In the course of my spiritual journey I have had the privilege of hearing some of the best preaching in the world delivered by some of the most wonderful men. I wish I could testify I have always sought to obey the challenges and heed the warnings of these great men of God. There were times I listened with a hungry heart, but also times when I was either a seeker living in disobedience or a believer with a cold and uncaring attitude. The first thirty-six years of my life I was definitely in the seeker category.
When I was twelve years old on Easter Sunday I walked down the aisle at First Baptist Church, El Dorado and asked to be accepted into membership of this great church. While it is true I wanted to please my parents which I did, it was more important for me to do exactly what my good friend Richard (Bussey) Crawford had just done. I was soon baptized which I thought at the time forever sealed my standing as a Christian and gave me the assurance of an eternity in heaven.
My church attendance was regular when I was living at home because I wanted to be with my buddies most of whom were members of First Baptist. During the college years my attendance was very sporadic, and I was not at all satisfied with First Baptist Church in Fayetteville. I thought the pastor was too harsh in his attitude towards the sinful behaviors so common among college students. I was more comfortable with the First Methodist Church, but was still only an occasional attendee there. It was important to me to report to my parents I was attending church somewhere. In medical school in Little Rock I was even less inclined to receive any spiritual training at church with the oft-repeated excuse, “I’m just too busy.”
When I moved to Atlanta to begin my internship I had drifted so far from any spiritual enrichment I never considered church attendance. This was before I met a beautiful young woman named Cathy Young from Fort Lauderdale. On my first date with her she told me how important faith was in her life, and I decided to take her to church the following Sunday. I definitely wanted her to believe faith was also important to me despite the fact my actions proved otherwise. I can’t remember the church we attended, but it was probably a Baptist church. My attention and focus were on her and not on any preacher.
At some point in our dating relationship it was suggested we might enjoy attending the Second Ponce De Leon Baptist Church on Peachtree Street because of the unusual preacher there. His name was Dr. Monroe F. Swilley, and we discovered he had been pastor of the church for over 20 years. There were two things unusual about him. He had the courage of his convictions because in 1957 when racial tensions were escalating all over the South he joined with 80 other Atlanta ministers to sign the Manifesto on Racial Beliefs. This document clearly stated their collective opposition to racial segregation and violence and admonished all Atlanta residents to obey the civil rights laws implementing integration. This was a brave action for these men in those times. The second thing unusual about him was he preached wearing a cutaway tuxedo. I had never seen a pastor wear such elegant attire. As I recall, he had grey spats on his black shoes.
My parents were eager to meet Cathy when she and I became serious in our intentions to marry, and they scheduled a weekend trip to Atlanta from El Dorado. One of the activities Cathy and I planned for all of us to do was to attend church to allow them see and hear this extraordinary preacher that “wears a tuxedo.” As we took our seats at the beginning of the service and the pastor appeared, Pops said, “Why that’s ole’ Monroe!” I said, “Pop, do you really know him?” “Of course I know him, he’s one of the Swilley boys from El Dorado!” I was stunned at this revelation but not too surprised since I already thought Pop knew just about everybody. Following the service, we made our way to the front and Dr. Swilley immediately recognized Pop, and they had a reunion of sorts. Of course Dr. Swilley had no way of previously connecting me to my El Dorado heritage.
Knowing Dr. Swilley was from El Dorado perhaps caused us to attend church more regularly following our meeting and introduction, but a real and lasting spiritual change came to Cathy and me years later. We now know and understand faithful church attendance does not make one a Christian. Salvation is based entirely on a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. One doesn’t need to have a pastor who wears a tuxedo, although it is unique. One does need a faithful preacher of the Word of God, and also one who has the courage of his convictions to tell everyone including college kids how to act and live rightly.