[The following article, in a slightly edited and shortened version, appears in the June issue of Word&Way, the historic journal for Missouri Baptists. I enjoyed working on this article and appreciate Editor Brian Kaylor using in the Word&Way.]
Later this month the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention will be held in Phoenix, Arizona. Ninety years ago, in 1927, the annual meeting was held in Louisville, Kentucky. At that meeting, George Washington Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, was elected president of the SBC.
Truett was one of the most outstanding Baptist pastors in SBC history. His life and legacy are well worth reviewing and honoring now, 150 years after his birth in May 1867, which was just 22 years after the birth of the SBC.
TRUETT’S LIFE JOURNEY
Most of you who read this journal know of Clay County, Missouri, where William Jewell College and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary are located. But George Truett was born in Clay County, North Carolina, near the town of Hayesville in the western tip of that state. If you look up Clay Co., N.C., on Wikipedia, you will find Truett’s name is the only one listed in the section titled “Notable People.”
George was the seventh of eight children born in a log cabin to Charles and Mary Truett, a farm couple. Although his parents were faithful Baptists, George did not make a profession of faith and receive baptism until 1886, when he was 19 years old. At that time he was already teaching in a one-room school. The following year, he traveled a few miles south into Georgia and established a new school, where he taught and served as principal until he moved with his parents to Texas in 1889.
Truett’s life journey in Texas was soon filled with momentous events. He was ordained to the ministry in 1890. The next year he was employed by Baylor University to help raise $92,000 to pay the school’s debt—an endeavor that was successful. Then in 1893 he entered Baylor as a student. In June of the following year, he married Josephine, who was his wife until his death 50 years later. Soon after his graduation in 1897 Truett was elected president of Baylor—but he turned down that position because of his commitment to the pastoral ministry. Later that year he was called to be pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas. He accepted that call and served in that position until his death on July 7, 1944.
TRUETT’S MINISTRY AND LEGACY
George W. Truett was a masterful preacher and an exemplary Christian. Louie D. Newton, who was 25 years younger than Truett and an outstanding Baptist pastor in Georgia, wrote, “I say without hesitation that Dr. Truett was the most effective preacher I ever heard and the most inspiring Christian I ever knew.” With that combination of piety and talent, Truett led his church to become the largest Baptist church in the world in both membership and financial strength.
Truett’s ministry was centered in Dallas, of course, but it extended across the country and into much of the world. In 1920 the Southern Baptist Convention assembled in Washington, D.C. On Sunday afternoon, May 16, Truett stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and spoke to a crowd of around 15,000 people—with no PA system! In addition to the Baptists who had come to the convention, there were many government officials in that crowd. His address was titled “Baptists and Religious Liberty.” It became his most famous and most often-quoted talk.
As noted above, he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1927 and held that position until 1929. Then five years later he was elected to a five-year term as president of the Baptist World Alliance and traveled to a number of the world’s countries during that time.
Because of his highly successful ministry, Truett left an outstanding legacy. Perhaps because of that Capitol sermon in 1920, he became so widely known in Baptist circles that when a baby boy born into Joseph and Lilla Cathy’s Georgia home in March of 1921, they named him Truett. Some of you may recognize his name: Truett Cathy became the founder of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain.
Back in the early 1960s, Truett Baker was pastor of my home church in Grant City, Mo., and I still have contact with him. Recently he wrote in an email that his father was a personal friend of the noted pastor of FBC, Dallas. So when Rev. W.D. Baker’s son was born in 1934, he chose to name him Truett. (On a personal note, it was of special interest to my parents when Truett Baker was called to be pastor in Grant City. In 1935 his father had performed their wedding ceremony in Patee Park Baptist Church in St. Joseph where he was a member while he served as Enlistment Evangelist for the Northwest Mission Group of Missouri Baptists from 1930 to ’36.)
George Truett’s legacy is seen many others ways other than people named for him. For example, there are Truett Memorial Baptist churches in Hayesville, Ga. (Truett’s hometown); Long Beach, Calif.; and Pearl, Miss. In 1950 the George W. Truett Memorial Hospital opened on the Baylor University campus. Then in 1994 Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary began classes. Prominent Missouri pastors who are graduates of Truett Seminary include Jason Edwards, pastor of Second Baptist Church, Liberty, and Carol McIntyre, pastor of First Baptist Church, Columbia
TRUETT’S EMPHASIS ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
Robert Jeffress is the current pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, and he is a present day advocate of “religious liberty.” He sat at table in the White House with President Trump on May 3 and rejoiced when the executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” was signed the next day. But for him and other conservative evangelicals, the religious freedom they want seems to be the freedom to use the pulpit for political purposes and for denouncing others, such as LGBT people.
George W. Truett’s emphasis on religious liberty in 1920 was markedly different from that now sought by Jeffress. As a Baptist rooted in the thought and actions of Roger Williams, John Leland, and other Baptist leaders of the past, Truett emphasized the separation of church and state, or “a free church in a free state,” as he articulated it.
Truett espoused religious liberty that meant freedom from government control and freedom to preach the good news of salvation in Christ. This is far different from wanting “free speech” and “religious freedom” to endorse political candidates and to run roughshod over the civil rights of other people.
Baptists today who espouse the historic Baptist tradition find inspiration from the life and ministry of George W. Truett, a true Baptist.