In 1872 Abram Poindexter, one of the giants among Baptists, a well-known evangelist and seasoned debater in public assemblies, died at the same time the Southern Baptist Convention was in its annual meeting. Richard Fuller, a powerful preacher of the times, announced the death by declaring within a prayer: “Fly faster, O angel, fly faster; and if thou canst not quicken thy fight, send Poindexter, newly arrived in the realms of glory and he shall bear the message with more rapid wing and more glowing love than thou canst, O angel! He knows the love thou canst never know — the song of a redeemed soul.”
When news arrived that Nathanael Habel of Lynchburg, Va., had “newly arrived in the realms of glory,” the imagery used to announce Poindexter’s passing came to mind: “Fly faster, O angel, fly faster; and if you cannot fly faster to defend the principle of separation of church and state, to declare gospel truths, to stand up for justice, then send the spirit of Nick Habel into some mortal and he shall bear the message with more rapid wing and more glowing spirit than you can, O angel!”
Since his licensing by Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Amelia Co., Va., and his ordination by First Baptist Church in Richmond, both in 1944, Nick Habel had been about the Lord’s work. During the 1930s he was in preparation at Baptist schools — Bluefield College, the University of Richmond and “up North” at Crozer and Colgate Rochester.
While at UR, he came under the powerful influence of Samuel Chiles Mitchell, the legendary professor of history who a generation earlier had taught Nick’s father, Samuel T. Habel Sr. — also a Virginia Baptist minister. Nick never forgot the day when Mitchell quizzed him: “Nathanael, what is the most important punctuation mark we use in this class?”
“Somewhere the answer came,” remembered Habel, “and I said, ‘Dr. Mitchell, it is the question mark.’ He smiled and drew the biggest question mark on the chalkboard. From that day until now, I’ve been on a quest for knowledge.”
Nathaniel “Nick” Bernard Habel never abandoned that quest until his soul took flight on July 29 at age 94. In 1941 as a senior at UR, Habel wrote the first of many articles. The Religious Herald published it under the title, “Choosing a Philosophy — A Christian Apology.”
In part, Habel wrote: “I admit frankly that the longer I go to school the less dogmatic I become about things I claim really to know. Either of these situations is unfortunate — the person who goes through life with an adolescent faith or the one who faces life as [if a college] sophomore confused in his beliefs. We must choose a philosophy that is able to meet the test of change. All living substance is dynamic, that is, it is constantly changing its state. As long as life exists there is a constant change occurring.
“A tree in order to meet the change it undergoes from summer to winter has developed what botanists call ‘the deciduous habit.’ During the winter months, the tree throws off its leaves. The tree has developed a life pattern which carries it through a difficult period. The tree might appear dead, but just the same its life functions are going on, being modified to meet the change.
“We have this same characteristic in our physical life. Just as all physical life must adapt itself to meet many changes and new situations, so must the emotional and spiritual side of man. It, too, must be able to make adjustments. The plant that has failed to adjust itself to the change from summer to winter is killed when the frost comes. Just in the same way will that philosophy which has not adapted itself to meet changes becomes waxed with disillusionment, cynicism and fear when it has to face a crisis.”
The college senior maintained that “we must choose a philosophy which is able to meet any change that our spiritual being has to face.” It was a modus operandi which carried Habel over the next 70 years. He held to the faith while able to face changing times.
He entered the pastoral ministry in 1944, and from the 1940s to the mid-1960s was at Boykins and Victoria, both in Southside Virginia. He was among the very few ministers who spoke against racial segregation and as a result faced scorn. He left the pastorate and came to Lynchburg without a job.
For the next 20 years, 1964-84, he was a schoolteacher and principal in Amherst County and among his accomplishments was working “to open public schools to all children regardless of race, learning ability or economic status.” One of his schools was featured on NBC’s Today program because of the range of teaching — from a 2-year-old to a man in his 80s whom Habel taught at night.
He never really abandoned ministry, and over the years he aided about 70 churches in pastoral work and pulpit supply.
In the spirit of 18th-century Virginia Baptists, he dared to oppose the influential Jerry Falwell, another Baptist minister. He helped organize and lead Citizens to Save Civil and Religious Freedom to opposed tax bonds for Liberty University, entangled with Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour which refused to pay taxes on its non-religious property. Nick and his wife, Shirley, urged the Virginia legislature not to grant tax relief and declared at least a partial victory in that the legislature refused to make the special bill retroactive. It cost the Falwell forces $1.8 million.
The next battle was over taxfree bonds for Liberty. The case of Habel v. Lynchburg Industrial Authority went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which in 1991 ruled in Habel’s favor. During the course of the legal dispute, Habel showed Falwell yellowed copies of the Religious Herald from 1949 and 1960 and explained that in 1949 he had written the Baptist paper, opposing tax monies for parochial schools. “[Falwell] conceded that my viewpoint was one based on serious principle,” Habel once reflected.
When he won the court case in 1991, Habel declared it “a spiritual victory.”
“It was a moment when a principle I had stood for all my adult life was preserved,” he said.
When the next battle is waged over religious liberty, the best we can hope is that the spirit of Nick Habel will be embodied within another person of character, courage and conviction. That’s when Baptists will send for the spirit of Nick Habel.
Fred Anderson ([email protected]) is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.