This is the second article in the series on great preachers of the past. In this installment we will take a brief look into the life of Dr. Robert Greene Lee (1886 – 1978), premier preacher and pastor of the 20th century. This series is provided so young pastors and laypersons can learn about our heritage and so that no one dare forget the great heralds of the truth upon whose shoulders we stand. The previous installment covered the ministry of W.A. Criswell.
The first time I heard Robert Greene Lee, the great pulpit orator, preach the Gospel I was a teenager visiting Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis with my family. I was 15 years old at the time and I can remember it as though it were yesterday.
The great preacher wore a white suit, a spotlight shined on him when he knelt to pray, and all of heaven must have heard him intercede for his congregation and the nation. In his characteristic southern drawl he preached a powerful sermon that had the freshness of an April morning and the glory of an autumn sunset – a sermon that captivated my attention and won my admiration and drew me closer to the Lord.
Dr. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX, said of Dr. Lee, “One time in each century and once in a while in each generation, God raises up a true prophet, a prince of preachers. In this century and in this generation, that favored evangel is the world famous pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
“To uncounted thousands and thousands of young ministers, he is a veritable paragon of excellence in the preparation and delivery of sermons. His voice, his manner, his striking illustrations, and the spiritual depth and content of his message work together to create an indelible impression upon the hearts and souls of all of us who love to hear him and who are enthralled by the glorious heights to which he raises his audience toward God. R.G. Lee is the most gifted and eloquent preacher of our time.”
In the predawn hours of November 11, 1886 in a three-room log cabin in York County, SC, the fifth child was born to sharecroppers David Ayers Lee and Sarah Bennett Lee. “Praise God! Glory be! The good Lord has done sent a preacher to this here house!” With those words, an old midwife virtually danced around the small room that was warmed and faintly illuminated by a flickering fire, and proclaimed the birth of Robert Greene Lee.”
Indeed, a preacher had been born. When R.G. Lee was born some great preachers were near the end of their ministry, including Charles H. Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody and T. Dewitt Talmage. P.H. Mell, president of the Southern Baptist Convention when Dr. Lee was born, and James P. Boyce, another great Southern Baptist founder, both died two years after the notable birth in York County, SC.
Robert’s parents were Christians, but strict and raised their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. As a boy he grew up in near poverty and worked hard with his dad and siblings raising cotton, corn, wheat, and watermelons. In those days following the Civil War, the Lee family found it necessary to eke out a living tilling the same rocky soil as the former slaves who had lived in their district. Schuyler English, in his biography of R.G. Lee A Chosen Vessel, said, “He picked cotton, stooped over beneath the September sun, until every hour was filled with ten thousands aches and pains,” The Lee family income in those years was maybe $300 in a good, productive year.
At age twelve Robert got under conviction of his sinful nature after hearing a sermon at First Baptist Church Fort Mill, SC on “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” A day or two thereafter he was working in the fields and commented, “I had to plow that day. My misery grew until finally I drove out to the end of a long row and dropped the plows down by the side of Barney, my old white mule, and prayed, ‘If one must accept Jesus to be saved, then I accept Him.’”
Shortly after Robert’s conversion there began to burn within his breast an unquenchable fire to preach the Gospel of Christ. He studied at every opportunity, even walking three miles periodically to learn Latin under a Professor Boyd and paying for the lessons by additional arduous work. He promised his father that he would remain on the farm until he was 21-years-old, but his eagerness to learn never subsided, and his passion to preach ever grew.
When Robert was 21 he borrowed $250 from the local bank and went to work on the new Panama Canal to earn money for his education and upon returning home he enrolled at Furman University, where he excelled in his studies and graduated magna cum laude in 1913. Soon thereafter he fell in love with Bula Gentry, a young lady he had heard sing “Whispering Hope” in a revival at Riverside Baptist Church in Greenville, SC. When he asked her to marry him, she replied, “I can’t say ‘yes,’ because I can’t speak in public.”
Lee answered, “I am not asking you to be a public speaker. I am asking you to be my wife. I’ll do the preaching. Will you marry me?” Bula replied in the affirmative. They were married in November of 1913 and four years later they were blessed with Bula G, a daughter named after her mother.
Robert G. Lee had become so proficient in Latin that he was offered the chair of Latin at Furman, but his desire to become a pastor prompted him to decline the offer. After a couple of brief, but successful, pastorates Robert G. Lee was called to be the pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans.
His pastorate in New Orleans lasted about three-and-one-half years, but during that time there were 1,016 new members received into the fellowship, 300 of them by baptism.
However Citadel Square Baptist Church in Charleston, SC, the largest church in state, came calling and after soul searching, deliberation, and prayer Lee accepted their call to serve as pastor. In English’s biography of Dr. Lee, he explains the New Orleans congregation’s gloom over Dr. Lee’s departure: “The congregation simply could not understand their pastor’s departure. How could he go, whom they loved so deeply and who reciprocated that affection with every beat of his great heart? It was as if a lover, having wooed and won his beloved, turned to leave her forever at the moment that he had won her hand.”
Dr. Lee’s service to the Lord in Charleston was short-lived, for he stayed there only two short years, but the church experienced significant growth during that time. One hundred Sundays after he preached his initial sermon at Citadel Square, he left to accept the call to Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, TN. The peerless pulpiteer went to Bellevue in 1927 and remained until 1960 – a 33-year ministry. During his years in Memphis he was offered several pastorates, including the pastorate of the prestigious Calvary Baptist Church in New York City. He was offered the presidencies of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Union University in Jackson, TN, but he had found his home at Bellevue. During his pastorate at Bellevue, over 24,000 people joined the church including over 7,600 for baptism.
Long before the Conservative Resurgence, Dr. R.G. Lee was the Southern Baptist champion of biblical infallibility and inerrancy. In his sermon, “The Word of God – Not Broken and Not Bound,” first published in 1930, Dr. Lee proclaimed, “All who wrote are immortalized by their writing of this great Book, supernatural in origin, divine in authorship, human in penmanship, infallible in authority, infinite in scope, universal in interest, personal in application, regenerative in power, inspired in totality.”
During his tenure as pastor at Bellevue his influence on the Southern Baptist Convention was immeasurable. He served an unprecedented four times as president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and an unprecedented three terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His good name earned him the respect of all but his most adamant detractors. He provided strong leadership for the convention he loved and there were times when the convention took a different course merely upon the advice of its president.
Lee established strong stands on race relations throughout his ministry. At a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the president of the African American 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."
Dr. Lee may be best known for his sermon “Pay Day Someday”. The theme of the message is “repent or perish!” According to Dr. Timothy George in his book R.G. Lee, the great pastor’s signature message was first preached in 1919 at a prayer meeting in Edgefield, SC as a devotional. One of Lee’s deacons approached him and said, “You’ve got something there, my boy. Why don’t you make a full-length sermon out of it? I think it is wonderful.” Lee stayed up until two o’clock the next morning enlarging and reworking the sermon based on I Kings 21 and II Kings 9.
Dr. Lee was a wordsmith. His vocabulary was second to none and he was able to select just the right word for bringing truth to light. His choice of words was colorful and descriptive. His sermons made extensive use of adjectives and adverbs. For example in “Pay Day Someday,” Lee described King Ahab as “the vile human toad who squatted upon the throne of his nation – the worst of Israel’s kings.” In all, he preached “Pay Day Someday” 1,275 times in churches and tent revivals, at home and abroad, in baseball parks and football stadiums, before legislatures and celebrities. Thousands of persons have professed faith in Christ after hearing “Pay Day Someday.”
Dr. Lee’s sermons were well prepared and studied. He memorized his manuscripts and was generally able to deliver them practically word-for-word. When he stood to preach it was obvious that he was a man of books and prayer. And his heavy South Carolina accent, coupled with his exceptional grasp of the English language, made his sermons unique and riveting. His preaching style earned him the name of the “silver-tongued orator” of the South.
However, even great preachers have their moments of failure. While in New Orleans Dr. Lee preached a sermon which he felt like was “a complete flop.” After the message a deacon asked his pastor to go with him for a ride. After three miles of complete silence the pastor asked his deacon, “What was wrong with me this morning?”
The deacon replied, “Dr. Lee, you laid a skyscraper foundation and built a chicken coop on top of it.”
Lee responded, “If there had been a capsule on that platform, I could have crawled into it and mailed myself to the dead-letter office with a one-cent stamp.”
Almost every preacher has had such experiences, and if he has any humility and alertness, will learn from them.
Lee liked baseball and one of his favorite players was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, a native of Greenville, SC who spent most of his baseball career with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. He was a great natural hitter who had a lifetime batting average of .356. Dr. Lee loved to tell the story about Jackson, who received his nickname “Shoeless” because he played baseball barefooted or with only socks on his feet in his early years. Jackson, being a rather illiterate boy of the mill-village section of Greenville, came running one day in from right field and said to the manager of the team: “There’s glass out there in right field.”
The manager asked him, “Is it cutting your feet, Joe?”
“No, “ said Jackson, “but it’s roughing up the ball something terrible.”
A classic story that Dr. Adrian Rogers, one of Lee’s successors as pastor of Bellevue, told many times reflects Lee’s sense of humor. He spoke to Lee when he was ill saying, "Dr. Lee before you go to heaven, couldn't we take your brain and put it into my head?"
Lee replied, "My boy that would be like putting a grand piano in the hall closet." Although he had a twinkle in his eyes, Rogers was not sure if he was serious or not!
While R.G. Lee may be known primarily as a spellbinding preacher, he was also a compassionate and faithful shepherd of his flock. His ministry in Memphis reached far beyond his flock at Bellevue, and had a significant impact upon the city, the state, and nation. He made hospital visits on a regular basis, conducted funerals and weddings, and made an average of ten visits in homes each day of his ministry.
Reading his daily diary would make a decathlon champion tired. In fact, he often admitted to being tired when the late evening hours came, but he never compromised his time studying God’s Word. Timothy George rightfully says, “The message of his lips was mirrored by the witness of his life and this, above all else, made his proclamation credible as well as compelling.”
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 and he traveled 100,000 miles a year preaching in small and large churches.
In a recent interview, music evangelist Jack Price shared what he remembered Bellevue pastor Adrian Rogers told him about the death of his gracious and godly predecessor. Just before Lee's death, Rogers went to see the pastor, who was 91 years old. Lee still lived in a rather modest home not far from the old Bellevue church site in downtown Memphis. It so happened that Billy Graham was in town for a crusade at that time. Rogers called him and said, “Come, Billy, bring Cliff Barrows and join me and Tommy Lane (Bellevue’s minister of music) at Dr. Lee’s house. He would love to see you before he goes home to glory.”
When they arrived at the house Dr. Lee’s adopted daughter gravely announced, “I believe Dr. Lee is dying.” An elderly doctor rushed to the saintly pastor’s bedside and found that Dr. Lee was alive, but unconscious.
Price indicated that Dr. Lee’s bed was in the living room of the home and the four men gathered around the bed. Tommy Lane said, “Let’s sing him into heaven!” They sang Dr. Lee’s favorite hymn, “Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned.” Then Cliff Barrows led the men in singing “Come Thou Angel Band.” Rogers said, “I was ready to enter heaven myself.”
Shortly after they started singing, Dr. Lee revived, opened his piercing blue eyes, and the first person he saw was Billy Graham. He put his hands on the famed evangelist’s face and pulled him down and kissed him on the forehead, then asked him, “Have you won the world yet?”
Dr. Lee testified, “I saw heaven. I saw Jesus. I saw my mother. I have preached on heaven many times, but I never had the vocabulary to adequately describe it. I never did justice to heaven in my sermons.” Shortly thereafter he bade this world goodbye and entered his heavenly home.
Dr. Robert G. Lee will ever be remembered as the man who warned the world that there will indeed be a “Pay Day Someday!” Surely, his payday was gloriously divine.
Selected bibliography for this article include:
The Baptist Page, http://www.tlogical.net/biorglee.htm
Barnes, William W. The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1953. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954.
English, E. Schuyler. Robert G. Lee: A Chosen Vessel, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House, 1949
George, Timothy and Denise, R. G. Lee: Payday Someday and Other Sermons by Robert Greene Lee, Nashville, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.
Missions, Morgan, Robert G. Lee: His Life and Preaching https://extendedlayover.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/robert-g-lee-his-life-and-preaching/
Wiersbe, Warren and Perry, Lloyd M. The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
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