Elmer Sizemore, pioneer organizer for N. England Baptists, dies at 71

NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. (BP)--In the decades immediately following World War II, Southern Baptists expanded the reach of their missions commitment well beyond the South. Beachheads were established when they planted Manhattan Baptist Church in 1954 in New York City and Screven Memorial Baptist Church four years later in southern New Hampshire.

“The Northeast became a ‘laboratory’ for Southern Baptists’ redefining the laity, engaging in innovative evangelism, legitimizing social ministries, improving race relations and cooperating with other denominations,” wrote Merwyn Borders in “The Circle Comes Full: New England Southern Baptist, 1958-1998.”

If the region north of Maryland was a laboratory for denominational innovation, Elmer Sizemore, the New England Baptist’s first missionary, was its chief scientist. He died April 18 in an Omaha, Neb., hospital after suffering a heart attack and stroke at the age of 71.

Sizemore was born Aug. 6, 1927, in Leslie County, Ky. He was ordained to the gospel ministry in February 1950 by Petrey Memorial Baptist Church, Hazard, Ky., which was also the location of his funeral April 23.

Sizemore began his ministry as a pastor and local missionary in Duane, Ky., and later at Hyden Baptist Church, Leslie. Beginning in 1955, he served for five years as director of missions for the Washington Baptist Association in Georgia.

He was appointed in 1959 by the then-Home Mission Board of the SBC to serve as the area missionary for the entire East Coast region north of Maryland. “Sizemore’s unique gifts as a missions strategist and enabler were important in shaping northeastern Southern Baptists into the strong missions force they became,” wrote Borders.

Though Sizemore’s first office was in New Jersey, he actually spent much time in his car. He drove thousands of miles each year to encourage church planters from Delaware to Maine as they began new fellowships and chapels. When Screven Memorial Baptist Church (now called Seacoast Community Church, Portsmouth, N.H.) and a handful of other New England congregations sprang up, Sizemore found that he was spending an increasing amount of time traveling throughout New England.

On May 19, 1962, Sizemore convened a meeting at which pastors and laity from seven New England churches and one mission were present. Their purpose was to form the New England Baptist Association. The following November, 62 messengers representing eight constituted churches and 10 missions formed the association, which grew into the present 200-congregation Baptist Convention of New England. Sizemore was selected as the NEBA’s director of missions. He also was the first editor and photographer of the New England Baptist.

When the number of congregations grew sufficiently, messengers attending the October 1967 meeting disbanded the New England Baptist Association, formed three regional associations and launched the Baptist General Association of New England. Sizemore was elected as the BGANE’s administrative minister.

In his new role, Sizemore and members of the board of directors met in Northborough, Mass., and turned the first shovels of dirt Oct. 5, 1976, for what would soon become New England Baptist’s first permanent home, the present facility at 5 Oak Avenue, Northborough.

In the history of New England Baptists, Merwyn Borders reflects that, “From day one Elmer Sizemore had been a key player in Southern Baptists’ church planting efforts in New England. There was hardly a church or mission that ‘Moe’ Sizemore had not impacted.”

Ken Lyle, the Baptist Convention of New England executive director, said, “Elmer Sizemore was the epitome of a pioneer missionary. He had a passion to share the good news of Christ with all people. He was Holy Spirit-driven to plant and grow new churches. Baptists in New England are blessed to build on the solid foundation of ministry laid down by Elmer and his wonderful family. We are only an echo of God’s word to missionary Sizemore: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

Jack Schneider, who has been pastor of Baptist Fellowship, Columbia, Conn., for 32 years, commented, “When I first came to Connecticut as a young minister, Elmer did everything possible to make our work feel important and impressive. He constantly showed up just when we needed him to, to give us encouragement and strength. He provided us all the things that were necessary to keep us loving New England and wanting to stay here the rest of our lives. Thank God for Elmer Sizemore and the impact he had on our lives.”

Sizemore resigned in September 1977 to begin a mission congregation in New York City. He also served Southern Baptists in Syracuse, N.Y., and Atlanta. From 1984-93, he served as director of missions for the Tustumena Baptist Association in Kenai, Alaska. Sizemore retired from the North American Mission Board in 1993. He then was pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Oberlin, Kan.

Sizemore was returning from a missions conference in Arkansas when he suffered the heart attack and stroke that ended his life. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Jean; two daughters, Samantha of New York City and Rhoda Lee Warren, who currently resides in Oklahoma; and one grandson.

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