A venerable co-founder of the Baptist Bible Fellowship is with the Lord
by Mike Randall and Keith Bassham
John W. Rawlings laid his earthly burden down to enter the presence of the Lord January 30, 2013, at the age of 99 years plus one day.
The inimitable preacher and co-founder of the Baptist Bible Fellowship was born into the family of George and Amanda Evelyn James Rawlings on January 29, 1914, in Sharp County, AR, in the upper Mississippi delta in the foothills of the Ozarks. He was an only son with two older sisters. His father was involved in a variety of businesses including cutting and floating virgin timber to New Orleans, operating a dairy farm, cotton farm, and sawmills. His father was one of the first to bring a modern cotton gin to the area.
As a child, John attended a one-room school. His mother was a godly Christian who made sure her family was in church whenever there were services. Because the churches relied on circuit-riding preachers in those days, people attended the Methodist church on Sundays when the Methodist preacher came to hold services and the Baptist church when the Baptist preacher held services. John was led to Christ by his Sunday school teacher, a Methodist lady, when he was 13 years of age. About that same time his father also accepted Christ. After two years of being discipled and taught by Edgar Wilkerson, John was baptized at Mountain View Missionary Baptist Church when he was 15. Rawlings was also influenced by two weekly Christian newspapers edited by well-known Baptist leaders Ben M. Bogard and J. Frank Norris. His father would read sermons by Charles Spurgeon and others to the family by a coal-oil lamp every Thursday night. John testified that he knew he was called to preach even before he was saved because his mother had prayed and given him to the Lord to be a preacher before he was born.
One year before onset of the Great Depression, George Rawlings was seriously injured in an accident. Although John was only 14 at the time, the duties of the family businesses fell upon him. He drew upon his father’s instruction and the many years of observing and working alongside his father. He ran the family businesses while completing the requirements for high school graduation that same year. When the stock market crashed in October 1929, the Rawlings family businesses suffered greatly as did many others in the Ozarks. Debt to the family enterprises could not be collected and nearly everything was lost. The family survived by living off the land. Gardening, wheat farming, and the family livestock provided the food necessary to live. These early experiences taught John to be a man in every sense of the word. He became unafraid of any human being.
In early childhood, John became friends with a neighbor girl named Orelia Mobley. The families attended church services together, and the two youngsters attended the same school. Rawlings testifies that they fell in love before they were teenagers and had much in common. Like his mother, Orelia was a godly Christian. She and John were very active in their local church. At the age of 18, he and Orelia were married (she passed away in 2007 after 75 years of marriage). Not long after that, John surrendered to the Lord’s work. At age 20, he was Sunday school superintendent, teacher of the adult Bible class, and a lay preacher.
As he served the Lord in rural Arkansas, he felt the need for training. He became very interested when he learned that J. Frank Norris was planning to begin a Bible institute (which became Bible Baptist Seminary). When it started in 1939, John and Orelia packed up what they could, and with their three young sons, Herb, Harold, and Carrol, they moved to Fort Worth, TX (a fourth son, George, was born in Tyler, TX). In the seminary, John threw himself into his studies. Before the year was out, he had memorized much scripture and could quote a word outline of each book of the Bible. He eagerly participated in long hours of door-to-door visitation, personal evangelism, and street preaching. Norris and school administrator Louis Entzminger became his mentors. He also worked in the evangelistic campaigns of Mordecai Ham and B. B. Crimm and he became acquainted with G. B. Vick. That particular friendship would flower into a productive ministry partnership.
In the fall of 1940, Rawlings was asked to preach at Fundamentalist Baptist Church (later its name was changed to Central Baptist Church) of Tyler, TX, and the little congregation of 37 people called Rawlings to become Sunday school superintendent. They promised to make him permanent pastor if the church showed progress. Immediately after his call, he moved his family to Tyler, organized the Sunday school, did street preaching, and mobilized everyone he could to do visitation and soulwinning. By February 1941, with 145 in attendance, the church voted to ratify him as their pastor. He maintained his weekday studies by taking a commuter bus to Fort Worth on Monday and returning to Tyler on Friday. By year’s end, he completed his studies and graduated from Bible Baptist Seminary.
Because of the growth of the congregation in 1941, the church launched a building program and in October dedicated a 52-foot by 82-foot brick building with an auditorium boasting 575 opera seats. During nearly 12 years of Rawlings’ ministry in Tyler, the church expanded its properties and completed four building projects. Using a new outreach with buses, attendance grew to an average of over 1,500 per Sunday and a high attendance of over 2,500. Rawlings developed an extensive radio ministry with 15-minute broadcasts six days a week and a one-hour program on Sunday nights. For many years the church had no paid staff except the pastor and a part-time secretary. After attendance averaged 800, other paid staff were added.
Beginning in 1942, Rawlings began street preaching every Saturday afternoon in the town squares of Brownsboro, Tyler, and Lindale, TX. He utilized a borrowed public address system and hooked it up to his car. As a result, he started a mission in Lindale that later became a church. In places where he could not do street preaching, he held tent meetings. He would do this in various East Texas towns 18 to 23 weeks a year, driving back and forth from Tyler. From the results of these meetings many churches were planted in East Texas and as far south as Houston. You can still find a “Central Baptist Church” in most of these towns today. This sort of aggressive evangelism and motivation for Christians marked his ministry the rest of his life.
When the Baptist Bible Fellowship International was established in 1950, John Rawlings was a key figure both in private and public. In meetings at the Texas Hotel in May 1950, he was named vice president of the newly established Baptist Bible College. For the rest of that year, Rawlings joined G. B. Vick, W. E. Dowell, and others at meetings with pastors in many states, rallying support for their new movement and its new school. On such a trip with Vick in the fall of that year, Rawlings confided that, “God might be moving me from Tyler.”
In 1951, Lockland Baptist Church of Cincinnati, OH, was without a pastor. It had experienced several problems, including a divisive split in its membership. Both G. B. Vick and W. E. Dowell met with the pulpit committee and recommended John Rawlings. Reluctantly, Rawlings preached at the church and evaluated its condition and need. When the chairman of the pulpit committee phoned to tell him he had received a unanimous call, he knew it was God’s will for him to go. He moved to Cincinnati in June.
The church had over 700 people attending Sunday school, but the schism was so deep that lawsuits had been filed, and the court was involved in supervising some operations. That first year Rawlings was involved in a power struggle with certain key people and various committees who seemed, in his view, to operate independently of the will or best interests of the church.
However, staying true to his evangelistic instincts, the embattled pastor saw many people added to the church, and despite the internal conflicts, a strong majority became loyal to him. He raised funds to finish a building that was under construction and it was dedicated before the end of the year. During 1952, the struggle for leadership between Rawlings and certain officers in the church finally came to a head. Just prior to Easter, a business meeting was held in which several officers were ousted by the vote of the church. The story created such a stir that it was carried in the local newspapers. Undaunted by the negative coverage, Rawlings determined to press forward to win souls and build the church.
From that time forward, the church unified behind Rawlings’ leadership and experienced growth. Evangelistic efforts were intensified through personal evangelism, door- to-door visitation, expansion of the Sunday school organization, and revival crusades. As the church experienced steady growth, it purchased several lots around its location and built two multi-story education buildings. The church auditorium was remodeled to provide seating for 2,000 people. Attendance soared to a high of over 3,000.
In 1958, Rawlings led the church to purchase 50 acres of land north of Cincinnati and in the summer conducted open-air meetings at the new property. In 1959, the church contracted to purchase 110 more acres adjacent to its property. The church now occupies 170 acres of property in north Cincinnati adjacent to Interstate Highway 75. The first building was begun on the new property in 1963. Later that year the church was renamed Landmark Baptist Temple and moved to this location. The church’s roots go back to the Springfield Township Baptist Church of 1798, and the Lockland name identified it with its former location. Over the years the church built three main buildings (approximately 200,000 square feet), a parsonage, outbuildings, and 21 acres of paved parking on its vast acreage. It also developed a park, cemetery, and athletic fields, and members remodeled the original estate mansion into offices.
The years following relocation of the church were characterized by continued growth and outreach by various means, and average weekly attendance reached a high of over 5,000. For several years the church reported 1,800 to 2,200 baptisms per year, and in the 1970s it was considered one of the largest churches in North America.
Rawlings believed in the power of broadcast media and always maintained a radio ministry. He began a radio ministry called “The Landmark Hour,” as soon as he arrived in Cincinnati. It featured evangelistic messages by Rawlings and guest preachers at the church. In the early 50s it was expanded to include 53 stations and 200 by 1958. This ministry reached its peak at nearly 300 stations during the 1960s. Weekly television broadcasts from the church were also used to bring its ministry to the area. For a time “The Landmark Hour” television program was broadcast on an international cable network. These media broadcasts and newspaper advertising made the church well known for personal evangelism and standing firm on moral issues. Even today, thousands of preachers credit Rawlings’ media presence as an important factor in their personal ministries.
Besides his ministry at the church, Rawlings continued his work with the Baptist Bible Fellowship International and Baptist Bible College. He served as president of the BBFI twice, from 1952-1954 and 1974-1977. He served as BBC’s vice president from its inception until 1972. He helped organize state fellowships in at least eight states and as BBFI president in 1974 he led in its reorganization to its current structure.
In 1994, he announced his retirement from the pastorate. His son Harold succeeded him at the church. In June of that year he moved to Lynchburg, VA, to become the chairman of ministry training at the Bible Institute of Liberty University and to be a consultant to Chancellor Jerry Falwell. During 18 months in Virginia, Rawlings also helped establish The National Liberty Journal. In 1996, he moved to Northern Kentucky to establish the Rawlings Foundation with sons George and Herb. The foundation has provided millions of dollars of funding for hundreds of ministries, churches, colleges, camps, and publications (including the Tribune). The foundation’s scope is worldwide, with large footprints in Asia, Africa, Latin America, South America, and Europe. Mr. Rawlings also was a key figure in the forming of the International Baptist Network.
In his latter years and despite a number of health issues, Rawlings worked the phones and spoke in Fellowship meetings encouraging Baptist pastors to renew their efforts in evangelism and church planting, and to aggressively teach Baptist distinctives and doctrine. And he found time to remarry, taking Mary Birdwell Pruitt as his bride in 2008.
Thousands around the world noted Mr. Rawlings’ passing, many expressing appreciation for his attention and faithfulness to themselves personally. In memorial services held February 4, 2013, at Landmark Baptist Temple in Cincinnati, OH, hundreds in attendance paid their respects and agreed with officiant Leland Kennedy that John W. Rawlings’ greatest legacy was his ability to win men’s hearts and urge them to service for the Lord.
Several have passed their personal tributes to the Tribune. BBFI President Linzy Slayden said of the founder, “His faithfulness and strong spirit challenged all of us to do more for God. In life it is so easy for a person, a church, a marriage, a nation, or a business to get into the doldrums and just drift. Dr. John never drifted. He always had focus and vision. He finished strong by surrendering to the Word of God, submitting to the will of God, and supporting the work of God. His was a life well lived. May the Lord give our Fellowship and our world more men of vision, energy, and tenacity like he possessed.”
Mission Director Jon Konnerup recounted how he became more acquainted with Rawlings in the last ten years. He said, “He was definitely a man of vision and that vision always pointed to the purpose of people coming to Jesus Christ. His vision was full of ideas on how to evangelize the world. God did use him to see this vision take place on every continent of the world except Antarctica. People’s lives in Africa, Asia, South America, North America, Europe, and the Middle East have been changed and impacted through the vision of Dr. John Rawlings. There are now camps, colleges, and churches worldwide because Dr. Rawlings was available to be used by God and to do it in a big way.”
“Dr. John,” as he was known by thousands, is survived by his second wife, Mary Pruitt Rawlings, four sons — Herbert, Harold, Carrol, and George — nine grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren.
Editor’s note: This past November, I visited with John Rawlings in his home near Cincinnati. The old gentleman, nearly 100 years old, knew he was nearing Heaven in his journey, and he asked me to communicate a message from him to the preachers of our Fellowship. That message was to fall on your faces before God, plead with Him for renewal through the power of His Holy Spirit, and make a covenant with Him to be holy men and spiritual men — that we might be concerned for the souls of men and women, and for the condition of our churches — that we place ourselves totally into God’s hands and be bold for Him with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mr. Rawlings had some difficulty breathing and speaking, but the fiery energy of the founder’s youth was not yet quenched, and his wish for us is that the Baptist Bible Fellowship experiences not the debilitation that goes along with approaching old age, but that we might find renewed strength.
Much of this article is reprinted from material developed by Mike Randall when he was editor of the Baptist Bible Tribune, and was first published in the pages of the magazine in May 1999.