Rogers, Adrian Pierce

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Rogers, Adrian Pierce

(b. 12 September 1931 in West Palm Beach, Florida; d. 15 November 2005 in Memphis, Tennessee), minister and religious broadcaster who, as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, helped lead a fundamentalist resurgence that turned the denomination in a dramatically more conservative direction.

Born to Arden Duncan and Rose Lee (Purcell) Rogers, Rogers grew up in Florida. In 1950 he graduated from Palm Beach High School in West Palm Beach. He then attended Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, on a football scholarship, which he gave up in 1951 when he became convinced God was calling him to go into the Christian ministry. He often told a story about feeling God’s call while lying face down on a football field and gained ordination by the Northwood Baptist Church in West Palm Beach at age nineteen. On 2 September 1951 Rogers married Joyce Louise Gentry, his childhood sweetheart. They had two daughters and three sons, one of whom died in infancy.

Rogers earned a BA from Stetson in 1954 and a ThM from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1958. He served as the pastor of several Southern Baptist churches in Florida before taking the senior pastorate of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis in 1972. Under his leadership, the congregation more than tripled its membership, reaching 29,000 members and becoming one of the largest churches in the United States. In the early 1970s Rogers helped found the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in the Memphis suburb of Germantown, out of the displeasure he and many other Southern Baptists felt toward what they considered the liberal leanings of the seminaries officially funded by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Rogers made his mark on the history of American evangelicalism and the rise of the “new religious right” as the first in a series of fundamentalist ministers who won the presidency of the mammoth Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. He won the office in 1979, 1986, and 1987, the first person in modern times to win election more than twice. His victory in 1979 proved the most momentous, as it came in the wake of a long string of victories by moderates who had worked to maintain harmony in the convention. By striving to keep the convention’s evangelistic and educational institutions well funded and as free of controversy as possible, the moderates alienated the more dogmatic Southern Baptist churchgoers, who valued doctrinal conformity to fundamentalism. This exclusivist view holds that adherence to certain non-negotiable interpretations of Scripture constitutes a “test of fellowship.”

Whereas moderate leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention sometimes looked the other way in their desire to maintain the allegiance and financial support of more liberal Southern Baptists, whose numbers were quite small, fundamentalists wanted to drive liberals out of the convention’s agencies and institutions, especially its six theological seminaries. They settled on a plan in the late 1970s to mount a series of campaigns to win the presidency of the convention, which was a largely ceremonial post with one hugely important exception: the power to appoint trustees of Southern Baptist agencies and institutions. Rogers’s victory in 1979 began a new day of appointing extremely conservative trustees to convention boards. It also marked the beginning of an unbroken string of victories that drove not only liberals but many moderates out of the convention and prompted the formation of two new bodies of Southern Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the more liberal Alliance of Baptists. This period also saw the convention’s growing affiliation with the Republican Party.

In 1987 Rogers founded Love Worth Finding ministries, a weekly, internationally syndicated evangelistic effort employing a network of 12,000 television and radio outlets that reach 150 countries. The organization’s programs received the National Religious Broadcasters Television Program of the Year Award in 1998 and Radio Program of the Year Award in 2001. Rogers was inducted into the National Religious Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2003. In addition to his work on television and radio, Rogers wrote eighteen books and forty-nine booklets, including eighteen in Spanish, and recorded seventy-nine albums featuring his preaching and teaching on biblical themes.

In 2000 Rogers chaired the Southern Baptist Convention’s effort to revise the Baptist Faith and Message, a doctrinal statement considered a fundamentalist litmus test for service on convention boards and employment in any of its organizations. In his seventies Rogers still maintained an active speaking schedule, after years spent preaching to vast numbers of people during evangelistic “crusades” in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. During his career he prayed with five U.S. presidents, and in 2005 he appeared at the White House with President George W. Bush as part of the National Day of Prayer for America. In March 2005 Rogers retired from the full-time pastoral ministry. He taught briefly as an adjunct professor at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and continued to work with Love Worth Finding. He died at age seventy-four from complications in the treatment of colon cancer, along with pneumonia. Rogers is buried in Memory Hill Gardens in Memphis.

Rogers both represented and helped bring into being a conservative resurgence among Southern Baptists and among evangelicals in the United States. The pattern of leadership set by his presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention redirected the internal politics of the denomination and solidified the ties its members had to conservative secular politicians and groups in the U.S.

For details on Rogers’s role in the struggle for conservative control of the Southern Baptist Convention, see James C. Hefley, The Truth in Crisis: The Controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention (1986). Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (1990), places the fundamentalist takeover of the convention in the context of broader religious phenomena. David T. Morgan, The New Crusades, the New Holy Land: Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1969–1991 (1996), traces the history of the struggle over convention control to broader political trends in recent U.S. history and presents the view of the convention’s moderates. Obituaries are in the New York Times (16 Nov. 2005) and Washington Post (18 Nov. 2005).

David Stricklin

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