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Special memories of Rogers recounted by Southern Baptist Convention presidents

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Adrian Rogers was the first in their number -– men elected to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention during the course of the conservative resurgence within the nation’s largest evangelical body.

Since Rogers’ election to the SBC presidency in 1979, messengers have voted 12 men into the post. With the news of his death Nov. 15 at the age of 74, the current and former SBC presidents voiced profound appreciation for the life and ministry of a man who they say possessed superior skills in preaching and a gracious spirit — even in the midst of the tumultuous early days of the conservative resurgence in the SBC.

During each man’s presidency, Rogers offered advice, support and encouragement, the past SBC presidents said. He was also a personal mentor and unofficial preaching instructor to many.

Among their memories:

— Evangelist Bailey Smith, who served as SBC president from 1980-82, said multiple experiences defined his relationship with Rogers.

“Instead of a single moment, allow me to give some snapshots of experiences with Adrian Rogers — a potpourri of good moments. I invited him to be our revival preacher while I was pastor in Del City, Okla. I was so impressed with his expressed love for our people. He called me while he was recuperating from gall bladder surgery to ask me if I would allow my name to be submitted as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. When I was in controversy as the convention president he wrote several articles in my defense. He and I preached on the same Bible Cruise for seven consecutive years. I was hospitalized after one cruise and he and Joyce were the first to call. After hearing my son Steven preach, he wrote me a two-page letter so complimentary of the message — so gracious. And I look forward to a FUTURE moment — singing together, ‘All Hail The Power Of Jesus Name’ in Hallelujah Square.”

— James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, who served as SBC president from 1982-84.

“When our church [First Baptist] in Euless, Texas, needed a great evangelistic thrust, it was Adrian Rogers who came and preached a great revival crusade. When I was inaugurated as president of the Sunday School Board [now LifeWay Christian Resources], Adrian Rogers brought the main challenge. On a number of occasions he asked me to preach at Bellevue Baptist Church; his confidence in me kept me focused on the task God assigned to me. I have observed Adrian as personal friend and fellow servant of our Lord. I’ve seen him through the eyes of Christian leaders who shared his passion for biblical truth. His daughter and son-in-law served on my staff, so I saw him through their eyes. My oldest son and his family were members of Bellevue for some years and Adrian was their pastor. Their youngest son, my grandson, was saved under Adrian’s ministry, so I have observed him through the eyes of my own children and grandchildren. The witness is perfectly consistent. He was a man of absolute integrity who lived out the message he preached.”

— Charles Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, who served as SBC president from 1984-86.

“One of my most favorite times with Adrian was the last time we were together. We were discussing how the Lord had developed both of our ministries and reflecting on how the Lord had used us in our churches. We couldn’t believe that God had been so gracious to us. Adrian always kept me laughing. Of all the preachers that I have heard, I think he was at the top of my list. Adrian was the strongest voice in the Southern Baptist Convention and he will be greatly missed by all of us.”

— Jerry Vines, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., who served as SBC president from 1988-90.

“I remember the many times we ‘sermonized’ together on the phone. He was a master expositor. I’m not the only preacher I know who ‘creatively disguised’ his outline and used it! As I heard him say so often, ‘If my bullet fits your gun, fire it!’ I also remember the times we rejoiced together over the victories God gave us in the Conservative Resurgence.”

— Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, who served as SBC president from 1990-92.

“My wife’s home church was Bellevue Baptist Church. After Jodi and I were married and living in Texas, we attended Bellevue on our visits home to see her parents. Not too long after Adrian became Bellevue’s pastor, we visited a morning worship service with my parents-in-law. Sitting in the congregation, I found myself engrossed in his sermon, enthralled by his booming voice and gripped by the power and clarity with which he preached the Word of God. As a young pastor, I had never heard such a compelling presentation of God’s Word nor sensed such an anointing of God’s Spirit upon a preacher of the Gospel. For me, it was a fateful day because his friendship became one of the greatest blessings of my life. I sadly bid him ‘Goodbye,’ but joyfully wait until we meet again in the glorious halls of heaven.”

— Ed Young, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Houston, who was SBC president from 1992-94.

“He was a dear, close personal friend. He was my pal and buddy. We went beyond the ordinary denominational things and pastoral relationships you have in life. A lot of people present one image in the pulpit, and then they take about three steps out and you get a different person. He was the same in real life as he was in the pulpit. Most recently, he was here in Houston at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and we were together and had a great time. We laughed and cut up. He was a prankster.

“The thing Jerry Vines and I always teased him about was his shoes. He wore these old, ragged shoes, and we joked that he stole them from Dr. [R.G.] Lee’s closest. Lee was the former pastor at Bellevue. Jerry and I went down to the store and even bought him a new pair just so he’d stop wearing the old ones.

“But he had a wonderful sense of humor. One time somebody called him and told him that Billy Graham was going to be in town and wanted to play golf with him. He didn’t play golf, but he was so excited and went out and bought golf clubs. He was pretty disappointed that Billy never showed up.” Asked who had placed the call about the golf game to Rogers, Young replied, “Well, we don’t want to tell everything, now.

“He [Rogers] had the gift of wisdom. He was articulate, a master of the truth and a skilled debater. But he could laugh at himself. Joyce made him eat so strictly. She kept him on a diet for his health. We’d get him out of town and we’d eat steak, French fries and fried ice cream.

“I did lead him astray a bundle of times. One day, I told Joyce, ‘I must confess.’ She said, ‘See Adrian, I told you he’d lead you astray.’

“We spent a lifetime of laughter together, and the hardest trip I have had to make in years will be this trip to Memphis [for his funeral Nov. 17].”

— Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., who served as SBC president from 1994-96.

“I have hundreds of wonderful memories with Adrian; two quickly come to mind. The first was when I was a supply preacher at Bellevue while they were searching for a pastor to follow Dr. Pollard. I was primed to preach, already in Memphis, when word arrived that the search team wanted to present a young man from Florida to preach in view of a call. Name? Adrian Rogers! I got bumped. Adrian was called, and I was in the congregation when they called him.

“The second was the night I was elected president of the SBC. I came into a room where a large crowd had gathered. Adrian had come out earlier and endorsed my friend, Fred Wolfe, for the position. He said something to the effect of, ‘I promised Fred my support and I kept my word. Our people have chosen my friend Jim Henry to the office. He is our president, he is my president, and I will pray for and support him and urge us all to do the same and stand together.’ That kind of statesmanship was typical of Adrian. That moment of encouragement meant more than these words can describe.”

— Tom Elliff, senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations of the International Mission Board, who served as SBC president from 1996-98.

“One of the greatest honors in my life was the day Adrian came to me and said, ‘Tom, if you don’t stop me, I would like to have the privilege of placing your name in nomination for the presidency of the SBC Pastors’ Conference.’ That just blew me away that Adrian Rogers, a man who had affected so many peoples’ lives, would do such a thing. It was such a blessing to me.

“I told him, ‘You just asking for that privilege has honored me more than you will ever know.’ I saw his interest in the future of the convention, and his thought about the generations that would follow him. He was interested in what the leadership would be. The fact that he asked me that question was a greater honor than even serving.

“In all of our meetings focused on the conservative resurgence, I never saw on Adrian’s part any uncharitable or un-Christlike attitude. In those rooms sometimes, there were men who had every reason to be angry about what was being said about them. The issues were inflammatory issues. But his voice and moderation had an effect on all of us. His vision saw farther down the road than the most of us. He was very incisive. He could follow a concept to the end, and he would trace it all the way to its end. He would say, ‘That might work in the short term, but in the long run it won’t be good for the Kingdom of God.’ What he was in private was what he was in public -– very gracious and incisive.”

— Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological in Fort Worth, Texas, who served as SBC president from 1998-2000.

“A night I will never forget was in 1979 in Houston, Texas. Dr. Jerry Vines and I felt then that Adrian should run for president, but as of 12:20 a.m. on the day that the convention would begin he had not yet agreed. Jerry and I had prayed and had finally decided to go to our rooms. However, as we started to walk on to the elevator, the doors opened and Adrian walked off. He said, ‘You are the two I’m looking for. Come with me.’ We went to his room and Adrian said, ‘I need to pray with you about this question of my name being put forth for the presidency.’

“The prayer meeting continued for the better part of an hour. We supposed that Joyce was asleep, but at that point Adrian looked up from our prayer and asked, ‘Honey, what do you think?’ Joyce held up her hand in the victory symbol. Adrian said, ‘That’s how I feel, too, and if you can find somebody to nominate me, I will allow it to happen.’ As Dr. Vines and I left the room, we commented on the improbability of our having met with Adrian at that moment and could not help but see the hand of God.

“A more intensely personal moment occurred at Southern Seminary at the Heart of America Bible Conference early in 1979. Dr. Duke McCall had agreed to allow some of the sessions of the conference to be held on campus, but with the stipulation that I could not speak on campus. At the last moment he changed his mind, and I found myself standing on the platform in the chapel of Southern Seminary with a thousand angry faces staring at me. I frankly never felt more alone in my whole life. Adrian was sitting on the third row. Apparently, he read my face and even my thoughts in a move that was remarkably ‘Adrianesque.’ He suddenly left his seat, walked onto the platform uninvited, and stood by me and put his arm around me. The encouragement was more than sufficient and was doubtless costly for him, but I shall never forget that simple gesture of kindness.”

— James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe, The Church at Gwinnett Center near Atlanta, who served as SBC president from 2000-02.

“I have two very special memories of Dr. Rogers. The first is when I was a young preacher, just out of seminary and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Laurel, Miss. On a whim I wrote Dr. Rogers and asked him that if I were to drive to Memphis, a trip of about four hours, would he give me an hour of his time. He responded and said that I couldn’t have an hour, but a whole afternoon. I had a private lunch with him and four or five hours of conversation. I learned more in those five hours about preaching than I did in my seven years in seminary. He was my mentor and my hero.

“I also remember that when I was president of the Southern Baptist Convention, I was giving my presidential address. That year we were having some trouble with homosexual activists interrupting the sermon. But I was determined to keep preaching. At the end of the sermon, I used an illustration about a student giving a performance and the fact that the student was really only concerned about pleasing one person –- his teacher. I walked off the platform and Dr. Rogers gave me a hug. He said, ‘You’ve always considered me your teacher, and I want you to know that your teacher is pleased.’”

–Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, who served as SBC president from 2002-04.

“Most people walk in and out of our lives, and very little changes. But the impact of having met Adrian Rogers 30 years ago has been life-changing.

“As a young pastor in Oklahoma in 1975, I was amazed by his preaching ability, and determined to get to know him. So I called and made an appointment and then drove across the state to meet him in Bartlesville, where he was preaching a revival crusade. We had lunch at Long John Silvers. I was in awe. The warmth of his personality took me in. His interest in me, a young preacher, encouraged me. I soaked up every word and left knowing I had been in the presence of a man of God.

“This was the beginning of a long friendship. I had my last conversation with Adrian last month [in October]. Though in the middle of cancer treatments, he was filled with faith, optimism and joyous strength. Like so many times before, he challenged, counseled and blessed me. As always, when we ended the conversation, I left knowing I had been with a man of God. Like Jesus, Adrian is the same yesterday, today and forever. My life will never be the same.”

— Bobby Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., who currently serves as SBC president.

“Fresh out of his morning shower, hair still uncombed, barefoot and in his undershirt … hurriedly searching for his tie, there he was… the already legendary, Dr. Adrian Rogers!

“In an hour or so he would speak the words publicly that would fire one of the starting guns in what would become an unprecedented and historical victory in the “battle for the Bible” within the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Most memorable to me was that I was sitting there on the edge of his hotel bed having been invited in for his encouragement to become the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Fla.

“I was a young associate pastor who had driven his pastor, Bob Mowery, to this impending meeting. Yet Dr. Adrian Rogers had taken time out of his intense and extraordinary life for an unknown and very ordinary and inexperienced guy like me.

“That act of kindness and encouragement has stayed with me throughout all these many years and has urged me to try to be accessible to others on their journey for Jesus.”
Art Toalston & Michael Foust contributed to this article.

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  • Gregory Tomlin