Rev. Dr. M. Vann Murrell Remembered by GWU Friends, Colleagues and Students

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Professor Emeritus of Religion Encouraged Students to Study the Bible and Walk Faithfully with The Lord  

a portrait photo of Dr. Vann MurrellBOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—Members of the Gardner-Webb University community are remembering a friend, colleague and teacher, the Rev. Dr. M. Vann Murrell, who passed away Oct. 31 in Beulaville, N.C. He was a professor emeritus of religion and former chair of the GWU Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy.

Murrell began teaching at Gardner-Webb in 1967, as it moved from two-year to four-year status. He was named chair of the new Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy and was active in shaping its curriculum. Dr. Alice Cullinan, of Boiling Springs, professor emerita of religion, taught with Murrell for 21 years. “In my opinion, Vann demonstrated the importance of balancing Christian scholarship with practical service and ministry,” Cullinan reflected. “He challenged his students to strive to be people who wisely studied the Scriptures, while he encouraged them to personally walk with the Lord and to serve Him faithfully. This world has said, ‘good-bye for a while,’ to a wonderful example of what it looks like to walk faithfully with and love the Lord…and others.”

She fondly remembers his positive attitude and contagious laughter. “The students often told me that he would tell a joke in class, and that they would get more tickled at him laughing at the joke than at the joke itself,” Cullinan described.

However, he was also known for his “impossible tests,” she said, along with his willingness to grade on the curve. Dr. Perry Hildreth, GWU professor of philosophy, vividly remembers one of those tests. “The class was ‘The Teachings of Jesus,’” Hildreth related. “In addition to the Gospel Parallels, the main textbook was C. Milo Connick’s ‘Jesus: The Man, The Mission and Message.’ I go back to it from time to time and read my marginal notes as I am preparing to teach Introduction to New Testament. Dr. Murrell had told us to memorize the text before our exam. I didn’t take him seriously—or at least not seriously enough. There on the first exam was a question about the picture on page 34 of the text: ‘What is the elevation of the Dead Sea?’ I had failed to pay attention to the picture captions. I did not go to any future exams unprepared again. And by the way, the caption under the picture of the Dead Sea on page 34 tells us that the Dead Sea is 1,300 feet below sea level.”

Hildreth continued, “That course, particularly, with Dr. Murrell helped all of us to grow beyond our basic childhood Sunday School perspective of Jesus to a more mature and theologically rich understanding of our Lord. He challenged us to study the Bible seriously and carefully—and to put what we learned into practice as teachers, preachers, and human beings. I have little doubt that when I teach students Introduction to New Testament, I am passing along something that I learned all those years ago with Dr. Murrell. I am also challenged by his example to be the kind of person and teacher who encourages students to take Jesus’ teachings as central to meaningful human living.”

Dr. Sophia Steibel, GWU professor of Christian education in the School of Divinity, was also a student of Murrell’s and had the privileged to be his colleague during his last years at Gardner-Webb. “Dr. Murrell was a dynamic teacher who taught with enthusiasm and joyfulness,” she affirmed. “He made biblical characters be our dearest friends and companions for life. I am grateful for the legacy he left behind.”

Murrell earned a bachelor’s at Wake Forest University in 1951, his M.Div. at Southeastern Seminary and Ph.D. at University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He taught at Campbell University from 1962-1967 and at Gardner-Webb until 1995, when he became pastor of Brookwood Baptist in Jacksonville, N.C. After retiring from the pulpit, he returned to the classroom to teach for Campbell University and Coastal Carolina University on Camp Lejeune Marine Base until 2016.

He was interim pastor at 54 churches in North Carolina over the course of his career. He and his wife, Ina, led more than 20 groups to the Middle East to walk where Jesus walked. Before her death 13 months ago, they had celebrated their 68th anniversary. He is survived by his four children and eight grandchildren.

Graveside funeral services were held at the Gresham Family Cemetery in Beulaville, N.C., on Nov. 3, 2019.

Donations in Murrell’s memory may be made to the M. Vann Murrell Scholarship at Gardner-Webb to support students in the Religious Studies Program.

Located in the North Carolina foothills, Gardner-Webb University is a private, Christian, liberal arts university. Gardner-Webb emphasizes a strong student-centered experience and rigorous academics to prepare students to become effective leaders within the global community. Ignite your future at Gardner-Webb.edu.