First published: Winter 2008
Benjamin Franklin Perkins was seated on a bench in front of an upright piano, recording his life story for his niece Lois Sherrill. It was 1993, nine months before his death at the age of 88. ‘You get out of life what you put in it, and I don’t think anybody can prove that’s not true,’ he said. The recording captured a remarkably robust man with an extensive memory and a ready laugh. ‘You want anything out of it, put something in it,’ he continued. Preacher, world traveller and artist, Brother Ben, as he was affectionately known, lived just that way.
Born in 1904 in Lamar County, Alabama, Perkins was one of 18 children. As a child, he attended a one-room school for about two months out of each year – a fairly typical rural scenario. His first employment was at the age of nine, cutting timber with his father at the end of a crosscut saw. As a teenager he worked in a cotton mill and in coal mines.
Broader adventures and travels followed, generally with continuing efforts to find employment. Perkins picked oranges and strawberries in Florida, worked with a cement construction crew in Atlanta, and was employed in a steel factory. At the age of 17 he joined the United States Marine Corps, and during his four-year tour of duty he earned a black belt in judo and karate in Japan and served in the bodyguard for President Calvin Coolidge.
After his time in the Marines, Perkins joined the FBI, but he left after two years because he found Jesus and wanted to preach. He gave his first sermon in 1929, and his preaching continued as he independently held revivals in the Virginia countryside for 11 years.