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N. England Baptist pioneer Lawrence dies after struggle with Alzheimer&#821

NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. (BP)–In a letter to a pastor in Missouri, Edith P. Lawrence once wrote, “Our greatest need is pastors who feel led to come to a new area and will stay to penetrate, cultivate and build a work. … Those of us who are natives recognize the need for another [Great] Awakening in our area.”
During 14 years as a Southern Baptist leader in New England, Lawrence brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to fellow New Englanders and encouraged the planting of indigenous churches across what was then an unexplored missions territory for Southern Baptists. In the process, the Hartford, Conn., native left a legacy that grew to become the Baptist Convention of New England.
Following her death April 8 at Providence House Nursing Home in Millbury, Mass., Lawrence, 81, is being remembered as a true missions pioneer. She lived the last few years with debilitating Alzheimer’s disease.
She joined the Baptist General Association of New England as the second of only two staff members at a time when fewer than 20 Southern Baptist churches existed in New England. In the absence of an organized state convention, these congregations affiliated with the Baptist Convention of Maryland.
She encouraged people and developed resources for dozens of church planters who were busy starting new congregations across the six-state region. Today, more than 200 churches and missions affiliate with the BCNE.
In June 1965, the Southern Baptist director for New England, Elmer Sizemore, moved the associational office from Cambridge to Framingham, Mass. At the same time, Lawrence arrived to serve as the association’s education secretary. “The associational office became a little more sophisticated as it was moved out of Lee Sizemore’s bedroom into the living room,” Lawrence was quoted in “The Circle Comes Full: New England Southern Baptists 1958-1998″ by Merwyn Borders, demonstrating the wit and humor for which she was known.
Later, she was appointed director of church extension ministries for the Baptist General Association of New England by the then-Home Mission Board, the post from which she retired in September 1979.
“Lawrence’s New England roots helped to open doors with native-born residents,” Borders also wrote. “She was an efficient planner and strategist, but her real gifts lay in the field, visiting and encouraging pastors and laypeople.
“There were few if any [Southern Baptist] churches in New England that had not been influenced by Edith Lawrence,” the historian also recorded.
“As one of New England’s own, her mark will forever be upon New England Baptists,” Borders said after learning of Lawrence’s death.
Ken Lyle, Baptist Convention of New England executive director, said, “The legacy of Edith Lawrence permeates the spiritual landscape of her beloved New England. Each of our churches has her fingerprints on it. Her hugs are still felt by those she nurtured in ministry. Her footsteps provide a formidable path for all of us to follow. Edith is what being a missionary for Christ is all about.”
Ray Allen, the BCNE evangelism leader, who was a seminary student and church planter when he first encountered Lawrence, recounted, “Edith Lawrence taught me everything I know about door-to-door survey and visitation in the early days of my ministry. She helped me in starting the first two mission congregations that I had the privilege to serve as pastor. She was a true mentor to me in my ministry.”
Born in Hartford, she was the daughter of Edward and Pauline Lawrence. She graduated from high school in 1935 and was employed by Travelers Insurance Co. until the outbreak of World War II when she enlisted in the women’s branch of the United States Navy, known popularly as the WAVES.
Lawrence attended radio school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. During her naval communications career, she was stationed in Florida, Hawaii, California, Louisiana and Maryland. She also worked for the Navy in London, where she was chief-in-charge of setting up a communications relay center for the northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean regions.
Lawrence retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer in 1962 and enrolled in the school of religious education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.
After graduation in 1965, she returned to New England.
Lawrence, who was the first historian of the Baptist General Association of New England, was the author of “Trail from Rogues Island,” a history of early Baptist work in New England published in 1969, and “History of Southern Baptist Work in New England 1958-1983.”
From 1986-90, she served as a hospice volunteer in the Lawrence, Mass., area. She was a member of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Lawrence.
She is survived by two brothers, Edward Lawrence of Tallahassee, Fla., and Donald Lawrence of King George, Va. She was preceded in death by a brother, Leroy Lawrence, who died at sea during World War II.
In lieu of a funeral, a memorial service will be held May 8 at Rice Memorial Baptist Church, Northborough, Mass. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Northeastern Baptist School of Ministry, c/o Carolyn Allen, 6 Apple Tree Drive, West Millbury, MA 01527.