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Mississippi People: An Appreciation of...

Mississippi People: An Appreciation of Jimmy Turner

By: Ligon Duncan - February 3, 2023

Jimmy Turner's early RUF group at Ole Miss. Photo from RUF.

Jimmy had a unique gift for attracting and mentoring (he would say discipling) outstanding young people.

The people of Mississippi are extraordinary. Whenever I am out of state or country, and folks ask me what I like most about Mississippi or what is most unique about Mississippi, I say “the people.”

As a native South Carolinian, who did not visit Mississippi until I was 28 years old (though I’ve now lived and worked here over half of my life), I wouldn’t have guessed how much the people of Mississippi would come to mean to me. And I’m not just taking about famous Mississippians. I’m talking about extraordinary people that are unknown outside their own relatively small circles, and maybe even to fellow Mississippians.

Dr. Ligon Duncan

One of those extraordinary people was Jimmy Turner. The Reverend James Albert Turner (but we all called him Jimmy) was born in Louisville, Mississippi on the 23rd of January, 1937. He studied at Louisville High School, Southwestern in Memphis (now Rhodes College), Belhaven College, and Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. I met Jimmy in 1990 when I was a young professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. Jimmy was already legendary to so many folks in these parts. It didn’t take me long to learn why.

Jimmy had a unique gift for attracting and mentoring (he would say discipling) outstanding young people. Early in life he had a heart for God and his Word, eventually ministering to students in Kosciusko, before founding the youth ministry at the historic First Presbyterian Church of Jackson (under the formidable John Reed Miller). Jimmy met and married his wife Ellen during his time there, and they became a powerful team, pouring their lives into countless young people, while rearing their own three children. Their home was constantly filled students (high school, college, graduate, medical, seminary and others) meeting for Bible Study or just looking for an open heart and a listening ear. 

In January of 1973, Jimmy and two of his friends and fellow ministers, Mark Lowrey and Ford Williams, gathered 75 college students from the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and Delta State University to hold a Bible conference in Cleveland, MS. They dreamed together about an organization that could minister on college campuses around the nation. Those conversations became the foundation of Reformed University Ministries (RUM), which started campus ministries, called RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) on college campuses, with seminary-trained and ordained ministers leading the groups. Today, RUF is on almost 160 campuses; is staffed by more than 400 campus ministers, campus staff, and interns; is in 41 states nationwide, and is even working internationally. But it all started here in Mississippi. And Jimmy was a part of that.

Indeed, after serving churches in Columbus, Mississippi and Montgomery, Alabama, Jimmy founded RUF at Ole Miss, in Oxford in 1978. To this day, the RUF at Ole Miss remains one of the largest and most vibrant campus ministries in all of RUF. 

Jimmy Turner

I got to know Jimmy when he was teaching on youth ministry at RTS, and especially after he moved back to Jackson in 1995 to become the Area Director of the Christian Medical and Dental Association (CMDA) on the University Medical Center Campus. Not surprisingly, the UMC CMDA became the largest campus ministry to medical students in North America (and maybe the world). 

Here’s the thing though. If you met Jimmy on the street, you would never have guessed the attraction. A small, slight man, with a bad back. No aura of charisma. You wouldn’t even have guessed the attraction of young people to him from his own interests and instincts (he loved antiques and fine things and would have preferred a meal at the Piccadilly buffet to a fast food joint). But for the almost 35 years that I knew him, he was constantly surrounded by sharp, exceptional young people. How? Why?

That’s hard to answer. Part of it has to be his evident love and concern for the people he served and mentored. They all knew that Jimmy cared about them. Another thing is that they knew this man really believed his Bible. All of it. The young people who were attracted to Jimmy wanted to know God, and walk with God, and they could see and sense that Jimmy knew him. And Jimmy wanted to help them know and love God.

Jimmy never retired. Even in his 80s and right up to his death, he was discipling young people. Indeed, after completing his work with CMDA, he went on to serve with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Mississippi College and Belhaven. Jimmy didn’t have an athletic bone in his body, and I never ever remember talking sports with him. How in the world? And yet, just a week before his own death, you would have found him helping a basketball player to prepare a Bible Study that he was about to lead with his teammates.

My own mother passed away last year, and in one of our last conversations she said to me: “Isn’t it wonderful the Lord has let us know so many extraordinary people?” Yes. Yes, it is. And Jimmy Turner was one of them.

About the Author(s)
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Ligon Duncan

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is the Chancellor & CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology. He is also currently serving as President of RTS Jackson. Duncan has edited, written, and contributed to numerous books.
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