Remembering Perry B. Cotham by Andy Erwin

     On February 26, 2013, one of the great preachers on the twentieth century closed his marvelous earthly story.  We speak of brother Perry B. Cotham.

Early Life

     Brother Cotham was born January 5, 1912 near Murray, Kentucky. His parents were Ben and Nannie (Boyd) Cotham. Mrs. Nannie Cotham died when Perry was in the 8th grade.  Her death led to Perry taking on more work on the farm and in the family to help his father care for two younger brothers.

     The Cotham family was faithful to the Lord, and members of the Antioch church of Christ, south of Farmington, Kentucky.  Mrs. Nannie read the Bible and Bible stories to Perry from his earliest remembrance. As long as he could remember, brother Cotham wanted to be a preacher, and could recall that while he was a boy he would pretend to preach from a buggy to some of the children in the neighborhood and baptized sticks.

     In addition to monthly preaching appointments booked by the Antioch congregation, beginning the third Sunday in July, the congregation would conduct an annual gospel meeting. During his boyhood, brother Cotham was blessed to hear the truth taught by such men as Ira and Boone Douthittt, John B. Hardeman, Jewell W. Norman, Fred W. Chunn, and A. G. Freed.

     In his younger years, Perry Cotham was greatly influenced by Jewell W. Norman and Ira Douthitt because of their example of good preaching and their personal dedication.

     Brother Perry was baptized by Ira Douthitt in July of 1927, along with James W. Shockley, who also became a gospel preacher.

     In the fall of 1929, Perry Cotham entered Freed-Hardeman College.  He took his first trip on a train from Mayfield, Kentucky, to enroll in classes.

     Brother Cotham soon came to love and appreciate all of his teachers and the student body. Hugo and Lois McCord, Adron Doran, and J. A. McNutt were some of his classmates.

Begins Preaching

     It was while he was a student at FHC that brother Perry began preaching. Shortly after he enrolled in FHC he was asked to speak on a Wednesday night service. At that time the church was meeting in the administration building (the church building had been partially destroyed by fire). He spoke on Abraham, a “Man of Great Faith.”

     Brother Perry would readily admit he was scared half to death speaking before N. B. Hardeman, L. L. Brigance, C. P. Roland, other teachers and their families, plus the members and the students.  However, after he had finished, brother Hardeman arose and said many nice compliments about the talk, easing brother Cotham’s mind.  N. B. Hardeman had great influence in brother Cotham’s life.  Of Hardeman, brother Cotham would say, “He was a great teacher of the Bible and a wonderful speaker.”

     To his delight, brother Cotham soon was preaching in nearby country churches and gaining much needed experience. The pay was very little, due to the stock market crash that had occurred in October of that year.

     From FHC, he enrolled in Murray State University and graduated in June of 1934 with a B. A. Degree. While a student in Murray State, he preached on Sundays and conducted gospel meetings. His first gospel meeting was in Athens, Ohio and lasted for five weeks.

As a Local Evangelist

     Brother Cotham’s amazing life consists of two full lives!  He lived a full life as a local evangelist (37 years) and he lived a full life as a traveling evangelist (over forty years).

     His first full-time local work was in Shawnee, Oklahoma, beginning in October of 1934.  While in Shawnee he married his bride of 62 years, Teresa Overby, on June 25, 1936. Her father was a preacher.  To this union God gave three children.

     Brother Cotham also preached in Oklahoma City, Wewoka, and Duncan, Oklahoma; and in Paris, Grand Prairie, and Big Spring, Texas.

As a Traveling Evangelist

     In 1971, brother Cotham left located evangelistic work to become a fulltime traveling evangelist.  This work took him into all of the fifty states of America and into all the inhabited continents of the world (over sixty nations).

     During this time brother Cotham wrote and distributed fourteen different tracts, which were also translated and printed in a number of different languages.

As a Debater

     Three of Perry Cotham’s debates were published.  All three of them dealt with the issue of miracles and the operation of the Holy Spirit today.

     From March 31-April 2, 1981, brother Perry debated John Hartley.  The debate took place in Melbourne, Australia at the Belmore Road meetinghouse.

     In this debate, Hartley claimed to have the same powers which existed in the apostolic age.  Hence, he would be able to drink poison and live (per Mark 16:18).  Brother Cotham challenged this claim with a concoction he implied was poison.  The potion would have caused vomiting and diarrhea if Mr. Hartley had chosen to drink it.  However, Hartley avoided the little bottle throughout the debate.  It is believed that Hartley lost many of his followers as a result of this debate.

     Perry B. Cotham also debated       Billy Davis, of Macon, Georgia, on the Godhead and miracles today.  The debate was held in the Swainsboro, Georgia high school auditorium December 7-10, 1986.

     Years later, brother Cotham recalled that “Shortly after the debate the Pentecostal church closed up and the local preacher, who served as one of the moderators, moved out of town.”

     Mr. Davis promised to have another debate, this time in Texas, but he would never respond to any calls or answer any letters.  Thus, no further debate was held.

     The third debate which was published was the Cotham-John Debate.  This debate was conducted in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the meeting house of the Eastern Avenue church of Christ on July 17-18, 1989.

     Concerning debates, brother Perry believed that “there has been a decline in debating in the past few years, largely due to the fact that preachers are not exposing religious errors in their preaching as was formerly done.”

     Brother Cotham stated, “We have lost interest in trying to convert people from the denominational world,” and that “some preachers are not studying the religious errors and how to meet them, and many members of the church do not want debates. A few may have been conducted in the wrong spirit and this has hurt debating.”

Exhorting Fellow Preachers

     Perry B. Cotham strongly believed in placing an emphasis on the fundamentals of the New Testament church.  He believed the distinction between the Lord’s church and denominationalism was clearly drawn by earlier gospel preachers and that many people were converted to simple New Testament Christianity because of this type of preaching.

     He realized that in recent years preachers have developed a style in which “a more or less general attitude that all sincere, religious people are Christians and the church of our Lord is just another denomination.”  He believed “Due to this type of preaching the church has not been growing as it did some 75 to 50 years ago.”

     Brother Cotham encouraged his fellow preachers of the need for Christians to be taught the importance of living the Christian life and adding the Christian graces, but he also saw that “the lack of preaching on other basic principles of the faith has weakened, and continues to weaken, the glorious plea for a return to ‘the Old Paths,’ as given by the pioneers of the gospel.”

     “Look back on when the gospel was distinctively preached,” brother Cotham said, “the Lord’s church was recognized as the fastest growing religious body in America. The brotherhood needs to return to the type of preaching that was done many years ago.  If our young people are not taught the truths of New Testament Christianity, we will go again into digression.”

     When asked for any word of encouragement to give to young preachers, he said:

  • “I would encourage the young preachers to study the Bible more than books by sectarian scholars who write about the Bible. Buy good old books of the brotherhood and study them, especially all the old debate books that are possible. It is not necessary to have a large library and never use the books, but have a few good, valuable books and study them carefully along with the Bible.”
  • “Too, do all the preaching you can; hold meetings, mission meetings, pay or no pay. One cannot learn to preach without preaching, any more than one can learn how to swim without getting into the water and practicing.”
  • “One should not preach for pay; he gets paid for preaching, but always, ‘Preach the word’ (2 Timothy 4:1-2; 1 Peter 4:11). We should never lose sight of the fact that God’s power to save is in the gospel. So, preach the gospel with conviction and for the love of lost souls.”

An Enduring Legacy

     Brother Perry was not only beloved by the brethren where he preached, and in the area where he preached and lived, but also throughout the brotherhood the world over.

     As a local evangelist he was beloved by the congregations where he preached, and the area congregations.  He was always in great demand to conduct gospel meetings, and brethren could rely on him to preach and defend the truth.

     His numerous tracts have blessed many and led countless souls to a closer relationship with Christ.  He also wrote a book of sermons on conversion, and his last book was titled “Beyond the Sunset” which treated the subject of last things.

     Only heaven knows the depth of brother Perry’s contribution to the brotherhood throughout the world. An estimated 15,000 souls were brought to Christ resulting from his missionary efforts in India alone.

     The contribution he made as a teacher of fellow preachers is immeasurable.  He has taught on hundreds of brotherhood lectureships, taught at various schools of preaching throughout the world, and in his later years he was able to instruct young preachers while they studied at the Brown Trail School of Preaching.

     Brother Perry Cotham will be remembered as a faithful and godly man.  He was a true soldier of the cross.  While we will miss him, we are also happy for him, knowing that he has now attained the prize for which he dedicated his life.