Thursday, July 30, 2015


Interview by Brian Rosenquist

In the world of Evangelical films, few names loom as large as that of Reverend Estus Pirkle.   His 1974 film The Burning Hell is one of the most successful soul-winners of all time, having inspired literally millions of people to give their lives to Christ.   To this day, it continues leading people all over the world to Jesus. 
For more than forty years, the Estus Pirkle Evangelistic Association has provided film prints and videos of Rev. Pirkle’s films to churches on almost every continent.    Following Rev. Pirkle’s death in 2005, his wife Ann Pirkle has run and operated the Estus Pirkle Evangelistic Association.    Mrs. Pirkle recently spoke to Archival Revival about her husband’s life and ministry.    

While one might expect the wife of a conservative Baptist minister to be rather stern or humorless, Ann Pirkle has a warm, affable personality and a quick wit, laughing easily.   Her engaging manner and sharp memory made for a highly enjoyable and informative conversation.    We at Archival Revival feel honored and blessed to have been given the opportunity to speak to Mrs. Pirkle, and to present this interview.    Her love and devotion for her husband and her lifelong spiritual conviction are shining examples of a life truly dedicated to Christ.

ARCHIVAL REVIVAL:  What inspired your husband, Mr. Estus Pirkle, to become a preacher?

ANN PIRKLE:  Well he grew up in a Christian home and went to church regularly.   He just said that he wanted to be a preacher all of his life - I mean all of his growing up years.  It was when he became eighteen that the Lord laid on his heart and called him to preach.  He loved preaching the word continually, like he did.   He grew up in Sycamore Georgia and he went to Norman junior college.  Then he went to Mercer University in Georgia and South Western Seminary in Texas.   He pastored two half-time churches while he was in school in Georgia.   When he went to the seminary he pastored a church in Athens Texas which was Virginia Hill.  He was there in seminary when I got there.  I was going to be a missionary – well, I didn’t know what God wanted me to do but I was preparing for going to the mission field, and I met him there.   He was also going to the mission field, but the thing that kept him from going was that they told him he may have to work in an office or do office work, and he told them that no, he was not interested in doing office work.  The Lord had called him to preach and that’s what he wanted to do.  We married a year after we met, and the Lord gave us two precious children - Greg and Diane. They were the joy of our lives in many ways.

AR:  And from what I've read it looks like his main church throughout his career was the Locust Grove Baptist church.

AP:  Yes, we had moved to Austin Texas where he was going for his doctorate - the university there in Austin. There was a church that had just been newly organized and they asked him to come and be the pastor which was Antioch.   He stayed there about two or three years.  Then Percy Ray, who was my pastor - I grew up here in Myrtle Mississippi - he asked Estus if he would be interested in coming back here and pastoring.  Estus said he would pray about it and he did.  He came to Locust Grove Baptist Church here in New Albany Mississippi and he was there for 36 years.  In fact that's where he had to retire because of his Alzheimer's.  We came in 1965 and of course he resigned in 2001.  He was also in revivals - he averaged about 30 to 35 revivals a year.  He was in revivals more than he was at home - he did a very lot of traveling.  He preached here as well as overseas with missionaries that he had known.  The church paid for his going overseas on his mission trip every year.   I went with him some.   I taught school, but when it was in the summer I went with them.   He loved preaching, loved to preach, but that's about all he did. 

AR:  Sounds like an incredibly busy work schedule.

AP:  He was.  He was very very active, but he liked it.

AR:  How did he come to produce his first film If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?

AP:  He had preached his sermon If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do at Camp Zion here in Myrtle, I guess it was around ‘68 or ‘70 or something like that. One of the men had heard it and asked if he would think of putting it on film.  He said he knew a man who made Christian films.  Estus told him “Well, I’ll meet with him but I don’t know anything about making films.” 

AR:  Was that Monnie Stanfield who did that? 

AP:  Yeah!  Yes, Monnie Stanfield was the one that gave him the name of Mr. Ormond, Ron Ormond, who is the man who shot the film. 

AR:  So your husband just kind of fell into making films accidentally?

AP:  Yes.

AR:  Wow!  Did he face any difficulties in getting the Footmen film made?

AP:  Just the fact that it took a lot of time and it took a lot of money. Took a lot of energy and it took a lot of long nights and short days to do it, but he did it. Some of that he had shot here in our church, some of that he did in other churches.  While he was in revival Mr. Ormond would come there and do some shots.  Of course it cost money and we were not that rich, but God took care of that.  He made a way for us to have the film made.

AR:  How did he feel about some of the graphic and more gruesome scenes in the films?

AP:  A lot of people didn't like it because, especially because the Footmen film is very graphic, talking about the Communists taking over and how they would react to the Gospel.  His aim was to fix it where people could see the need of what he was talking about - the need of staying out of Hell and going to Heaven. He wanted to be sure that it was scriptural, not have any flaws in it about the scriptures. That was his aim in making the films – to make it plain and clear and scriptural.

AR:  How did he feel about the process of filmmaking at that time, especially on the first one with everything being so new to him?

AP:  Well after he talked to Brother Stanfield he was willing to try and he seemed to be successful.  He got the Footmen film like he thought it should be and he was encouraged to do the Hell film and then the Heaven film.  He had to borrow the money and pay for it of course at the beginning.  But people ran the film around for him, tremendously.  He had representatives - I imagine he had at least a hundred or more representatives that went out to churches showing the film, sent them overseas to be shown, and they would take up offerings and give him half of what they got and they’d keep half of it for their expense. That was the way he financed that first one and went more or less the same for all of them.  I imagine before it was over he had at least two hundred representatives going out to show the films in churches all around the country, and overseas also.   I could see some flaws but I think the Footman film was used greatly before the Hell film came out.

Eddie King - The Burning Hell
AR:  What can you tell me about the production of The Burning Hell?

AP:  Well he felt that he was led to use the scriptures about the Rich Man and Lazarus. He wanted to be sure that he had the scriptures to fit what he was saying.  Of course nobody knows what Hell is like until they go there, but as far as what scripture says he tried to depict that.  He was just trying to make people see the reality of Hell and the reality of Heaven, and which they want to go to. On the Hell film we went to Israel one time to make some scenes and he asked the whole crew, there was about 60 of us, if we would be willing to fast for – I can’t remember if it was a week or two weeks but we all fasted and prayed about the film. 
That's the only time I have ever fasted and the Lord gave me the strength to do it, I think it was for a week.  Must have just been one week or I would have remembered.   I think that's one reason why God has used this film as long as he has and as much as he has.  The Heaven film has been used also but not near as much as the Hell film.

AR:  Was it a challenge for him to depict Heaven on film in The Believer’s Heaven?

AP:  Well he just went to the word.  It was not too hard for him, as far as I know now.  He was willing to do what God said and use the scriptures where they talk about Heaven.  It talks about the streets of gold.  He had children walking on streets of gold.  The walls of jasper and the different kinds of stones that the building would be made of, the river of life, he used things like that.  He just used the scripture where it talked about things that would be there.
Estus preaching at Southside High-school in Jackson Tennessee, 1969
 AR:  Were there plans for any additional films?

AP:  Well he was planning one.  He was going to do a film on no man without excuse.  He said he felt God wanted him use the scripture that man did not have an excuse to go to Hell.  God made a way for man so that's why it would be called No Man Without Excuse.  He was planning the trip to Israel again and planning to do things but he never did write down anything.  I never have seen anything that he wrote down but he had it in his mind.  In fact, he even called a man from Jacksonville Florida to see what it would cost and it was going to cost tremendously more than we could afford.  But then he had a heart attack – well, actually he had heart surgery.  We were supposed to be going to Israel again and he had a heart attack or heart pain.  One Sunday he was preaching, in fact he was ordaining a young man who was to be a preacher, and he wasn't able stay and even close the service, he was hurting real bad.  We took him to the doctor and they sent him over to Tupelo which is a bigger town than New Albany.  They checked him and the doctor said he needed to have surgery and so he had [triple] bypass heart surgery.   That kind of stopped the planning for the other film.  Then there was maybe three or four years before he began to develop Alzheimer's, although he may have been developing Alzheimer’s then.  This was about ‘99 actually, when we noticed that he wasn't as alert and just not understanding things too well.  The last revival he had, I told him that he didn't need to drive but that I wanted him to fly. He did fly sometimes but he liked to drive better because he could take more of his books with him.  But he did fly his last revival.

AR:  How soon after Believers Heaven was he planning that fourth film?

AP:  Well he wanted to do it earlier but he didn't have time. He was in revivals so many weeks a year and so it was in the later ‘80s that he started making preparations for the other film.

AR:  Was the same director going to be involved in that one?

AP:  No, Mr. Ormond died before Estus did.  Someone had recommended this man, I don't even remember his name, but he was down in Jacksonville Florida I believe, so he came up here and talked to Estus and me and Greg.  He didn't know that we didn't want him to do it but we knew that Estus wouldn't be able to.  We kinda told him what was going on, and that Estus was not really able to do what it would take to make another film.

AR:  Did he enjoy being on camera?

AP:  Well, no I don't think he really did. (Laughs)  He had to redo a lot of speaking because Estus, he loved to preach but he didn't want to be made pictures of.  But some of our church members videotaped his sermons at church every time he preached.

AR:  I've seen one called Consider Death.

AP:  Yeah, he preached that.  He used a mummy that he had - he got it at some store here in New Albany.  He used that and a black cape for death.  He liked to illustrate a lot in his sermons.  He used illustrations a lot.  He would use some of the children to illustrate punishment.  He’d grab 'em up and act like he was paddling them and things like that. He liked to illustrate, like when he would preach on autumn and he brought in a tree that had just turned.  He put it up in front to show the beauty of autumn and preaching about different stages of our life - you know spring, summer, fall and winter.  It was real good I thought.

AR:  How did he go about casting the congregation members in the three films?

AP:  Well, they volunteered easily.  He would ask them to help and they did whatever they could to help him. The church was wonderful in trying to do what they could.  They've helped a lot financially, also.  Some of them went overseas with us to Israel.

Jack Hyles and R.G. Lee - The Burning Hell
AR:  How about some of the guest preachers who appeared in the three films?

AP:  Well, they were friends of his.  Estus would go to where they were.   He usually didn't have them to come here.    Dr. Lee especially, he went there.   Dr. Jack Hiles preached in one of them.   Dr. R.G. Lee was in one of them.  They were willing to help preach an excerpt on the subject.  He just told them to preach what they wanted to, but to use something about Hell or something about Heaven.   They chose what they wanted to preach.  Brother Curtis Barbery from North Carolina helped him a lot in making some of the films. Brother Ray never did want to do any part.   Brother Percy Ray was one of the best friends that he had.  He prayed for him and helped him tremendously.

AR:  How about Little Evelyn Talbert?  How was she cast in The Believer’s Heaven?

AP:  Estus was in revival where she was a member. I can't remember where it was but anyway she was there and Estus asked her if she would be willing to do a part in the film.  She said she would and she did.  I think they must have gone to her place where she was.  She did a good job.

AR:  How were the children cast in the Footman film?  I know your son Greg played a role.

AP:  They were on the altar there.  Estus had an altar built in our church and they were lying on the altar.  That was showing the threat of Communism in our country and how they would treat Christians.

AR:  And for the scene where they're in the classroom and the teacher is trying to make them pray to Fidel Castro?

AP:  They were in one of the classrooms in our church.

AR:  What about the scene where the boy has his eardrums punctured so he can never hear the word of God?

AP:  Oh yeah, that was one of a preacher from North Carolina's sons.  James Blackwell was his name.  His son played that part and his wife Nell Blackwell made pictures for the Footmen booklet.  She was an artist.   

AR:  Did your husband have a favorite among the three films?

AP:  No. The Hell film has been shown I guess twice as much as the other films, but he loved all of them. In fact, he thought that the Hell film would probably be the most shown because he talked to Brother Ray who told him that in the Bible there's more about Hell then there is Heaven.  I didn't know that but he said emphasis is put more on Hell than on Heaven.   Estus was kind of surprised that most people wanted to see the Hell film more than The Believer’s Heaven.   Some people thought he was trying to scare people out of Hell and into Heaven and I think that's the reason he wanted everything to be true and to have a biblical setting. He wanted them to know that that's what the word said.  Whatever God said is true, and so I think he was pretty satisfied with the outcome of all of them.

AR:  Do you have a favorite of the three films?

AP:  Well, I think I would choose The Believer’s Heaven to be my favorite because it tells me what Heaven is like.   If you're saved you'll know that Heaven is where you're going.   If I have a favorite it would be the Heaven film.

AR:  Did you work on these films and in what capacity did you work on them if so?

AP:  Well, I was just in the background mostly.  In one of the films, Tim Ormond was the boy who got saved and he came in and he sat down by me.  I was there in the audience and he sat down by me when Estus was preaching about Hell.  I did help with getting things together also.

Ann Pirkle and Tim Ormond - The Burning Hell
AR:  Did your husband feel that the films he produced influenced any of the other evangelical films that followed like A Thief in the Night or the Left Behind series?

AP:  I don't really think he thought they would influence the making of other films.  I think he just did the ones that the Lord laid on his heart to do.

AR:  Was he aware of these other Christian films?

AP:  Well, I don’t think so.   He never was a very big film fan.

AR:  Did Estus know that his films and ministry would have the longevity that they have had?

AP:  No. He had no idea that it would be, and I didn't either because they would be considered outdated now.  I think as long as they are used and being used, God will work out the flaws that are in them and maybe help people not to notice the flaws and the things that are outdated.  When I see it I can tell that there are some things that are really not professional, but if God uses them then that's all it needs.  

AR:  Do you think it's important that people continue to be able to see these films in the future?

AP:  I do.  That's the reason that I do all I can to get them out.  You know of course they started out on 16mm film and then went to video, and that became obsolete.  Now they're on the DVD and probably it will go from there to something else that people use more.  But as long as I can, I want them to be shown and I pray that God will still use them if he can see fit to use them.  We have them on DVD.   Of course the people who made the [DVDs] of the films, they went out of business and we went to somebody else.   We’ve had that problem of getting the negatives to people who can handle them.  

AR:  That's one of the reasons why we’re starting Archival Revival, because there are fewer and fewer places that can correctly transfer or handle film.  It's becoming harder and harder for people to even have it stored properly unless you’re a major studio.

AP:  Right.

AR:  Well thank you so much for giving your time to talk. 

AP:  I appreciate you letting me have the opportunity.