Looking Back Chapter 13

Christians in Tennessee were very appreciative of the help Mr. Gilbert had been to so many of them. At the Mid-South Bible Conference in 1966 they arranged a night to celebrate brother Gilbert’s having been out in the Lord’s work for fifty years. It was a very happy occasion for the Gilberts as they were surrounded by a crowd of friends who loved and appreciated them. A hand-painted portrait of Mr. Gilbert was presented to them. Surely God had been faithful through the years.

What were some of the principles that had molded his life?

First of all, Mr. Gilbert was deeply convinced of the truth of the Gospel. Men were lost and on their way to hell; he believed this with all of his heart. He had the concern and drive of the evangelist; men must hear his message. They must hear that God loved them and that Christ had died for them. He never wearied of telling the story of God’s love and of the death of His Son. Now salvation was available to all. “Whosoever will may come.”

It was salvation provided by God’s grace, free, a gift. It was salvation appropriated by faith, faith alone. Mr. Gilbert was hard on the Galatian crowd. Faith, not baptism, not a good life, not church membership or anything else, could save one. Faith clinging to Christ and His atoning work was the only requirement for salvation. Do you believe what God says? Will you trust Christ? Is His death enough to pay for your sin? He loved to preach the Gospel with all of his heart. This was the only way for men to be saved.

He was convinced concerning the validity of New Testament principles for the church. The pattern established by the early apostles under the leadership of the Holy Spirit was good enough for him. He would rejoice in the Gospel being preached by all. But he was not content to stop with this. He longed to see young Christians gathered together in assemblies which would follow God’s Word in simplicity. Did not Paul write, “… the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). In this epistle he had written about order in the local church. This was enough for him. If these were God’s commandments he would do them!

In 1 Corinthians along with other teaching, Paul warned about divisions among God’s people. He refused to gather people around himself. Christ was to be the center of gathering and loyalty for His people. Mr. Gilbert felt this strongly. Because of this he performed few baptisms, preferring to let others do this. He also refused to accept other names than that of Christ. Others might be content to be called Methodists, Baptists, Brethren or Plymouth Brethren. He wanted to be just a brother in Christ; “small b, please.” Some felt he could even be a little obstinate in this area, but with him it was a matter of principle. He wanted to identify with no party in the Church, only with Christ.

In the assemblies which he established he was concerned to have an atmosphere where spiritual gift could develop. He was strongly opposed to a clerical concept of the ministry. Young men should be encouraged to speak and to develop any gift along this line they might have. He also believed in a leadership by a plurality of spiritual men called elders. A preacher who lived in an area and helped in the shepherding work was only an elder among other elders.

Worship is vital in a local church. Like the early churches Gilbert encouraged Christians to meet every Sunday to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread. I have often seen him myself at such a meeting with his head bowed and the tears running down his face as he thought upon the Lord’s love and death for him. To promote worship he initiated the publishing of the hymn book “Hymns of Worship and Remembrance.” This has deepened the appreciation of many for their Lord.

Those who leave regular employment to preach the Word should live by faith. This meant there should be no financial arrangement between a worker and an assembly. He was to look to the Lord for his needs and Christians were to look to the Lord for direction in their giving. This left the worker free to proclaim God’s message as God would have him. His support was diversified from various assemblies and individuals. A worker in a new assembly was to have as his goal the raising up of gift and leadership so he would not be indispensable. He could then move on and start a new work.

The goal of an assembly was to produce mature Christians, as stressed in Ephesians 4. Mature Christians would be living godly lives, functioning as a member of the local assembly and witnessing to the lost. Christ likeness was the goal for each. He felt strongly that a church was needed for the development of the believer. He also felt that a New Testament assembly would produce the healthy type of Christianity. Therefore he felt burdened to see such simple gatherings established everywhere. Other churches might be preaching the Gospel and he was thankful for this. But he felt every city and town ought to have an assembly functioning along more Scriptural lines. He was always urging more pioneering work in new areas of the States and Canada.

Mr. Gilbert lived what he preached. At a worker’s conference in Fanwood, New Jersey, in 1969 he announced to some of the men that God was burdening his heart for Huntsville, Alabama. This was a city sixty-five miles south of Shelbyville that he had often visited for a Thursday night Bible class. Huntsville had grown rapidly in connection with the Space program and rocket research. It was one of the most progressive communities of the area.

An assembly had been started there but some families had moved on in search of work. The little group was about to expire and Mr. Gilbert’s heart was concerned. He wanted to see the little work revived. Even though he was advancing in age himself and might have been content to visit established assemblies, his pioneering blood still was vigorous. They would move to Huntsville and by God’s grace see a work done for the Lord. They had a pleasant home in Shelbyville with a spacious, shaded backyard. It was a great place for the grandchildren. Would Mrs. Gilbert give up her home and move again? Yes, she would.

They moved to Huntsville in December, 1969, and started meeting in their home. Once again he would try radio work, visit homes, go after souls. They would see people saved and the work go forward. Mrs. Gilbert’s sister and husband, the W. D. Edmonsons, moved there to help them. They have remained in Huntsville and are much help in every phase of the work.

But his vision exceeded his strength. He was no longer a young man but past 77. He had always known good health and had never been in a hospital. He seemed to be indestructible. But in April, 1969, a heart attack had struck him and he lay in the shadow of death. He began recovering, but it was slow and hard. Seven times during 1970 he was sent to the hospital. Suddenly he had become an old man, a shadow of his former vigorous self. It was very hard on a man who had been so active and hardy to lie helpless and dependent. His wife nursed him lovingly. Through this experience of suffering there came a mellowing and a ripening of soul. Impatience gave way to a quiet resting in the Hand of his Father. He had often visited the sick; now he must be visited. He who had exhorted others to trust and to look up must now learn to rest himself in faith. He knew he was getting near the end of the road.

The small assembly continued to meet in their home. He gathered with them in the living room and worshipped the Lord he loved and had served for over 50 years. As he was able he would teach God’s Word. Using tapes he had made in years past he continued his radio ministry in Indiana, Tennessee and Alabama. He was determined to do what he could. Perhaps God would raise him up to a measure of his former strength.

He missed the workers’ conference in Houston in 1970. Some of us visited him in his home in Alabama after the conference. He deeply appreciated seeing old friends again. In 1971 he had made some improvement and was able to be at the workers’ conference which was held in Chicago. He greatly enjoyed being with many workers whom he had known in years past. His cry in prayer was still, “Oh, God, raise up new workers for your harvest!” There must be others to take his place. He knew his days were numbered.

One of the joys of his last days was that of seeing another hymn book published. He had been concerned for some time to see an all-purpose hymn book available, one having both Gospel hymns and hymns of meditation and worship. Also there were some newer songs to be included. Many helped in this project. The Obie Snider and Richard Reetzke families gave many hours to the compilation, as did Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Baehr and others.

During the winter months he made little progress. His circulation was very poor and the doctors considered surgery.

He wrote a letter to me dated April 7, 1972, in which he said:

“I am not very well physically. Always tired. Toes paining and suffering. Next Tuesday I will go to (the) hospital for tests and they may have to operate, connecting a blood vessel above the knee to one below for better circulation.

“I have hardly worn a shoe in nine months—go to my Bible study with woolen home made slippers.

“It’s all in His hands and we are trusting Him. My wife has suffered some pain in arms from arthritis.

“So we are going through some old age suffering. I’ll be 80 in November.

“Glad you are seeing blessing

Love in Him from us both,
T. B. Gilbert”

Mr. Gilbert was admitted to the hospital that Sunday and tests were made to see if they should go ahead with arterial surgery. The decision was made not to do so because of his age and general condition. When told he could not undergo surgery, his only comment was “Praise the Lord, I’ll probably see Him sooner than I expected.” He returned home on Wednesday, glad to be in his own bed and cared for by his own wife. The next afternoon, April 13, at 4:00 p.m., he slipped quietly into the Presence of his Lord and Savior. The old warrior was dead.

With Paul he could have said, “I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge shall give me at that day, and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7, 8).

The funeral was held in the chapel in Shel-byville the next Sunday. Mary Ann and her family came. Obie Snider, her husband, sang a beautiful number during the service. The four grandchildren sat and wept quietly as John Phelan of Nashville gave the message and described Mr. Gilbert as a man sent from God. The chapel was packed with those who had come to pay their last respects to him. As the long line passed by the casket, tears flowed freely. Some could say, “He led me to the Lord.” Others could say, “He taught and encouraged me as a young Christian.” After the funeral the body was taken to Pennsylvania for burial near the Snider’s home.

Those of us who attended the funeral were filled with a sense of tremendous loss. Mr. T. B. Gilbert was a unique man, as are all of God’s servants. Each is hand crafted, custom made. When a man of God dies there is the realization that there will never be another just like him. No one else will ever have the same combination of genes and training. No one else will be polished by the Master’s hand with the same set of circumstances. And so this empty void, this keen sense of loss. For many it was not only the loss of a gifted servant of Christ, but of a father. We may have many teachers; we only have one father. Mr. Gilbert had many spiritual children.

Mrs. Gilbert returned to an empty house in Huntsville, but determined to carry on. She knew that this was what he would want. By God’s grace they would still see a work done in Huntsville. You couldn’t let the old pioneer down, could you? And no doubt his prayer in heaven is still the same, “Oh, God, raise up laborers for the harvest. Thrust out young men with a love for souls and a vision of seeing new assemblies begun. Oh, Father…”


“Dust thou art and
Unto dust shalt thou return”
Cold words these
And cold the flesh
That lies encapsulated
In the tomb.

Muscles once knotted
And strained,
In fruitful work
Life feeding.
A brain once teemed
Sucking in nerve tremors
Reflecting, combining, deciding,
Then spewing out its terse commands.

Loins were fertile
A virile bed of new life
Anxious to begin afresh.
A life was beautiful
In youth strong and vigorous,
In age mellow, ripe, full grown,

A life lived full,
Reaching out to God
In answering love.
A life lived full,
Reaching out to broken men
Speaking God’s love;
Stretched taut upon a beam,
Reconciling, renewing, healing.

Tissues once firm with throbbing life
Lie flaccid, soggy, putrefying.
Lips that framed God’s praises,
Pleaded God’s cause to men,
Dissolve into embracing roots,
Nourish a lower form of life.
“Unto dust shalt thou return…”
Oh God, is this the end?

A brown, dry seed
Drops into deeply grooved soil,
Softened by moisture
Warmed by sun
The hard shell cracks, decays, rots,
New life surges upward
Breaks earth’s crust,
A tender shaft of new-born green,
The same yet different, beautiful,
Vibrant with new life.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Donald L. Norbie
May, 1972