A long-time Garvin County “country preacher” will end his ministry soon, leaving behind a legacy of sharing God’s love.

On Sunday, January 8, Finis Steelman resigned his pastorate of the Beaty Baptist Church. He will continue to preach for Beaty until the pulpit committee finds a new pastor.

Steelman’s ministry in Oklahoma spans forty-nine years, six pastorates, 1,046 funerals, 866 baptisms, 544 weddings, and 357 revivals—all carefully logged in a tattered green ledger.

He has held honorary posts that include Chaplain to the Oklahoma Senate and member of the Board of Directors for the Baptist General Convention, which governs the 1,500 Southern Baptist Churches in the statE.

But his love of horses and cattle made him a natural for the country and small-town churches where he has spent his life.

Born on May 1, 1931 in Honeygrove, Texas, Steelman was the 10th of 11 children; two, the first and last, died in infancy. In February of his third year, an older sister led him and a brother onto the front porch where she told them that their father had just died of tuberculosis.

Widowed with nine children during The Depression, his mother, Eliza, moved back to Heavener, Okla., to be near her father, Buck White, who was a full-blood Choctaw Indian and founder of the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.

It was in Heavener that a strange confluence of events over a number of years led to Steelman’s conversion.

One day an older cousin, O. J. White, took seven-year-old Steelman and several brothers and sisters out into the woods where he had them sit on a log while he taught them to cuss. Steelman said, “We cussed all day long.”

The habit took hold but later brought him to shame as a twenty-two-year-old.

He was driving through the Talahina mountains on a hot summer day with Marge, his wife of three years who was well into her second pregnancy, and Ronnie, their two-year-old son, when the transmission “fell out” of his car.

In full rage Steelman spewed every word in his arsenal. When there were no more words left there was a moment of silence and then a two-year-old’s voice began to repeat everything he’d just heard.

Disgusted more by her husband’s outrage than by the heat or the breakdown, Marge—not even a Christian at the time—said, “If I were you, I’d be ashamed of myself.”

Weeks later when Steelman drove his mother to church, Marge’s rebuke still troubled him. After dropping off his mother he was headed to play poker with friends who used to spread a blanket under the trees to gamble during church.

Before Steelman could leave, a Sunday School teacher, Raymond Williams, stopped him and with tears in his eyes said, “Our church is dying because there aren’t any men. We need you.”

Williams had helped the struggling Steelman family by lending them milk cows to feed the children; his earnest pleading prevailed and Steelman stayed.

On June 12, 1953, at the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Heavener, Okla., under the preaching of Paul McDaniel, Finis Steelman trusted Jesus Christ and said goodbye to poker and profanity.

Looking over the top of his glasses Steelman said, “When I became a preacher, O.J. was the first person I baptized.”

While conversion eased Steelman’s conscience regarding his relationship to the Lord, it now troubled him regarding his service for the Lord. He felt called to preach, but he didn’t feel qualified.

To help his mother support the family, he had dropped out of high school during his senior year.

“In those days Baptist churches wanted a pastor to have a degree from Oklahoma Baptist University or Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth,” he recalled.

“So I began to run,” he said.

After two years spent working pipelines in Louisiana and New Mexico, Steelman and Marge moved back to Heavener where, on April 6, 1957, he finally made peace with his conscience a second time.

“I had to get the monkey off my back. Within a month of surrendering to preach I was called to pastor two part-time churches,” he said.



Preaching and

learning

Those first two pastorates lasted only six months due to the advice of Dr. Sam Scantlin, a director of the Oklahoma Missionary Board, to further his education.

Scantlin challenged him to first get his GED with the promise, “If you pass, you pay the $10 fee. If you don’t, I’ll pay it.”

It was an odd incentive plan, but it worked. Though they wouldn’t become close friends until years later, Scantlin became a thread running through the entire fabric of Steelman’s ministry.

When the Hodgens Baptist Church called Steelman in January of ‘58, he accepted the call because it enabled him to attend the Poteau Junior College (now the Carl Albert Junior College) where he obtained a two-year degree.

During those early days of pastoring, his ministerial education had a practical side to it. On February 9, 1958, Steelman had to baptize four recent converts in the Black Fork River.

The cold water was running hard when a 6' 7" man by the name of George Apple waded out to be baptized. Steelman couldn’t remember whether to dunk upstream or downstream.

Statistically he had a 50 percent chance of making the right guess, but statistics don’t allow for Murphy’s Law.

When Steelman dunked him upstream, the rushing current swept Apple’s non-weight-bearing legs from under him. The only thing preventing him from shooting the rapids was Steelman’s grip on his nose and the nape of his neck.

“After that I baptized my wife many times,” Steelman said.

Shortly after he had completed his studies at Poteau, Red Blair, a deacon from the Hopewell Baptist Church in Edmond, walked into Scantlin’s office in Oklahoma City to ask where the church might find a “country preacher.”

The former pastor had been from the city and the people never felt he was a good fit for their farming community.

Scantlin said, “I don’t know about a country preacher, but there’s a hillbilly over in the mountains of eastern Oklahoma you might talk to.”

Two of the deacons made the 200-mile trip to hear Steelman preach, liked what they heard and invited him to speak at Hopewell Baptist. He did and they offered him the pastorate which he accepted in November of 1960.

“Marge cried the whole way up there,” he said concerning the move.

The Hopewell church building is one of the seven most unique churches in the nation due to its tepee-like shape. It was designed in 1948 by University of Oklahoma architect Bruce Goff who also made the building economical by using surplus pipe and corrugated aluminum from the oil field.

The church was built in 1951 for $20,000. in 2005, the Hopewell Heritage Foundation announced a $2 million dollar plan to “preserve and renovate” the building now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

While pastoring in Edmond, Steelman obtained a B.A. degree in teaching from Central State University and then began commuting to Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth.

After the Sunday night service in Edmond he would catch a train to Fort Worth, attend classes all week and return on Friday night. But the strain on his family was too much, so he attended only one semester and ended his schooling.

To the day Steelman retired he was apologetic for his lack of higher education.

Yet, the two things that consistently come up when his name is mentioned are, “He’s a good man and a great Bible teacher.”



The road

to Beaty

Thinking he would return to Heavener and work as both teacher and preacher until he retired, he began to buy parcels of land around his hometown.

“But,” he said, “the Lord just wouldn’t let me go back. I never had any peace about it.”

In March of ‘67 Steelman accepted a call to pastor the First Baptist Church of Davis where he preached for sixteen years. During that time, Scantlin was Director of the Falls Creek Youth Camp and a member of Davis First Baptist. He was to play one last role in Steelman’s career.

At the same time Steelman resigned Davis First Baptist in August of ‘82, Beaty Baptist of Pauls Valley was searching for a preacher. Scantlin encouraged the deacons at Beaty to talk to Steelman, which they did.

The church extended the offer and Steelman accepted with the provision that he be allowed to work cattle part-time on the side.

“I was 51 years old and we still had nothing to retire on,” he said.

He had never once set a fee for performing a funeral or wedding. Some people paid, some didn’t. But either way, he bore no malice.

When Steelman left Davis First Baptist in ‘82 they “had more people in the choir than Beaty had in the church.” His weekly income dropped from $600 to $200.

For the next 24 years nearly everything he touched, including the Beaty Church, turned to gold.

He bought 200 acres in the Joy community for $75,000, burned it, plowed it, and planted a little known seed called Plains Bluestem which he bought for $10 per pound.

That fall the seed price spiked to $16 per pound. He allowed a man to harvest the seed on halves and ended up with $35,000—nearly half of what he gave for the land—as his share. The next season’s harvest paid off the note.

Due to the drought in the ‘80s, Steelman had to sell, at a loss, 100 of his 150 cows. He put the money in Dell stock and with the returns from his investment he and Marge were able to give their children and grandchildren over a quarter of a million dollars in Christmas gift money.

The church built a new auditorium and family-life-center to accommodate its growing membership. The five-year note on the family-life-center was paid in full — within twenty-two months — on December 19, 2005.

Of his bivocational work he says, “I work the cattle just enough to ruin my preaching and preach just enough to ruin my cattle.”

During his time at Beaty, Steelman had to cope with four bouts of blindness—each lasting three months—due to a rare disease that attacks the coating around the optic nerves. He never knows when it will return.

Marge now struggles with the relapse of a disease that caused her to have a lung removed when she was thirty-years-old. Because of their health problems, they felt it best to resign.

After closing the morning sermon on January 8, Steelman’s voice wavered as he began a brief summary of his conversion and six pastorates; then he stopped, dropped his head and turned to the pastor’s bench to retrieve the folder containing the letter of resignation. While he read through tears, the people wept.

As one writer said of former President Andrew Jackson at the end of his term in office, “For once, the setting has eclipsed the rising sun.”

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