News Articles

James Sullivan’s faith, wit, leadership remembered at service

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–As the story goes, songwriter William J. Reynolds wanted to pen a song in the early 1970s in honor of James L. Sullivan, then the president of the Baptist Sunday School Board.

Reynolds wrote “Share His Love” — which today is a popular song in many church hymnals — and told Sullivan about it. Sullivan, knowing that his last name now would appear below the song in hymnbooks nationwide, quipped, “That’s the only way my name will get in the hymnal.”

Sullivan’s humor, kindness, wisdom, courage, leadership and faith were remembered during a memorial service Dec. 30 at his church, First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Sullivan, who served as president of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) from 1953-1975, died Dec. 27 at the age of 94.

His faith was the memorial service’s dominant theme.

“Dr. James L. Sullivan made me want to be a better Christian,” First Baptist Pastor Frank Lewis said. “In every conversation … he made me want to be a better Christian.”

Raised in a small town in Mississippi, Sullivan served as pastor of churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas but will be remembered by most for his service as president of the Sunday School Board. Sullivan was there during the tumultuous 1960s, when the nation was in a discussion over race relations.

Under Sullivan’s leadership the cafeteria at the Sunday School board became one of the first public dining facilities in Nashville to desegregate.

“He was attacked from the left and from the right [on the issue of race relations],” Sullivan’s son, David Sullivan, said.

Sullivan’s son recounted his father’s deep prayer life.

“Our father taught us about prayer,” David Sullivan said, adding that “in the worst of times” his father’s prayers were focused on “praise and thanksgiving.”

James L. Sullivan’s wife, Velma — who preceded him in death — knew her husband was a prayer warrior. In the early 1990s, sick and on the verge of death, she asked her husband to stop praying for her to stay alive.

“I’m in so much pain. I know the Lord listens to everything you say. … I’m ready to go,” she told him, according to David Sullivan.

Sullivan also loved the great hymns, his son recounted. During the service the congregation sang “O’ for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” It was written by Charles Wesley, but “our dad could have easily written it,” David Sullivan said. It was one of Sullivan’s favorite hymns.

“Don’t you know my father wished for a thousand tongues to sing his great Redeemer’s praise?” David Sullivan asked.

James L. Sullivan also loved his church. Outside the sanctuary several pictures of Sullivan were on display, including one of him at church during his final years. In the picture an elderly Sullivan is seen sitting near a church door, his cane in hand, staring outside following a Sunday morning service. He was waiting for a car to come pick him up. A large Bible — presumably his — lay beside him. The photo underscored Sullivan’s devotion to his church.

In his final years Sullivan told Lewis, “I think our church is in pretty good shape because it’s taking me longer to get to the door than it did the Sunday before” — a reference to the growing number of people in the service.

Three of Sullivan’s grandchildren and one of his great-grandchildren read from various passages — Proverbs 3:5-6, Isaiah 52:7-10, 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 4:1-5.

One of Sullivan’s daughters, Beth Taylor, asked those who knew Sullivan or had met him to write down their memories and share them with the family.

But Taylor was quick to add: “Dad would have wanted us today to speak of Jesus — and especially during this time of year.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust