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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Still Preaching and Praying

Mary Watford Stabler has been pastor of the same Alabama church for more than seven decades

By John W. Kennedy
March 14, 2010

Mary Watford Stabler didn’t exactly experience ideal conditions to plant a church. Stabler started Faith Chapel Assembly of God in Scratch Ankle, Ala., in June 1939, with the nation still in the throes of the Great Depression. With money scarce, Sunday offerings often amounted to only a few nickels and dimes.

There also was the matter of Stabler’s age: 17. She wondered whether adults really would listen to a teenager preach.

The introverted Stabler felt insignificant, both because of her short stature and inexperience in the pulpit. How could the slightly built, 5-foot-tall girl command an audience?

Perhaps her most significant obstacle was her gender. Stabler didn’t have much company as a female preacher in the conservative South in the 1930s.

Finally, there was the matter of Stabler being a Pentecostal in an era when even many Christian denominations viewed them with suspicion.

Yet despite all these potential obstacles, Mary Watford Stabler has become the longest continually serving pastor of the same congregation in the Assemblies of God: 71 years.

“I felt compelled by the Lord to preach,” says the still passionate pastor. “I started preaching and just kept preaching. I had a lot of opposition, but the Lord always stood for me.”

Stabler, who turns 88 this month, has outlasted her critics — and the rest of her original congregation. She remains sharp, especially when recalling dates of events and Scripture verses.

The feisty yet tenderhearted pastor is a vivid storyteller who has multiple accounts of setbacks, but many more of faith-filled victories.

In the early days, resistance came especially because of her being a pioneer female pastor.

“I didn’t try to argue with them when they came against me,” Stabler says. “I just gave them Scriptures of women that the Lord had used in ministry and said I knew the Lord had called me, so I was obeying Him.”

She says as a child, her Pentecostal parents, Johnnie and Eliza Watford, taught her to trust in the Lord for everything, including the healing of her body when ill. Faith became real to Stabler as a sick 13-year-old girl. As she grew weaker and weaker from a heart ailment, her mother read the fifth chapter of James, and a pastor came to pray for her recovery.

“The Lord healed me and saved me at the same time,” Stabler recalls. She began to study the Scriptures earnestly — and faithfully read the Pentecostal Evangel every week for instruction and inspiration. Stabler credits her father for encouraging her to preach. Johnnie, a farmer, had been a prayer meeting lay leader in conjunction with various preachers who made the rounds in southwestern Alabama. But because of failing eyesight, he turned over the Bible reading at the meetings to his daughter.

In July 1938, Stabler, by then filled with the Holy Spirit, began preaching her own revival services. Every night for three weeks straight, the 16-year-old girl, dubbed “Little Sister” by her father, preached to large crowds in a grove illuminated by gasoline lanterns. For most of those gathered it marked their first exposure to the Pentecostal message.

She didn’t plan on being a pastor, but she says new converts needed someone to teach them the full gospel, so she accepted an invitation to start a church. The nearest Assemblies of God church was 35 miles away, and few people had vehicles. Services started in a tent, moved to homes, then to a one-room schoolhouse and eventually to a Baptist church that had closed.

Stabler organized a Sunday School class at the church in 1940 that continues today. The Assemblies of God ordained Stabler in 1947. In the heyday of the church in the 1950s, attendance regularly topped 100, and Stabler served as president of Alabama Women’s Ministries. Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Stabler served as a counselor at youth camps.

She also affirmed young evangelists and pastors by inviting them to preach revival services at the church. Several of them went on to more noteworthy accomplishments, including Robert H. Spence, who has been president of Evangel University the past 36 years. Spence held a two-week revival at Faith Chapel in 1955 while still a college student who preached at a rural Alabama church on weekends.

“She is a wonderful example of a lady whose dedication to the Lord has never diminished,” says Spence, 74. “She has stayed faithful all these years by growing where she was planted.”

After decades of single life, Stabler in 1976 married John M. Stabler, a widower, head deacon and a Sunday School teacher at the church. He died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 68.

At 88, Stabler naturally has slowed down a bit. She can’t see well enough to drive. She uses a magnifying glass to read. Her 46-year-old nephew Brian Coover looks out for her. Yet Stabler is in good health.

“I want to get the name of her vitamins,” says AG Alabama District Superintendent Kenneth Draughon, 61. “This lady preached to my mother and father when they were teenagers. She still shows up at sectional and district councils. She is a jewel.”

Stabler still preaches every Sunday morning and evening. She leads a Bible study Wednesday evenings. Nowadays the population of the rural Franklin (the former Scratch Ankle) has dwindled. Virtually all young adults have moved elsewhere. Stabler faithfully preaches to about two dozen listeners weekly.

“She still has the Pentecostal fire in her bones,” Coover says. “I believe she is the most humble person I have ever met.”

Stabler has endured trials. For example, a stroke at age 27 left her totally paralyzed on her right side. Instead of a regimen of pills, Stabler asked an evangelist to pray for her.

“The doctor said it was caused by overwork and I was run down, and that I would never preach again,” Stabler says. “But God healed me, and that was more than 60 years ago.”

In 2001, lightning struck Stabler’s house, and it burned to the ground. Other than her Bible and a framed picture, she lost all her possessions. Of course, earthly belongings aren’t her priority; preaching the Word of God is.

“I won’t retire as long as I’m able to preach,” Stabler says. “I’d be miserable if I didn’t keep preaching. I want to do all I can for the Lord.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

Watch an interview of Stabler by General Superintendent George O. Wood.

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