Three huge white crosses facing Interstate I-40, east of downtown Memphis, mark the campus of Bellevue Baptist Church. With the center cross standing 150 feet high, flanked on either side by crosses measuring 120 feet tall, the “Millennium Crosses” exemplify the need for large-scale visuals to compensate for the high-speed vehicular traffic generated by America’s automobile culture. Bellevue’s large-scale mega-church architecture complements the crosses’ dimensions and demonstrates the reality of high-density suburbanization in eastern Shelby County. The massive crosses are fitting for a church that has established itself as one of Memphis’s premier community institutions.
Bellevue is a flagship church of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). With approximately 30,000 members, it is nationally recognized as one of the United States’ largest congregations. Founded in 1903 as a mission of Central Baptist Church, Bellevue was originally located in Midtown Memphis at the corner of Bellevue and Erskine Streets (presently Court Avenue) where Dr. H. P. Hunt served as the church’s first pastor. In 1910, Bellevue constructed its first Sunday School building and began conducting its Sunday evening services on the rooftop, which led to a dramatic increase in church membership. The congregation grew to 800 members before Dr. Hunt resigned in 1914, citing ill health. Over the next thirteen years, two pastors, Dr. R. M. Inlow and Dr. W. M. Bostick, served the church, which grew to 1,000 members.
Robert G. Lee, president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1949 to 1951, served as pastor of Bellevue from 1927 to 1960. Lee’s charisma and leadership provided Bellevue with new audiences for its ministries. In 1950, the 8,000-member Bellevue was named one of The Christian Century’s twelve “Great Churches of America,” marking the church’s national significance. The church began broadcasting its services over the radio in 1929; built a 3,000-seat sanctuary in 1952; and constructed a new education building in 1958, the same year the church began airing its services on television. Bellevue’s television broadcasts have since expanded into an international ministry.
Over the next decades, Bellevue continued to provide national SBC leadership. Ramsey Pollard led the congregation from 1960 to 1972, serving as the president of the SBC from 1960 to 1961. In 1967, Bellevue increased its emphasis on recreational and athletic ministries by constructing an activities building and organizing team sports. These new recreational opportunities operated as a form of evangelistic outreach while simultaneously creating a heightened or even insular sense of community amongst the congregation, extending the church’s influence and role in its members lives even further.
When Adrian Rogers stepped into the role of pastor in 1972, he ushered in a period of growth that was unprecedented not only for Bellevue but for churches nationally. From 1972 to 2005, Bellevue grew from 9,000 to 29,000 members. Bellevue relocated from Midtown Memphis to suburban Cordova in 1989. Its move to an eighty- million-dollar suburban campus led some people to criticize its contribution to “white flight” from downtown Memphis. The campus is undeniably large, comprising athletic fields, a sprawling landscape, the campus of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, and a housing complex built for elderly church members surround the massive church building, which alone includes 702,000 square feet of space.
Bellevue’s history involves much more than simply numerical growth. It has also created an intellectual legacy of national significance. During Robert G. Lee’s tenure at both Bellevue and within the SBC, Lee established a tradition of conservatism by bolstering Southern Baptists’ emphatic belief in biblical inerrancy, opposition to alcohol, and resistance to the ordination of women, among other issues.
Adrian Rogers reinforced Bellevue’s national role when he was elected SBC president in 1979 and led the denomination’s “Conservative Resurgence,” which effectively disenfranchised moderate Baptists within the group. Since that time, conservatives have increasingly solidified their control of the denomination. Rogers was re-elected to the presidency in 1986 and 1987. Rogers’s efforts also gave Bellevue an important role as the religious right emerged as a powerful political force. For example, the church sponsors voter registration drives and its annual “Star-Spangled Celebration” on the Fourth of July mixes patriotism and religious fervor. In 2004, after the death of Ronald Reagan, Pastor Rogers substituted Bellevue’s usual Sunday evening worship with a tribute to the former president. Rogers retired in 2005, leaving a theological, political, and cultural legacy with widespread implications at the local and national level.
Dr. Steve Gaines became Bellevue’s next pastor. With international television and radio broadcasts, the church’s cultural influence continues. As David Waters explained in the Memphis Commercial Appeal of May 3, 2003, “For most members, Bellevue isn’t just their church. It’s their warm, safe and friendly neighborhood.”
“Great Churches of America, IV, Bellevue Baptist, Memphis,” Christian Century (April 19, 1950): 490-96; By His Grace and for His Glory: Celebrating a Century with Bellevue Baptist Church (2003)