'Mr. Southern Baptist'

by By Bernard R. DeRemer

As pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., R. G. Lee compiled this outstanding record: 24,071 joined during his tenure, including 7,649 by baptism; The church grew from 1,430 members to 9,421; Lee taught his 400-member Bible class an average of 44 Sundays a year for nearly 38 years. Dr. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, paid this eloquent tribute: " . . . Once in a while in each generation God raises up a true prophet, a prince of preachers . . . That famed evangelist is the world famous pastor of the Bellevue Baptist Church . . . [who] is a veritable paragon of excellence in the preparation and delivery of sermons" (quoted by John E. Huss in Robert G. Lee, the Authorized Biography). Lee was born Nov. 11, 1886, in a South Carolina sharecropper's cabin. A distant relative of famed Gen. Robert E. Lee, he grew up picking cotton, gathering corn, milking cows, and plowing with mules. Usually he walked three miles to the primitive one-room school. But in that godly home, where regular Sunday school and church attendance prevailed, he early came to know the Lord and was influenced to seek God's will for his life. After a brief stint working on the Panama Canal, he entered Furman University. Following graduation with honors in 1913, he married Bula Gentry. He was offered a teaching position at Furman, but chose the pastorate instead, beginning his ministry at Lima, S.C. As he became more widely known, larger opportunities inevitably beckoned. Curiously, he never preached a "trial sermon" anywhere. He was always called on the basis of a recommendation and his reputation. In 1927 came the historic call to Bellevue. Since Lee had occupied a number of brief pastorates, for very good reasons, some speculated that "he won't stay long." How wrong they were! He survived the Depression, wars, and enormous social upheaval to build a lasting legacy for a third of a century. Lee's practice was to write out his messages in longhand on legal pads. Thus he was able to concentrate his thoughts and create. He gave special attention to his opening statement to make it as effective as possible. After his secretary typed these pages, he read the manuscript frequently, not to memorize, but to master its content. He preached extemporaneously, up to an hour and a half (!), always wearing a white suit, regardless of season. His gift for oratory, rich sense of humor, and love for people helped endear him to his flock. And how the church grew, along with Sunday school, young people's, and missionary outreach. In 1952, the new building was dedicated. Its main auditorium contained 3,000 seats, but it could accommodate 4,000 by using folding chairs and opening an adjacent area. In time Lee was offered the presidency of a seminary and a university, as well as prestigious pulpits like Calvary Baptist, New York City, yet he would not consider leaving his beloved Bellevue. However, he did branch out into other areas, serving an unprecedented four terms as president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and three terms as head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination. This gave him opportunities for fellowship with other leaders of like precious faith; he was always warmly and enthusiastically received. His most famous sermon, "Pay Day, Some Day," began as a Wednesday night devotional. He preached it 1,275 times in many churches and other places, ranging from state legislatures to foreign countries. An estimated three million heard this great classic, resulting in some 8,000 professions of faith. Based on highlights from the story of wicked Ahab and Jezebel, it is about 75 minutes long. Here are excerpts: "Even though the mill of God grinds slowly, it grinds to powder. The judgments of God often . . . travel slowly, but they always have iron hands and crush completely. [The only way to escape] the sinner's pay day on earth . . . is through Christ Jesus, who took the sinner's place on the cross...." Finally the time came when Lee must turn over administration of the nearly 10,000-member church to others, so he became pastor emeritus in 1960. But he was hardly inactive, traveling some 100,000 miles a year, ministering from Alaska to Australia to Asia, "night and day to bring the gospel to as many people as possible." Today none of his 56 books are listed in Books in Print, but some are available in libraries or second hand stores. At 91, in 1978, the aged warrior at last laid down his sword. During the memorial service outstanding leaders paid tribute to him as pastor, writer and author, preacher, and helper of young ministers. R.G. Lee had kept the faith; what a crown of righteousness is laid up for him.