Posted in biography, history

Robert G. Lee: His Life and Preaching

 I.  INTRODUCTION

 II.  HERITAGE

III.  MINISTRY

 IV.  SERMON PREPARATION

  V.  SERMON DELIVERY

 IV.  CONCLUSION

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

I.  INTRODUCTION

Robert Greene Lee was born on November 11, 1886 in

York County, South Carolina.  He was born the fifth child of

poor share-croppers and was delivered with the help of a

Negro nurse and midwife named “Mam” Lindy.  It is said that,

upon little Robert’s birth, Lindy danced around the bedroom

of the Lee log cabin and shouted: “Praise Gawd!  Glory be!

The good Lawd done sont a preacher to dis here house.” (Lee:

A Chosen Vessel, E. Schuyler English, p. 25)  Those proved

to be prophetical words indeed, for Robert Greene Lee grew

up to become one of the best known and loved preachers in

Baptist history.  What follows is a brief look at the life

and preaching of the man who became known as “Mr. Southern

Baptist” and “The Prince of Preachers”.

II.  HERITAGE

Lee’s humble birth proved to be only the beginning

of a life characterized, at least in the early years, by

poverty and hard work.  Although Lee was later blessed to

the point of overcoming his poverty, he never ceased from

his hard work.  Being a poor share-cropper in South Carolina

in the late nineteenth century meant hardship and hard work

for parents and children alike.  Lee’s father, David Ayers

Lee was known as a hard-barked, deeply religious man who

raised his family with sternness and emphasis upon devotion

to God and family.  His mother, Sarah Elizabeth Bennett Lee,

was described as a hard-working, deeply devout woman who was

likewise devoted to her God and family.  Hard times meant

that the Lee family grew very close together and depended

upon each other for love and strength.

During his early years, young Lee routinely worked

along with his father and other family members in their

efforts to grow enough cotton, wheat, corn, and watermelons

to sustain the family from year to year.  Lee’s father

rented his land from a Frank Massey and worked it on the

halves, which meant that the Lees did all of the work and

received half of the crop.

Later on, the Lees had the good fortune of living in

an eighteen room “mansion” which was owned by David Lee’s

new wealthy employer, Eli Springs.  The atmosphere of this

stately home, with its stair­case and grand entrance, became

the only bright spot in the life of a little boy who would

later be known for his flare for the grand and magni­ficent.

While living in this home, Lee got a taste of life as lived

by the “serious minded and civilized” people in society.

Although still poor, R. G. Lee seemed to gain a sense of the

high value of the gift of life.  This may partly explain his

later love for people and the more refined things in life.

(English, pp. 25-69)

Robert Lee was saved in a fence-corner while plowing

behind a mule.  After a time of conviction for several days,

he finally fell on his knees and prayed: “If one must accept

Jesus to be saved, then I accept Him.”  Thus, at the age of

twelve, a plow-boy named Robert G. Lee got on the path which

would lead him from a field of dirt to a field of souls.

(Robert G. Lee, John E. Huss, p. 29)

Lee was always aware of the value of education.

From the moment of his conversion, he reports that he felt

the call to preach.  He realized that education was very

important if one was to preach the Gospel in power and

truth.  Unfortunately, during his younger years, there was

no money for books and supplies.  Lee responded to this

problem by taking on work for himself and spending the money

on private tutoring and textbooks.  He especially liked to

study the English language.  It is said that his two favor-

ite books were the Bible, and the dictionary, in that order.

(Huss, pp. 26-70)

All in all, the heritage from which Robert G. Lee

came gave him an appreciation for the finer things in life,

along with a love and appreciation for the simpler things.

His background as the son of poor, hard-work­ing, God-fearing

South Carolina parents left him well pre­pared for the

mini­stry which God had prepared for him.

III.  MINISTRY

Later in his life, R. G. Lee was able to provide for

himself a quality education and, through a series of sacri-

ficial and well-planned steps, he became well prepared and

trained for ministry.  Among other things, at the age of 21,

Lee worked on the Panama Canal for the purpose of raising

money to further his schooling.  Although Lee’s days in

Panama were hard and lonesome, his labor on the Canal helped

him get what he wanted most from this world, an education.

Some time after his work in Panama, Lee was able to

enter school at Furman University in Greeneville, SC.  He

received an A. B. degree from Furman in 1913.  After gradu-

ation from Furman, Lee married Bula Gentry.  Their marriage

was happy and long-lived.  After his marriage to Miss

Gentry, Lee con­tinued his education while his preaching

ministry began in earnest.  Six years later, Lee earned a

Ph.D. in international law from Chicago Law School.

Through deter­mination and hard work, Robert G. Lee was able

to accomplish what his friends had said would never happen.

His first pulpit was the Lima Baptist Church near

Green­eville, SC.  He later pastured churches in Edgefield,

SC., Chester, SC., Charles­ton SC. and others.  It was during

these years that he earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree

and first began to be recognized for his intelligence and

pulpit abilities.  He was later called as Pastor of the

First Baptist Church of New Orleans; and after that, to

Citadel Square Baptist Church in Charleston.  Eventually,

Dr. Lee was called as Pastor of the Bellevue Baptist Church

in Memphis.  He preached his first sermon there on December

11, 1927. (Payday Everyday, Robert G. Lee, pp. 23-85)

Among his many accomplishments during his ministry

at Bellevue, Dr. Lee served three consecutive terms as

president of the Southern Baptist Convention.  His good name

earned him the respect of all but his most adamant detrac-

tors.  At times, the whole Convention would take a different

course merely upon the advice of its president.  One example

of this was when an amendment was proposed in the Oklahoma

City Convention in 1949 which would have interfered with the

cherished independence of churches.  This amendment was

reportedly defeated “largely by the influence of President

R. G. Lee, who, with other leaders, opposed its adoption.”

(The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1953, William B.

Barnes, p. 119)

Dr. Lee would spend the rest of his ministry as

Pastor of Bellevue.  His ministry there is today known as

one of the greatest minis­tries of any Baptist pastor in the

twent­ieth century.

IV.  SERMON PREPARATION

Dr. Lee’s sermon preparation was, in a word, exhaus-

tive.  His devotion to God and his acquaintance with hard

work led him to spend long hours both in general preparation

and in “fine-tuning”.  Despite his humble birth, Dr. Lee was

a man of considerable education and even more considerable

intell­ect.  His vocabulary was second to none and he was

able to select just the right word for his intended aim.

Dr. Lee’s preparation can best be ascertained by

consideration of his sermon content itself.  First, his

content was Biblical.  Dr. Lee preached the Word.  His most

prized physical possession was his Bible, and he taught and

preached it as the inerrant Word of God.

Second his content was very “deep”.  In fact some

modern readers of his fifty or so sermon volumes have

com­mented that Dr. Lee’s content just doesn’t seem to come

down to their “level”.  This quality of “deep­ness” demon-

strates that Dr. Lee spent much time in creative meditation

and counsel with his Lord.

Third, his content demonstrated a thorough knowledge

of the Bible as a whole.  Dr. Lee talked about people and

events in the Bible as one would talk about the people and

events in his personal life.  His familiarity with the

Scripture gave Lee a wonderful ability to put the chosen

text of his sermon in context with the whole of Scripture;

and, thus, to help the reader really “feel” the impact of

the chosen text.  Though Dr. Lee was known as a topical

preacher, his sermons were so infused with Scripture that

they were also known for their “exposing” of the whole Word

of God.  This thorough knowledge of the Bible demon­strates

that Dr. Lee spent considerable time studying refer­ences, as

well as in general Bible study.

Fourth, his content was colorful and yet simple in

its choice of words and phrases.  At first, this might not

appear to be so because of Dr. Lee’s apparent use of sophi-

sticated words and phrases, many of which were, and are not

now, in common usage.  A close look will prove, though, that

Dr. Lee’s choice of words was not so much sophisticated as

it was colorful.  He chose descriptive words which left no

doubt in the hearer’s mind as to his intended meaning.  For

instance, in his famous sermon “Payday Some­day,” Dr. Lee

described King Ahab as “the vile human toad who squatted

upon the throne of his nation – the worst of Israel’s

kings.” (“Pay-Day–Someday” sermon manuscript, p. 1)  The

words in this statement, taken separately, are simple,

everyday words.  Taken together, however, these simple words

paint a picture and seem to “sing a melody” in the ear of

the listener.  Thus was Dr. Lee’s ability to take simple,

everyday words and put them together into colorful, eloquent

language.

Finally, his content was well prepared and studied.

When Dr. Lee stood in the pulpit, he knew what he wanted to

say.  Dr. Lee’s sermon “Payday Someday” contained over 30

pages of text and took about an hour to preach!  Still, he

was able to deliver it practically word for word without his

manuscript.  As was his usual practice, Dr. Lee had memo-

rized his manuscript.  This represents a thorough and

tedi­ous job as far as prepa­ration is concerned.  Dr. Lee was

a man of books and prayer, and it showed when he stood in

his pulpit.

V.  SERMON DELIVERY

Robert G. Lee is best remembered for his sermon

delivery.  His heavy South Carolina accent, coupled with his

exceptional grasp of the English language made his a unique

and widely known delivery.  These two distinct qualities in

Dr. Lee’s preaching style earned him the name of the

“silver-tongued orator” of the South. (The Wycliffe Handbook

of Preaching and Preachers, Wiersbe and Perry, p. 9)

Dr. Lee favored colorful and descriptive phrases

over the plain, stale phrases which preachers are so often

accused of using.  His sermons made extensive use of adject-

ives and adverbs (Wiersbe p. 92) which he strung together in

a very eloquent presentation.

Even his dress was a well-considered part of his

sermon delivery.  He was known for wearing only white in the

pulpit, as well as for the way he carried himself upon the

platform.  Dr. Lee approached the pulpit, dressed in white,

under a spotlight, in a dimmed sanctuary.  Before beginning

his sermon, he knelt at the side of the pulpit in silent

prayer.  Naturally, when he did this, every eye was fixed

upon the Pastor.  It was in the stillness and expectancy of

this moment that Dr. Lee began his message.  While some have

scoffed at “such a show”, others have remembered it as a

very “worshipful” experience.  In either case, Dr. Lee had

the attention of the audience.

Dr. Lee’s delivery was loved by some and loathed by

some, but admired by almost everyone.  His accent made him

difficult for some to understand, but his voice inflection

and enthusiasm made him impossible to ignore.  It could be

fairly said of his delivery that it was both interesting and

entertaining.  While Dr. Lee was certainly not in the enter-

tainment business, his flair for the grand and magnificent

made “Lee” a household name; and it made his Lord a Name in

many house­holds.  For this reason alone, Robert G. Lee will

be remem­bered as one of God’s choice instruments.

VI.  CONCLUSION

A study of the life and preaching of a man like

R. G. Lee leaves one with two major conclusions.  First, Dr.

Lee’s life illustrates without question that God can, and

does, mightily use those whom He has called to serve Him.

Ole Mam Lindy’s prediction at little Robert’s birth must

have sounded like the ravings of a woman gone mad.  It is

truly an amazing testimony to God’s grace that a person of

such humble birth can reach such pinnacles in the kingdom of

God.  First and foremost, Dr. Robert G. Lee is a testimony

to the perseverance of a good man and the power of a great

God.

Second, Dr. Lee’s life and preaching teaches the

value of being yourself and becoming the best you can be.

Throughout his life, Dr. Lee maintained close ties with his

roots and simply used what God had given him to its utmost

utility.  Although some have ridiculed Lee for his heavy

accent, try to imagine where he would have been without it.

It is interesting that Lee overcame the negative aspect of

the accent by studying the English language to the point

that he is remembered as a man with a “silver-tongue”.

When all is said and done, old Mam Lindy was right

all along.  The Robert Lee whom she held in her arms on that

November day in 1886 was the same Robert Lee who did indeed

preach to thousands upon thousands about the “good Lawd” who

sent him to “dis here house”.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Barnes, William W.  The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1953.  Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954.
  • Bellevue Baptist Church.  “30 Glorious Years”.  Memphis: Church Publication, 1957.
  • Burns, John A.  “R. G. Lee, A Man God Fashioned,” Fundamentalist Journal (February, 1985): 42-44.
  • English, E. Schuyler.  Robert G. Lee: A Chosen Vessel.
  • Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1949.
  • Lee, Robert Greene.  Payday Everyday.  Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974.
  • Lee, Robert Greene.  Pay-Day–Someday.  Orlando: Christ For The World, Inc., 1985.
  • Huss, John E.  Robert G. Lee.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967.
  • Staff Writer, “There’s No Place Like Home For Humility Lesson,” The Commercial Appeal (May 1, 1971): 5.
  • Wiersbe, Warren and Perry, Lloyd M.  The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
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The blog of the Director of Missions at the Morgan Baptist Association.

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