SBTS’ oldest living alumnus marks 100 years of life and eight decades of faithful ministry

Communications Staff — August 5, 2008

MT. JULIET, Tenn.—In 1932, the Great Depression forced W.L. Baker to cast his seminary education entirely on the mercy of A.T. Robertson.

Then a 24-year-old budding minister, Baker found grace in the eyes of the legendary New Testament scholar. And Baker, the oldest known living alumnus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, turned 100 years old on Sunday, but he recalls Robertson’s benevolence as if it were yesterday.

“Back then the professors enrolled you,” said Baker, who speaks with a stout, clearly modulated tenor voice that belies his age.

“You’d go in and wait for them. I drew Dr. Robertson and I said to him, ‘I very probably won’t be able to stay all year in school.’ And he said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Call it a financial problem.’ Dr. Robertson said, ‘Wait right here and I’ll be back.’ And he succeeded in getting me $10 a month for the two years I was there at the seminary. It took me four years to pay it back. But I never will forget his thoughtfulness.”

Robertson’s investment turned out to be a sound one, as the celebration at Silver Springs Baptist Church on Aug. 3 demonstrated: nearly 500 people from around middle/east Tennessee and across the Southern Baptist Convention turned out to mark Baker’s 100th birthday and to celebrate more than 75 years of faithful Gospel ministry.

“I thought I was going to get all of this when I got to heaven,” Baker told the congregation.
While luminaries as highly placed as President George W. Bush and Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen sent citations honoring Baker’s longevity in life and in ministry, the highlight of the Silver Springs celebration was Baker himself, particularly when he stood to deliver the sermon at the climax of the morning worship service from Deut. 34.

“Moses linked his whole life to a worthy cause and he spent all of his last day on earth climbing, and I hope to do the same,” Baker told the gathering of approximately 475.

Baker has spent most of his 10 decades on earth prosecuting a single task, one he singles out as the main duty of a Gospel minister: “make the way of salvation plain.” Born in New Middleton, Tenn., in 1908, Baker grew up in a devoted Christian home and was converted at age nine.

After graduating from Cumberland University in 1930, Baker enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he spent one year before transferring to Southern Seminary which had recently moved from downtown Louisville to its present campus east of the city.

He spent two years at Southern and studied under some of the most renowned names in the school’s history, including Robertson, John R. Sampey and W.O. Carver.

“There’s no way to describe how much those two years meant to me,” Baker said. “Dr. (E.Y.) Mullins was gone by then, but Dr. Sampey was there and Dr. Carver was one of my instructors. Anyone who went in Dr. Carver’s class and stayed long and didn’t come out with his heart burning for missions, then something was wrong with him.”

The most valuable lesson he learned at Southern Seminary? Baker does not hesitate with his answer: “Love for the Bible. They instilled in me a great love for the Lord and the Bible.”

That love for God’s Word provided the building blocks for a ministry that has spanned nearly eight decades and continues strong into the 21st century.

Baker graduated from Southern in 1932 and for the ensuing four decades pastored three churches in Tennessee: Hopewell Baptist Church in Springfield (1932-1942), First Baptist Church of Jonesboro (1942-1949) and First Baptist Church of Donelson (1949-1973). Baker has outlived two wives. His first, Bonnie, died of cancer in 1952. Their union produced Baker’s only child, Ann. He later remarried and his second wife, Olive, also died of cancer in 1982.

He retired from the pastorate in 1973, but retirement did not consist in being “put out to pasture;” Baker has served as interim pastor for 28 churches—some of them more than once—over the past 35 years. Additionally, he has served as interim director of the Wilson County Baptist Association and he preaches every first Sunday night of the month at Dry Creek Baptist Church in Dekalb County, Tenn. Every Monday he visits local association leaders and prays with them.

Silver Creek’s day-long celebration of Baker’s long life and faithful ministry testifies to the esteem to which he is held among the churches he has served, as well as across Tennessee and in the SBC at large. Here in Wilson County, virtually everyone knows the name W.L. Baker. He has mentored dozens of ministers and churchmen, including W.T. Nolan, a laymen from Lebanon, Tenn., for whom Baker has served as a “father in the faith” for the past 20 years.

“We talk almost every night,” Nolan said. “Sometimes it’s brief and sometimes we get into a discussion of the Bible a little bit deeper. We really love him. We talk about the Scriptures. He has enlightened me on so many things. The other day we were talking about Job where God hung the world on something and I asked him what it was, he said, ‘nothing.’ I have never met a man who knows and lives God’s Word better than he does.”

Baker says one of the keys to his longevity and continuing fruitfulness is very simple: watch the diet and exercise. He executes a brief regimen of exercises each day and takes regular walks. The key to his longevity and usefulness in the ministry? Baker says that answer is equally simple: “Memorize the Scriptures.”

Baker is noted in the churches of middle and east Tennessee for his recitation of the Sermon on the Mount from memory. He has presented the Lord’s sermon from memory in more than 50 churches. Baker encourages young ministers to be mighty in Scripture memorization.

“I would tell young ministers to memorize as much of the Bible as possible while they have the mind to do it,” Baker said. “The highlight of my life along that line was when I was at my first church and I was wrestling with the problem of what to preach the next Sunday. I wrestled with that quite a while and in three or four weeks was doing it again, and I felt an impression come to me, ‘Why don’t I preach Jesus’ sermon?’ So I committed the Sermon on the Mount to memory and it has been the greatest blessing in my ministry.”

Baker last visited the campus of Southern Seminary in 2000 when Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., honored him during a chapel service as the school’s oldest living graduate. Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern, attended the celebration at Silver Springs and presented Baker with a plaque commemorating his landmark birthday.

“It was hard in those days to get in and get through Southern Seminary because of the professors and the difficult exams and long recitations they had to get through,” Wills said. “We honor you, not just for your longevity, but for faithfulness in that longevity and you are still faithfully serving.”

As long as the Lord will give him breath, Baker told the Silver Springs congregation he will continue sowing the seed of God’s Word along the King’s highway.

“On Moses’ last day, when he climbed the mountain the Lord was waiting for him at the top,” Baker said. “I am excited about my that time when my last day comes and my Lord greets me in death and smiles. Until then, I want to press on…God didn’t put us in the world to look at small things, but big things.”

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