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Ligon Duncan: A Tribute to My Mother

My mother was a university professor, ran the family business after my father’s untimely death, and was at various times a local radio and television personality. She taught piano and voice, coached and chaperoned pageant contestants, and played in orchestras. Mom presided over, served on the boards of, volunteered for, and performed in local, state, and national arts and musical organizations.

She edited academic journals, and historical and theological books, hosted world-renowned classical musicians in our home, as well as noted Reformed and evangelical theologians. She aided in public worship services as a church musician her whole life, directing choirs, singing solos, and playing the piano for area churches well into her eighties.

She led vacation Bible schools, taught Sunday school, and women’s Bible studies, and gave leadership to the women’s ministry in our presbytery and denomination. She spoke and sang at various conferences and conventions, and at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, she was recognized as a founding mother of the PCA.

I’ve never written all those things down about my mom in one place before. I’m not even sure I’ve ever fully taken in all the things she did in her life. I’m certain I didn’t fully realize or appreciate all she was doing while I was growing up.

I’ve never written all those things down about my mom in one place before. I’m not even sure I’ve ever fully taken in all the things she did in her life.

To me, she was just my mom. If in my pre-teen or teen years, you asked me to tell you about her, I’d have highlighted that she was a great mother, a wonderful wife, a faithful Christian, and a dedicated church musician. I knew some of her accomplishments and accolades. I was very proud of her, and proud to be hers. But what I was most aware of was the life and the home she made for us, and who she was in herself (smart, godly, studious, articulate, confident, hardworking, talented, persevering, and more).

During all my years growing up, and until my youngest brother started school, she was mostly what we call a stay-at-home mom today. She never made me feel like I was being squeezed in around the schedule of more important things. She trusted in Christ, served his church, loved her husband, and her three boys, and gladly and generously gave herself to us. She was fully engaged in our lives, facilitating all our endeavors whether academic, athletic, musical, or vocational. Mom was a constant encourager, but when her sons needed correction, she was fearsome as John the Baptist, and the correction came with Scripture references.

Mom was a constant encourager, but when her sons needed correction, she was fearsome as John the Baptist, and the correction came with Scripture references.

Mom died on September 25, 2022, at the age of 89, thirty years to the month after my father passed away. This is my second Mother’s Day without her. I’ve lost count of the times I wanted to pick up the phone and tell her something or ask her a question. I do want to “rise up and call her blessed” (Prov. 31:28), but I also want to be an encouragement to every Christian mother, and indeed to all my sisters in Christ. I’ve been profoundly blessed by the godly women the Lord has put in my life, and my mother deeply influenced me in the simple but important ways every good Christian mother influences her children. Mom encouraged me by her life and example as a believer, a wife, a mother, and a church member and worshiper. Her faith and practice left an indelible impression on me.


Shirley Anne Ledford Duncan (1932–2022) was born on a chilly Saturday in December 1932 in the little town of Athens, Tennessee. She was born to godly Southern Baptist parents who reared her in the nurture and admonition of the Lord at the First Baptist Church. Mom was enrolled in elementary school at age 3; all her friends were 6, and she was inconsolable when they got to start school without her. The school principal devised a plan to humor her. Let her come to school a few days, and then she wouldn’t be able to keep up, or would get bored and want to go home. The plan backfired. She loved school, excelled, and consequently finished college while still a teenager. Mom then studied church music at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky (cataloging the music school’s library for accreditation, while a student) before pursuing postgraduate work at Northwestern in Chicago. After her formal studies ended, she directed church music in congregations in North Carolina and Georgia, before joining the music faculty of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

All along the way, Mom’s desire to serve the church was undergirded by a life of devotion to Christ. Mom walked with the Lord her whole life, and she taught and showed us how to as well. As a teenager, she led missions into coal-mining country, putting on vacation Bible schools for the children. I loved hearing stories about that when I was growing up. Mom believed the gospel and wanted to share it. She was also a serious student of Scripture and sound theological literature. I can remember as a young boy, watching her read Lloyd-Jones’ expositions of The Sermon on the Mount. She was a great spiritual conversation partner. When I wrestled with the matters of faith and repentance, she patiently listened, and then clearly, simply, and faithfully explained biblical truth. She was theologically steady and solid as a rock. I remember reading Ned Stonehouse’s description of J. Gresham Machen’s mother, and it occurred to me what a gift I’d been given in my own.

I once asked John Piper why he believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, he retorted immediately “Because my momma told me to.” That completely resonated with me. Mother had studied the objections to the infallibility of the Bible at the undergraduate and seminary level, and she came through it with a profound trust in Scripture. She had a high view of God’s sovereignty and embraced the doctrines of grace. I loved talking about the Scriptures and the things of God with her. I’m so thankful for a mother who put her trust in Christ as he is offered in the gospel, who read and knew her Bible, who taught it to us, and who lived it out.

Do not underestimate the profound effect of simply trusting in Christ and believing the Bible. Little eyes are watching. Little hearts are taking it in. When they are grown, they won’t forget. Even the apostles remembered: “I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well” (2 Tim. 1:5).


Mom married Dad on May 21, 1959, and I was born in November of the next year. I grew up in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and in the era of the “battle of the sexes,” Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, the Equal Rights Amendment, and “I am woman, hear me roar.” Even in Greenville, South Carolina, there was a segment of society experimenting with fashionable infidelity; I can remember overhearing my parents speaking in hushed tones about acquaintances who were wife-swapping. Thankfully I did not understand what that was. In those days, a new form of feminism began to influence views of marriage, family, and women’s roles. Even though I didn’t know the term “second-wave feminism,” and I hadn’t read Betty Friedan, I picked up what it was from television, radio, and the news. I saw it working out in friends’ families, too.

Precisely because of that cultural context, and because of Mom’s capabilities and credentials, I particularly noticed and loved how she treated my Dad. The way she spoke to and about him. The way she respected and supported him. The way she showed she was proud to be his wife. That was huge to me. I loved to see them together. I loved watching their affection. She made it easy for him to love her. She respected him, and enjoyed his leadership. She didn’t merely acquiesce; she championed him.

I remember once in a season when he—a small business owner in a changing industry and challenging times—was discouraged by financial worries, she looked him in the eye and said, “Lig Duncan, I’d live with you in a pup tent.” A man could conquer almost anything with encouragement like that. Of course, it was also true that he adored her, and showed us how a man should treat a woman. But my memories here are focused on the security she gave us by showing us that she loved to be our Dad’s wife, that she loved being married, and that marriage is a good thing. We knew of unhappy marriages around us. Mom would regularly take time to listen to the heartaches of friends in hard places. But her testimony in word and deed was that marriage was a good gift from the Lord, that it required deliberate commitment especially in difficult times, but that it held unique joys. The way she was a wife made our home.

Who would have thought that a Christian wife, simply by loving and respecting her husband (Eph. 5:33), could be such an enormous witness, blessing, and encouragement to her children? All these years later, it’s one of the favorite things I remember about my upbringing.


Mom also made it clear to us that she didn’t begrudge motherhood. It didn’t clip her wings. We knew Mom was capable of doing many things, and that she did many things, but she always let us know she loved being our mom. My brothers and I often attended musical performances in which she was a featured soloist. My younger brother John accompanied her to Jackson, Mississippi, on one occasion when she sang the alto solos for Handel’s Messiah, and we all went to Furman every year when she sang them. I vividly remember sitting in Rodeheaver Auditorium at Bob Jones University when she sang in their presentation of Verdi’s opera Macbeth.

Who would have thought that a Christian wife, simply by loving and respecting her husband, could be such an enormous witness, blessing, and encouragement to her children?

Mother sat on boards and committees. She volunteered and led organizations, but she remained a great boy mom. She let us know that she delighted in being our mom. She was attentive, nurturing, formidable, and inspirational to her three sons, and she could throw a perfect spiral. Our home was always the place where all the neighborhood friends assembled, and Sunday dinners are probably my happiest memory from my years at home. Therein lies a tale.

Mom was not a great cook. Indeed, upon her election as president of Women in Church, the ladies informed her that her appointment was conditioned on her staying out of the church’s kitchen! Which, let me say, she did not mind. When she was a little girl, Mom would often get out of working in the kitchen with her mom by saying she had to practice her piano. Her mother let her get by with it, and consequently her sister Carla became the best cook in the family, and Mom became a great pianist.

Shirley Anne Ledford Duncan (1932–2022)

I share all this to say, we all knew that Mom didn’t love the kitchen and didn’t love to cook, but that also meant we knew every meal was a labor of love. She wasn’t cooking because she loved it. She was cooking because she loved us. That mattered, and we felt it. Really Mom had one good menu, and we had it every Sunday. We would sit and talk and laugh until our sides hurt; we’d discuss the deep things of the Lord, and enjoy one another’s company. If I could go back to any place in my past, it would be there.

Mother could’ve done just about anything, and she did so much, but she made us feel as though being our mom gave her the deepest joy. Her love to us as our mother, and her joy in us as our mother, made us all feel close. We wouldn’t have traded that closeness for anything. And that desire to enjoy the closeness she created was often a great weapon in our fight against sin. We didn’t want to do anything that would compromise the closeness we enjoyed.

Yes, I’m proud of Mom’s abilities and accomplishments. Those are parts of what God made her to be. But it’s her delight to be our mother, and her Christian example as our mother, that fills my heart with gratitude to her and to God. No wonder Isaiah compares God’s care for and comfort of his people to a mother’s care and comfort (Isa. 66:13). Christian mothers show us something of the love and character of God.

Church Member and Worshiper

Mom and Dad gave us a Christian life built around the rhythms of the church. Dad was an elder. Mom was the church choir director. During all my years at home, the family schedule was rooted in the church’s weekly calendar, its services and its choirs. We knew Wednesday night was prayer meeting and choir rehearsal, and Sunday mornings and evenings were for Lord’s Day worship. We knew we’d be the last ones leaving, and about the first ones to arrive. The church was like another home to us. The most natural thing in the world.

She was attentive, nurturing, formidable, and inspirational to her three sons, and she could throw a perfect spiral.

Dad couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but Mother did not give us an option as to whether or not we were going to sing. From our earliest days, we sang at home, school, and church. Another favorite memory of mine is singing hymns and other popular songs around the family piano. We sang in the church’s children’s choirs, and when we were old enough, we joined the adult choir.

Mom and Dad made it clear that to be a Christian was to be committed to the local church, to the assembly of the saints. That meant “supporting the work and worship of the church to the best of our ability.” We were in our church 50 weeks a year, and on the two weeks we were away on vacation, we were at another church. Even though she was a church staff member, Mom emphasized that we were not in church because of her job but out of devotion to Christ. Christians gather with fellow believers on the Lord’s Day to worship God in the reading and preaching of the Word, in the singing and praying of the Word, and in the administration of the sacraments (which visibly represent the promises of the Word).

Mom was a lifelong church musician, but she didn’t view church music as a performance for the congregation. She saw it as a sacrifice of praise to God and an aid to the congregation’s worship. Mom read Calvin, the Scottish Reformers, the English Puritans, the Westminster Directory, Horton Davies, Robert G. Rayburn, and Hughes Oliphant Old on worship. She wanted us all to understand we were created and redeemed to worship, to give God the glory due his name, to glorify and enjoy him forever. This is our highest end, because he is our highest good. I loved to hear Mom sing. Especially sacred music.

This too is a memory I can’t forget. Singing with Mom in church. Singing with her in the choir. Singing with her at home. I never took it for granted, but I’ll never sing with her here again. For that, I must await the reunion.

Be encouraged, Christian mothers. Just being a good, faithful, church member—being with your children in church (Heb. 10:25) and emphasizing the importance of public worship (Ps. 95:6–7)—forms spiritual impressions that last a lifetime, habits that shape a generation.

I Will Not Omit a Word

There was never a time I didn’t think my mother was amazing, but I had to grow up to appreciate just how extraordinary she was. In my childhood I knew her as a loving and supportive wife to my father, a wonderful mother to her sons, a faithful, serious, involved Christian committed to the life and ministry of the church, an accomplished educator and musician, and a ubiquitous volunteer. It’s those things that still stand out.

I’ve always loved Augustine’s words about his mother, Monica. My tears flowed freely when I first read them, even as they do now:

There are many things which I do not set down in this book, since I am pressed for time. My God, I pray you to accept my confessions and also the gratitude I bear you for all the many things which I pass over in silence. But I will omit not a word that my mind can bring to birth concerning your servant, my mother. In the flesh she brought me to birth in this world: in her heart she brought me to birth in your eternal light. It is not of her gifts that I shall speak, but of the gifts you gave to her. For she was neither her own maker nor her own teacher. It was you who made her, and neither her father nor her mother knew what kind of woman their daughter would grow up to be. It was by Christ’s teaching, by the guidance of your only Son, that she was brought up to honour and obey you in one of those good Christian families which form the body of your Church. (Confessions 9.8)

I could write the very same words in tribute to my mom. My mom loved God, trusted in Jesus, and believed the Scriptures. My mom loved Dad and loved being his wife. My mom loved us and loved being a mother. My mom loved and served the church, and relished its worship.

What a gift those loves were to me, to us. What a gift she was. What a gift are the mothers of the church to us all.


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