Dr. Jerry Young, 18th president of the National Baptist Convention, received both his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Reformed Theological Seminary. One of the first full-time African-American students at RTS, Dr. Young shared his story with M&L Editor-in-Chief Phillip Holmes, telling stories of his childhood, education, and experiences as a pastor.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Where are you from?
Actually, I was born in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, I was born literally on a plantation, in Scott, Mississippi.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
When I was very young, my father moved from that particular plantation there near Scott, Mississippi, to Lamont, Mississippi. And so I grew up as a boy there in Lamont, which was still surrounded by the plantations. I grew up there surrounded by cotton fields and wheat and stuff like that.
We worked on the plantation and it was very difficult.
I had seven brothers and two sisters and most of us lived there in Lamont in a very small home. But my father managed to purchase a small home there with two bedrooms and a kitchen. Life was very difficult. I grew up during the Civil Rights Era, Jim Crow and the like. And being born there was extraordinarily challenging.
When did you become a Christian?
I’ve been around Christians all my life. My dad’s a pastor. I grew up in the pastor’s house. So, I was introduced to the gospel from birth.
I actually became a Christian my freshman year in college. That’s when I really became a Christian. Actually, at Sophia Sutton Mission Assembly in Prentiss, Mississippi.
T. B. Brown, who was part of Mount Helm Church in town, was a guest preacher for us down there at that meeting, and we had a lot of other folks who were teaching and training. And it was there that I literally yielded myself and truly, truly accepted the Lord Jesus Christ.
How old were you?
I was 19 years old.
When did you realize that the Lord was calling you to preach or to pastoral ministry?
One night in the dormitory, I got so overwhelmed with a call to preach until I got out of bed, probably one or two o’clock in the morning, and I went down the hall in the dormitory preaching. And people were opening the doors, coming out, and they said, “Man, Jerry has had a nervous breakdown.”
They took me uptown to see a psychiatrist.
And then Mrs. Barron sent for me.
She said, “Now look, Jerry, I know one thing, I know that you are not insane.”
She said, “Boy, let me ask you something. Have you been called to preach?” I started crying like a baby.
That was the beginning, man.
What was your ultimate hope for pursuing theological education in a formal setting?
My father told me this. He said, “Jerry, I have preached all over this country. And I’ve preached in some of the largest pulpits in the country. And I have been invited to become pastor of some of the largest churches, but I never did take one of those churches. I didn’t accept those churches because I knew I could preach to those people because God had called me to preach. But I knew I couldn’t pastor those people because I was not prepared.”
He said, “I think you ought to go to school. Because, son, if God opens doors and gives opportunities to you, I want you to be able to say, ‘I’m going to accept that opportunity because I believe God has something for me here. This is what God wants from me.’ I don’t want it to be because you’re not prepared to do it.”
I was pastoring in two churches now in Greenville, Mississippi.
I was uncomfortable because I felt a tremendous degree of responsibility to lead these people, and I felt incompetent to really lead that church and share the gospel. And I said, “My dad told me that I needed to really make sure I was prepared.”
Then the principal of Western High School came to ask me if I would teach a semester for him. I went to help him out and met a young girl. And the class ends and she told her dad that I was the best teacher she’d ever had in her life and told him I was a pastor. He showed up at the church. His name is T. J. Mercer. He had graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary. He was in Greenville, Mississippi, to start a PCA church.
And T. J. Mercer, without my knowledge, wrote Reformed Seminary. And the next thing I knew, Reformed Seminary wrote me and wanted me to come down for a weekend. Rest of it is history.
I was convinced that God did not bring me there to leave me there. And so we walked through it.Talk about your time at seminary. What was it like? What were some of the highlights, some of the frustrations?
Well, to tell you the truth, I had a very good experience at Reformed.
I went to my first class in Hebrew, the professor said, “We’ll have a quiz on the alphabet tomorrow.” Well, everyone in the classroom had a book but me. I had no idea what he’s talking about. My friend Tom carried me down to the bookstore and he helped me find my books. I went home, looked at the book, and my wife came home. I said, “I think I made a mistake.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I don’t think God really wants us here. I’ve got a quiz in the morning and I just got my book, this stuff is Hebrew and it’s worse than Hebrew to me. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” And I said, “I think I’ll withdraw from school.”
My wife looked at me and she said, “You told me that God was leading you to come to this school.” She said, “We spent every dime we had to get this house. We don’t have any more money. We don’t have anything. And now you’re going to tell me that you made a mistake? Let me tell you what I think you ought to do.” I said, “Yeah?” She said, “I think you ought to pray and study because we’re not leaving.”
I ended up staying.
What about peer relationships? This is only 10 years or so from the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve always been curious about some of the early African-American students. Were you the first?
I was the first one to go full-time on campus. I was the very, very first one. There was another gentleman who had graduated from Reformed, but he commuted. But I was the first full-time student, African-American to be on campus.
And really, this was the moment for me: Tom Anderson and I were in the classroom studying. And two of the professors came out in the hall, and they were talking about me. And so the professor asked, “How is Jerry doing in Hebrew?” And the professor said, “He’s doing well.” And the professor said, “I didn’t think he was going to be able to stay. I didn’t think he was going to make it.” And so Tom Anderson got a little angry.
Tom said, “I’m going to go ask them.”
But I said to Tom, “I’ve been through so much worse than that, man. That right there is a piece of cake. I grew up on a plantation in Mississippi Delta. I’ve seen it all. I’ve heard it all.” Those moments were there, and it was obvious that there were a couple of professors who had some degree of uncertainty as to how to relate to me. Tremendous discomfort and stuff like that. But I was convinced my wife was right, God had brought me there. I was convinced that God did not bring me there to leave me there. And so we walked through it. But truthfully, most of the professors there were extraordinarily kind and generous.
What has it been like to transition back into the National Baptist Convention after attending RTS?
When I first was called to New Hope Church, many of the older pastors would make fun and tease me that I was a point preacher. Point one, point two, point three. And they would tease me. They would say, “How many points did you have Sunday, boy?”
I go to the minister’s conference. Every week, one of the preachers had to preach. And so finally, my time came, I was going to have to preach on that Tuesday and man, every preacher in Jackson, Mississippi, came to that meeting.
And I said, “I confess, I am a three-point preacher.” They all laughed. And I said, “However, I want you fellows to know that I’m not going to hold it against you all that you all don’t do three-point preaching. In fact, I have heard some sermons since I’ve been here that didn’t even have one point.” It was over.
I preached that day, and a whole bunch of fellas got converted to three-point preaching. They all start calling me and said, “Look, how do you do that? How did you get that?” I mean, it was downhill from there.You got to be able to explain it. That’s why you go to seminary. At some point there’s a responsibility on your shoulders to make sure that all of the learning is not in the pews.
In America, I think formal theological education is being devalued. How do you encourage brothers who are called to preach but are hesitant or feel that theological preparation is unnecessary? How do you encourage them?
Well, let me tell you what I said to a lot of young preachers: “God is sovereign, does what he wills. But have you ever thought, ‘Why is it that Peter wrote First-Second Peter? Why is it that John wrote? And why is it that Paul wrote?’” I said, “You know why? That’s because God can make a mule talk, but he doesn’t specialize in that.”
I said, “God uses us where we are with what we have. The future depends upon that preacher who can explain [the Bible]. I said, “You got to be able to explain it. That’s why you go to seminary. At some point there’s a responsibility on your shoulders to make sure that all of the learning is not in the pews.” I said, “One of the tragedies of our church, in any church, but in our church in particular is to have intelligence in the pews and ignorance in the pulpit. That’s why you need to go to school.”