Beloved evangelist Dr. Landon Brady Saunders (’23 L.H.D.) of Norwich, Vermont, the namesake of a new academic center at Abilene Christian University, died Nov. 14, 2023, at age 86. A Celebration of Life is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Jan. 13, 2024, at Light of the World Church of Christ in Dallas.
He was born July 26, 1937, in Charleston, West Virginia, and earned degrees from Freed-Hardeman University and Harding University (1959), and attended Harding School of Theology (1961-63). He was preceded in death by his parents, Robert Thomas Saunders and Beulah Gladys Null Saunders; a sister, Roberta Meek; and brothers Ross Saunders and John Robert Saunders. Among survivors are several nieces and nephews, and thousands of friends from around the world, all of whom are proud FOLs (Friends of Landon).
A primary speaker for the international Herald of Truth ministry – along with Dr. Batsell Barrett Baxter (’37), Harold Hazelip and Joe Barnett – he was traveling in India in 1970 when invited by Herald of Truth CEO Clois Fowler to create “a daily radio program for those outside religious walls.” He said that invitation “connected with something very deep within me. It connected to the vision that I most wanted: to say something to the world.”
In 1971 Saunders began serving as president of Heartbeat Inc. and for many years, hosted its popular “Heartbeat” short-form program heard by millions worldwide on the NBC, CBS and Armed Forces radio networks. Its headquarters were later relocated to Houston, Texas, and then to New York City.
Prior to launching Heartbeat, Saunders served as a minister for Churches of Christ in Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas. In Abilene, he preached at Minter Lane Church of Christ.
Saunders was a frequent speaker at churches and universities nationwide, including 10 times at ACU’s annual Summit (formerly Bible Lectureship), the most recent in 2017. In his opening keynote lecture that year, “From Memory to Hope,” Saunders recounted his growing-up years in Appalachian poverty, and of being inspired to preach the Gospel by hearing it taught by evangelists and missionaries, and seeing it lived by everyday Christians who aspired to love God and love their neighbors as themselves.
“The Bible read in your life and mine is the only Bible that millions will ever read in this world,” Saunders said, imploring listeners to be more focused on showing love, justice and mercy than on judging others.
“That was the mission that was burning in my heart when I arrived here in Abilene all those years ago,” he recalled. “I was on fire with it, that vision that had been kept alive through all those centuries and that had been embodied in the person, work and message of Jesus Christ. This was the vision that no failure could defeat. It was a light in the world that would never go out. It was a fire that could never be extinguished.”
Saunders received Harding’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1981, ACU’s Excellence in Mass Media Ministry award in 1977 and an honorary doctorate from Abilene Christian in 2023. He also has served on the board of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and as a Fellow of the Caris Life Sciences Foundation.
In 2022, Saunders’ personal papers and Heartbeat’s corporate records were donated to ACU’s Brown Library. The Landon Saunders Collection in the Center for Restoration Studies consists of speech transcripts, sermon notes, photographs, books, training materials, personal correspondence, organizational records and other audiovisual content created by Saunders and colleagues over more than 50 years of ministry.
In 2023, Brown Library named him its Friend of the Year, and ACU announced a $4.5 million campaign to establish the Landon Saunders Center for Joy and Human Flourishing, an academic center dedicated to preserving his legacy and forwarding his vision to develop generations who will learn how best to live as human beings.
“Landon will be remembered for his decades of ministry through Heartbeat, touching millions of lives around the world. He leaves behind a legacy of joy, faith, service and compassion,” said ACU president Dr. Phil Schubert.
Saunders penned one of his last lessons in “A Journey of Joy,” a short essay in ACU Today magazine’s Spring-Summer 2023 issue:
“I am 86 years old, have stage 4 cancer, am near the end of my journey – yet, my joy is expanding!
More than 50 years ago I lived in Abilene during the initial launch of Heartbeat, which became my life’s work. My aim was to take a message of love, joy and hope to those who felt disconnected from organized religion.
During my time in Abilene, I taught a class on Wednesday nights that drew more than 1,500 students each evening – one of the great joys of my life. Their bold and questing spirits thrilled me. Conversations with them greatly influenced me and the work I was creating.
That’s why I’m so thrilled, all these years later, with the establishment of the Landon Saunders Center for Joy and Human Flourishing at Abilene Christian University. I still feel that connection with students! The center will welcome every student regardless of differences and will invite the creativity and participation of all.
The center will be situated in a busy and easily accessible main floor wing of Brown Library. One floor beneath the center, the Heartbeat archives is being assembled and will provide an invaluable resource for the center.
The archives contain a record of Heartbeat’s work from the beginning. It is a diary of my direct engagement in teaching and listening to thousands across this nation and many others. It is a glimpse into the experience of the hunger for love, belonging and hope, of the lonely tears, and the sometimes nearly silent cries of human hearts. And it provides a helpful resource for responding to
Joy is a theme that runs through it all. I have come to believe that joy is the surest sign of the presence of love, that it makes our love less fragile, less fragmented, in addition to making us a whole lot more fun to be with!
We all yearn for love. Love is the essence of “human flourishing,” yet what we sometimes call love is so often fragile and fragmented. We see that fragility and fragmentation in marriages, in families, and in our neighborhoods and churches.
There is also an important connection between joy and human flourishing. Joy is love’s great ally! Joy holds no condemnation, judgment or fragility. Joy provides the atmosphere in which love grows, stays healthy and endures. Joy surrounds love, paves the way to love, evens out the bumps along the way of love. Joy steps in when love is strained; it keeps us balanced when anticipated love comes up short. In the presence of that joy, love is at its best.
I have made joy the default setting of my heart. No matter what happens, no matter my failure, no matter my loss, no matter my sadness, no matter the disease that now weakens my body, my heart returns to joy. Joy has room for all our disappointments, grief, tragedies, depression and fears.
From these direct experiences came the realization of the need to give joy a major emphasis, first in my own life, then in my messages to others – both to those outside the walls of religion and to those inside those walls.
Jesus spoke of giving us a joy that the world could not take away. Poet June Jordan wrote: “Maybe the purpose of being here, wherever we are, is to increase the durability and occasions of love among and between people.”
I believe achieving this purpose is the great challenge of every generation, a challenge especially true today.
I believe this purpose is a part of the dream and mission of ACU. And I believe this new center can contribute to that mission. And to that end I hope that this emphasis on joy and love will be deeply embedded in the heart of every student, that increasing the occasions of joy and love will be their mission as they make their ways into every part of this nation and world, that they will be the leavening power this world so deeply needs.
It brings me great joy – to think of the young, bold, questing spirits of new generations.
I picture them increasing the durability and occasions of love and joy all along the ever-changing and challenging new frontiers that lie ahead.”
– Ron Hadfield and James Wiser
Nov. 15, 2023