Of the nearly 100,000 construction workers it took to build the Panama Canal, only one went on to become the Southern Baptist Convention’s president and preach what was perhaps the 20th century’s most famous sermon: R.G. Lee.
At the 100th anniversary of the canal’s 1914 opening, Lee’s labors and vigorous work ethic can add a spiritual dimension to Labor Day lore.
“Everyone who knew Dr. Lee associated a strong work ethic with him,” Charles Fowler, pastor of the Memphis-area Germantown Baptist Church and a Lee scholar, told Baptist Press. “One of the stories that people enjoy hearing most is how he, in order to pay for college, left to go and work for a little less than a year on the Panama Canal as a construction worker.”
Lee, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis from 1927 to 1960, was best known for his sermon “Payday Someday,” which used the story of Ahab and Jezebel from 1 and 2 Kings to portray God’s judgment against sinners. Lee preached the sermon more than 1,000 times to some 3 million people and as a result saw more than 8,000 professions of faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.
Lee delivered “Payday Someday” in at least 44 states, seven foreign countries, at the SBC annual meeting and annually at Bellevue for 32 years – three times at Memphis’ Municipal Auditorium to accommodate the huge crowds.
The SBC elected Lee president in 1948, and he served three consecutive one-year terms. He died in 1978 at age 91.
Work in Panama
In 1907, however, he was just a 21-year-old South Carolina farm boy looking for a way to fund his college education at Furman University. When he heard that the U.S. government was hiring workers to build a massive canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Panama, Lee borrowed $250 from a local banker to fund his travel and headed for Central America, promising his mother that “he would not touch a drop of strong liquor, that he would not walk through the door of a saloon, and that when he returned home he would be as clean morally as he was at that moment,” biographer John Huss wrote.
R.G. Lee was perhaps best known for his sermon “Payday Someday,” which he preached more than 1,000 times to some 3 million people.
Formerly a French construction project, the U.S. acquired rights to the Panama Canal and began construction in 1904. The canal, a shortcut that saved ships nearly 8,000 miles in their journeys between the Atlantic and Pacific, opened on Aug. 15, 1914. America retained control of the so-called Canal Zone until 1977, when an agreement ceded it to Panama. Today more than 800,000 ships pass annually through the canal, which has been dubbed one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Lee’s journey to Panama began poorly when his train to New Orleans was late, causing him to miss his ship to Central America and be stuck in the Crescent City for a week. With less than a dollar in his pocket, Lee paid for a room and meals that week by working 80 hours at the local wharf carrying bananas that had arrived by ship.
Things didn’t get any easier when he arrived in Panama to discover that the job he had been promised no longer existed. After getting so hungry that he ate the remains of a picnic meal covered in bugs, Lee secured work for $83 a month as foreman of a Jamaican construction crew.
The work involved 10-hour days that each required four miles of walking. It was dangerous work. Some 20,000 workers died over 10 years of construction from a combination of disease and accidents. Often the men worked in extreme heat, humidity and rain.
Decades later in his book Pickings, Lee complained about the “idleness” and folly of those who advocated a six-hour workday and a five-day workweek.
“That means out of a week of one hundred and sixty-eight hours a man is to work thirty hours,” Lee wrote. “That would leave one hundred and thirty-eight hours for leisure. But is not crime in society largely the product of leisure? Wise is he who said, ‘Most of the ordinary moral lesions could be cured by sawing wood.’”
Also decades later, after Lee gained a reputation as a master of words, he was known to enjoy the palindrome, “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” A palindrome is a sequence of letters that reads the same forward as it does backward, like “Anna” or “Draw, o coward.”
Work in ministry
After nine months in Panama, Lee had accumulated sufficient savings to return home and attend college. But before he could board a ship bound for the U.S., he contracted an illness known as blackwater fever that killed many of the canal workers. Lee was taken to a hospital, where he received the standard treatment for blackwater fever: being stripped and put in a tub of ice. He passed out during the treatment, awakening grateful that he was still alive.
Unfortunately, Lee faced the need to continue laboring upon his return home. Learning of financial strain on his family, Lee gave his father his entire savings minus the cost of matriculation fees and books for his first semester at a Furman preparatory school.
That meant Lee had to work himself through prep school and college, waking up at 3 a.m. daily to deliver newspapers. He washed laundry and milked cows for extra money.
Lee’s authorized biographer attributed his later success at Bellevue in part to his propensity for hard work – learned on the farm of his youth, where he once picked 416 pounds of cotton in a single day – refined in Panama.
“His ultimate success was hard won,” Huss wrote. “… Long hours of rugged toil put into Lee’s life a steel without which no man can attain the heights.”
At Bellevue, Lee averaged 10 pastoral visits a day for years and spent five to six hours daily in sermon preparation and study before noon. He wrote out all of his sermons and read them many times to cement the material in his mind before preaching extemporaneously. Additionally, he was known to visit church members in the middle of the night if needs arose.
Fowler said Lee would rebuke people today who eschew hard work, particularly ministers.
“He would caution anyone against pursuing a calling in ministry without marrying that to a strong work ethic,” said Fowler, who formerly oversaw the R.G. Lee Center at Union University. “The heart of the gospel is sacrifice, and the gospel came at a great cost to Christ. Those who bear His name and proclaim His Word in ministry must recognize that does come at a personal cost. You cannot advance the gospel ministry without there being a sacrifice … so that we might spend the time necessary with the Lord to hear from Him and the time necessary with the people to walk with them.”
At the same time, Fowler advocated a healthy balance between work, leisure and family time, warning that a life of excessive work can cause a minister to neglect family life and miss many blessings.
Lee “would caution us to pursue excellence in preaching, to pursue excellence in pastoring but not to do so at the expense of family,” Fowler said.
Still, the Bible’s teaching on the value of work is undeniable, Fowler noted. Lee expounded on work’s value in his sermon on “worthless pursuits” – one of which was “ease in life.”
Lee warned young adults, “Now that you have finished some of you, your college course, oft with bold subtlety the tempter’s mouth will approach your ear, saying ‘Soul take thine ease.’ And if you listen and obey, you are giving yourselves to the pursuit of a flea, which, whether caught or uncaught, is worthless.
“… Young man, work. Despise ease. Set a high goal and go to that goal over any rough road, no matter how rough – up any high hill, no matter how high – through any dark valley, no matter how dark.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is the chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)