Pastors' Memoirs

James Emmett Wilkerson, 1930-1996

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In the fall of 1948, an 18-year-old from Lanett entered the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. There, his world exploded in a new universe of books, lectures and people. Soon, he found his way to the Wesley Foundation where he heard the call of God to carry the new universe into the field of church service.

During the next four decades, James Emmett Wilkerson responded to that call and challenged generations of students and congregations to realize their best through commitment, study and discipline. For students, this meant a challenge to discipleship and integrity and for congregations, it meant a challenge to renewed mission and service. The past was respected but never revered. The present with all of its new possibilities was the place in which God was to be honored. Nothing but the best was to be offered.  

Emmett received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alabama in 1952, served several years with the Army in Korea, was made a deacon in 1955, earned a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University in 1958 and was made an elder in 1959. Following ordination, Emmett served his ministry in the Virginia conference. His appointments were, first, as director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia; then a year at the General Board of Education in Nashville, Tenn., to direct the national convocation of youth; then graduate study at Boston University; then appointments at Shiloh, Wakefield, Francis Asbury, Norview and Benns churches.

In 1983, Emmett was appointed program coordinator for the Alexandria District where he became a leader in the new ministries that the United Methodist Church sponsored. Following that experience, Emmett was appointed to Melrose, Mount Vernon and finally, Trinity, where on December 12, 1996, he died.  

Those of us who were privileged to know and love Emmett, found in him a thoughtful, learned, quiet and deeply sincere man who was unimpressed with material wealth and fame but deeply impressed with ideas and values. He was a man who loved his Lord, his church, his family and friends. Just as he challenged his charges, whether students, congregations, nieces, nephews or godchildren, to give their best to God, he was unsparing of himself — a perfectionist who was gentle and forgiving with others. He had two hobbies that were characteristic: books and travel. He could become lost for hours reading, particularly about historical figures, and traveling whenever he could, he thoroughly enjoyed finding out what was on the other side of the hill.  

Emmett served in the Army Reserve as a chaplain, retiring after 30 years as a lieutenant colonel. As a tribute to his outstanding vision and dedication to God’s service, the chapel at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia is named the James Emmett Wilkerson Chapel.  

Emmett, your family and friends will deeply miss your active presence in their lives but are so very grateful for the legacy of your influence. As for you, as God said to Daniel after a long and honorable service, "But you, go your way, and rest: you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days."

- Bob Lester



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Background photos courtesy of VDOT.

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