Legendary Tennessee pastor was known to send letters of encouragement
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
TULLAHOMA — Most Southern Baptists have heard of Robert G. Lee, the longtime former pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis.
He was a past president of both the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention and may be best known for his sermon, “Payday Someday.”
Not many people, however, may be aware of his love for and ministry to college students.
Bill Carden, a member of First Baptist Church, Tullahoma, grew up in Bellevue Baptist Church during Lee’s ministry there and has firsthand knowledge.
Carden noted that Lee “had a special place in his heart for young people in his congregation as they graduated from high school and moved on to attend college.”
Carden recalled that Lee made it a practice to send each high school graduate in the church a congratulatory letter, along with a gift, normally a copy of one of his books.
“For those students who moved on to higher education away from home, his pastoral ministry did not end. He would continue to stay in touch and show his love and concern to them by sending letters to them while they were away at college, beyond his immediate reach.”
As students are returning to college this month, Carden encourages churches, pastors and youth leaders to have a ministry similar to that of R.G. Lee.
The ministry meant so much to Carden that he kept all six letters he received from his pastor, beginning with a letter sent out after his graduation on May 18, 1954.
Lee congratulated Carden on his graduation and wrote, “As one who loves you wishes for the highest and finest of joys and successes to be yours through all the years, I write to offer you my congratulations.”
The letters did not end there. He wrote five other letters to Carden who left Memphis and attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to study engineering.
Snippets of Lee’s letters follow.
Sept. 23, 1954: “I miss you here at Bellevue. But I assure you that I shall always be interested and concerned as to your welfare — your physical, mental, moral and spiritual welfare. As you extend intellectual frontiers, see to it that you do not contract spiritual boundaries. Read your Bible — and always believe it. Pray often and know that God answers the prayers of those who do His will and walk humbly and worthily with Him.”
Oct. 11, 1955: “I write you to assure you that I am always interested in your welfare — morally, physically, spiritually. It gives me great joy to know that I am able to always count on you to be a soldier for Christ, and not a sissy in Christ’s service. … Lee also asked Carden to pray for him. “I shall be glad if you will remember me in prayer. I shall — until all my days are done — hold you in my heart, in love and prayer.”
Oct. 27, 1956: “Just to let you know that often I think of you and on occasions I remember you in prayer.”
Feb. 1, 1958: “Just to let you know that I am thinking of you. I pray that God will give you a healthy body and an alert mind in college and help you to maintain a radiant spiritual life as you go through college days — days and years like no other days and years of your life. Please don’t forget to pray for me. Remember that I shall continue to hold you in my heart in love and prayer.”
Lee’s final letter (dated Aug. 4, 1959) to Carden came after he graduated and moved to his first engineering job in Californa.
Lee wrote it only four months before he submitted his resignation at Bellevue at age 73.
He wrote: “I hope you are getting along all right in all matters. I have missed you here very much since you went away to college. And now, that you are in California, I write to assure you of my interest in your welfare. I hold you in my heart in love and prayer. And I hope you will make your life count much for our Lord while you are there.”
One of the letters were in Lee’s handwriting while the others were typed for his signature by Ruth Calvert, his long-time secretary, Carden noted.
“These letters contain beautiful expressions of love, kindness, generosity, edification and encouragement from the mind and heart of Dr. Lee,” Carden said. “They contain his repeated exhortation to guard against contraction of a student’s spiritual boundaries while the intellectual boundaries of the student are being expanded.”
While his set of six letters will be passed to future generations in his family, Carden’s desire is that they become more than an heirloom. “Seminary students and those who teach pastoral ministries in our seminaries may recognize these letters as a valuable example of pastoral ministry for classroom use.
“Also, those who preserve and archive Baptist history might even recognize these letters as a small, but valuable, added contribution to the huge legacy of their writer,” he added. B&R