September 1, 2014
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NASHVILLE (BP) -- 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.

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."

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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. ... Read More
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