ROBERT GREEN LEE (1886-1978)
Robert Green Lee was born in a three room log cabin in South Carolina on November 11th, 1886. He was the fifth child of David and Sarah Lee and a distant relative of General Robert E. Lee. While having such a famous forefather these Lees were a poor family, barely making it as sharecroppers. When Robert was born the black midwife (a former slave) who attended Lee's birth cried out, "Praise God! Glory be! The good Lord has done sent a preacher to this here house."
Indeed a preacher had been born. Lee was born into a world of great preachers P.H. Mell was president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He would die two years later. J.P. Boyce, another of the great Southern Baptist founders was also only two years from going home to be with His Lord. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles Spurgeon was nearing the end of his monumental ministry in London.
Much changed during the nearly 100 years of Lee's life. "In the year of R.G. Lee's birth, most of the 488 messengers who attended the Southern Baptist Convention in Montgomery, Alabama, that year arrived by train or horse and buggy." During R.G. Lee's life he went from traveling by horse and buggy, to traveling by car to traveling by jet airplane. By the time of his death Southern Baptist Conventions had many thousands of messengers and Lee had preached to many of them.
Lee's parents were strict Christians and raised their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Because of that influence young "Bob" came to Christ in 1898 at a church meeting at First Baptist Church of Fort Mill, South Carolina. He always remembered the choir singing, "Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come, Jesus I come. Twelve years later he was ordained to preach at that same church.
When Lee was 21 he went to work on the new Panama Canal and upon returning enrolled at Furman University. Robert excelled in his studies and graduated magnum cum laude in 1913. Soon after that he married, Bula Gentry. Lee excelled so as a scholar that he was offered the chair of Latin at Furman. Many of his friends encouraged him to take the position but he decided to follow God's call to pastor and preach. When he told his wife of his decision she replied, "That's good! God never meant for you to dig around Latin roots. He meant for you to be a preacher."
After a couple of brief pastorates, Lee went to pastor at First Baptist Church of New Orleans. During his four years there, over 1000 new members came into the church, the majority of them by baptism. In 1927, two years before the Great Depression, Lee was called to pastor Bellevue Baptist Church of Memphis, TN. Because his tenures had been relatively short at his other pastorates, many did not expect Lee to stay long in Memphis. Lee would stay 33 years at Bellevue, not retiring until 1960. During those years Lee was offered many other positions. George Truett encouraged him to join him in Texas while others pressed Lee to accept the prestigious Calvary Baptist Church in New York City. He was also offered the presidencies of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Union University in Tennessee. During his pastorate at Bellevue, its membership grew from 1,430 members to 10,000 members.
His ministry was one of love for his people and determined defense of the Word of God. In his resignation address, Lee voiced his profound dedication to the Bible: "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." 4 Dr. Lee laid the foundation for young preachers who followed him who would fight the great battle for the Bible within the Southern Baptist Convention.
One of those young preachers, so influenced by Dr. Lee was Adrian Rogers who would take up Lee's mantle both at Bellevue Baptist and in the Convention. Lee was thoroughly evangelical. In his sermon, Bed of Pearls, he said: "So long as Southern Baptists have a passion for the salvation of sinners everywhere, there is little danger of our drifting into materialism. But if give up our position as an evangelistic storm center and court riches and court fashion and court friendships of self-elected scholars with bloodless gospels. we shall not be found following in Christ's train. In these days of molluscous liberalism, of self-satisfied complacency, if we emphasize little the old familiar notes of Calvary, of hell, of sin, and take up the merely tender note of humanitarian philosophy, we sound our death knell, dig our grave, write our epitaph."
R.G. Lee was always and preeminently a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His sermons were eloquent and often long. Lee had no problem poking fun at himself about his hour to hour and half sermons. He often told this story on himself: "Once at Bellevue a man came in late for the service. I was in the midst of my sermon. In a whisper he asked the usher, 'How long has he been preaching?' 'About forty years,' was the answer. 'Then he must be about through.'" Few remembered the length of Dr. Lee's
sermons as nearly as much as they did their depth.
Pay Day Someday remains his most famous sermon. First preached as a Wednesday night devotional it still stands as what could only be called a classic. In all, Lee preached it 1,275 times in every venue from small churches to state legislatures to foreign countries. The closing words of that great sermon demonstrate the power of Lee's preaching:
"Payday - Someday!" God said it - and it was done! Yes, and from this we learn the power and certainty of God in carrying out His retributive providence, the men know that His justice slumbereth not. Even though the mill of God grinds slowly, it grinds to powder. Yes, the judgments of God often have heels and travel slowly. But they always have iron hands and crush completely. And the only way I know for any man or woman on earth to escape the sinner's payday on earth and the sinner's hell beyond - making sure of the Christian's payday - is through Christ Jesus, who took the sinner's place on the cross. becoming for all sinners all that God must judge, that sinners through faith in Christ Jesus might become all that God cannot judge."
Like many Baptists, Lee was known more as a preacher than a theologian but his doctrine was sound to the core. Lee believed in and preached a doctrine often overlooked in our day, that of the necessity of regeneration.
"My own definition of the grace of God is this: the unlimited and unmerited favor given to the utterly undeserving. Let us think of the strength of grace. Sin is very powerful in this world. Sin is powerful as an opiate in the will. Sin is powerful as a frenzy in the imagination. Sin is powerful as a poison in the heart. Sin is powerful as a madness in the brain. Sin is powerful as a desert breath that drinks up all spiritual dews. Sin is powerful as the sum of all terrors. Sin is powerful as the quintessence of all horrors. Sin is powerful to devastate, to doom, to damn. Here is the sinner's only hope, although, until quickened by the Spirit of grace, he does not know it. No man can rescue himself from the tyranny of sin. Men may reform, but they cannot regenerate themselves. Men may give up their crimes and their vices, but they cannot, by their own strength, give up their sins. Can the Ethiopian change his skin? No. Can the leopard eliminate his spots? Regeneration is the great change which God works in the soul when He brings it into life, when He raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; when pride is dethroned and humility enthroned; when passion is changed into meekness; when hatred, envy, and malice are changed into a sincere and tender love for all mankind. It is the change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the mind that was in Christ. The new birth is not the old nature altered, reformed, or reinvigorated, but a being born from above.
Lee's influence on the Southern Baptist Convention was immeasurable. He served an unprecedented four terms as president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and then an unprecedented three terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Lee established strong stands on race relations throughout his ministry. At a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the president of the black National Baptist Convention, Dr. E.W. Perry said to Dr. Lee: "Mr. President, I've been more than 60 years coming from a log cabin where I was born to his high and exalted position. " Dr. Lee replied to Dr. Perry: "Dr. Perry, I want you to come here and stand by me and take my hand. I want this Convention to witness a parable in black and white, written in red. You said that over 60 years ago you were born in a log cabin in Mississippi. I, too, was born in a log cabin in South Carolina. The same Christ who saved you is the same Christ who saved me, and both of us have been washed clean in the precious Blood of the Lamb. This is the parable in black and white, written in red."
When Lee resigned his pastorate in 1960 a reporter for the Memphis, Commercial Appeal wrote: "For half a century he has thrown punches at the devil, punches containing the same power and vengeance as those of Billy Sunday, George Truett, or C.H. Spurgeon. In all these years he has never quit slugging. He says the devil never sleeps. So he has worked night and day to bring the gospel to as many people as possible."
Lee preached another 18 years after his retirement. He traveled 100,000 miles a year preaching in small and large churches and places like the Moody Bible Institute. Every generation of Elisha's need their own Elijah to look to for guidance and example. Lee was that Elijah to many including this author. He will ever be remembered as the man who warned the world that there will indeed be a "Pay Day Someday!" Baptist Page Articles are offered as a service to the readers of The Baptist Page. You are given permission to reprint this in any form available. We only ask that this paragraph remain with the article.
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