R.G. Lee: “Eyes Upon Southern Baptists”

Office of Press Representative
Release 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, May 10
Southern Baptist Convention – 1950
No. 10

PRESIDENT’S ADDRESS: EYES UPON SOUTHERN BAPTISTS

Robert G. Lee, President

Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee

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R.G. Lee, 1886 – 1978

Born in a log cabin in South Carolina, Robert Green Lee gave his life to Christ in 1898. At age 21 he went to work on the Panama Canal, and upon returning, enrolled at Furman University. His academic prowess garnered the offer of the chair of Latin at Furman. Declining the position, Lee answered God’s call on his life as a preacher and pastor.

Lee’s first pastorate was at Edgefield, South Carolina. This was followed by pastorates at First Baptist Church of Chester, South Carolina; First Baptist Church of New Orleans, Louisiana; Citadel Square Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina; and finally, Bellevue Baptist Church of Memphis, Tennessee, where he was succeeded by the late Dr. Adrian Rogers.

Lee served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention an unprecedented three terms. In his resignation address, he stated his firm stand on the Word of God: “You can count on me until my tongue is silent in the grave and until my hand can no longer wield a pen to keep my unalterable stand for the Bible as the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God – giving rebuke to and standing in opposition to all enemies of the Bible, even as I have done for 50 years.”

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EYES UPON SOUTHERN BAPTISTS

As once the children of Israel—“a very great congregation, from the entering in of Hamath unto the river of Egypt” (2 Chron. 7:8)—met in Jerusalem for the dedication of the Lord’s house (2 Chron. 7:2), so Southern Baptists, in annual convention assembled, are in Chicago, America’s second largest city, and the burial ground of Dr. E. C. Dargan, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Staggering under a load of responsibility, the like of which never burdened any people, lending ourselves to no movement that would absorb our churches in an organic Church or ecclesiastical world council, we meet unembarrassed and unhindered by ecclesiastical harness. Without malice to any, we have put far from us alliance with all councils and conferences—as David, “goodly to look to” (1 Sam. 16:12), thrust aside Saul’s cumbersome armour (1 Sam. 17:39).

Like David, with the sling of God in his hand, this Southern Baptist Convention—with no proposal coming before any of our Boards or administrative staffs for any kind of affiliation outside our body, with not one of our Boards or agencies trying to lead Southern Baptist into any unionizing movement, but with a polity adapted to the genius and elasticity of our New Testament creed—holds in its hands the New Testament but no military orders.

Have we brought with us to Chicago the Christlike spirit? Have we brought enough of the “old-time religion” and wisdom of our forefathers to keep our own feet from stumbling as we seek to help this lame world walk in paths of righteousness? Can we, who are so feeble a folk 100 years ago, walk humbly before God and men? Can we, who have wrought so well with organizations, work miraculously to bring ourselves under full domination to the Holy Spirit? These questions, rightly answered, will underwrite our every program and undergird our every enterprise.

A big, not bantam, people we must be for our God. We are not here to catch sparrows and subdue rabbits but to be spiritual lion tamers—as Dr. Mullins would say. We miss the purpose for which God brought us to Chicago if we, as an advisory convention of free and independent churches, miss the highway and go down some discreditive dead-end street by going off after non-essential and non-basical matters.

Caligula once marched his legions—with beating drums, sounding trumpets, and display of banners—down to the seashore to gather cockle shells. We shall not be guilty of like folly. We are not here to make argumentative assaults on one another. We beat no drums, sound no trumpets, wave no gaudy banners. We would loose no wild tongues that hold not God in awe, our history in reverence, our welfare in mind. We would not engage in rolling marbles when there are mountains to be removed. But, with gratitude to God who has led us safely thus far, with our Southern Baptist heart 25,000 miles in circumference, we ask God’s help to out-think, out-serve, out-love every false philosophy now bidding for men’s allegiance.

We are not here to change the century-old and fundamental purpose of the Convention, namely, cooperation in promotional endeavors, missions, and other Kingdom causes—with messengers from the churches standing on equal footing, holding in their hearts consideration for the welfare of one common cause.

In our 105 years of God-blessed history, some of it written in blood, some of it watered with tears, the Convention has done little damaging detouring into the realm of doctrinal statements beyond the acceptance of the fundamentals of the New Testament. Our Southern Baptist Convention—an association of local self-governing, independent, democratic churches—must recognize the independence and autonomy of the local church in all matters temporal and spiritual. Our churches are independent bodies, voluntarily associated in convention-assembly for fellowship and cooperation—without ecclesiastical authority. The churches, above general bodies, subject in no way to general bodies, voluntarily affiliating with our Convention through their messengers, are always independent and are not in law bound by anything any general body proposes.

This is what makes our 6 and one-half million Baptists a modern miracle, with 27,000 churches handling their own affairs without authoritative control by any council, convention or outside organization, yet knit together as a compact force—with the New Testament as sole creed and only rule of faith and practice. Thus, our unity in major and essential matters is glorious.

Eyes are upon us as we meet. Upon us, as eyes that look into a mirror, are.

I. OUR OWN EYES.

We see growth, within the last 50 years, as miraculous as our unity: with increase in church membership of 300 per cent, in Sunday school enrollment 542 per cent, in Training Union enrollment 1600 percent, in gifts from $2.5 million in 1900 to $178 million, in baptisms from 80,000 in 1900 to 334,864 last year.

With 22 orphanages, 25 hospitals, 5 seminaries, 28 senior colleges, 24 Junior colleges, 8 academies, millions of people are beneficiaries of our faith and works.

Through our 25-year-old Cooperative Program, showing that all our work is one—evangelistic, missionary, educational, deserving support form all our churches—enough money was given the last four years to care for current and operating needs of our agencies and institutions and to provide $8,500,000 for capital needs.

Our Sunday School Board, with manifold ministries, publishing 63 periodicals, cooperating fraternally with all State Boards and Convention agencies, shows unparalleled gains in all departments, with 5,000 requests coming to the Department of Architecture for help in the erection of new church houses, with thousands of Daily Vacation Bible Schools rendering invaluable Bible instruction to hundreds of thousands of children, with receipts (including Baptist Book Stores) of nearly $8,000,000, with great contributions to the maintenance of other of our agencies. All departments “hold forth the Word of Life.” All these facts testify to marvelous progress under God’s guidance.

Our Foreign Mission Board has 748 missionaries opening Gospel highways over which thousands journey to Christ in 24 nations. We rejoice in the representatives soon to work in Ecuador and Peru, in our international seminary established in Argentina, in foundations laid for the first Southern Baptist Hospital in South America, in the seminary in Zurich which raises Baptist morale and makes Baptists better known, in Nigeria’s seminary and centennial celebration this year, in 500 baptisms in Italy, and in a total income for this Board of $5,500,000.

We rejoice in the fidelity of the Foreign Mission Board in administering its affairs in keeping with the basic policies and beliefs of Southern Baptists—as our hosts, with our Forward Program, advance to do the will and work of our Lord.

Our Home Mission Board—with recognition that the homeland is the seed bed for world missions, every new generation being a new evangelistic opportunity, every added area being a stewardship responsibility, with its missionaries helping to establish in 105 years 10,000 Baptist churches, with reports form the missionaries of 1,000,000 baptisms—has the task now (with the recent additions of California, Washington, Oregon, Kansas, Alaska) of serving 78 per cent more territory and 39 per cent more people than a decade ago. With the 5-year crusade of soul winning and enlistment—deserving our fervent prayers, faith, cooperation, and sacrificial support—the Board’s existence and work is to the causes of our Convention what the pillar cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night was to Israel of old.

Our Baptist Training Union—with text books constructed upon the foundation of the Bible and great Baptist principles, with its method of individual participation, with all its activities and studies designed to produce church loyalty—shows undeviating loyalty to the Bible and our denomination. Built now into the fabric of and making enduring contributions to our denominational life, the Training Union crusades to enlist all our Baptist people in daily Bible reading and prayer and in greater attendance at the midweek and Sunday night services, to provide study courses for all new converts, to conserve all the results of evangelism. Thus, the Training Union is mighty in the land.

Our Evangelistic Department. With 334,864 baptisms last year, with the greatest simultaneous revival crusades in American history, with much fishing for men with net and line, with the objective of a great spiritual awakening which will effect economic, political, education life for humanity’s good and God’s glory, we know that our evangelistic aims and achievements are to Southern Baptist life what healthy blood is to the body.

Our Baptist Hour! Never have we had so many to listen to our Gospel preaching at such little cost as through our marvelous radio ministry—reaching all sections of the land, glorifying God through laying the claims of Christ upon the hearts of the lost and by strengthening all ministries espoused by Southern Baptists.

Our Relief and Annuity Board! Its great ministry and achievements amaze us. The beneficent work of this Board is as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, as roof of refuge in time of storm—and as necessary in Southern Baptist ministry as numbers in mathematics.

Our Baptist Foundations! Those of the Convention and of various states serve two needs—the need felt by our institutions and agencies, and the need felt by the nature of trust funds to be invested in the most productive way commensurate with safety. Prospective donors are served by the Baptist Foundations in that they are helped to solve the problems of their stewardship beyond the tithe.

Our Baptist Student Work is great! For years, each state has maintained a Department of Student work—led by student secretaries who are “spiritual coaches.” Who can evaluate this mighty force of thousands of Baptist students taught to realize that the greatest place to serve is the local church? —taught to practice second-mile Christianity and the truth that if we turn our backs upon our churches, we turn us away from our liberties?

Our Brotherhood! The work done by these in recruiting men for active service in our churches is a source of strength to the churches. There are now 4153 churches reporting brotherhood organizations, with a membership of 142,202, a 19 per cent gain in enrollment over 1948. What Jonathan meant to David do these brotherhoods often mean to pastors.

Our Denominational Papers! Ably edited by Christian men concerned about the welfare of our Southern Baptist Zion, they mean in enlightenment to Southern Baptists what Gutenberg’s printing press meant to the world when by it he gave the Bible to the people and opened blind alleys of ignorance into endless highways of wisdom.

Our Seminaries are cause for gratitude. Great their achievements, with their surpassingly large enrollment of students, with new buildings and the enlarged service to Christ which they make possible—with many graduates who well-grounded in Bible truth and Baptist doctrine, go forth as appointees for home and foreign mission service, for specialized activities in the religious-education realm, for service as pastors and evangelists. The ministry of these will make an impact to be felt around the world.

And we shall be wise to remember two other schools—the Baptist Bible Institute of Florida and the Clear Creek Mountain Preachers Bible School—both of them set for the instruction of preachers of advanced years and limited previous schooling, who, as they are taught, are admonished to cooperate with their Baptist brethren in the God-given and God-commanded task of world evangelization.

With our eyes thus upon ourselves, we see how God, looking with pleasure upon us, has made Southern Baptists prosperous beyond expectation and influential beyond precedent. Therefore, let us remember, “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required” (Luke 12:48).

With God’s favor upon us authenticated by our progress, we must take no backward step by failure to maintain the absolute autonomy of our churches, which maintenance is the only thing that will keep us from going into some form of ecclesiasticism which is wholly foreign to Baptists—and as much out of place as a raucous crow in a chorus of nightingales. Moreover, no backward step must we take by a passive acquiescence in our achievements, and by a careless indifference to great stretches of the unattained.

Upon us are the

II. EYES OF SATAN.

Satan, who brought disorder among the angels and undermined the constitution of Adam’s nature, is the God of this world. Maliciously he watches us—hoping to see us betrayed into errors of judgment. To him who would work havoc among us, even as he dismantled the first Adam of his nobility, any discreditive dissonance would be delight. Satan hates our tremendous enterprises, our ventures of faith, our advance programs—all born in love and carried forward with zeal in the blood of those possessed of an incontestably conscientious and imperious sense of duty. Satan hates our Gospel and our Baptist doctrines. He would empty our lamps of oil, dull the edges of our swords, at a time when we need to stand together as soldiers in battle. If by our advocacy of unwise policies, so in antithesis to what our great leaders of the past stood for, Satan can disturb our fellowship, he will be as happy as though he had ruined our good name by making us drunkards and idolaters. “Let us give no place to the devil” (Eph. 4:27).

Upon us are the

III. EYES OF MANY CHRISTIANS.

Their eyes, filled with trust, gleam with the hope that through Christ we will live out most frankly and fruitfully all that is best in our being—placing our reins of guidance and government in Christ’s hands as our feet travel the road of the Cross. Many watch to see if we will cleave implicitly to Christ, who chooses foolish things to confound the wise, who is invested with authority to send us every gift the Father can bestow, and whose merciful grace follows us from demand to demand.

Upon us are the

IV. EYES OF DEPARTED LEADERS.

Amid the cloud of witnesses, they, whose influence did not end when they left us, look our way to see if we maintain the purpose for which the Convention was organized—to see if we will hand down our blood-bequeathed legacies unreduced in quality and in quantity—showing gratitude for our remote past and our glorious present, both as thick inlaid with proofs of God’s resources, goodness, guidance, and approval as is the midnight sky with stars.

These departed mighty ones, who dressed in homespun and not in Tyrian purple, opposing public funds being given to sectarian institutions, favoring the Lordship of Christ and not the overlordship of bishops and popes, transmitted to us some things they believed from the beginning and tested out in the laboratories of their own experience—things which modern scholarship has not improved, things which the popularity of public opinion has not discounted. Among these is the Word of God—regenerative in power, personal in application, inspired in totality.

Our forefathers tested in the laboratories of their experience the truth that the individual must have freedom to think, to speak, to act for himself, but with no right to be discourteous, to injure anybody else, or to deny freedom to another. Thomas Jefferson said: “Democracy is the greatest amount of freedom to the greatest number of people.” Our forefathers, who believed in and practiced unity of opinion in essentials and diversity of opinion in non-essential and non-basical matters, look our way to see if we are wise enough NOT to lay down a set of rules to determine Baptist conduct as to our Convention relationships. The New Testament—not a book of rules but a book of principles—does not do that.

Our Baptist forefathers, in whose train we can wisely and safely follow, left us a rich heritage in spiritual values. Therefore, as it is carved on the old Bradford obelisk, let it be known of us: “Quo patres difficilime adepti sunt nolite turpites relinquere”—which, being translated, is “What our fathers with so much difficulty secured, do not basely relinquish.”

Moreover, upon us are the

V. EYES IF GOD.

“God looketh unto the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven” (Job 28-29).

Therefore, doing always the things that are pleasing unto God—being prayerful, reverent, wise, and Christian in every decision of every session—let us be wary lest we put limitations upon God’s use of us.

Our Christian work is too great for human strength without divine commission. Therefore, we must take cognizance of the storehouse that cannot be exhausted. We are stewards of the manifold grace of God –in using as well as in dispensing it—not as saints preserved for future happiness but as sinners redeemed for present service.

If our Baptist Zion is weak, it is not for want of strength promised and provided, but because we do not put it on.

“Put on thy strength, O Zion” – and go forward to greater attainments in grace and to nobler works of love and faith. Let us, seeing the fields “white already unto the harvest,” see past the boundaries of our country into the whole world—past night to renewing dawn, past gloom to glory, past death to eternal life, past men and events to God.

“Let faith revive! Let courage new / The vision of God’s hosts impart;

That all God willest we may do / With steadfast hands and holy hearts.”