A minister remembered by his colleagues as a “champion of justice” has died in Portland. The Rev. Lewis H. Beckford, 80, former Methodist superintendent in eastern and northern Maine, died Saturday from injuries suffered in a Dec. 10, 1997, automobile accident.
Beckford’s “capacity to have prophetic vision was one of the greatest gifts he brought to all of New England Methodism,” said the Rev. James Young, pastor of Orono United Methodist and himself a past superintendent for the United Methodist Church.
Known as a vocal critic of government and church policies when he thought it was needed, Beckford began speaking up for others as a teen-ager in Massachusetts, where he was voted out of his church for taking the side of a person who wasn’t allowed to practice on the church organ.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Clark University, he was a conscientious objector during World War II, working for three years in Civilian Public Service camps.
Beckford earned a theological degree from Boston University in 1949 and went on to serve as pastor of churches in York, Gorham, South Portland and Portland. In 1955, he became pastor of Grace Methodist Church in Bangor, then began his term as Methodist superintendent of the 98-church district in 1961.
During his years in the Bangor area, Beckford encouraged church members to study for the ministry, among them the Rev. Sid Buzzell, then from Sangerville. Buzzell became a pastor, and he eventually served at Grace Methodist Church in Bangor.
Even into his 60s and 70s, Beckford was a minister with whom the younger clergy strongly identified, Young said. Whenever Young taught seminary courses in history and polity of the church, he would invite Beckford to come in and speak on a topic of his choice.
“The students found that when Lew came as visiting lecturer, that was the highlight of the year,” Young recalled. “He was truly beloved by the younger pastors who saw he dared to challenge the system.”
In 1967, Beckford was one of 2,500 clergy and lay people who attended a conference in Washington on “Vietnam: The Clergyman’s Dilemma.” They walked back and forth in front of the White House to express their concerns about the war.
Beckford said afterward, “It is a rare occasion when several thousand clergymen appear in public and try through the eloquence of silence to communicate a conviction that God has a will for the world that demands more widespread study as a basis for the redirection of a nation’s foreign policy.”
In the church’s national General Conference and in meetings of the Maine Annual Conference, where he served a term in the state Cabinet, Beckford could be counted on to say what was on his mind and challenge policies he considered questionable.
In recent years, Beckford supported a resolution urging the conversion of unneeded military bases to peaceful purposes, and at one point submitted a resolution that would have done away with the church having bishops.
Like many others in the Maine Annual Conference, he opposed a mandate for Maine, New Hampshire and southern New England to combine into one conference. After a joint uniting conference approved the plan, Beckford challenged the procedure, with the result that the conferences ended up voting again separately.
“He didn’t like bishops,” Young said. “He wrastled with every bishop, and he won most of his battles with bishops. He won because he was right.”
Yet Beckford will be remembered just as much for his caring concern for other people, Young said.
When a fellow Cabinet member, the Rev. Victor Rusk, died years ago, Beckford put together a program of music, witness and service, Young said, presenting it at all the churches where Rusk had been pastor.
He was involved with the poor in Haiti, and in his retirement served as a missionary on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean.
Beckford is survived by his wife, Joan; by children Martha, Nancy, David, Rachel and Peter; eight grandchildren and one sister. A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at the largest Methodist church in the state, Chestnut Street UMC in Portland.
Contributions in his memory are being received for Grace Children’s Hospital in Haiti, care of First UMC, South Portland 04106.