Dr. William E. “Bill” Pannell: An Evangelical for Our Time

Dr. William E. “Bill” Pannell g51 at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Pannell Center

By Zebadiah Demorest, Publications and Promotions Coordinator

Bill Pannell g51, has served the Lord in unique and powerful ways since his time as a student at Fort Wayne Bible Institute. Dr. Pannell came to Fort Wayne in Fall 1947. “I was green as grass,” Dr. Pannell said in a recent interview. “It was amazing I survived the place.”

Dr. Pannell came to Fort Wayne from Sturgis, a little town just over the Michigan border. He arrived with $500, a gift from Mildred Bedford (an amazing housemaid) and a desire to serve the Lord, but he was unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead. He was a Black man in a predominantly white space, and he had no church tradition or cultural conditioning. “By the time we got to Greek in the second year, I was convinced I was in the wrong place.” Nevertheless, he persisted. “Sometimes you are growing and you don’t know it,” Dr. Pannell said.

When asked what kept him at FWBI, Dr. Pannell offered a simple reply: “people and mission.” This mission, however, was more complicated for Dr. Pannell than for other students. “Other students had more going for them than I did. They were from the Missionary Church or some organization that left them with an understanding of who they were culturally and what they were supposed to do,” Dr. Pannell said. These students knew that if they wanted to go “first class,” as Dr. Pannell said, they would go as missionaries to the deepest and darkest parts of the world. Even then, however, these cultural expectations didn’t necessarily benefit them. “We were told to go into all the world, but we didn’t get any help understanding what the world was or what was going on out there,” Dr. Pannell said, “Nobody could possibly talk to us about the interface between the gospel and culture or how impactful culture was on our gospel.”

The culture was changing, though. Dr. Witmer, the FWBI president at the time, noticed the holes in the curriculum at his college and founded the National Association of Bible Institutes and Colleges to educate students across various institutions about what was happening in the world. At the same time, Christian schools were beginning to realize in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement the need to incorporate diverse perspectives into their institutions. As Dr. Pannell says, they began to realize, “oops we need one of them.”

So, after a several years of serving as an assistant pastor and youth leader in Detroit, Dr. Pannell thought that it was time to settle down. He felt an attraction to an academic life and decided to settle at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. At Fuller, Dr. Pannell became the first African American to serve on Fuller’s Board of Trustees. After serving for three years from 1971-1974, he joined the faculty at Fuller where he served as an assistant professor of evangelism and director of the Black Pastor’s Program. While Dr. Pannell had guest lectured at several Christian colleges and seminaries, he felt that Fuller was the place he needed to be. “I had concluded that of all the places I had been, Fuller was, by far, the most hospitable both in terms of ideas and a willingness to be open to what was really going on in the world,” Dr. Pannell said. Dr. Pannell taught at Fuller for 40 years and received emeritus faculty status in 2014.

Recently, Fuller has recast the African American Church Studies Program into the William E. Pannell Center for Black Church Studies. The center exists to “build a body of Black leaders who believe in the power of church, community, and culture,” values Dr. Pannell heavily emphasized in his leadership at Fuller over the years. “The Center gives the seminary a chance to make a statement, to make it clear to Black students coming out of the church who want to serve and grow in grace and knowledge how to serve that Church,” Dr. Pannell said.

Dr. Pannell at his home in Altadena, California 

Now, Dr. Pannell has embarked on a new project: a memoir. “It’s going,” he said. “I kind of start from the beginning. You have to start with where you grew up and how that shaped your life and then go from there.” In writing his memoir, Dr. Pannell has been researching the events that shaped his early evangelical life. In the Civil Rights Era, Black evangelicals, like Dr. Pannell, were placed squarely in the center of national conversations about race, culture, and faith, conversations they were wholly unprepared for. “No one talked to us about the relationship between evangelism and justice because no one talked about justice,” he said. “We might have talked about Christian personal ethics, how to behave on a date, or why not to smoke a cigar in church, but social ethics? No.” In his memoir, Dr. Pannell is working to outline the influence of these social movements on evangelicalism—and himself. “We all, in a way, got born again during that Civil Rights Era,” he said. The Civil Rights Movement served as a turning point for many others who called themselves evangelicals. Dr. Pannell described a pastor who called him after watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral on TV and said, “I have no idea what that’s all about.” The pastor was unaware of the movement and asked Dr. Pannell if he would consider traveling to Chicago to talk to him and his staff about what they had missed. These were the first steps toward Northern evangelical churches beginning to awaken to the Civil Rights Movement they had mostly written off as a Southern issue. “They had slept through a revolution and many of them hadn’t caught up with it,” Dr. Pannell said.

Although Dr. Pannell started his memoir as a work for his grandchildren, something to explain who their grandfather was, this project has quickly piqued the interests of many others. Young, Black evangelicals, have recently sought him out to ask the question, “who are you?” For this reason, Dr. Pannell has felt an even stronger urge to write his memoir. His ability to share his story and experiences navigating the intersection of justice and faith are critically important for our current generation.

Dr. Pannell’s life’s work with evangelism, seeking justice, and advocating for and instructing Black Christians is truly inspiring. From humble beginnings at Fort Wayne Bible Institute, his willingness to be shaped and used by God has led to an expansive legacy that honors the Lord.

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