By Fred Anderson
We are a calendar-oriented people. We keep them on our desks and walls, in our pocketbooks, wallets and checkbooks. We mark them off – not like some prisoner crossing out his days behind bars – but as persons expecting events, challenges, programs, activities, anniversaries and all life brings our way. We turn the calendar to a new year this month and launch out into another new beginning.
In the fall of 1895 A. B. Dunaway preached a sermon before the Portsmouth Baptist Association. It was a time when the Portsmouth Association encompassed a large geographic area stretching from the city of Portsmouth out to Petersburg. The meeting was held at Sycamore Baptist Church in Southampton County, VA.
The people thought so much of Dunaway’s message that they requested the Religious Herald to publish it and even tracts were printed so that it could have a broader audience. They recognized that the preacher’s message was all about new beginnings, about new life coming forth from what was dead.
Who was Adoniram B. Dunaway? He was a member of a prominent Virginia Baptist family of preachers. He grew up in the home of a Baptist deacon who took seriously the role of a church. He served as pastor of several churches and used his evangelistic gifts across a wide area.
He gave over a half-century to preaching. A contemporary observed: “He was at his best in making sermons, that was his delight and he showed an artistic skill in delving to the depths of a text and bringing the hidden jewels to the surface. His sermons were not fossilized nor did they ever grow old.”
What of this certain sermon? It was hidden in a box of gift books and papers from a deceased Virginia Baptist minister. The box was one of many from the donor and the little tract was not something already in the collection of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. The boxes themselves as well as their contents were old, dusty, and dirty – they were dry papers and dry books but this little tract took on some life of its own.
“Vision of Dry Bones” was the title of Dunaway’s message and the little tract, and of course it drew from the Ezekiel’s vision, which remains a popular passage for preachers. The preacher of yesteryear said: “God did not keep his servant long in suspense as to what this valley of dry bones meant.
It represented the condition of the whole house of Israel primarily, and secondarily the moral condition of our sinful humanity – dead in trespasses and sins. The succeeding verses set forth the resuscitation of a nation and the spiritual resurrection of God’s people through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.”
“What God seemed to teach is the reawakening of the politically and religiously dead people to national and spiritual life.” Dunaway stated that if the illustration had been merely Ezekiel’s imagination rather than a God-given vision, the prophet would have painted something other than “a sad and despairing picture of Israel’s need.” “He would have made it brighter, much brighter, than it really was.
His optimism would have left bones out of that valley and put in budding trees and springing grass and opening flowers. He would not have painted a summer landscape, rich in its tropical glory, but one just emerging from its wintry bondage. The vision was well adapted to cure his over-confidence and check his optimism. I think sometimes we need visions to open our eyes, to give us careful, humbling sorrowful views of the condition of things… we need to have our vision clarified so that we may discern…”
“If you and I could see them, we would change our views of the world’s moral condition. We would change our methods of work; we would change our manner of preaching and teaching; we would weep more, give more, pray more and work more.
Our earnestness would be deepened, our zeal would be inflamed, and our sympathies would be quickened and broadened. We need some vision to take the cheering and the bragging out of us, to sober our judgments and to drive us to Him who is ‘able to subdue all things unto himself.’
Dunaway pictured those of his day who were wrestling with the terrible vision of a valley of dry bones. He named prominent evangelists of the day whose fame has faded into history. He referred to those in the ministry under the sound of his voice as well as dutiful and concerned Sunday school teachers, “Andrews seeking brother Simons, Philips instructing eunuchs.”
Dunaway elaborated on the scene of bones taking shape and rattling. And then he came home with his message. “And here in our beloved Virginia, where the gospel has been preached so long, there are bones. In our churches we may not see bones, dry and dislocated. Bone has come to bone and sinew and flesh and skin have clothed them.
We see motion and stir, the signs of life; but when we rub our eyes and take a careful look, do we see life? Don’t let us allow the devil to deceive us, and don’t let us deceive ourselves. Our great need is the breath of life. O, Spirit divine, breathe upon our churches, so that they may be an army of valiant soldiers, clad with the heavenly armor, ready to battle for Jesus, the crowned King, the sceptre of whose kingdom is the sceptre of righteousness!”
Now the preacher had reached the crowning moment in his message. “O, Holy Ghost, breathe life into thy people and clothe them with power to win new and splendid victories…”
It is no wonder that the good country folks and those from the villages, towns and the two cities – Portsmouth and Petersburg – felt moved by the “dry bones” sermon and wanted it shared far and wide.
In our own time in history, John V. Upton, Jr., Executive Director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, used the “dry bones” scripture references in his message before the called meeting of the Association held in Charlottesville when the new vision called Kingdom Advance was presented. Every century or so Virginia Baptists can revisit the valley of dry bones and catch a vision of the better way.
Actually, every year is a new beginning when we can look down that valley and breathe new life into our churches, our Sunday school classes, and our own spiritual lives. Sometimes an old sermon like the one found in this hidden tract can spark new life.