Lee Roberson died yesterday morning at the age of 97. It is a mark of the passing years that most of my readers will not recognize his name. In 1942 he became the pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Under his leadership it became one of the largest churches in America. A few years after arriving, he founded Tennessee Temple College (now a university) for the training of young men and women for Christian service. Although educated as a Southern Baptist, he eventually became a leader in the independent Baptist movement. Probably the single best decision he made was to invite J. R. Faulkner to become his right-hand man. Together they led the church and the school to greatness for many decades. You can read a brief biography here.
I first heard of Dr. Roberson by reading his sermons in the pages of the Sword of the Lord. I can still remember my excitement at entering Tennessee Temple in my sophomore year in college. I came in 1971, during the golden years of the school, when thousands of students flocked to Chattanooga and every dorm room was packed to the limit. I still remember the thrill of going to church at Highland Park with thousands of people and singing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” on Sunday nights. The whole atmosphere was just amazing to me. I never knew church could be so exciting.
Dr. Roberson lived up to his oft-repeated motto that “everything rises or falls on leadership.” No one doubted who was in the driver’s seat. He had strong convictions, he preached with authority, and he had a commanding presence that kept me in awe of him. Let’s put it this way. No one doubted that he cared about the students deeply, but he wasn’t the sort of president who would pat you on the back and tell you a joke. Every day he wore the same thing–a double-breasted suit, white shirt and dark tie. He was in old school in that regard. Leaders were leaders, not buddies or pals or best friends.
He was Baptist all the way and he was known as a fundamentalist, but he never got involved in the name-calling that sullied so much of that movement. He simple did what he thought was right and did not publicly criticize others who saw things differently.
My personal encounters with him were very few. He was very busy running a school, a huge church, and preaching two or three days every week at different churches around the country. But there was one time when I went to see him. The students were being organized into volunteer groups to go to Albany, Georgia for an evangelistic crusade. Each group was named for one of the college’s leaders. I was named the leader of the Lee Roberson group. So I decided to go by and tell him about it. With some trepidation I made an appointment and was ushered into his office. He smiled as I explained the student recruitment campaign. When I told him I was from Russellville, Alabama, he began to reminisce about a tent revival campaign he led there in the late 1940s. He asked about my family and wanted to know how my studies were going. He seemed genuinely interested in talking to me. What I will never forget is how our time ended. When we finished talking, he said, “Let’s pray,” and then he knelt by his desk, placing his knees on a well-worn pad on the carpet, and he prayed for me, thanking God for me and my family, asking God to bless me and to help me do his will.
When we had the contest, each of the leaders had to stand up and make a pitch to the student body to join their team. Playing the role of Dr. Roberson, I made my little talk, which ended with a flourish when I imitated his voice, stretched out my arm, and exhorted the students to not go to the left or the right, but to go “straight down the line” and join Dr. Roberson’s team. That drew laughter and applause because we had heard him use that phrase many times.
I have always been grateful for my years at Tennessee Temple because while I was there, I received two things that have impacted my life forever. First, I learned the Bible. Second, I met Marlene. And from Dr. Roberson I learned that church could be serious and exciting and challenging and life-changing all at the same time.
Long life is a mixed blessing in that if you live into your 90s, nearly all of your contemporaries are gone. Dr. Roberson was uniquely a man of his time and his ways were from another generation. But that should not be seen as any sort of criticism. Like King David of old, he served his own generation according to the will of God, and then he went to be with the Lord. When an ancient Greek king died, one of his eulogists wrote of him, “Hold him in your hearts as he was in his glory.” I knew him in the days of his glory in Chattanooga, and that is how I will always remember him.