102-year-old returns to seminary alma mater for sermon
“There aren’t too many 102s around,” Rev. Eugene Florence said with a grin during a special chapel service Feb. 14.
But the preacher, who attended Southwestern Seminary’s so-called “negro extension centers” for eight years during the era of segregation, said the key to living to his ripe-old age is simple. “Obedience is what the Lord requires. I have always been obedient, even from the time of my youth. Be obedient and the Lord will add to your days,” Florence said. “The disobedient, the Bible says, will be cut off from the land.”
In December 2004, Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson awarded Florence a master of divinity degree, affirming that he had done all that any white student had done in the 1950s to receive the degree. During the chapel service on Valentine’s Day, Florence thanked Patterson for giving him “his rights.”
“When we get to heaven, this man can have my chair,” Florence said of Patterson. “I will just take a knee.”
Patterson introduced Florence at the chapel service and did not back away from the sad history that delayed Florence’s master’s degree and his welcome into the chapel pulpit.
“Can you believe that there was a day when that precious man of God would not be welcome in this pulpit?” Patterson asked students, faculty and guests who filled the auditorium. He drove home to students the importance of standing up for right even if everyone around them teaches otherwise.
“Were the men who did all this kind of thing evil men?” Patterson asked rhetorically. “No, but they had conceived of something totally wrong."
Florence took his listeners to church during the chapel, basing his sermon on Psalms 116:12. He encouraged his audience to “take the initiative and ask, ‘What shall I render unto the Lord?’”
Eliciting shouts of encouragement from the audience, the 102-year-old pastor evangelist testified that, among other things, the Lord deserves the Christian’s love, praise, confidence, trust, service, and companionship.
“God has given us a new nature that thirsts after Him and hungers after His righteousness,” Florence said. “Get on your knees everyday and thank God because we have much to be thankful for. You must serve Him in the morning. Serve Him at noonday. Serve Him at midnight.”
It is because of the unchanging hand of God that we are able and required to let the Lord lead and guide us, Florence said. “Trust him and he will make it all right in the end,” he said.
Although Florence’s mother died when he was four and he did not meet his father until he was 17, Florence never strayed far from the Lord.
“I have always hung around the church; sometimes inside and sometimes out,” he said to a laughing audience. “Sometimes we get out of line, but if you come back to serve the Lord, He will forgive you. He will not turn us away if we surrender and serve Him.”
Florence admonished students not only to be obedient and trust the Lord, but to “be obedient to your teachers. Let them know you are depending on them to teach you the best of life. If you don’t like it, just take it.”
Standing throughout the 40-minute message, Florence delivered the central points of the message in the call-out, impassioned style common among African-American preachers.
Florence called on God to give His children the power to continue following Him day to day and said he looked forward to visiting Southwestern in the future.
At the close of Florence’s message, Patterson made note of the role former Southwestern Seminary Professor of Ethics T.B. Maston played in educating the Southern Baptist Convention on the error of racism. Maston not only taught many of the courses in the seminary’s “Negro extension centers,” but he also sponsored the program.
“Dr. Maston knew that racism was wrong,” Patterson said. “He wrote The Bible and Race and showed that there is no place for racism in the Bible. Dr. Maston and I did not agree on everything, but he was dead right about racism.”