MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)–Adrian Rogers, the longtime pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in suburban Memphis and one of the fathers of the grassroots movement that brought the Southern Baptist Convention back to its biblical, historical roots, died Nov. 15. He was 74.
He died following a battle with cancer and double pneumonia.
Rogers came to Bellevue Baptist in 1972 and retired this year, and in his 33 years there helped build the church from a membership of 9,000 to more than 29,000. His face and deep voice were known to millions of believers worldwide thanks to his Love Worth Finding television and radio ministry, which is carried in more than 150 countries.
But Rogers may be best remembered for his leadership in what is commonly called the Conservative Resurgence, the movement in which Southern Baptists elected a series of conservative leaders in response to evidence of theological liberalism within the denomination’s seminaries and entities.
Rogers’ election as president at the SBC annual meeting in 1979 marked the official beginning of the resurgence and was the first of many hotly contested elections between conservatives and moderates. Rogers, and the other conservative presidents who followed, promised to use their nominating powers to name only those who believed in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Over the course of the next two decades, Southern Baptist seminaries and entities saw dramatic change, as conservative leaders and professors took the place of moderates who had held those positions for years.
Rogers, who also was elected president in 1986 and 1987, served as chairman of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message Study Committee that reviewed and revised Southern Baptists’ confession of faith.
The author of 18 books, Rogers is survived by his wife, Joyce Rogers, as well as four children, nine grandchildren and one great grandchild.
“The flags of Christianity in general, and of Southern Baptists in particular, should be at half mast upon this occasion because few and very, very few like Dr. Adrian P. Rogers -– friend, pastor, warrior, statesman, soul winner and inspiration — seldom arise in one generation,” SBC President Bobby Welch told Baptist Press.
Rogers, in an October interview with the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper, humbly acknowledged the significance of his role in the Conservative Resurgence.
“I look back on my life and there are a lot of things that have happened. I have written books, pastored churches, preached on radio and television around the world. But I think the part that God allowed me to have in the turning of the SBC may have the longest-lasting effect and be the most significant,” Rogers said. “[The conservative resurgence] is part of church history. We think of the ancient councils of the church in decisions and so forth, but this thing is not small; it is big.”
While Rogers was the first in a string of conservatives elected over moderate candidates, Morris H. Chapman, the current president of the SBC Executive Committee, was the last. Chapman’s election in 1990 marked the end of moderates’ attempts to win the presidency. The next year, Chapman ran unopposed.
“His tenacious yet humble commitment to the absolute authority and inerrancy of God’s Word stood in stark contrast to the ominous theological drift that threatened the Convention,” Chapman wrote in a first-person Baptist Press column. “… When selected to take the helm of the SBC, he led us in making critical course corrections that helped return the convention to its original course. Today, as a result, the mission boards, seminaries and entities of the SBC have all been returned to their historic theological foundations.”
Chapman said Rogers was a mentor and a “model of the Christian life.”
“When I needed counsel, I often sought his advice,” Chapman wrote. “Not only was I blessed by listening to his powerful sermons, I looked at his life and saw no greed, no grudges, no jealousies and no egotism.”
At the SBC annual meeting this year, Rogers was honored with a resolution passed by the SBC Executive Committee that noted many have called Rogers the “Prince of Preachers” and the “preeminent pulpiteer” among Southern Baptists.
“In his first term as president, he took the initial steps that eventually led to a conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention, giving root to the initiative to return Southern Baptist entities to their historic conservative stance regarding God’s Word, and setting in motion the strategy that would dramatically change the course of history for the Southern Baptist Convention,” the resolution noted.
“The Lord has blessed his evangelistic efforts, which have led thousands to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” the Executive Committee resolution also stated in a list of highlights of Rogers’ ministry.
Rogers preached at the SBC Pastors’ Conference in Nashville, Tenn., June 20, appearing energetic and showing no signs of cancer. Messengers gave him a standing ovation.
“There has never been a greater day to preach the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ than today,” Rogers said then. “Somehow, we get the idea that poor God, He’s not able to do what He used to do.
“I want to tell you, my friend, God is still God. He is not old. He is not sick. And He is not tired. The problem is not with God…. Don’t you insult God by saying that [revival] can’t happen.”
Although Rogers’ election in 1979 was a turning point in the conservative movement, it nearly didn’t take place. As recounted in Paul Pressler’s book “A Hill On Which to Die,” Rogers, on the night before the presidential vote, told those around him that he was not going to allow his name to be placed in nomination, believing it was not God’s will. But then Bertha Smith, a retired Southern Baptist missionary to China and a well-respected prayer warrior, told Rogers she felt God was telling her he should allow himself to be nominated. Joyce Rogers, his wife, told him something similar. Rogers and his wife, along with Jerry Vines and Paige Patterson, subsequently gathered in Rogers’ hotel room to pray about the situation.
“Finally, Adrian knew that he had God’s direction that he should run for president of the convention,” Pressler, another leader in the resurgence, wrote.
Conservatives, who had driven to Houston in droves that year, elected Rogers on the first ballot over five other candidates with 51 percent of the vote. The second closest candidate received 23 percent.
“He was always a reluctant candidate,” Pressler told BP. “He loved preaching more than leading the convention, which spoke to his humility.”
Rogers chose not to be a candidate again for president in 1980, saying he wanted to spend more time with his church and family. Conservatives, though, kept winning the presidency. In 1986, with 40,000 messengers registered in Atlanta, Rogers again allowed his name to be placed in nomination and was elected with 54 percent of the vote. In 1987, in St. Louis, messengers re-elected Rogers with 60 percent of the vote. Throughout his service, Rogers promised only to nominate people who affirmed Scripture’s infallibility and inerrancy.
“He was the center of everything that the conservative movement did,” Pressler told BP. “We looked to him for leadership and we looked to him for inspiration. The conservative movement would never have succeeded without Adrian Rogers. Southern Baptists owe him a great debt of gratitude.”
Even after his service as president, Rogers remained a frequent and popular speaker at the SBC Pastor’s Conferences, which are held immediately prior to the annual meetings.
Rogers’ greatest contribution to Southern Baptist life in his latter years may have come as chairman of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message Study Committee. In one its most controversial moves, the committee chose to remove language from the 1963 BF&M that stated, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Although the phrase was placed in the 1963 BF&M as an affirmation of the truthfulness of all Scripture, it eventually came to be used by some moderates as a way to pit Jesus’ words in the Gospels against the rest of Scripture.
“Jesus Christ cannot be divided from the biblical revelation that is testimony to Him,” Rogers told messengers in Orlando in 2000. “We must not claim a knowledge of Christ that is independent of Scripture or in any way in opposition to Scripture.”
Rogers said the BF&M affirmed the exclusivity of the Gospel.
“Given the persuasive influence of postmodern culture … we are called to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only Savior, and salvation in His name alone,” he said. “Baptists thus reject inclusivism and pluralism in salvation, for these compromise the Gospel itself.”
Born in West Palm Beach in 1931, Rogers graduated from Stetson University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Fellsmere, Fla., Parkview Baptist Church in Fort Pierce, Fla., and Merritt Island (Fla.) Baptist Church before moving to Tennessee in 1972 to serve as pastor of Bellevue Baptist, which had already been home to two well-known preachers in R.G. Lee and Ramsey Pollard. Both had served as SBC president.
Rogers’ body will lie in state at Bellevue Baptist from 5-8 p.m. Central Wednesday and from 1-6 p.m. Thursday. Visitation with the family will be held from 4-6 p.m. Thursday at the church. The funeral will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at Bellevue Baptist.
The family is asking that memorials be sent to the Adrian Rogers Pastor Training Institute, c/o Love Worth Finding, 2941 Kate Bond Road, Memphis, Tenn., 38133.
Sources: “A Hill On Which to Die,” Paul Pressler; “The Sacred Trust: Sketches of the Southern Baptist Convention Presidents,” Emir & Ergun Caner; “A Messenger’s Memoirs,” Robert E. Naylor.