STARKVILLE, Miss. (BP) -- One-hundred-one-year-old Roscoe Anderson recalls that his first chore as a 5-year-old was to follow his father up and down furrows of their farmland, placing one grain of corn in each of his dad's footprints.
"From that time on, I realized that was my occupation," Anderson said. "I was a farmer just like my dad."
|Roscoe Anderson, who organized Vermontís first Southern Baptist church in 1960, is shown here with his granddaughter Jamie Hunt and her husband Trey. Anderson, now 101, lives in Starkville, Miss., and is a member of First Baptist Church, where he was one of the Sunday School teachers for 3-year-olds for 30 years.|
But Anderson didn't become that kind of a farmer in God's plan. Ultimately, he would devote himself to preparing soil and planting seeds for God's work in New England. He is still astounded that God's hand on his life not only raised him to places of responsibility he could never have imagined, but also selected him as the catalyst for the first Southern Baptist work in Vermont, now 38 churches strong.
Originally from Clarke County, Ala., Anderson grew up in the early 1900s in a family of subsistence farmers with a strong Christian heritage. His parents, Thomas and Lola Anderson, named Roscoe after a pastor they had dearly loved.
Anderson spoke of his Christian upbringing in his memoirs that currently are being compiled.
"Dad would always make sure we knew that he didn't know everything there was to know about God. He would tell us what he had learned as a boy from his father. But dad would tell us to listen to the preacher on Sunday because that would help us learn more about God." Even so, "Dad would make learning about God and what God wants from His people very easy to understand," Roscoe recalled of the profound influence of his father, who died when Roscoe was a young boy.
In an interview with Baptist Press, Anderson said he came to a saving relationship with Jesus at about age 8 during a two-week revival. "I thought my heart would leave my body if I didn't go forward," he said.
His was the only decision for Christ during the revival services, but Anderson still remembers the church's celebration over his salvation. "It had been a very dry year and the streams were pretty dry. A group of men took axes and shovels and made a pool out of a crater to baptize me," he recounted in the BP interview. "I guess they knew we were about to leave -- at that time people were having to abandon their farms. My dad had been very active there, and they wanted to baptize me before we left."
The family moved to the Liberty community where Liberty Baptist Church was the center of nearly everything. Anderson attended school at the church whenever tuition could be scraped together. School books had to be borrowed. When he could not attend, Anderson educated himself by reading newspapers that his little brother, a newspaper delivery boy, brought home.
At age 12, Anderson supported his family by working in a saw mill; around age 14, he began working in the textile factory in Union, Ala. "I wasn't old enough, and when the inspector would come around they would be forced to fire me. But then they would hire me again when she left," he said. "Even in the worst of times, I always have had a job and been able to earn a little money."
EARLY STEPS TOWARD VERMONT
After he married Daisy at age 18, job opportunities, his God-given ingenuity and World War II began to mold him for his impact in Vermont.
Before the U.S. entered the war, British soldiers sometimes trained on U.S. soil. Anderson worked for the Army Air Corps (now the U.S. Air Force), helping to train some of the British soldiers stationed in Selma. Once, when a plane on the base needed repair, Anderson took the initiative to figure out how to fix it, which left a favorable impression on his superior.
When his superior was assigned to open a new military base in Florida, Anderson was among 30 men the officer took with him for the task. Anderson kept getting promotions, and reached a level of earning $1,280 per year. As U.S. efforts in World War II expanded, Anderson was among several thousand civilians who resigned their jobs and enlisted in the Air Corps to serve in Great Britain to help the British face the Germans. He spent the war years there helping modify British ships for war.
Those experiences, alongside military personnel who knew his work and recommended him, set Anderson on course for defense-related positions, even serving in research and development for various munitions projects. He worked on planes such as the B-29 and the F-4 Phantom jet and "became the number one guy on B-47 airplanes," he said. Referring back to his lack of formal education, he remarked, "God had to have a hand in it all."
In his civilian employment with the Air Force after the war, Anderson worked on projects with General Electric, a military supplier. While based in Tampa, Fla., with Daisy and their two children, he travelled frequently, often to Vermont to a GE firing range facility.
Anderson always looked for a place to worship on Sunday wherever he was, and he quickly noticed the absence of Southern Baptist churches in Vermont. "What impressed me most was that God put it on my heart to go to Vermont," he said, "and it was the only state in the union without a Southern Baptist church." When a position opened up to manage the firing range, he applied for it, not really expecting to get it. But to his amazement, he passed the required physical fitness exam and was hired.
A CHURCH IN VERMONT TAKES ROOT
Merwyn Borders, a former Southern Baptist missionary in New England and a historian for New England Southern Baptist churches, reflected on Anderson's influence on Baptist work in Vermont.
"Roscoe came around Thanksgiving of 1959. He became the manager of the firing range in the mountains outside of Burlington. And he became burdened for the lack of spiritual vitality there -- it just wasn't the fervor they knew in Florida among evangelicals," Borders said. "It was churched as far as buildings, with the white churches you see on calendars. But often empty as far as what Southern Baptists consider biblical."
Borders added, "The thing that stands out about Roscoe is that the first work in Vermont was started by laypeople, not missionaries." He described Anderson as "professional in his work, down to earth, with an ability to engage people and a desire to reach out."
Susan Brindle, widow of Bob Brindle, an early pastor of the first Southern Baptist church in Vermont, said Anderson began in 1960 by putting an ad in the newspaper asking if anyone in the community might be interested in beginning a Bible study with the goal of becoming a church. "They began meeting in their rental home. That property became available to buy, and it became the first church building of the South Burlington Church," she said.
Anderson credits God with working out the provision of that home for their family to live in, then to become the church's first gathering place. He said Daisy would make some cookies, and they would invite people into their home for Bible study. "Little by little, more people came."
By the time Bob and Susan Brindle arrived at the church in 1966, the congregation had grown to between 50 and 60 members. "The property had a carriage house type barn," Susan said. "The congregation had taken that carriage house and had put carpeting on the concrete slab to make a worship center, and put classrooms on the second floor. The house became the nursery."
The first new construction took place under the leadership of Brindle. "Roscoe and another couple of men went to the banks to see about arranging a loan," Susan recounted. "They were turned down by the largest bank because they didn't want to make a loan to a 'cult group.'"
Borders noted the spiritual cycle that has taken place in New England, where impassioned preachers like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were part of the 18th century's Great Awakening. "Through the years, the Baptist impact went backwards and grew cold. Immigrants came and brought in Catholicism. Before you can plant, you have to break up the fallow field and pick up the rocks, and that's a long-term thing," he said. "It takes longevity, and the commitment and the dream."
Anderson sought to introduce evangelical programming to the local radio stations. He tried to get "The Baptist Hour" on the air and was flatly rejected by the largest radio station in Vermont, and also turned down by a second station. Anderson persisted, and took his Baptist Hour recording to a third station where the manager listened to the program and was intrigued. "He was Catholic and said he had never heard anything like it," Anderson said. As a result, The Baptist Hour began to be heard in Vermont. "It was a beautiful thing."
The South Burlington Baptist Church, now known as New Covenant Baptist Church, reached only about 110 members at its peak but spawned many other churches in Vermont.
"It was hard work," Anderson said. Asked if he ever expected one church to lead to 37 more, he lamented, "I had hoped there would be more."
SECOND CENTURY OF LIFE
To all who know him, Anderson is fondly known as "Mr. Roscoe." Having entered a second century of life, his fervor for God and for His church still radiates brightly. In 2009, at age 99, Mr. Roscoe retired from 30 years of teaching the 3-year-old Sunday School class at First Baptist Church in Starkville, Miss., where he currently resides near his children and grandchildren.
But even still, when Anderson sees the children, his countenance reflects the same love and joy that Jesus Himself demonstrated for children. FBC Starkville children's minister Charity Gwaltney remembers often observing Mr. Roscoe sitting on the floor with the children building things with the blocks. "It has been so inspiring to see this man, without grandchildren or great-grandchildren in this church, serve for so long in this way," she said.
Anderson has served in most all capacities throughout his lifelong lay ministry: deacon, lay preacher, teacher, helping prepare and serve Wednesday evening meals, and working with children, to name a few, but is not able to attend his church as often as he would like. Though he faithfully spends time in Scripture and prayer, he sorely misses active involvement in the work of the church. Mr. Roscoe also hopes that possibly his story can be used in some way to further the works of the churches he loves.
Terry Dorsett, director of missions for Vermont's Green Mountain Baptist Association, noted that for years after Anderson left New England, Mr. Roscoe returned to Vermont for the association's annual meetings and continued to write to pastors, call them on their birthdays and if he saw need, send a few dollars to meet it.
"He is a great guy. He longs for revival to come to Vermont," Dorsett said. "Even after all these years, a passion runs through him. And we'd like to see that revival happen."
Kay Adkins is a writer based in Mountain View, Ark.