to God and active in the Christian book publishing industry. He has held executive positions at Fleming H. Revell, Barbour and Company, Thomas Nelson, and Random House. In 1997, he founded Literary Management Group, Inc., a full-service literary agency and publishing consulting firm that has represented best-selling authors.
Bruce’s story could stop here, but I would be remiss to leave out the extent of Bruce’s calling. God used him to do far more than publish Christian books. The evening Bruce accepted Christ he called his father. Barbour Jr. had just introduced Bill Bright to an audience of 100,000 at Explo 72, an evangelical conference sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ.
“Dad,” said Bruce. “I just accepted Christ.”
“Great,” said Dad.
Bruce laughed and said to me. “He did not have a clue what I was talking about. I was 18. We had been working with Bright for ten years at that point. Just another family friend.” I understood Bruce’s experience. My mother said the same thing to me when I called to tell her I had accepted Christ. She did not have a clue what I was talking about either.
That fall, Bruce went to a business college in New Hampshire. He started a Bible study that turned into a small church with fifty in attendance. He also landed a radio program. Feeling ill equipped for his flourishing ministry, he took a leave of absence from the business school to study the Bible.
First Baptist Van Nuys had a one-year program for people who did not feel called to full-time ministry, but needed more Bible training. Bruce moved to California to attend the Bible College and fell in love. His mother and father came to California to meet his fiancée and her family. Before they left, the college pastor asked Bruce to give his testimony at the barn. His parents accompanied their son to the college ministry meeting. “I told my story, and then said, ‘When I was here last year, the speaker invited us to come forward if we had any questions. If you have questions come talk to the people who can answer them.’ My Mom, Dad and sister were sitting in the back. I saw them walking to the front and thought they were coming to tell me I did a good job.”
I don’t doubt Bruce did a good job that night, because his family walked forward for a different reason. They had questions. All of them accepted Christ. His Dad led his brother Hugh Barbour who served as Vice President of Revell to Christ. Bruce and his Uncle Hugh later founded Barbour publishing. Bruce’s sister spent thirty years in Africa as a Wycliffe translator.
The children’s pastor at my church has a saying when a job is well done. “G-double O-D-J-O-B, good job, good job.” I have one thing to say about Bruce Barbour. G-double O-D-J-O-B! Good job Bruce, good job. He did more than lead his family back to the faith of his fathers. He returned Christian publishing to Christ.