Pastors' Memoirs

Harry Wardell Backhus, III, 1908 - 1996

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  It was a great day for the ministry of the Virginia conference when the Christian Endeavor group of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia participated in a service at the Rescue Mission. The preacher used as his text Isaiah 6:8, "And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’ " Harry Wardell Backhus, III was one of the young people present. Later he witnessed, "After that I could not have done anything else but be a minister."

  Abandoning an emerging career with General Motors, he entered Randolph-Macon College to pursue his call. While a student there he was recruited to teach occasionally the Men’s Bible Class at Broad Street Church in Richmond. Not many years thereafter he returned to be pastor (1944-48). While a student at Richmond’s Union Theological Seminary, the superintendent of the Richmond District, Ben Persinger, persuaded him to become pastor of Branch Memorial Church on Church Hill (1935-38).

  Having been born October 18, 1908, in Philadelphia, Harry enjoyed living out his Pennsylvania origins in a Virginia conference setting where he was an admired leader for over 42 years. From Pennsylvania he received his rearing, his Presbyterian origins, his call, and best of all his bride of 58 years. Lillian Clara Hermann and Harry were married on February 26, 1938. They attended the same church and were neighbors in Overbrook, the last streetcar subdivision of Philadelphia. Lillian, who survives him, was always a gracious partner in a significant ministry. Across the years their life together was embellished with worldwide travels.

  It early became apparent that Harry had gifts and graces in abundance for a fruitful ministry. His keen mind and gentle spirit were framed in a ready smile. As a preacher he was clear and convincing. His exceptional administrative gifts were a reflection of his personal disciplines and his great care. He understood the importance of administration in the service of God. He was an untiring worker and a faithful pastor. These qualities were put to use in three terms as district superintendent and as pastor of large churches.

  In addition to degrees from Randolph-Macon and Union Seminary, his education involved attendance at Columbia University and Union Seminary in New York. In 1957, Randolph-Macon honored him with a doctor of divinity degree.

  Dr. Backhus served twice as pastor of Arlington Church. He spent a total of 15 years as district superintendent in the Alexandria District and twice in the Norfolk District. Other appointments were, Branch Memorial; Decatur Street; High Street, Franklin; Broad Street, Richmond and Reveille. In retirement he served on the staff of First Church, Salem, and was later named pastor emeritus of that church. The conference elected him delegate to two General Conferences and four Jurisdictional Conferences. At various times he served on the conference boards of Missions, Evangelism, and Ministerial Training. He also had terms as trustee of Virginia Wesleyan College and Randolph-Macon Academy.

  On March 9, 1996, Harry answered yet another heavenly call. A memorial service was celebrated at First Church, Salem, on March 13, with Thomas L. Joyce, Richard L. Worden, Alan D. Thorne and Robert M. Chapman giving leadership. A great congregation filled the church and along with the choir they sang victorious hymns in praise of God and in gratitude for the life of Harry Wardell Backhus III.

— Bernard S. Via, Jr



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Background photos courtesy of VDOT.

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