by Bernard R. DeRemer
It was a cold, snowy, wartime Christmas in Chicago, with Moody Bible Institute closed for the holidays except for a skeleton crew. Suddenly, shattering the quiet, a drunken soldier barged into the Administration Building, loudly demanding to see “Bill Howten” (as he mispronounced it). The clerk explained that the offices were closed and no one could be reached. But the visitor insisted that his friend was the president, must be there, and he had to see him at once. Now realizing who was meant, the clerk telephoned Dr. Houghton, who promised to come to the office.
When he arrived, his face red from stinging ice and snow, he greeted the soldier warmly, then took him into the reception room for private conversation. Soon they were on their knees in prayer. When they stood, tears of rejoicing streamed down their faces, at the soldier’s new life in Christ. The author of “Love This World Through Me, Lord” and “Lead Me to Some Soul Today” had shown his love for the lost world and won another with the love of God.
Will H. (William Henry) Houghton was born at South Boston, Mass., in 1887. Growing up in a godly home, he was saved at 14, but full commitment waited. The stage had always appealed to Will, who early displayed histrionic gifts. So he traveled the country in a vaudeville circuit, and stayed up all night gambling.
But after attending a service in the Brooklyn Nazarene Tabernacle, he yielded completely to the Lord and entered Eastern Nazarene College in Rhode Island (now at Quincy, Mass.). Though he stayed only six months, a contemporary recalled “We all seemed to sense [that he was] a man of destiny….”
Houghton’s platform gifts first surfaced as singer and song leader, but gradually he began to preach. Baptist pastorates in Pennsylvania followed. During his time at New Bethlehem, he met and married Elizabeth Andrews, several years after the death of his first wife.
On some Sundays he baptized as many as 60 souls—amazing for a small community.
He also began to write and publish tracts, developing another ministry with far-reaching results.
Larger fields inevitably beckoned: first the Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta, then historic Calvary Baptist Church in New York City—often called the “graveyard of preachers.” Dr. Houghton began his ministry there in 1930, claiming the promise, “If God command thee so, then thou shalt be able” (Ex. 18:25).
But farther west a vastly different, much larger stage was being set. Dr. James M. Gray had headed Moody Bible Institute for a third of a century, but was eager to pass the administration on to younger hands. When he heard Dr. Houghton, he at once recognized his Elisha. In due time, the trustees concurred.
So on Nov. 1, 1934, Dr. Houghton assumed leadership of the “West Point of Christian Service.” It had grown from 300 students to a day school of more than 900; evening and correspondence schools reached thousands more; radio and extension departments as well as Moody Press and Moody Monthly publishing divisions, all contributed to the world-wide outreach of a Christian colossus.
Here was a man with no seminary or other advanced training, very little college, and hardly any professional educational experience! Of course, his evangelistic and pastoral ministry figured mightily; he was a great preacher and personal worker. Further, he was uniquely gifted in the areas of organization, administration, and inspiration of others. It was said that he could “come up with more ideas in an hour than the entire staff could implement in a month—or more.”
But, alas, for 30 years this spiritual giant battled one of mankind’s great afflictions: migraine. By the early 1940s, his headaches became more frequent and painful. An associate recalled how Dr. Houghton would grip the edge of a desk or table just to survive a severe attack.
The beginning of the end came with a heart attack in 1946, which hospitalized him for some weeks, followed by recuperation at home. Finally he returned for chapel on Nov. 4, 1946, to the great delight of faculty, staff, and students. He seemed improved, but I recall how he left the auditorium early, leaning rather heavily upon a colleague.
The great reserves on which he had always depended were no longer there. Increasingly he realized that he simply lacked the strength to deal with the many demands of his office at the Institute—which was vigorously growing, and vastly expanded under his ministry.
Finally he flew west for complete rest and separation from all business duties. Months of heartbreaking struggle followed in his vain quest for elusive health. Pain came and went; he would feel better, then utter exhaustion followed.
In April, 1947, he wrote that he was “much better” and hoping to return in a few weeks. But it was not to be. In Los Angeles on June 14, 1947, his weakened heart finally gave way, ushering him into the presence of the Lord he had served so long and faithfully.
Thousands filled Moody Church to pay their last respects in one of the most remarkable services for a servant of God of that generation. But perhaps the most eloquent tribute of all was the simple expression of Irwin Moon that “Dr. Houghton never entered a room or a life without leaving it full.”