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Rev. Adrian Rogers, 74; Ushered In the 'Conservative Resurgence' of the Southern Baptist Convention

November 16, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Adrian Rogers, a Memphis televangelist who helped engineer a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention when he was elected president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination in 1979, has died. He was 74.

Rogers, who was hospitalized earlier this month with double pneumonia and cancer, died Tuesday in Memphis, his ministry said.

The election of Rogers turned out to be a watershed moment for the 16-million member congregation, which shifted dramatically to the right politically and theologically -- and stayed there -- as he appointed fellow conservatives to key positions.

Since then, conservative leaders have pushed hard against abortion rights, homosexuality and female pastors.

Earlier this year, Southern Baptists ended an eight-year boycott of Walt Disney Co. that had been prompted mainly by the company's decision to give benefits to companions of gay employees.

After leading what the denomination calls "the conservative resurgence," Rogers served two more terms as president, beginning in 1986.

"Southern Baptists have lost perhaps their greatest leader and statesman," Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said in a statement.

For nearly 33 years, Rogers was pastor of the Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, which ballooned from 8,000 to nearly 30,000 members under his leadership, becoming one of the largest congregations in the nation.

The church, founded in 1903 in a stone structure, moved to an $80-million complex in a Memphis suburb in 1989. It includes a 7,000-seat auditorium. Three towering white crosses serve as landmarks on the 380-acre property.

Rogers said pulpit preaching was his favorite activity. His pulpit was housed in a huge rectangular structure that covers 6 1/2 acres.

"What really melts my butter is preaching the Gospel and getting people saved," Rogers told Memphis magazine in 1985.

Presidents Carter and Reagan invited him to give sermons at the White House.

At Bellevue church, Rogers was so popular that members would sometimes gather at the airport to greet his returning flights.

Adrian Pierce Rogers was born Sept. 12, 1931, in West Palm Beach, Fla., to Arden and Rose Rogers.

At 16, he decided to become a minister. While attending Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., he married Joyce Gentry in 1951. They had been close since elementary school.

During his college years, he drove 300 miles round-trip on weekends to pastor at a rustic church with 50 members and wooden boards for pews.

"Those people endured such poor preaching from me, but I loved serving them," Rogers told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2004.

He worked his way through college and seminary as a butcher, a used-car salesman, a construction worker, an elevator mechanic's helper and a fruit packer.

After graduating from Stetson with a bachelor's degree in 1954, he earned a master's from Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans.

Before joining Bellevue in 1972, Rogers worked with Florida congregations in Fort Pierce and Merritt Island.

In 1987, he founded the Love Worth Finding ministry, which broadcasts programs on television and radio stations in more than 150 countries. The enterprise, which is separate from the church, also markets other faith-related media. It grosses more than $10 million a year, a company executive said in 2004.

When Rogers retired from Bellevue in March, James C. Dobson, founder of the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, was at the Sunday service.

"There's no one in this country I respect more than Adrian Rogers," Dobson said. "You draw me to Christ. When I'm with you, I feel closer to the Lord."

Fellow Baptist ministers affectionately nicknamed Rogers "Old Golden Throat," and he had a ready smile and an affinity for one-liners.

"We have 22,000 members," Rogers said of his Bellevue flock in 1993, "but even J. Edgar Hoover couldn't find some of them."

In addition to his wife, Rogers is survived by four children and nine grandchildren. A great-grandchild named Maryann Rose, after his mother Rose, was born Monday.

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