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Paul James, Baptist pioneer, visionary in N.Y., dies at 93

ORANGE CITY, Fla. (BP)-Paul S. James, pastor of the first Southern Baptist church in New York City and first executive director of the Baptist Convention of New York, died Aug. 15 at the age of 93 at the Florida Hospital Fish Memorial in Orange City, Fla.

“I am prepared today to say ‘yes’ to your call,” James wrote in 1957 to a group of 27 Southern Baptists intent on starting a congregation in the city. James, at the time, had been pastor of the 3,200-member Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta since 1941.

“Believing as we do that the hand of God is in all of this and that it is His will for us at this point in our ministry … surely all of us sense that there is something of historic proportions in what Southern Baptists are undertaking in New York,” James wrote at a time when there were no Southern Baptist churches in New York City, eastern New York state, New Jersey or the six New England states.

“I often think of the one hundred and twenty Spirit-filled Christians who made such a tremendous impact on the city of Jerusalem in the early days. I come as a member of a great team, and all of you are on it.”

James was appointed in 1957 by the then-Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) to be the founding pastor of the Manhattan Baptist Church. He served there until 1963 when he became director of missions for the new Metropolitan New York Baptist Association. In 1969, he became the executive director of the new Baptist Convention of New York, serving there until his retirement in 1975.

Keith L. Cogburn, in his 1996 book on the history of the New York convention, “Like the Book of Acts,” noted that the Manhattan church included a number of young industry transferees who had grown up in Southern Baptist churches. “[It] was more than just a new church in a new city for Southern Baptists,” Cogburn wrote. “It was a rallying point for an enormously talented and dedicated group of laypeople to share their personal gifts in mission. With their creativity, openness, and broad vision for ministry, members of the church set an example that subsequent generations of leaders in the metropolitan area sought to emulate.”

Soon after it was constituted in 1958, the Manhattan congregation, which had grown to 99 members, became the mother church to congregations in New Jersey and New Hampshire and dozens of others over the years across New England.

The New York Times reported at the time that it was the first new church to be organized in Manhattan in 40 years. In the late 1970s, however, the church faced decline and subsequently closed.

The church’s first minister of music during the early 1960s was Buryl Red, now a noted composer and conductor and musical director of The Centurymen singers composed of Southern Baptist music ministers.

James was a native of Hartford, N.Y., whose father, Edward L. James, was pastor of Second Baptist Church in Auburn, N.Y., for 23 years. Three months after he graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in 1933, his father died and James succeeded him as pastor in Auburn, leading the congregation for eight years.

James dated his conversion at the age of 8, in 1916, in his father’s church. He attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met his wife-to-be, Ava Leach, the daughter of missionaries to Burma. After returning to the United States, her father, Harry C. Leach, was a pastor for 33 years in Hackensack, N.J.

As a student at Southern Seminary, James was a classmate of various individuals who also would be widely influential in Southern Baptist life, including W.A. Criswell, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church, Dallas; the late Herschel Hobbs, pastor of First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City; and James L. Sullivan, retired president of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources).

R. Quinn Pugh, who succeed James in his leadership posts at the New York association and, later, the state convention, said, “Dr. Paul James was in all aspects of his character a Christian gentleman whose heart for missions was evident in every action. He loved the city of New York and the cities of the state of New York and New Jersey. He walked as a giant and provided a model for Christian ministry for young pastors. His vision for the development of congregational life, associational life and Baptist state convention life followed historic Baptist principles, observing the autonomy of each and asserting the missionary privilege that belongs to a Baptist people.”

Pugh also noted that James and his wife, who preceded him in death in 1992, “were a duo in their calling and in their ministry.”

James once noted that “Southern Baptist means something great and wonderful all over the world. It means a Bible-centered ministry of preaching and teaching; warm-hearted evangelism; and missionary fervor.”

In a pamphlet about the Manhattan church’s outreach, titled, “I Saw New Life in New York City,” James wrote, “It is inconceivable that Southern Baptists should claim to be reaching America for Christ and not do our best to reach America’s most strategic city for Christ, hub of the nation’s business and industry, art and culture, education and communications.” Yet, he noted, that outreach also include Muslims from the Middle East, blacks and Puerto Ricans, many of whom live in “dilapidated dwelling units with neither sanitary facilities nor hot water, and thousands of these have no heat.”

Soon after arriving in New York, James was put to the test in the area of race relations, reflected in a reporter’s question, “What are you lily-white Southern Baptists going to do when people of color come around?” By the fall of 1958, however, the congregation welcomed its first black member, Chris Oswampke, a Nigerian who had become a Christian under the influence of Southern Baptist missionaries who had encouraged him to come to the United States for his education.

James and other SBC leaders also sought to graciously allay objections from leaders in other Baptist groups to a “Southern Baptist invasion” into the North. In a lunch meeting with a particularly outspoken New Jersey layman, for example, James demonstrated that no members of the layman’s church either lived in or were ministering in a town where a new Southern Baptist church was being planted.

In Atlanta, James was the chairman of the first Billy Graham crusade in the city. He was on the board of trustees for the Home Mission Board from 1942-51 and was the 1963-64 first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which included representing the SBC in a delegation of church leaders who visited Russia.

In Georgia, James served terms as a vice president of the Georgia Baptist Convention and as president of the Atlanta Baptist Pastors’ Conference.

James and his wife sold their home in Atlanta and moved to an apartment in New York City after being approached about the missions assignment in July 1957 by then-HMB President Courts Redford, who called James out of a worship service at the Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center in New Mexico. James returned to his wife in the service as the assembly was singing the familiar refrain from “Footsteps of Jesus:” “We will follow the steps of Jesus, wher’ere they go.”

As told in Cogburn’s history of the New York convention, James whispered to his wife, “Do you really mean what you’re singing?” With a puzzled look on her face, she nevertheless replied, “Of course I do.”

James then said, “Suppose those footsteps led to New York … ?”

After their retirement, James and his wife moved to Deltona, Fla., and became members of Stetson Baptist Church in DeLand. He served in interim pastorates at the new Deltona Lakes Baptist Church and at churches in Naples, Cocoa, Miami Shores, Orlando, Gainesville, New Smyrna Beach and New Port Richey. He also was a visiting professor of evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the summers of 1975-77.

James’ wife preceded him in death in 1992. For the last two years, he had lived at an assisted living facility, Merrill Gardens, in Orange City, Fla. His death, attributed to heart failure, was on the morning of Aug. 15.

He is survived by two daughters and a son, Elisabeth Burnett of Washington, D.C., Esther Vogeley of Lebanon, Ill., and James of Charleston, S.C.; 10 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19, at Stetson Baptist Church. Arrangements are being handled by Baldauff Funeral Home in Orange City. Before his death, James had asked that memorials be made to Stetson Baptist Church.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PAUL JAMES and PAUL AND AVA JAMES.