(October 5, 1993)
I was born January 5, 1912 near Murray, Kentucky. My parents were Ben and Nannie (Boyd) Cotham, members of the church at Antioch church of Christ, south of Farmington. The church still meets there and is now about 165 years old. We attended every Lord’s Day. My mother died when I was in the 8th grade. We lived on a farm and I learned early in life what hard work is all about. For a while I helped my father take care of two younger brothers. Antioch had good preachers for gospel meetings each year beginning the third Sunday in July. We also had preaching once a month by some good preacher. In my early years I heard such men as Ira and Boone Douthitt, John B. Hardeman (who conducted my mother’s and father’s funerals), Jewell W. Norman (a distant cousin of mine), Fred W. Chunn (who grew up in the Antioch church) and A. G. Freed. When the digressive movement swept the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, my home congregation never did use the instrument, although most of the city churches did. The church had good men as elders.
I was baptized by Ira Douthitt in July 1927, along with James W. Shockley, who later also became a gospel preacher. The next summer Jewell Norman asked me to go with him to Illinois for a mission meeting. He said I could lead the singing. I had never done that before. I practiced on a few old songs and went with him. The house where we put up for a few nights was infested with bed bugs. One night I tried to sleep sitting in a chair and all the while knocking bugs off of Jewell’s face. The next morning I told Jewell I could stay there no longer. So we went to a hotel. I went to a doctor and got some medicine for my bites. However, we continued on with the meeting. This did not deter me from wanting to be a gospel preacher. My mother had read to me the Bible and Bible stories from my earliest remembrance. While I was young I preached from a buggy to some of the children in the neighborhood and baptized sticks.
The fall of 1929 I entered Freed-Hardeman College, a junior college (now Freed-Hardeman University). I made the trip from Mayfield, Kentucky on the train. I had never been on the train before. I soon learned to love and appreciate all of my teachers and the student body. Hugo and Lois McCord, Adron Doran, and J. W. McNutt were some of my classmates. We were a closely-knit group of students. After FHC days I enrolled in Murray State University and graduated in June 1934, with a B. A. Degree.
Brother Cotham retired from full time local preaching in 1972. At that time, he began worldwide evangelistic work, and by the end of his life had gone on preaching campaigns to all 50 of the United States and into more than 75 nations. Along with preaching he also distributed thousands of Bibles in many parts of the world.
Cotham was also the author of several excellent Bible tracts and books. Some of his books include, Conversion (a compilation of twelve of his tracts), Lectures on the Holy Spirit – With Charts & Diagrams (1981), the Cotham-John Debate on Miracles Today (1989), and more recently, his crowning achievement, Beyond the Sunset – A Study in Biblical Eschatology (2008),
Brother Cotham died at the age of 101 in Grand Prairie, Texas. He was preceded in death by his wife who died in 1998. The Cotham’s had two sons, one daughter, five grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.
DENNIS GULLEDGE: How long have you been preaching?
PERRY B. COTHAM: I have always wanted to preach as long as I can remember. I began preaching after I entered Freed-Hardeman. So I have been preaching for over seventy-one years. I have been in full-time evangelistic work (not “local work”) for the past thirty years. This work has taken me into all of the fifty states of America and into all the inhabited continents of the world (over sixty nations). During my ministry, I have written and distributed fourteen different tracts. These have also been translated and printed in a number of different languages. In 1993 I made two trips to Kiev, Ukraine (part of the former Soviet Union) to preach and also teach in the Kiev Polytechnic Bible Institute. Some of my tracts are being now translated and printed in Russian. I have made ten preaching trips to India and during these visits hundreds have been baptized. My tracts are widely distributed in that nation in various dialects.
My first full-time local work was in Shawnee, Oklahoma, beginning in October 1934. Then to Oklahoma City, Wewoka, and Duncan, all in Oklahoma. I have worked also in Paris, Grand Prairie, and Big Spring, all in the sate of Texas. While in Shawnee and Paris I did much preaching also on the radio, and in Grand Prairie a new building was constructed, and in Big Spring we helped the work in Brazil. While in Shawnee I married Teresa Overby, June 25, 1936. Her father was a preacher. We have three children.
DG: Can you recall the circumstances of your first sermon?
PBC: Shortly after I enrolled in FHC I 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). I talked on Abraham, a Man of Great Faith. I was scared half to death speaking before N. B. Hardeman, L. L. Brigance, C. P. Roland, and other teachers and their families, plus the members and the students.
However, after I had finished, brother Hardeman arose and said many nice compliments about my talk. That made me feel much better. Soon thereafter I was out preaching in near-by country churches, whenever I had an opportunity. The pay was very little, some pocket change. The stock market crash came in October that year. Times were very hard. But I was happy just to get the experience of preaching. Once I went to Shiloh National Battleground, spent the night with the Emmons family, and preached for the church on Sunday. While a student in Murray State, I preached on Sundays and conducted Gospel Meetings. My first meeting was in Athens, Ohio for five weeks.
DG: How do you think the emphasis in preaching has changed since you began? Has the change been for better or worse?
PBC: The emphasis has changed from the fundamentals of the New Testament church wherein the distinction between the Lord’s church and denominationalism was clearly drawn and many people were converted to simple New Testament Christianity to a more or less general attitude that all sincere, religious people are Christians and the church of our Lord is just another denomination. Due to this type of preaching the church has been growing as it did some 75 to 50 years ago. Of course, there is a need for Christians to be taught the importance of living the Christian life and adding the Christian graces, but 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. Then, 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.
DG: Name three preachers of the past or present and tell how they influenced you the most in your preaching.
PBC: Jewell W. Norman and I. A. Douthitt influenced me the most in my younger days by their example of good preaching and their personal dedication. N. B. Hardeman had great influence in my life. He was a great teacher of the Bible and a wonderful speaker.
DG: You have held a number of debates over the years. Which one is your most memorable, and why?
PBC: I would mention the one with Mr. Billy Davis of Macon, Georgia, on the “Godhead and Miracles Today” held at Swainsboro, Georgia, in December 1986, in the high school auditorium. 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 responds to any calls or answer any letters. So no further debate was held. But I have always enjoyed having a debate, and have tried to conduct myself in a proper manner. Three of my debates have been printed in book form, but only one remains in print.
DG: It seems that our brotherhood has seen a decline in debating over the past thirty years, or so. Do you agree that this is true, and if so, to what would you attribute the decrease in the number of public discussions?
PBC: I would agree 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. We have lost interest in trying to convert people from the denominational world. 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.
DG: What special word of advice would you like to pass on to young preachers who may read this interview?
PBC: 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 is 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, anymore than one can learn 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.
by Dennis Gulledge