“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he that winneth souls is wise.” Proverbs 11:30
On Monday morning, Jan. 14, heaven claimed one of the wisest men ever to lead the Southern Baptist Convention. After a two year battle with pancreatic cancer and nearly eight decades of faithfully winning souls to Jesus, Bailey Smith died at his home in Duluth, Ga.
There are lots of ways to describe Bailey. He was one of the most good-humored men I’ve ever known. Standing next to him at the top of some stairs in the Georgia Dome, I almost couldn’t breathe from laughing as Bailey joked aloud while a messenger brought a motion to change the name of the name of the convention to the “Scriptural Baptist Convention,” which would allow churches to keep the acronym “SBC” on their signs.
Bailey leaned over and said, “We ought to call it the Only Baptist Convention.” Then he paused for a moment and deadpanned:”Wait, that won’t work. OBC sounds like a woman doctor.”
Then there was the time I drove him around Houston in the late 1990s during a Real Evangelism Conference held at Sagemont Church. As soon as I picked him up from the airport, Bailey wanted to stop at a discount store, Ross Dress For Less, so he could buy some new shirts for the conference. He picked up three shirts, each of which was under $10.00. He wrote me a thank you note some weeks later, offering as a postscript that his “cheap shirts” were still holding up and were”just as good as $100 ones.”
One time when he was preaching at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, he asked me to join him for breakfast the morning before his chapel sermon and to drive him to the airport afterwards. On the way to the airport, we made a stop for gasoline. Once inside the gas station, Bailey and I stood at the register to purchase a soft drink.
“Do you know the greatest news that’s ever been told?” he asked the attendant.
“What’s that?” the man responded.
“My friend here is going to tell you what it is,” Bailey said as he walked out to the car.
So I stood there and in 30 seconds or so told the man — probably fumbling with the words — that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, and that if he would ask Jesus to forgive him of his sins and trust him only for salvation, he would be saved. When I got to the car, Bailey was laughing and said, “Isn’t soul winning fun?”
Then there was the time we were on the plane together from Atlanta to Orlando. Dr. Gerald Cowen was on the flight too. I had the flight attendant take two bottles of whiskey to Bailey a few rows ahead of me and say they were complimentary for loyalty to Delta Air Lines. He politely declined and said nothing else.
So I asked another flight attendant to go up and tell him that she’d always wanted to meet the great evangelist J. Harold Smith. Bailey craned his head around and grinned ear to ear at me and laughed.
It was either at the San Antonio convention in 2007 or Indianapolis in 2008 that Bailey and I had a few moments alone on a hotel elevator together. He smiled and said, “What you’re doing to Paige Patterson is wrong, but I still love you.” I didn’t press back. Bailey wasn’t the kind of man who entertained criticism of a fellow minister, and I always respected him for that.
Truly, if ever there was a man who walked his talk, it was Bailey Smith. He was loyal to his friends, faithful to his wife, and always doing the work of an evangelist. He loved his sons, not only his three sons Scott, Steven, and Josh, but all his sons in the ministry. And he was always kind to strangers, generous when tipping waitresses, and truly one of the greatest preachers of his generation.
Last August, Bailey spoke at the First Baptist Church of Indian Trail. He preached one of his more popular sermons, one about the life of Lot entitled “Tilted Toward Tragedy.” At one point in the message, he referenced the fact that four Southern Baptist seminary professors had been terminated in a span of three months for moral failure. Seated in front of him were pastors from all over the region who had come to hear him preach. He stepped out from behind the pulpit, held up his bible and said:
“If this book is the means by which you make your living instead of the manual of how you live your life, you’re in trouble.”
A little more than 24 hours ago, Bailey Smith died having lived his life by the manual of the Word of God. And because he did, there are countless sinners who were once dead in their trespasses but are now alive by the power of the gospel.
By his faithful witness and uncompromising stand for Christ, the fruit of this righteous man has been a tree of life to all who have been — and will continue to be — the beneficiaries of his ministry of reconciliation.
I plan to attend the memorial service later this month. And I plan to stop at Ross and pick up a $10 shirt to wear to the service as a small tribute to a godly man who took time through the years to encourage me on my journey of faith.
Thank you, Brother Bailey. See you soon.