The R. G. Lee Collection includes both the R. G. Lee Memorial Library and the R. G. Lee Papers. All items were donated by the family of Dr. R. G. Lee after his death in 1978.
Robert Greene Lee was born to sharecroppers in York County, South Carolina in 1886. Growing up working the farm, picking cotton and going to Fort Mill Baptist Church, he made a profession of faith and was baptized at age twelve. From that moment, he felt both a call to preach and the need to be properly educated to fulfill that call. Though his access to formal education was limited in his early life, he exhibited a love of learning that stayed with him throughout his life. As a boy, he trapped rabbits and sold peanuts to earn money for tutoring in Latin. When, at sixteen, he met Dr. Edwin Poteat, President of Furman University, he learned of Furman Fitting School where he would eventually do his preparatory work for college. Despite his desire to receive an education, he vowed to stay on the farm and help his family until he was twenty-one. He then borrowed the money for passage to Panama where he worked on construction of the Panama Canal for nine months to raise enough money for his first year of preparatory school.
After returning from Panama in 1908, he enrolled in the Furman Fitting School. In addition to his studies, he worked delivering newspapers and carrying laundry, having given most of his Panama money to his father to pay farm debts. He completed preparatory studies in algebra, English, geometry, Greek and Latin and enrolled in Furman University the following year. While at Furman he began his ministry, pastoring small churches. He was ordained April 3, 1909 in the same Fort Mill Baptist Church where he had been baptized. His skill and reputation as an orator was recognized early on and he was soon able to earn enough by his preaching that he no longer had to work odd jobs. In all, he served twelve different churches while a student at Furman.
His time at Furman also brought him recognition as an exceptional scholar. He was active in various extracurricular activities including the Philosophian Literary Society, the Y.M.C.A. and the Evangelistic Band. He also ran track and was a cheer leader. All of these activities did not prevent him from graduating Magna Cum Laude when he received his A.B. in 1913.
After graduation, Lee continued to pastor churches and also took positions teaching, first at an elementary school and later as principal of a high school. His first full-time pastorate was the Red Bank Baptist Church in Saluda, South Carolina. When, in 1918, Dr. Poteat offered Lee the position as Chair of Latin at Furman, Lee could see the realization of his dream to combine his preaching with teaching. In the spring of 1918, he resigned his position in Saluda and headed to New Orleans for graduate work at Tulane to prepare for the position at Furman. Upon returning from New Orleans, however, he was informed that the Board of Trustees had decided that no new professor could hold a pastorate concurrently. Lee’s response was to resign his new position with the university. It was several months before he was called to pastor First Baptist Church, Edgefield, South Carolina.
While in Edgefield, Lee completed a correspondence course with the Chicago Law School with work in ethics, sociology, psychology, philosophy and international law. He was awarded a Ph.D. after the one year residency requirement was waived on the strength of his previous academic work. It was also in Edgefield that Lee originated his most famous sermon, Payday—Someday. He would preach this sermon more than 1200 times in his lifetime.
From Edgefield, Lee moved on to pastor First Baptist Church, Chester, South Carolina. Although he stayed in Chester only sixteen months, church membership doubled, adding 415 members. After his short time in Chester, Lee accepted a call to First Baptist Church, New Orleans, Louisiana. From New Orleans he returned to South Carolina to Citadel Square Baptist Church in Charleston. By this time, he was gaining a reputation as a pastor who did not stay long in any one place, having been at four churches in less than ten years. That would change with his final move.
On December 11, 1927, Robert Greene Lee began his tenure as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Despite numerous opportunities, Dr. Lee remained at Bellevue until his resignation, February 1, 1960. His time at Bellevue was also marked as a time of great denominational service. He served as president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention 1931-1935 and as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1949-1951. He was a trustee for Union University from 1941-1954. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Union University twice asked Dr. Lee to consider the presidency of the university. Fully dedicated now to his preaching ministry, Dr. Lee refused.
His resignation from Bellevue was not to be a retirement however. Through the 1960’s and early 1970’s Dr. Lee travelled worldwide and preached in churches and meetings. From 1962-1965 he preached somewhere 1354 out of 1461 days. He also wrote extensively during this time period. In April 1977 Dr. Lee suffered a series of heart attacks in Oklahoma City while there for a revival at First Baptist Church. He died in Memphis sixteen months later July 20, 1978.
The R. G. Lee Memorial Library is located in F-55 of the Penick Academic Complex. It can be viewed along the main corridor of the building The R. G. Lee Memorial Library contains more than 2500 volumes from R. G. Lee's personal library as well as furnishings and personal effects from Dr. Lee's home office. In addition to the religious and theological works Dr. Lee consulted in sermon preparation, the library also contains numerous scrapbooks of his life and ministry.