R.G. Lee Remembered

Title: R.G. Lee Remembered
Category: Biography
Subject: R.G. Lee

R. G. Lee Remembered

By Johnny L. Sanders, D. Min.

I was sitting around a table with a group of pastors when the Director of Missions for that Baptist
Association, Barry Joiner, asked, “If you could choose the one preacher you would most like to hear, who would you pick? There were a number of responses. Two pastors immediately said, “Adrian Rogers.” How could you argue with that? In addition to his sermons, he may have had the best voice in America a the time.

I was thinking of a number of preachers from various periods who were indeed remarkable. There was a time when the first name to have been mention would probably have been Charles Haddon Spurgeon, whom I often heard called the greatest preacher since Paul. The late Dr. H. Leo Eddleman once told me that when he was a pastor he read a sermon by Spurgeon every morning, five days a week, for three years.

Dr. Eddleman, who had been President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when I was a student there, stood with me in my study in Bastrop, Louisiana as we talked about commentaries and preachers. I showed him a ten volume set of books filled with great sermons written by well known preachers of an earlier day. Dr. Eddleman thumbed through the volumes, checking the index of preachers and sermons until he found one particular name. He pointed to that name and said, “It was worth whatever that set cost for that one sermon.” The sermon was written by Thomas Chalmers, who had as great an impact on his native Scotland as any preacher has ever had on the country of his origin. That is saying lot when you consider Spurgeon, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Sunday, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Graham, and countless others.

To be perfectly honest, I could make a strong case for H. Leo Eddleman, of whom the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said, “Leo Eddleman has the best working knowledge of Hebrew of any non-Jew in the United States. Dr. Eddleman was a missionary to Israel before WW II, preaching to Israelis in their language, and carrying a great desire to preach to Arabs in their language. He found an Arab who didn’t know a word of English, but he did know the Hebrew language. Dr. Eddleman persuaded the man to teach him Arabic, and in six months he was preaching to Arabs in their native language. Dr. Eddleman was the most brilliant preacher I have ever known, yet he communicated with the person in the pew. I once listened to him preach six consecutive nights and even without notes, I could recall each sermons and the basic outline.

I once stood at the North America Mission Board offices in Atlanta, having been invited to accompany my long time friend Everett Geis, a member of the Board of Trustees, to the meeting. During a break I listened to Richard Harris and others discuss preachers in America. Richard said, “The one preachers I get the most out of personally is Stephen Olford.” When I was on the Board of Trustees for LifeWay Christian Resources, some of us were visiting with Dr. Jimmy Draper, the President and CEO, and someone brought up the subject. There could have been no doubt that the consensus was that Stephen Olford was the one man whose preaching challenged them more than anyone around at the time. Billy Graham once wrote that a turning point in his life came when he spent a day in prayer and Bible study with Stephen Olford.

Stephen Olford and Spiros Zodhiates received the two Doctor of Theology degrees granted by Luther Rice Seminary the same night many others of us received the Doctor of Ministry degree. I had the distinct honor of talking one on one with Stephen Olford after the graduation exercise. As we talked I had the distinct impression that I was looking into the eyes of a man who combined the greatest power I had ever observed in one believer with the greatest humility I had ever witnessed in any individual. That is saying a lot when you have looked people like Adrian Rogers and Jimmy Draper in the eye, but I know how Dr. Rogers and Dr. Draper felt about Stephen Olford,

When I was a teenager and young adult two preachers most talked about by conservatives and evangelicals were W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, and Dr. R. G. Lee, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis. I had heard Dr. Criswell a few times, and grew up listening to Dr. Lee, so when I learned that both W. A. Criswell and R. G. Lee were going to be preaching at the Mississippi Baptist Evangelism Convention in Clarksdale, Mississippi I made a point of being there.

It was a blessing to hear Dr. Criswell, as always. He was a powerful preacher, an amazing pastor, and a denominational influence for decades. Dr. Criswell concluded his sermon that night by saying, “The best thing I can do for you tonight is to shut up and let you listen to the Prince of Preachers.”
How many times did I hear someone call R. G. Lee the Prince of Preachers! That night, someone asked that we not record that sermon because it would soon be published in a book of sermons. I have that book and that sermon is indeed in it. The title was, WHEN WE BLEED WE BLESS.”

R. G. Lee, the Prince of Preachers

I lived seven miles west of Sledge, Mississippi, in the Green River Community. We attended a mission church which had been planted by the Director of Missions, M. C. Waldrup before World War II. He left to serve as a chaplain during the war, and then after the war he returned to get the worked started again. Henning Andrews, pastor of the church that sponsored our mission, came out for some time and preached for us at 9:00 A. M. every Sunday, and then returned to preach at the Lula Baptist Church, Lula, Mississippi.

I might add that I took our church and its ministry very seriously. The Lord called me into the ministry when I was thirteen years old, so at the time I was watching R. G. Lee and a young Billy Graham every Sunday I knew I would spend my life in the service of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. My father in the ministry was M. C. Waldrup, the Director of Missions for Riverside Baptist Association in north west Mississippi. He scheduled places for me to preach when I was in high school, and the summer while at Mississippi College he arranged for me to preach every Sunday at the Clear Creek Baptist Mission, near Lambert, Mississippi.

One experience will help to illustrate my commitment to the Lord, even if I never even thought it worth mentioning at the time. Several players were kicked off our high school football team for missing practice. Our coach was out of town and our superintendent took them back on the team and scheduled evening practices. That night he had us all to sit down on the ground and he squatted down in front of the team.

After a stern lecture he said, “If anyone misses a practice he is off the team!” He then demanded, “Now, does anyone have to miss for any reason?” I raised my hand and he demanded, “Johnny, what’s wrong with you?” I said, “I go to prayer meeting on Wednesday night.” He shook his head as he demanded, “You can’t miss it?!!!” I said, “I can’t miss it!” As I look back I realize that I was sincere, and committed enough to our mid-week prayer meeting that I would have walked off the team without looking back if he did not back off that rule. The amazing thing to me today is that I realize that I would not have resented his rule and I would not have been bitter toward him. I would have supported my team, but I would not miss prayer meeting.

We put in long hours on the farm, but on Wednesdays my father always stopped all the work so we could make it to prayer meeting. The only work done on our farm on Sunday was feeding livestock.
My father said to one share cropper who wanted to use a tractor to plow out his cotton on Sunday, “I don’t work on Sunday. My land is not worked on Sunday, and my tractor does not work on Sunday.” During the week a lot of the conversations focused on the sermon we had heard the previous Sunday, our Bible reading, or someone in the community who needed Jesus in his or her life.

We had Sunday School after the 9:00 A. M. worship service and got home around 11: 15 or 11:20, just in time to turn on the television and catch the special music, or in time to see Dr. R. G. Lee, with his silver hair, walk up to the pulpit in his white Palm Beach suit, drop to his right knee to his right side of the pulpit, and pour out his heart to the Lord before preaching. He preached as no one I had ever heard before (and I have never heard anyone preach like that since).

One Sunday morning, just before 12:00 noon, R. G. Lee was looking to his right as he made a point. Then, he suddenly whirled to his left and pointed his right index finger at the camera and said, “And don’t you turn me off!” That Memphis station left him on through the first fifteen minutes of the noon news that Sunday. I have never seen anything like it, before or since.

1) A man once walked up to Dr. Lee and introduced himself. He then took Dr. Lee’s right hand and laid it on the back of his own neck and said, “Your hand has now been where Spurgeon’s hand was. Spurgeon baptized me.” When he mentioned that I remember thinking, my hand has been where a hand was that had been where Spurgeon’s.... That would never get any traction.

2) R. G. Lee memorized the entire New Testament.

3) Dr. Lee had an incredible vocabulary, and it was even more amazing to hear this Christian gentleman speak in his South Carolina drawl. He told a group of us once that he would find new words, write them down, along with the definitions, and keep the note on his desk until he was using the word comfortably in conversations and sermons. He would them file the notes on a heavy wire that someone fixed to stand several feet off the floor near his desk. When he filled that wire he started on another one.

4) Some time around 1945 - 1950 a very sophisticated, and well dressed woman with a northern accent approached Dr. Lee and said, “Dr. Lee, we have just moved to Memphis from the north, and we are looking for a comfortable church. Is your church air conditioned?” He said, “No, hell’s not either.”

5) Many years before he retired, R. G. Lee went into a deacons meeting at Bellevue and announced,
“Gentleman, I am going to retire.” Immediately, and almost frantically, they began saying, “Dr. Lee, you can’t retire! You can’t retire!”

He said, “Yes I am. I am going to retire.” Pointing to four of the men, he said. “You are going to buy me a tire, your are going to buy me a tire, you are going to buy me a tire, and you are going to buy me a tire. Then, I will have re-tired.”

6) R. G. Lee spoke to a group of students at a liberal seminary, a very old seminary and a very large one. Students were given an opportunity to question Dr. Lee. Rather than seeking information or answers, they went for the jugular. One student challenged him and he said, “Young man, there are no cobwebs in my baptistry!” He baptized someone every Sunday for 33 years, if he was in town.

7) A man once said to Dr. Lee, “I don’t believe in hell.” Dr. Lee said, “You won’t be there five minutes before you change your mind.

8) Dr. Lee served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention three terms. It was he who asked the convention to set a two year limit on the presidency.

9) I heard Dr. Lee tell about a revival he had been asked to preach some distance from Memphis. On the Sunday evening before the revival was to start the following Sunday morning, Dr. Lee let his white beard grow out a few days, put on some old overalls and brogans, messed his hair up a little, and walked into the auditorium of that church and took a seat on the back row. A lot of people looked at him but no one spoke to him.

The next Sunday morning, R. G. Lee stood up to preach and announced, “You will not have a revival here this week.” In response to the shocked expression he saw on members of the congregation, He said, “I am going to tell you why you are not going to have a revival. Today when I came in you rushed up to me and said, ‘Dr. Lee, we have been praying for you. We have looked forward to hearing you. We are expecting a great revival this week.’ You could not have been friendlier or warmer in greeting me.”

Then, Dr. Lee asked, “Do you remember that old man who sat back there on the back row last Sunday night in those old overalls? I was that man.”

10. A Georgia pastor once told about an experience he had with R. G. Lee when he preached a revival in the church he served. They drove out into the country to eat dinner and on the way back into town Dr. Lee said, “Pull over at that fruit stand. I want to buy some peaches from that boy.” The pastor said, “Some of our church members are picking peaches and they would be glad to give you some.” Dr. Lee said, “No, I want to buy some peaches from that young boy.” The pastors again told him that he could get some peaches for him in town where the fruit stand was not so dusty, but Dr. Lee refused every offer.

When then reached the rural peach stand the pastor pulled over and R. G. Lee got out of the car and walked over to the boy and bought a basket of peaches. After the transaction, Dr. Lee asked, “Son are you a Christians?” The twelve year old boy told him that he was not. Dr. Lee asked him, “Son, wold you like to be a Christian?” The boy told him he would like that and the pastor told how R. G. Lee dropped down on the ground in his white Palm Beach suit, his knees sinking into the loose sandy soil, and prayed with the young boy who was saved that day.

11. I once heard Adrain Rogers tell about the tour group that stool at Calvary and listened to the tour guide’s presentation. Then, the tour guide asked, “Have any of you been here before?” Dr. Lee raised his hand and the young tour guide asked him, “When were you here?” R. G. Lee said, “Two thousand years ago.”

12. Pay Day Some Day. I would love to hear Paul, Savanarola, Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, or any number of preachers I have actually heard. However, if pressed for an answer I would have to say, if I could choose one sermons and one preacher to preach that sermon, I would have to choose R. G. Lee, and of course the sermon would be Pay Day Some Day. He preached that sermon over 1200 times and I was blessed when I heard him preach it at First Baptist Church, Senatobia, Mississippi, and again a few years later in a church in Jackson, Mississippi.

I thank the Lord that I had the privilege of hearing R. G. Lee preach so many times. I remember visiting my father in a hospital. My brother Mike was with me as I recall. We got off the elevator and started across the lobby just after someone had filled the Commercial Appeal news dispensers with the latest edition of that paper. I looked at the front page and read the bold print: Elvis Presley was dead. A few days later I drove back to Memphis to see my father, and as I drove down Elvis Presley Boulevard, I realized as I approached Elvis Presley’s home that the funeral service for the famous singer was scheduled for that day. As we approached Graceland, police officers were waving us on past the gates. The funeral procession was but moments away.

I remember thinking that, as popular as Elvis Presley was in Memphis, if those city officials has really appreciated how blessed the city of Memphis had been to have R. G. Lee as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church for 33 years, Bellevue boulevard would have been named R. G. Lee Boulevard long before it was changed to Elvis Presley Boulevard.