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Minister preaches on his 100th birthday

MT. JULIET, Tenn. (BP)–“I thought I was going to get all of this when I got to heaven,” W.L. Baker said on his 100th birthday.

Nearly 500 people turned out to hear Baker preach, and citations from President George W. Bush and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen were among the honors he received for his longevity -– and 75-plus years in the ministry.

But the highlight of the celebration was Baker himself, particularly when he stood to deliver his sermon on Deuteronomy 34 during the morning worship service Silver Springs Baptist Church at Mt. Juliet, Tenn.

“Moses linked his whole life to a worthy cause and he spent all of his last day on earth climbing, and I hope to do the same,” Baker told the gathering.

“On Moses’ last day, when he climbed the mountain, the Lord was waiting for him at the top,” Baker said. “I am excited about that time when my last day comes and my Lord greets me in death and smiles. Until then, I want to press on…. God didn’t put us in the world to look at small things, but big things.”

He challenged the audience: “You are not living for today. This morning you are living for eternity.”

Baker, who retired in 1973 after 24 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Donelson, Tenn., never really “retired.” Since 1973 he has held 28 interim pastorates and served as interim director of missions for the Wilson County Baptist Association just east of Nashville.

In addition, Baker serves as associate pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tenn., where he leads the Wednesday night prayer meeting and Bible study.

He also preaches on Sunday mornings and evenings at every opportunity. Baker regularly fills the pulpit the first Sunday evening of every month at Dry Creek Baptist Church in Dowelltown, Tenn., where his longtime friend Donald Owens is pastor.

Silver Springs pastor Russ Stephens asked Baker three years ago to preach at the church on the Sunday closest to his 100th birthday. When Stephens realized the date would actually be Baker’s birthday, he worked with Baker’s daughter Ann Sloan to plan a celebration.

Stephens and others emphasize, however, that Baker’s life is not just about longevity.

“It is what he has done with his life,” Stephens said, describing Baker as his mentor, role model and friend.

Stephens said he still marvels at Baker’s “unique insight into Scripture, as well as his physical activities. It is a joy to hear him tell of his experiences with some of the great Baptist giants of times past -– L.R. Scarborough, W.O. Carver, George W. Truett, A.T. Robertson and others.”

Most of his experiences with those men were during his seminary days, first for a year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and then at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he graduated in 1932 and is counted as the oldest living alumus.

“There’s no way to describe how much those two years meant to me,” Baker said of his studies at Southern Seminary. “Dr. [E.Y.] Mullins was gone by then, but Dr. [John R.] Sampey was there and Dr. Carver was one of my instructors. Anyone who went in Dr. Carver’s class and stayed long and didn’t come out with his heart burning for missions, then something was wrong with him.”

The most valuable lesson he learned at Southern Seminary? Baker does not hesitate with an answer: “Love for the Bible. They instilled in me a great love for the Lord and the Bible.”

For the ensuing four decades Baker pastored three churches in Tennessee: Hopewell Baptist Church in Springfield (1932-42), First Baptist Church in Jonesboro (1942-49) and First Baptist Church in Donelson (1949-73). Baker has outlived two wives. His first, Bonnie, died of cancer in 1952. Their union produced Baker’s only child, Ann. His second wife, Olive, also died of cancer, in 1982.

Born in New Middleton, Tenn., in 1908, Baker grew up in a devoted Christian home and was converted at age 9.

One of the keys to his longevity and continuing fruitfulness, Baker says, is very simple: watch the diet and exercise. He executes a brief regimen of exercises each day and takes regular walks. The key to his longevity and usefulness in the ministry? Baker says that answer is equally simple: “Memorize the Scriptures.”

Baker is noted for his recitation of the Sermon on the Mount and has presented it from memory in more than 50 churches.

“I would tell young ministers to memorize as much of the Bible as possible while they have the mind to do it,” Baker said. “The highlight of my life along that line was when I was at my first church and I was wrestling with the problem of what to preach the next Sunday. I wrestled with that quite a while and in three or four weeks was doing it again, and I felt an impression come to me, ‘Why don’t I preach Jesus’ sermon?’ So I committed the Sermon on the Mount to memory and it has been the greatest blessing in my ministry.”
Adapted from reporting by Jeff Robinson, director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Baptist & Reflector of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

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