William James Abraham (December 19, 1947 – October 7, 2021).
Rev. William J. Abraham, 73, died on Thursday, October 7, 2021. A memorial service will be held at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas, Texas 75205 on Saturday, October 30, 2021 at 10:00 am. The service is open to the public.
Billy Abraham was born on December 19, 1947 to Irvine and Isabella Abraham in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland (United Kingdom). His father died in an accident in 1951, leaving his mother with six boys. His earliest childhood memory is of Irish Methodist ministers praying with the family and bringing “orphan money” on Sundays. An academically gifted child, in 1955 Billy was selected to matriculate into Portora Royal School in his hometown from which he graduated in 1966.
He went on to pursue an honors degree in philosophy and psychology at Queen’s University in Belfast (1966-1970). As an undergraduate student, he was awarded the Peele Prize in Philosophy for an essay on the concept of human action. His love of philosophy was surpassed only by his deep conversion to the Christian faith, which he underwent in his late teens. He met his future wife, Muriel Elizabeth Charles at a youth group meeting of the Sandy Row Methodist Church in Belfast and the two were married on August 2, 1969. They had three children, all born in Belfast: Timothy Fletcher (1971-2012), Siobhan Elizabeth (b. 1973), and Shaun Wesley (b. 1978).
Following his calling, in 1970, Billy Abraham crossed the ocean to continue his education at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. At Asbury, he was particularly shaped by Robert Traina’s inductive method of Bible study. While studying at the seminary, Billy was elected President of Student Body and Council in 1971-1972. For his academic achievements he became a member (1972) and president (1973) of Theta Phi Honors Society and received his Master of Divinity degree in 1973. The same year he returned to Great Britain in order to pursue a doctorate in philosophical theology at the University of Oxford under the direction of a prominent philosopher of the Christian religion, Basil Mitchell (1917-2011). Abraham was awarded a D.Phil. at Oxford in 1977 with a dissertation on divine action and history, a topic that continued to be of focal significance in his scholarly career.
During his studies at Oxford, Abraham taught philosophy at Culhum College of Education, Culham, Abingdon, UK (1975-1977). Upon graduating from Oxford, he was a minister in the Methodist Church in Ireland serving St Andrew’s Church in Belfast (1977-1978), Irvinestown Methodist Church in Irvinestown (1978-1980), and Cullybackey Methodist Church, Village of Cullybackey, County Antrim, N. Ireland (1982-1984). His scholarly career continued at Seattle Pacific University, where he taught theology in 1980-1982 and 1984-1985. While teaching at SPU, Abraham published his first books: The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture (1981), Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism (1982, reprinted in 2000 as Oxford Scholarly Classic), and The Coming Great Revival: Recovering the Full Evangelical Tradition (1984). These works began to establish Abraham’s reputation as a leading theological authority within Methodism and beyond.
In 1985, he joined the faculty of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (SMU) first as Professor of Philosophy of Religion and McCreless Professor of Evangelism (1985-1995) and later as Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies (1995-2020). At Perkins, his teaching spanned the disciplines of systematic theology, philosophy of religion, evangelism, and Wesley studies. For three decades, Abraham taught courses in systematic theology that were important for defining the character and depth of theological education received at Perkins. He also taught and supervised numerous doctoral students at the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at SMU. Under the auspices of the Center for Evangelism and Church Mission Studies, in 2000, Abraham founded the Polycarp Community consisting of graduate students and pastors who wished to continue their postgraduate research in theology on a British model. With his general supervision, many members of the Polycarp Community defended their doctoral dissertations at Durham University, the University of Manchester, the University of South Africa, and others. As an inspiring teacher and caring mentor, he made a lasting impact upon a generation of future pastors and university instructors. In 2003, he received the highest award for teaching at SMU and was appointed Altshuler University Distinguished Teacher.
A prolific scholar during his tenure at SMU, Abraham authored or edited over twenty-five books including: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1985), The Rationality of Religious Belief: Essays in Honor of Basil Mitchell (edited with Stephen W. Holtzer, 1987), How to Play Theological Ping-Pong: Essays by Basil Mitchell (edited with Robert Prevost, 1989), The Logic of Evangelism (1989), The Art of Evangelism: Evangelism Carefully Crafted into the Life of the Local Church (1993), Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia (1995), Unity, Charity and Liberty: Building Bridges Under Icy Waters (edited with Donald Messer, 1996), Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminists (1997, received Best Book Faculty Award at SMU and Joint Book of the Year Award from Institute of Christian Studies in 1999), Can United Methodists Stay United? (1998), Evangelism: Essays by Albert Cook Outler (edited with Albert Outler, 1998), The Logic of Renewal (2003), Saving Souls in the Twenty-First Century: A Missiological Midrash on John Wesley (2003), John Wesley for Armchair Theologians (2005), Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation (2006), Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church (edited with Jason E. Vickers and Natalie B. Van Kirk, 2008), The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (edited with James E. Kirby, 2009), Aldersgate and Athens: John Wesley and the Foundations of Christian Belief (2010), Key United Methodist Beliefs (with David F. Watson, 2013), Among the Ashes: On Death, Grief, and Hope (2017), The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology (edited with Frederick D. Aquino, 2017), Divine Agency and Divine Action (vols. 1 and 2: 2017, vol. 3: 2018, vol. 4: 2021), Methodism: A Very Short Introduction (2019), John Wesley’s Sermons on Various Occasions (3 vols., 2021, edited with a commentary).
Abraham also founded Highland Loch Press in Dallas, Texas, in which he self-published four titles: Celtic Fire: Evangelism in the Wisdom and Power of the Spirit (2012), The Bible: Beyond the Impasse (2012), Analytic Theology: A Bibliography (2012); Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology (2013). In addition, he published over a hundred scholarly and popular articles, as well as produced audio-visual resources on the basics of the Christian faith, Bible study, Methodism, and church renewal. In 2012, he was awarded the Ford Fellowship, which is the highest award for scholarship at SMU. In 2013, Abraham also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wesleyan Theological Society (WTS).
The WTS award recognized Abraham’s wide-ranging contributions to Wesleyan and Methodist Studies over the decades. His work on John Wesley aimed to paint a nuanced picture of the eighteenth-century figure as evangelist, as theologian, as preacher, and as spiritual father. While Abraham offered cutting-edge scholarly insights—his treatment of Wesley’s theological epistemology is a prime example—he took great care to make his work on Wesley accessible to a general audience. He also published numerous books, chapters, and articles in Methodist Studies, continually emphasizing the importance of sound doctrine to the health of the church.
Evangelism and mission held a prominent place in his own calling, and this included significant scholarly work in this territory. Abraham’s exploration of the place of evangelism within the life of the church was marked by theological depth and pastoral concern. He developed a holistic conception of evangelism as a process of initiation into the life of the church and into the kingdom of God. Pressing back against reductionist accounts of what evangelism is, he called for immersion of new believers into the full riches of the Christian faith.
In creative and fruitful ways, he showed the relevance of philosophy of religion for theology. He sought to demonstrate the vitality of philosophy of religion as a discipline within both philosophy and religion. In extraordinary ways he acknowledged the distinction between these disciplines while exploring how they intersect and inform one another. Some of his research interests included the nature and scope of divine revelation, divine action, the rationality of religious belief, the relationship between theology and epistemology, and the meaning and nature of canon. His ability to see through problems and offer fresh insights is deeply relevant for the ongoing engagement between philosophy and religion.
In addition to his service to SMU, his visiting appointments included Visiting Professor at Central Asian Evangelical School of Theology, Karaganda, Kazakhstan (1998), Visiting Professor of Evangelical Theology at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University (1999), Visiting Scholar at Trinity Theological School, Sibu, Malaysia (2006, 2008), Visiting Professor at Bishram School of Ministry, Kathmandu, Nepal (2006), and Visiting Professor at Evangelical Methodist Seminary, San Jose, Costa Rica (2007, 2008, 2021). The appointments in Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nepal, and Costa Rica are indicators of Abraham’s indefatigable missionary efforts and his burning desire to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with people around the world. In addition, his missionary work in Turda, Romania (2010-2021) involved evangelism and church-building. Abraham is the founder and president of Oasis International Missions (1999-2021) also known as Salt and Light European Ministries, a non-profit organization that supports Christian missions worldwide.
Upon his retirement from SMU in 2020, Abraham taught part-time at Dallas Baptist University. He also became the founding director of the Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, Texas. In grateful acknowledgement and joyful recognition of Professor Abraham’s outstanding, lifelong contribution to scholarship in service of the church in general and to Wesleyan Studies in particular, in September 2021, through the generous gifts of donors, Truett Seminary established in his honor The William J. Abraham Chair of the Wesley House of Studies.
A renowned speaker, Abraham gave public lectures at numerous educational institutions, societies, and churches, including: University of Edinburgh (1975), University of Lancaster (1976), Origen Society, Oxford (1976), Irish Baptist College (1977), Union Theological College, Belfast (1979), Wesleyan Theological Society (1981, 1984), Western Evangelical Seminary (1982), Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies (1982, 1987, 1992, 2006), Methodist Bicentennial Theological Consultation, Emory University (1983), Edgehill Theological College, Belfast (1984, 1996), National Meetings of the American Academy of Religion (1984, 2007, 2008, 2013), Regional Meetings of the American Academy of Religion (1986, 1987), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans (1985), Bethel College (1987), Messiah College (1988), McMurry College (1989, 1991), American Jewish Committee, Dallas (1989), Duke University (1989), Southern Nazarene University (1990), Wesley Seminary (1990), University of London (1991), Pacific School of Evangelism, Sydney (1993), United Theological College, Sydney (1993), St John’s College, Auckland (1993), Onel College, Oxford (1994), Candler School of Theology (1997), Iliff School of Theology (1997), Korean Consultation, Honolulu (1998), Harvard University (1998), University of Illinois (1998), Cliff College (1999), Calvin College (2000, 2014), Washington National Cathedral (2000), Baylor University (2000, 2003, 2006, 2007), Canadian Methodist Historical Association (2000), Harvard Divinity School (2001), Point Loma Nazarene University (2002), Abilene Christian University (2002, 2003), Cliff College (2003), Downpatrick Cathedral, N. Ireland (2003), British Methodist Conference (2003), Duke Divinity School (2003), Wesleyan Theological Society (2004), Wheaton College (2004), Central Asian Evangelical School of Theology (2004), Singapore Methodist Church (2005), United Theological Seminary (2007), American Philosophical Association (2007), Lipscomb University (2008), Houghton College (2008), Denman Lectures, Nashville (2009), Mere Anglicanism Conference, Charleston (2009), World Universities Forum, Davos, Switzerland (2009), Community College, Corsicana (2010), Rutgers University (2010), Indiana Wesleyan University (2010), Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest (2010), University of Notre Dame (2011, 2013, 2014), University of St. Thomas (2013, 2015), Winget Lecture, Spring Arbor University (2014), Trinity Theological College, Singapore (2015), Colgate University (2018), Jesuit School of Theology, Paris (2019), Los Angeles Theology Conference (2019), Meetings of the International Orthodox Theological Association (Jerusalem, Israel, 2018 and Iasi, Romania 2019), and others.
He served as an advisor to the following presses: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Abingdon Press, Rowan and Littlefield Press, Wadsworth Press, and University of Notre Dame Press. He was an advisor to London Weekly Television (1988) and served on the Editorial Board of Interpretation (1994-1997). A long-time friend of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Abraham was an Ecumenical Observer for the International Orthodox Theological Association.
A clergy member of Rio Texas Annual Conference (formerly the Southwest Texas Annual Conference), Dr. Abraham transferred his membership in 1990 from the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, where he was ordained Deacon in 1979 and Elder in 1984. At the local level, he was regularly invited to preach, officiate at services, and teach Sunday school classes. He taught two Sunday School classes, In His Steps and First Light, at the Highland Park United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas for nearly thirty years until the week he died. At the denominational level, he served as a delegate to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference and also on the United Methodist General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. He addressed numerous gatherings of United Methodists across the globe and helped to plant churches in many countries. For many years he was active in the Confessing Movement and participated in many official and unofficial conversations about the UMC’s doctrinal commitments.
In 2014, Billy struggled with and successfully recovered from colon cancer. He also had sleep apnea but otherwise his health remained strong. He was full of plans for his future missionary and scholarly work when he died suddenly while visiting a friend at an assisted living facility. A loving husband and caring father, he was preceded in death by his son Timothy (d. 2012) and is survived by his wife Muriel, his children Siobhan and Shaun, as well as his brothers John, Ivan, Cecil, and Ken Abraham.
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