Rev. J. Vernon McGee, 84; Pioneer Radio Evangelist

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. J. Vernon McGee, a pioneer radio evangelist and pastor of the Church of the Open Door in downtown Los Angeles for 21 years, died Thursday of heart failure at a nursing home in Templeton, Calif. He was 84.

McGee’s “Thru the Bible” series, which he launched in 1967, was eventually heard on 600 radio stations and was also broadcast overseas. The program was based on a midweek Bible class he had begun teaching in his early days as a pastor.

McGee first recognized the value of radio ministries in the 1930s, and his popular broadcasts and powerful personality helped swell attendance at the downtown church at a time when other urban parishes were in decline. Under his leadership, membership grew by a third, with as many as 4,000 worshipers crowding into the church on Sundays.

Despite the acclaim, McGee played down his oratorical talents, often describing himself as “just a plowboy,” according to the Rev. Dale O. Wolery, associate pastor of the Church of the Open Door.

‘Not a Pulpit Thumper’

“I do not feel that I have the gift of an evangelist,” McGee said in 1965. “I am not a pulpit thumper. I just talk.”


But it was precisely McGee’s down-home approach that inspired his listeners. “He was very practical in his Bible teaching,” Wolery said. “He explained the Scriptures verse by verse and taught them clearly.”

Born in Hillsboro, Tex., McGee and his family moved 24 times before he was 14. After the death of his father, a cotton mill engineer, the family settled in Nashville, Tenn. McGee became a bank teller but left that job to study at Southwest University (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tenn.

He earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia and master and doctor of theology degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas.

Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1933, he was pastor of churches in Nashville and in Cleburne, Tex., before taking up the pulpit at Lincoln Avenue Presbyterian Church of Pasadena in 1941.

Retired in 1970

After eight years in Pasadena, he became pastor of the nondenominational Church of the Open Door at 558 S. Hope St.--famous for its neon “Jesus Saves” sign--where he remained until his retirement in 1970.

Fifteen years later, he delivered the final sermon at the church’s downtown site before the congregation relocated to Glendora. Wolery said McGee preached at dedication services for the new facility last July.

McGee had a well-publicized break with the Presbyterian Church in 1955 after he charged that the church’s “liberal leadership has taken over the machinery of the presbytery with a boldness and ruthlessness that is appalling.”

McGee, the author of more than 100 books on Bible subjects, is survived by his wife, Ruth of Pasadena, a daughter and two grandsons. A private graveside service is planned for Monday. Officials of Thru the Bible Radio Network plan to hold a memorial service next month.