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S.C. Baptist pastors extol Strom Thurmond’s service

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–Two South Carolina Baptist pastors were among the state and national dignitaries who participated in a July 1 service at First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., to honor the life and service of former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond.

Thurmond, the longest-serving and oldest senator in American history, died at Edgefield County Hospital June 26 at the age of 100. After serving more than 47 years in the U.S. Senate, he had retired in 2002 at the end of his eighth term in office.

In the funeral message, Fred Andrea, pastor of First Baptist Church in Aiken, S.C., where Thurmond had been a member since 1951, praised the former senator as a man who was thoroughly committed to God, family, friends, church, state and country.

As a public servant, Thurmond never forgot that his position belonged to the people, Andrea said, recalling the senator’s familiar invitation, “Let me know if there is anything that I can ever do for you.” Andrea noted that these words were “not simply the persistent expression of his lips, but the driving desire and motivation of his life.”

Alluding to the observation by many that Thurmond’s stances on racial issues had “changed with the times,” Andrea said that “though indisputable, the observation is not as profound as it may seem. It did not surprise Senator Thurmond that he grew and changed with the passing of years. He was a man of faith. As a Christian, he knew that by the grace of God, people can repent; minds can be transformed; hearts can change.”

Andrea observed that it would be more insightful to note that which remained constant in Thurmond’s life. “This man of faith opened himself to love and the light of God,” he said.

Noting that truth was an integral part of Thurmond’s being, Andrea added that, for Thurmond, truth involved more than correct ideas and logic. “It [truth] meant the spirit of honesty and loyalty in personal relations; a basic respect for every person; the consistent practice of fairness; the kind of conduct toward others that acknowledges the work of God in every person.”

But most of all, Andrea said, Thurmond knew the one great truth about Christian living: that a life in Christ is living for God in service of others, not in service of one’s own needs or desires.

“We loved Strom Thurmond,” Andrea said. “We loved his smile, his zest for life, his enthusiasm, his beautiful spirit. How proud and graced I was to be his pastor and friend.”

Wendell Estep, pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., welcomed dignitaries — including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford — family members and more than 2,000 friends attending the memorial service.

“In recent days, it has been interesting to hear national correspondents reflect on the life of Senator Strom Thurmond,” Estep said. “As South Carolinians, our remembrance might differ somewhat. We remember him as a friend who provided unparalleled attentiveness to his constituents.”

Thurmond grew up as a member of First Baptist Church in Edgefield, where he later served as a Sunday School superintendent. He was a teacher and athletic coach in the McCormick, Ridge Spring and Edgefield schools in the 1920s and served as superintendent of education for Edgefield County, 1929-33, before his election to the state senate.

A World War II veteran who received five Battle Stars and 18 military decorations, Thurmond was elected as governor of South Carolina in 1947. In 1951 he joined First Baptist Church in Aiken, where his son, Strom Jr., is currently a member.

After an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, Thurmond became the first U.S. senator to be elected by write-in ballot in 1954. He was re-elected seven successive times, serving as President Pro Tempore twice.

“Strom Thurmond was an outstanding citizen and representative of South Carolina,” said Carlisle Driggers, executive director-treasurer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. “We remember him best in South Carolina not only for his politics, but also for his service to his constituents. He had a servant’s heart.”

Among those delivering eulogies at the July 1 service were Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, state senators John Courson and Kay Patterson, and federal appeals court justice Billy Wilkins.

Burial was at Willowbrook Cemetery, behind First Baptist Church in Edgefield.

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  • Todd Deaton