by Timothy George
Alton Earl Potts, one of the most beloved leaders ever among Baptists in Alabama, died last month on Christmas morning at age 93. His passing leaves a vacancy on the landscape of our soul.
Born in rural Randolph County in 1920, Earl Potts grew up in a country home constructed by his grandfather who had been born soon after the end of the Civil War. It was a house with a blacksmith shop, smoke house, out house, garden plot, and syrup mill. Earl never forgot, nor was he ever embarrassed about, his rural, small town Alabama roots. In this context, he acquired virtues—and a worldview—that would serve him well for the rest of his life: the value of hard work, the importance of keeping one’s word, respect for all persons regardless of color or class (his nearest neighbors were African Americans), a deep love for his family, for the Bible, for Jesus Christ, and for the church.
Earl Potts and his family were poor but they did not feel impoverished. Earl felt blessed, especially blessed by his parents and teachers, and by the pastors, mentors, and friends who encouraged him along the way. He enrolled in Howard College (now Samford University) soon after America entered World War II. During his latter college years, he served on the staff of Woodlawn Baptist Church working with noted pastor D. I. Purser. He also developed a special relationship with Dr. James H. Chapman, longtime Howard professor and mentor to ministerial students. He preached frequently and held part-time pastorates in small churches on Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain. From Birmingham, he and his new bride, Louise Green, moved to Louisville where Earl continued his studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. There the newlywed couple was befriended by President and Mrs. Ellis Fuller. Earl studied with some of the outstanding professors of the era including Clyde Francisco, Henry Turlington, James Witherspoon, and Gaines Dobbins.
In 1950, the Potts family returned to Birmingham when Earl began his pastoral ministry at McElwain Baptist Church, a congregation he served faithfully for twenty years. The arrival of son David and daughter Elizabeth (Libby) soon added to the joy and liveliness of the Potts household. During these years, Earl became a strong advocate for racial reconciliation and forged deep friendships with African American Baptist leaders in Birmingham. Earl had a great laugh and he loved to whistle as he walked down the hallway, according to Jody Baker, the administrator and minister of education at McElwain who grew up in the church there under Earl’s ministry.
From 1970 until his retirement twenty years later, Earl Potts served on the staff of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. From 1984 until 1990, he was the chief executive officer (called secretary-treasurer in those days). The 1980s were a decade of ever-widening denominational conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention. This led to polarization (and eventual splits) in a number of state conventions as well. During this time of conflict Baptists in Alabama, while decidedly conservative in theology, remained remarkably united in spirit and commitment to a common mission. In no small measure this was due to the fairness, stability, and Christ-like leadership qualities of Earl Potts. In his book Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie
, historian Wayne Flynt declared that, during his five years at the helm of Baptist work in Alabama, Earl Potts “steered the denomination like an expert pilot through waters filled with snags and bars.”
It was in the Spring of 1988 that I first met Earl Potts. I had come to Birmingham at the invitation of President Thomas E. Corts to discuss with him the invitation I had received to become the founding dean of a new divinity school at Samford University. Dr. Corts said to me, “Timothy, there is someone I want you to meet.” Earl suggested we meet in Clanton, as the peach season was just beginning. We sat together, ate peaches, and engaged in a conversation that lasted for several hours. From the getgo, I was impressed by Earl’s humility, his conciliatory spirit, his devout Christian commitment and belief in the total truthfulness of God’s Word. I was also encouraged by his keen interest in the grand idea of a new divinity school in Alabama, one that would be explicitly evangelical, theologically conservative, interdenominational, and missions-focused.
Later in the Fall of 1988, after we had enrolled Beeson’s inaugural class of thirty-one students, Earl Potts invited Dr. Corts and me to a high summit meeting of Alabama Baptist pastors and leaders, several of whom had expressed strong reservations about breaking the monopoly of theological education based only in seminaries. Earl Potts moderated this discussion which was candid and constructive and which helped to quell some, if not all, of the suspicions and misperceptions that were afoot about the new divinity school. Later that same Fall, the Alabama Baptist Convention unanimously passed a resolution commending Samford University and Dr. Corts for their initiative in launching Beeson Divinity School. “Now in its maiden semester,” the resolution read, the Divinity School has “demonstrated a fervent love for Jesus, a burden for evangelism, and…the mainstream conservative theology of Alabama Baptists.” They pledged their continued prayers and support for the new Divinity School, its faculty and students.
Soon after Earl Potts had retired from his full-time service in Montgomery, I invited him to become the inaugural James H. Chapman Fellow of Pastoral Ministry at Beeson. Named after one of his own teachers at Howard College, this new position enabled Earl Potts to pour some of the wisdom and ripe experience of his full life and ministry into the rising generation of pastors, missionaries, counselors, and teachers. In this role, he taught courses on Baptist life and polity, ministerial ethics, pastoral formation, and a special travel course to the Southern Baptist Convention. Earl loved working with the students and they in turned loved and revered him.
For several years in retirement, Earl Potts lived near our campus and we would sometimes see him in Hodges Chapel participating in community worship or just sitting quietly in prayer and meditation. As he lived on well past the psalmist’s allotment of threescore years and ten, Earl Potts became frail in body and began to lose some of his memory. But back in 1997, when he published his memoirs By the Grace of God, Earl Potts wrote in words that provide his own epitaph:
Oh, Lord, our God, how great is Thy faithfulness.
Lord, so long as I have strength of body
And the semblance of a mind,
I want to love you and serve you.
And when those fail me
I will still love you, Lord.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.