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.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.