Dr. John Hannah greets every guest in his office with a smile and a handshake. He comes from behind his desk and sits in a chair in front of his bookshelf directly across from his guest— removing all barriers between him and his visitor. Over the years, other people have decorated the walls of his office with many different items: portraits of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, his PhD and ThD diplomas, and various teaching awards. However, the most important item in the office to him—a framed page from his first Bible— surprises many people. On June 17, 1955, a young John Hannah heard the gospel at a Vacation Bible School. He later found a blank page at the beginning of his first Bible and wrote the following, “I asked Jesus into my hterd.”
More than sixty-six years later, Dr. Hannah recounted the story of his conversion to me with warmth and gentleness on his face and in his voice. That summer day at a Vacation Bible School in rural New Jersey led to decades of faithful ministry, including teaching at Dallas Theological Seminary for fifty years. He has influenced thousands of students and written many books. It all began with a child’s sincere prayer at a rural church.
Few people would have predicted a career in higher education for Hannah. Neither of his parents went to college, and he grew up on a small dairy farm in rural southern New Jersey. His parents worked constantly. They mentioned religion but it wasn’t a huge priority. As the youngest of five children by five years, John spent much of his childhood alone or with a small group of friends. One of his childhood friends—Daniel Harvey—lived on a neighboring farm. Daniel’s father, David, took young John to church and to church events. In June 1955, Mr. Harvey drove him to the local Baptist church for the Vacation Bible School where he prayed to accept Jesus.
Dr. Hannah vividly recounted his feelings as a pastor explained the gospel to him and other kids that day in 1955. “It seemed like the room filled with light. I couldn’t even tell you what that meant, but that moment changed me.” Hannah later worked for the Harvey family as a carpenter. His mother passed away just before his eighteenth birthday, and his father wanted John to stay home and enter the workforce. David Harvey, however, encouraged John to pursue a college degree.
Against his father’s wishes, he followed David’s advice and enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Bible. Dr. Hannah’s relationship with his biological father was strained to some degree as he left for college, but God provided him with four spiritual father figures. The first, David Harvey, had helped guide John through his childhood. “All you want in life is to be forgiven and loved. I found that in Christ and in David,” Dr. Hannah said.
In college, Hannah met Dr. Edwin “Ted” Deibler—his second father figure. Dr. Deibler taught history and English at Philadelphia College of Bible. He encouraged John to apply to Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and helped him enroll. During Dr. Hannah’s second year at DTS, Dr. Deibler joined him, teaching historical theology courses at the seminary. “I met Ted Deibler at seventeen. He gave me his job at thirty-seven. He retired; I got it. And I buried him at fifty-seven.”
To pay for his undergraduate education, Dr. Hannah had worked for Aaron Botbyl—the third important figure in his life. Botbyl operated a dry-cleaning agency about an hour outside of Philadelphia. Five days a week for two years in college, Hannah took the bus to work at Mr. Botbyl’s dry cleaners before returning to college in Philadelphia. He did most of his homework during the ten hours per week he spent on the bus. “I learned how to study in noise,” Dr. Hannah laughed. “The man gave me a job in college; I will forever be indebted.”
While attending Dallas Theological Seminary, Hannah worked in the school’s maintenance department. Each summer, he journeyed back to the Northeast and worked for David Harvey, as the foreman of a small construction crew putting roofs on houses and barns.
John Hannah and Carolyn Lupole married in 1968—just prior to his second year at Dallas Theological Seminary. Carolyn helped pay the bills by working in the library on campus. Married more than five decades ago, John and Carolyn continue to serve each other and DTS side by side. They raised two daughters—Rebecca and Nancy—and now have several grandchildren.
Carolyn’s father, William Lupole was the fourth important father figure in Dr. Hannah’s life. He mentored Hannah and taught him a great deal about what a good father looks like and how to raise children. “Bill Lupole shaped my life,” Hannah fondly recalled. The influence of his four spiritual fathers remains evident in Hannah’s life today. His eyes light up every time he mentions one of their names.
At the insistence of Dr. Deibler, Hannah stayed at Dallas Theological Seminary to enroll in the ThD program. He began teaching Bible courses the year he started the ThD program. Over twenty years later in 1994, Dr. Hannah pursued a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University under Jonathan Edwards scholar, Dr. Harry Stout.
Over the last fifty years of teaching, Dr. Hannah has been a professor to each of his colleagues in the theological studies department. “This gives me a grandfatherly role in the department,” Dr. Hannah noted. He has mentored many current professors at DTS just as Dr. Deibler mentored him. “You give what you have been given, and I have been given much,” Hannah said concerning his role in mentoring younger professors. Dr. Hannah’s influence extends far beyond the walls of Dallas Theological Seminary. His former pupils teach at different institutions across the US and the world.
Throughout his decades of teaching, students remember Dr. Hannah for two things—his laugh and his wise comments. Dr. Hannah has one of the most distinct laughs anyone has heard. At any point in his classes, he may let loose with a loud belly laugh like a firecracker. His entire face splits in a wide, genuine smile. His laugh may come out of nowhere, but you cannot help but smile whenever you hear it. It provides a welcome respite for students who may otherwise drown in the names, dates, and places of historical theology. On his use of humor, Dr. Hannah remarked, “The best movements [in history] take the Lord seriously but not themselves.”
Students also know Dr. Hannah for the wise statements he makes during class. Since he began teaching at DTS in 1971, many students have collected his quotes from his classes; some students have posted their collections of Dr. Hannah quotes with permission online. Some of his best quotes transcend generations in their applicability. For instance:
“The best thing you can do is admit your weaknesses—your family knows them anyway! Solve your ungodliness. Persevere in your weaknesses.”
“Averageness plus time (a long life) plus discipline equals productivity and greatness.”
“Accomplishment doesn’t heal pain.”
“Being cautious is wise. Being too cautious is foolish.”
Dr. Hannah has taught for fifty years at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has remained active in local churches and has published many books and articles, but his students continue to receive his greatest professional love and influence. If you want to know more about Dr. Hannah’s influence, crack open one of his books. However, if you really want to know more about Dr. Hannah, ask one of the thousands of people influenced by his decades of faithful ministry. With a chuckle, Dr. Hannah observed, “I realized that my students would take the gospel around the world. If I can be a little part of their lives, it is worth it.”