The Rev. Buckner Fanning, one of the state’s leading spiritual leaders of the late 20th century and the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church for more than 40 years, died Sunday at the age of 89. He had been in declining health and out of public life for some years, and in August he suffered a stroke and moved to an assisted living center. His family released a statement Monday confirming his passing:
“It is with deep sadness, but with great and unbounded joy, that we want you to let you know that Buckner passed away peacefully last night. We are so excited that he has finally met his Lord that he served so faithfully, passionately and devotedly his entire life. We celebrate the life that he lived on this earth and the eternal life that he is enjoying right now. Thank you for all your prayers for our entire family. ”
Update: Buckner’s family has invited the public to two, “identical memorial services” on Sunday, Feb. 28.
“We want Dad’s memorial service to be open and available to anyone who wishes to celebrate his life with us,” family members stated.
Fanning was articulate, charismatic, and gifted with an eloquent voice and preaching style that mesmerized listeners. His influence as a spiritual leader and voice of reason in times of trouble or addressing socially divisive issues reached far beyond his congregation and even San Antonio.
A former U.S. Marine and World War II veteran, Fanning was among the first troops to land in Nagasaki, Japan after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city in 1945. He enrolled at Baylor University in Waco, and experienced a post-war calling to become a big tent evangelist after attending a sermon delivered by Howard E. Butt Jr. In that era, Butt was a barnstorming contemporary of the Rev. Billy Graham. Details of those years were recalled by Butt in his 1973 memoir, “The Velvet Covered Brick.” Fanning and Graham also became friends as younger men who would go on to influence generations of Americans of faith.
Fanning extended a warm welcome to me in 1989 on my first visit to Trinity Baptist Church at 319 E. Mulberry St. in Monte Vista, which he built into the city’s largest and most influential congregation with more than 10,000 members, including many civic and business leaders. My family had just moved back to Texas from New York and I was expecting to meet Rev. Fanning for a brief conversation or church tour.
We spent three hours in conversation that day, giving me an immediate appreciation of Fanning’s stature and the respect he enjoyed among national evangelical leaders. Fanning asked where I had worked before moving to San Antonio to join the now-defunct San Antonio Light as a senior editor. When I told him Newsweek magazine, he replied, “It’s a great magazine. The editors put me on their cover some years ago.”
That cover story on America’s evangelicals was published in 1957, years that Butt often recounted in later conversations we had as he talked about his decision to pursue a spiritual life and concede the leadership of H-E-B to his younger brother, Charles Butt. Prior to his own retirement, Howard Butt Jr. presided over the H.E. Butt Family Foundation with offices in San Antonio and Kerrville, and the Laity Lodge spiritual retreat near Leakey.
Fanning turned from evangelical pursuits to a congregational ministry and took the helm of Trinity Baptist at the unusually young age of 33 in 1959. While building Trinity Baptist into a nationally recognized congregation he also built his reputation as an ecumenical religious leader comfortable in his relationship with local leaders of the Catholic Church and other faiths.
He also was the most mediagenic of San Antonio pastors, gaining a huge following of people of all faiths for his widely broadcast televised appearances that offered 30 seconds of nondenominational inspiration. In an era when every household watched network television, Fanning was a familiar presence in every living room, presenting everyday life situations and experiences to show faith and hope triumphing over loss and despair.
Fanning’s appreciation of the mundane as metaphor was widely admired, yet difficult if not impossible to imitate. Cable television allowed many evangelical preachers to become media personalities, but most resorted to more predictable Old Testament fire and brimstone. Fanning was a handsome, dignified man with a sharp intellect, good sense of humor and humanity, and a deeply informed view of the world. People who didn’t attend church services or consider themselves religious connected with Fanning and his message.
Fanning stayed active for some years after his retirement from Trinity Baptist Church in 2002, which afterwards underwent a tumultuous period of congregational division and debate. Fanning was a master of leading people to embrace or at least give consideration to ideas contrary to their beliefs. When he walked away from the pulpit, congregational unity proved elusive for a time.
Fanning was a giant of a spiritual leader in an era when San Antonio was governed in politics, in commerce, and from the pulpit by larger than life figures who were patriarchs in every sense of the word. It was simpler time in a city when power was concentrated and leadership was far less welcoming to women or to people of color. But even then, Rev. Fanning was a bridge across all waters. People who never met Buckner Fanning cannot quite know what a singular and extraordinary man they missed.
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*Top image: Rev. Buckner Fanning. Courtesy photo.