It would be understandable if E.W. Perry was nervous as a silence fell over the hushed crowd. He had stood before large congregations of all sizes for most of his life. But never before had someone like him stood before a group like this.
The seasoned preacher did what he always did. He opened his Bible and began to expound God’s word. Over the next hour, those attending the mostly-white Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Oklahoma City in 1949 sat spellbound as his heart poured out the Gospel. Never before had a Black man preached before the convention founded so that slaveholders could be appointed as missionaries. By this time, Perry already had been pastor at the legendary Tabernacle Baptist Church in OKC for 34 years. His message burned through him as he preached.
One viewer recounted it this way.
He took his text from Philippians 3:10-11. In sublime eloquence and style he talked about the matchless glories of Christ He called his hearers to renewed dedication to the all-important task of being good witnesses to the resurrection power of Jesus. He pointed out how every soul wants to live forever. He said, “The hope of this immortality is like a beacon light shining through the mists of the future. It ever urges the soul onward and upward. It is the greatest boon on earth. Without it, how dark is life and how terrible the grave. Take away this hope and you rob the soul of its strongest support, you break the courage of the bravest hearts and mar the comforts of the best of men .”
E.W. Perry was born in a log cabin in Noxubee, MS on May 14, 1882 the the son of Jack and Mary Perry, both former slaves. He was the third of 11 children and was raised in the poorest of situations. His parents would who often speak of the cruel whippings they received as slaves or how blacks were often chased by dogs just for entertainment. Those memories and so much more might have been in his mind as he addressed the convention crowd that day decades later.
Perry later moved to Bishop College in Marshall, Texas and received a bachelor’s degree. He went to receive the doctor of divinity degree from the Oklahoma School of Religion; doctor of letters from Natches College, Natches, Mississippi; and the doctor of theology from Ideal Bible College in Chicago.
After college, Perry headed west from home and wound up in Ardmore, Oklahoma where his uncle was a pastor. He helped edit a Baptist paper and pastored in Woodville, El Reno, and Lawton. His first church in Woodville paid $2.50 a month but he left because they would not hold services every week. He came to Oklahoma City in 1915 to become the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church. He served there for 42 years until his retirement, and then served as Pastor Emeritus until his death.
While in Oklahoma City, he led the church to be one of the leaders in the state regardless of race or denomination. He worked tirelessly and served in leadership wherever he could. He served the Oklahoma Baptist State Convention as president for 43 years (1919-1962). For 12 years (1941-1953) he was vice-president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. His influence in these areas can probably not be overstated. He is credited with saving the NBC USA during a sermon he preached at the convention in 1931.
His leadership in the church and denomination is part of the reason he was asked to be the first African American man to preach before the Southern Baptist Convention, held in his hometown of OKC that year. He was known as “Prince of the Pulpit” and that day he did not disappoint. The legendary pastor R.G. Lee of Memphis was president of the SBC that year and is the one who had asked him to preach. Before he began in Oklahoma City Perry asked that Lee “not ring him down” (put a timer on him) as he had been 60-plus years coming from a log cabin to preach that night.
The eyewitness account from before continued:
When Perry had finished every eye was wet with tears. All present knew they had heard the voice of a prophet of God. Six thousand people gave a standing ovation.
Then President Lee arose and said, “Dr. Perry, come and stand by me and take my hand. I want this convention to witness a parable in black and white, written in red. Over 60 years ago you were born in a log cabin in Mississippi. I, too, was born in a log cabin in South Carolina. You and I have been placed in the high positions we occupy by the vote of confidence of our people. But the same Christ who saved you is the Christ who saved me — both of us have been washed white in the precious blood of the Lamb. This is the parable in black and white, written in red.”
I tell the story of Dr. E.W. Perry in greater detail in my new book “Forgotten Faithful: Lesson’s from the Hidden Heroes of Church History.” The book includes short biographies of other Baptist leaders like Sallie Holmes, Eric A. Mayes, Robert Beddoe, and many others.