Fundamental lessons learned long ago


News that longtime Independent Baptist leader Lee Roberson died this spring at age 97 got by me somehow. At the discussion forum BaptistLife.com, Alabamian Mark Ray rightly chided the Baptist media for not picking up on this story.
Mark is correct, and I feel especially negligent in that my awareness of Roberson’s influence is nearly life-long. He was a well-known, highly influential figure in the Chattanooga area where I was born and raised.
My grandmother lived just a few blocks from the larger-than-life Roberson’s ever-expanding Highland Park Baptist Church and the Tennessee Temple Schools he founded.
One could not have lived in that area during his half-century of dynamic ministry there without some level of awareness if not direct contact.
From childhood I recall Highland Park’s aggressive bus ministry that would venture over the state line into our Georgia community. The buses bore the slogan, “America’s Second Largest Sunday School.”
Roberson must have thought those in second place tried harder. Indeed, his drivers were deeply committed to getting every person possible to the downtown church. They would do dry runs on Saturdays urging kids to be ready to catch the bus the next morning and to bring their friends.
Rewards were offered to those willing to get a group together and board the bus on a given Sunday. My pastor called them “Sign the banana and join the bunch” campaigns.
I resisted such temptations and faithfully attended — not that my parents gave me an option — Boynton Baptist Church, the Southern Baptist congregation in my community. Except for one occasion.
Where giveaways could not persuade me, I did visit Highland Park Church once to meet New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson and have him sign my King James Version Bible.
Over the years, a few of my friends attended either the church or school or both. And I encountered others on occasion when they ventured out in evangelism efforts.
But it was as a commuting freshman at then-Dalton Junior College that I got acquainted personally with several Tennessee Temple students with whom I worked at Loveman’s department store at Eastgate Mall in Chattanooga.
While we were all Baptist college students with shared values and a calling to ministry, there was an obvious, yet undefined, divide between my fellow Christian coworkers and me. Maybe it had something to do with us not looking alike.
The Temple students with their well-cropped hair, white dress shirts and narrow ties could have stepped out of any 1950s yearbook. I not only sold leisure suits with brightly colored, wide lapel shirts in the mid-‘70s, I wore them.
Cursed with big ears as a child, I was among the first of my peers to embrace the longer hairstyles that our parents blamed on the Beatles along with all other social ills.
One day, a newly employed Temple student asked me about my vocational plans. When I excitedly told him about my call to ministry, he assured me that was not possible.
Whipping his tattered Bible from his suit pocket faster than Chuck Conners could grab his trusty rifle, the self-assured minister-to-be quickly cross-referenced a couple of unrelated Bible verses to prove that someone with hair over their ears cannot hear a divine call.
From these students I also first heard of “the Curse of Ham,” a biblically faulty, racist theory used to justify their view of racial superiority. (By the way, the Genesis 9 passage used as a proof-text actually says that a drunken Noah — not God —cursed Ham’s son Canaan — not Ham — and it provides absolutely no support for white supremacy.)
My experiences were limited, though real. I want to avoid overgeneralizations here and not paint with too wide of a brush. None of my coworkers was overtly unkind to me and some could even be considered friends.
However, there was a self-righteous attitude in most of these students that I never got beyond. Though extremely conservative myself — probably fundamentally so — at the time, I was amazed at how clearly these guys knew everything about God and the Bible without any hint of struggle for truth or a recognition of differing viewpoints.
Between sales, they would “study” by memorizing flash cards designed to properly indoctrinate them about God, Jesus, Satan, sin, salvation, and especially an aggressively defended understanding of premillennial dispensationalist eschatology.
Though engrossed in my own Christian experience with deep commitment, I was never fully accepted as a “brother-in-Christ” by my coworkers. Perhaps it was my different look or my attendance at a secular college or my membership in a Southern (rather than Independent, Fundamentalist, KJV-only) Baptist church or something else.
It may have been simply my rejection of their rigid legalism, though I had a pretty tight list for my own beliefs and behavior — and not a very wide view of God’s mercy for those unlike me.
One Friday night as the store neared closing time, I suggested to one coworker that we catch the late showing of Corrie Ten Boon’s “The Hiding Place” that had just come to the mall theater. Temple students, he reminded me, were not allowed to attend movies.
“But this is about a Christian woman who….” I protested. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s against the rules.”
So were unchaperoned dating, revealed knees and a whole lot of other stuff. There was no room for personal discernment. Students were told precisely what to believe, where to go or not go, how to dress — and any departures from the rigid rules led to “demerits” that could result in punishment or banishment from the school.
No doubt, the school’s rigid regulations and doctrinal positions have surely evolved (though I doubt the word “evolved” is used much on campus) since I encountered these students in the 1970s. And in no way am I suggesting the long legacy of one widely-revered Independent Baptist leader — or the thousands of sincere folks associated with his ministry through the years — should be summed up or fully represented in one person’s casual reflections. These are just the thoughts that surfaced when recalling an earlier time and place during my own developing years.
In a strange but true way, I am actually grateful for lessons learned from my early exposure to the self-righteousness and strict legalism of these unwavering fundamentalist disciples. And, more importantly, I am grateful for the more grace-filled models — in my church family, the secular college I attended, and elsewhere — that kept me from equating the Christian faith exclusively with this very narrow expression.
Interestingly, during those years and several afterward, I would express how thankful I was that Southern Baptists didn’t hold such judgmental attitudes and legalistic leanings. But then I watched up-close the radical shift in Southern Baptist leadership over the past quarter century where now Independent Fundamentalists feel much more at home than I do.

11 Comments

  1. That is most interesting insight into Lee Roberson and independent fundamentalists, and I do marvel that his death was overlooked by Baptists at large. As a high school student, I wrote to Tennessee Temple for information on their degrees, and briefly considered applying to the school.

  2. Johnny:
    Fascinating story indeed.
    Few random thoughts as your short story stands on its own merit.
    If you haven’t, you simply must read Marshall Frady’s Personal Tale Growing Up Baptist, in the INtro to his collection Titled Southerners; and read Hal Crowther’s Tribute to him at Gather at The River.
    Maybe you have already.
    I asked Bobby Richardson a Question about Brown Lung when he ran for Congress from the GAffney/Rock Hill District of SC in 76. It didn’t go over very well.
    Somebody should do a piece on richardson and his days at Liberty U. When Push comes to shove I am convinced he had more in common with Jim Deloach, than Randall Lolley; or to put it in Charles Marsh Terms, Richardson took the world view of Francis Schaeffer over Stott and the Lausanne statement of the 70’s
    Your story is not much different from my family’s story, with my Grandfather leaving Connasauga Tn in 29 and going to Rome to Work in Celanese. With all its narrowness, my family feuds at bl.com notwithstanding, the Foxxes found a way to take the separateness the likes of Roberson and T Perry Brannon, a personal friend of my Grandfather; found a way to Pilgrim on, many of them ending up in ecumenical circles with the blessing of the Patriarch who thought Roberson and T Perry brought Heaven down to them

  3. Johnny: Tootin my own horn here on another aspect of the fundamentalist legacy; but would like to bring your and Tony’s attention to my post today at bl.com comparing Brigham Young to Criswell and Pressler.
    I think I am on to something, some anecdotes that give flesh to Harold Bloom’s thinking on MOrmons and Baptists in The American Religion

  4. In the early 40s, I spent as much of the summer as I could with my grandparents in Chattanooga. Grandpa worked the passenger trains north (Royal Palm, No. #4) out of the Terminal Station (Market Street, where the trains backed in), maybe four blocks from their house, and I went to church at Long Street Baptist, where the pastor, Homer Brittain, played a mean trombone and the schoolteacher pianist, who always wore a wide-brimmed black hat, never looked at any music. Lee Roberson and/or his assistant (can’t remember his name) conducted a daily radio program, and it was never to be missed in that household, along with the “Midday-Merry-Go-Round” from Knoxville. Roberson was a gifted preacher and ‘way ahead of his time with respect to both evangelism and church-building. I can remember being in a Sunday-night service at Highland Park much later, in 1950, and it was huge, tasteful, with orchestra (not combo) and terribly inspiring. His college had been built by that time – Tennessee Temple.

    Later, in the 80s, I engineered the long, nighttime auto-parts train (Chattanooga Clipper, No. 143, Danville, Ky. to Chattanooga) that ran from Michigan to Atlanta. During the day, I walked the streets of Chattanooga and sometimes walked all the way out to Highland Park just to see that campus. On Sunday mornings, if I got in a few winks I walked up to McCallie Avenue to First Presbyterian (smelled like cigar-cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust – me, not the church), took the last seat in the balcony, and listened to Ben Haden and the great choir led by Glenn Draper. On Sunday afternoons, I might make it out to Highland Park, where the buses were legion. In the afternoons, I also stood on the sidewalk and listened where the black services were going strong in the storefront churches.

    Roberson was a giant, notwithstanding any agreement or disagreement with what he preached. And his school, while stricter than most others, was a lot like other especially denominational schools, what with curfew and chaperoning for the women, whether they liked it or not. In my town now, at the university there’s huge worry every night about who will be raped…times have changed.

    I wrote a few things years ago for Jack Harwell when he was at BT and still have some of our correspondence. After stints as schoolteacher and fulltime church-worker (music, education, church administration) in Southern Baptist churches (decade of the 60s, as the Age of Aquarius rolled in), I returned to the tracks, having had my first railroad job (crew caller) in 1948. I never would have made it in the modern church.

    Jim Clark
    Lexington, Ky.

  5. In the early 40s, I spent as much of the summer as I could with my grandparents in Chattanooga. Grandpa worked the passenger trains north (Royal Palm, No. #4) out of the Terminal Station (Market Street, where the trains backed in), maybe four blocks from their house, and I went to church at Long Street Baptist, where the pastor, Homer Brittain, played a mean trombone and the schoolteacher pianist, who always wore a wide-brimmed black hat, never looked at any music. Lee Roberson and/or his assistant (can’t remember his name) conducted a daily radio program, and it was never to be missed in that household, along with the “Midday-Merry-Go-Round” from Knoxville. Roberson was a gifted preacher and ‘way ahead of his time with respect to both evangelism and church-building. I can remember being in a Sunday-night service at Highland Park much later, in 1950, and it was huge, tasteful, with orchestra (not combo) and terribly inspiring. His college had been built by that time – Tennessee Temple.

    Later, in the 80s, I engineered the long, nighttime auto-parts train (Chattanooga Clipper, No. 143, Danville, Ky. to Chattanooga) that ran from Michigan to Atlanta. During the day, I walked the streets of Chattanooga and sometimes walked all the way out to Highland Park just to see that campus. On Sunday mornings, if I got in a few winks I walked up to McCallie Avenue to First Presbyterian (smelled like cigar-cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust – me, not the church), took the last seat in the balcony, and listened to Ben Haden and the great choir led by Glenn Draper. On Sunday afternoons, I might make it out to Highland Park, where the buses were legion. In the afternoons, I also stood on the sidewalk and listened where the black services were going strong in the storefront churches.

    Roberson was a giant, notwithstanding any agreement or disagreement with what he preached. And his school, while stricter than most others, was a lot like other especially denominational schools, what with curfew and chaperoning for the women, whether they liked it or not. In my town now, at the university there’s huge worry every night about who will be raped…times have changed.

    I wrote a few things years ago for Jack Harwell when he was at BT and still have some of our correspondence. After stints as schoolteacher and fulltime church-worker (music, education, church administration) in Southern Baptist churches (decade of the 60s, as the Age of Aquarius rolled in), I returned to the tracks, having had my first railroad job (crew caller) in 1948. I never would have made it in the modern church.

    Jim Clark
    Lexington, Ky.

  6. Jim-
    Thanks for sharing your recollections of Chattanooga. I’m so impressed with the way the city has redeveloped in recent years. Whenever I visit, there are so many good memories that come to mind such as going with my Aunt Edith Nuckolls to Ridgedale Baptist Church (when still on Dodds Ave.) and hearing R.G.Lee’s “Payday, Someday” sermon.
    A few years ago I was asked to write the concluding chapter to the late Bruce McIver’s book “Riding the Wind of God: A Personal History of the Youth Revival Movement” (2002, Smyth & Helwys).
    My task was to relate how the student revival of the ’40s and early ’50s left Baylor and swept across the South.
    The students held big revival meetings for three consecutive years in Chattanooga.
    In doing research, however, I noticed (particularly in the Chatta. Free Press, which carried abundant and high-profile religion news) that Independent Baptists were holding their own events (tent revivals, mission conferences)simultaneously.
    Indeed, they seemed to live up to their independent moniker.
    One funny thing happened during my research. I’d spent one day in Nashville (reading through old “Baptist Student” and later just “Student” magazines) and then the next day in Chattanooga reading newspapers in the downtown library and some histories at the Hamilton County Baptist Association.
    I had trouble confirming where one of the revivals was held.
    Needing to be back in Macon, I called my mother and apologized for not having time to drop in.
    When I told her what I’d been doing, she replied that her first date with my dad had been at the Youth Revival at East Side Jr. High.
    I had no idea my parents had experienced the revival led my Howard Butt and others firsthand. And I definitely didn’t know that she had the information I was seeking.
    Talk about a writer failing to check a primary source!
    JDP
    (Ironically, today would have been her 78th birthday.)

  7. When I attended Temple U. they would not allow black people at their school. I do hope this has changed.

  8. lisbeth,

    I attended TTU from 1971-1976 and I had a Black roommate who is now Director of Admissions at U of Kentucky and many other African-American friends at the college during that time. Yes, times have changed….a long time ago.

    Mike Kelly ~ Iowa

  9. lisbethwrites,

    I attended TTU from 1971-1976 and I had a Black roommate and many other African-American friends at the college during that time.

    Mike Kelly ~ Iowa

  10. Mike: I was there in 1975 and not a single black person was a student. I am very please to hear things have changed. (My husband was shocked about there not being in black students)

  11. They would do dry runs on Saturdays urging kids to be ready to catch the bus the next morning and to bring their friends.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This