James and Mattie Walker have been married 70 years and have been in the ministry together even longer.
In 1949, while he was a student at Ouachita Baptist University, James was called to be a part-time pastor at Union Baptist Church, near Harrison, Arkansas. At the same time, the 19-year-old also accepted a call to pastor at Bellefonte Baptist Church in Boone County, where he preached two Sundays a month. He eventually resigned from Union Baptist Church and took on preaching full-time at Bellefonte.
James said George Blackmon, a Bible professor at Ouachita Baptist University, told the “preacher boys,” as he referred to them, two things they did not want to do when pastoring a church.
The first was not to construct a building, and the second was not to date any of the girls. While at Bellefonte, James did both.
It was at this church that James met Mattie.
“First time I saw her, she was walking down the church aisle in a black dress with big flowers,” James said.
“I’m glad I bought that dress,” Mattie added with a laugh.
The two dated about two years before getting engaged and eventually wed on July 27, 1952.
When it comes to the longevity of their marriage, James credits it to seven things.
James’ grandfather was a Baptist preacher as well as a schoolteacher and farmer. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
James said he was watching his grandfather split wood one day when his grandfather said, “Don’t just stand there, do something.”
And James has been doing something ever since, Mattie said.
Born in 1930 and 1931, James and Mattie grew up during the depression. He said both their parents were hard workers and taught James and Mattie to be self-sufficient.
Additionally, their children have been incredibly supportive of them throughout the years, and they are proud of their grandchildren.
James was called to preach when he was only 19 at Union Baptist Church and Bellefonte Baptist Church. His grandfather was pastor at both of those churches at one time as well.
James went on to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and led two churches in southern Oklahoma. After graduation from seminary, James and Mattie served as church planters in Washington and then traveled south to pastor churches in Wimberly, Texas, and Houston, Texas, before returning to Arkansas to pastor at First Baptist Church Warren, where he served eight years.
During that time, Mattie worked as a substitute teacher, supplementing their income with her earnings.
James went on to work for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, where he was director of stewardship and aided with Cooperative Program promotion before working with Guidestone Financial Resouces for 15 years.
James graduated from Bergman High School and Mattie graduated from Bellefonte High School.
“I mention these schools because we had teachers who really helped shape and mold our lives. … They taught us the basic principles of life. … And we’re grateful for those experiences in those two high schools,” he said. “I remember all of my teachers as being practicing Christians.”
At seminary, James received a bachelor of divinity, and Mattie earned her associate degree in religious education.
Since then, the couple has been updating their knowledge through various seminars and other teachings.
“The principle that we live by was that we always tried to keep our expenses less than our income. … And any extra money that we received we put it in a savings account and that gave us a little bit of a sense of security,” James said.
James noted a wedding he officiated in the 1970s. A couple in their 30s came to him for marriage. After a brief ceremony, the couple asked how much James wanted for the wedding.
“The ministerial response is you don’t owe me anything. (The man) pulled out his pocketbook and gave me a dollar and then turned to his wife and said, ‘Now, you give him a dollar,’” James said with a laugh.
James and Mattie added $2 to their savings that day.
Conflicts of life
James said he and Mattie have had very few conflicts within the church over the years. The biggest one, however, happened while he was pastoring in Oklahoma.
There was a disturbance in the church over a local liquor election. The members in favor of the sale of alcohol tried to vote James out of the church but did not garner enough support.
James continued sharing the gospel there and beyond.
Despite conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, James said he and Mattie have deliberately made the decision to stay with the organization.
“We’ve had invitations to go with the other groups, but we decided that we wanted to stay inside the convention as much as we can because I would rather stay inside and fight rather than stand on the outside and throw stones at others,” he said. “That has been our identity through 73 years of ministry in churches and convention. … I think that people always want you to identify with them, but I am going to stick with Southern Baptist, and I think (Mattie) will stick with me on that.”
Couples are going to have disputes.
“One of the factors in our longevity together is the fact that we can forgive each other,” James said.
For instance, James said Mattie likes to shop for many things and he likes the simple lifestyle.
“We can forgive and accept each other. I can accept her shopping for many things, and she can forgive me for having that simple lifestyle without demanding that she give up shopping or I give up my conviction on the simple lifestyle,” he said.
Faith and God’s grace
James and Mattie have carried their faith and God’s grace with them through all the years.
James referenced Psalm 90:10, “Our lives last 70 years or, if we are strong, 80 years. Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow; indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away.”
“Three score and 10 years. Well, we’ve had additional years,” he said. “We’ve had lessons from all those years.”
James and Mattie are members at First Baptist Church in Benton.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Mary Alford and originally published by Arkansas Baptist News.