Who was Rheubin L. South?
By Brian Koonce
JEFFERSON CITY– In 1985, Gordon Kingsley, then president of William Jewell College, said that Rheubin L. South was “my picture of the Christian warrior – a man who will stand tall, who will rise up, who will defend this spiritual bridge or that holy hill. For the past dozen or so years, our leader… has been General Rheubin South. He had an unruly army… but Dr. General South has labored on, persuading, guiding, directing, redirecting.”
Though he was best known as the Missouri Baptist Convention’s (MBC) executive director from 1975-1986 and the namesake of the Missouri Missions Offering, “Dr. General South’s” legacy stretches from a rural Oklahoma town to a dry cleaning business in New Mexico to the skies above Europe to pastorates and denominational work in Arkansas before finally settling in the Show-Me State.
From New Mexico to Europe
Rheubin L. South was born in Criner, Okla. Dec. 21, 1921. At the age of two his family moved to Portales, N.M., where he lived, studied and worked until he was 25 years old.
His education marked not only his love of learning, but emphasized his reputation as a scholar. After graduating high school, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) in 1947, graduating cum laude. Three years later he completed the master of divinity program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas. He would later be honored with honorary doctorates from Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Ark., William Jewell College and Southwest Baptist University. South’s studies at ENMU were interrupted by World War II and he left school to join the Air Force in its defense of Europe in 1942. As a bombardier flying in a B-17 with the 100th Bombing Group of the Eighth Air Force, Captain South operated out of England flying missions into Germany, France and Belgium. By the time he returned home to New Mexico in 1946, he had earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals.
After the war, as South set out to finance the remainder of his college education – not to mention support his new bride, Verna – he opened a dry cleaning business. In a personal testimony, South wrote that the business prospered and he was soon handling more money than he had ever seen before. Strangely, he was not happy. He soon lost his appetite and had increasing difficulty sleeping at night. It was only after praying with the pastor of First Baptist Church, Portales, that God’s will for South’s life began to be revealed.
“By the time this prayer session was over, I knew exactly what I had to do,” South wrote. “I knew that God was calling me to preach, and I have never since had any doubts about it.”
South was ordained in 1947 in the same church where he received Christ as his savior and was baptized. He immediately gave up the dry cleaning business and moved to Fort Worth to begin seminary.
The Arkansas Years
South spent three years pastoring a church while in seminary, but it wasn’t until 1952 when he came to Arkansas as the pastor of Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock that he really began to make his mark on the Baptist world.
Only five years old, the church had a respectable 300 members when South accepted their call. Twenty-three years later when the MBC called him as their executive director, the church’s roll had more than 2000 members and was taking in record offerings. It was during this time that Rheubin and Verna started their family, and had three children, Gregory, Sharon and Diedra.
His impact on Arkansas as a pastor and denominational leader was significant. One history of Arkansas Baptists says, “South was one of the originators of the move to rid Arkansas of the vices of gambling, racing and drinking. Leading in this endless fight of civic morality, he has brought to the citizenry of this state an awareness of the tools of the devil. He has labored courageously to make Christian ideals dominant.”
It was during these years that South served 14 years on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee and was elected president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. He was an energetic supporter of Ouachita Baptist University and an advocate for Christian higher education. Although he was most well known for his dominational work and skills as a pastor, South continued to serve his country as a chaplain in the National Guard, eventually achieving the rank of colonel.
The executive board’s search committee called South to be the MBC’s executive director in 1975.
“Surely God has led in the selection of Rheubin L. South. Surely, God has great blessings in store for our convention,” said the chairman of the executive board as he announced the new executive director.
During South’s 11-year tenure, the MBC’s membership increased from 535,711 to 612,614 and the budget more than doubled.
South was the first executive director operating under the convention’s new constitution and bylaws, which took new care to achieve openness and transparency in convention business. It was during South’s tenure that detailed reports of budgets and other data were openly available.
South was also interested in numbers. In 1977, South emphasized the need for evangelism in the state and around the world, challenging Missouri Baptists to support the SBC’s “Bold Mission” effort.
This would “give every person on earth the opportunity to hear the Gospel by the year 2000. Christ Commands it!” he said.
But perhaps his biggest legacy was – and is – the state missions offering that bears his name. South noticed a distinct inefficiency in the way each Missouri Baptist agency promoted and raised its offerings. They were competing against each other. South spearheaded the effort to combine all the offerings into one. Each agency and cause would benefit from the combined promotion efforts and the burden on churches and individuals would be reduced. Many compared it to a miniature Cooperative Program, the program in which all SBC missionaries and ministries are supported and funneled through one offering. Messengers to the 1985 annual meeting approved combining the offerings in what would be called the Missouri Missions Offering, later the Rheubin L. South Missouri Missions Offering.
Suffering from leukemia, South planned to retire at the end of 1986. At that year’s annual meeting in Raytown in October, leaders from across the state praised him for his contributions and expressed sadness over his retirement. Despite a positive outlook from his doctors, South was too ill to attend the meeting; he had been hospitalized since late August. South watched the meeting via a specially arranged television hookup in his hospital room. His wife represented him at the meeting.
At 64 years old, “Dr. General South” died Nov. 6, 1986, just ten days after his retirement “party.” Memorial services in Missouri and Arkansas saw more than 1,000 in attendance.
Almost exactly one year later, messengers to the MBC’s 1986 annual meeting voted overwhelmingly to rename the Missouri Missions Offering after South. Nineteen years and countless changed lives later, Dr. General Rheubin L. South’s legacy still remains tied to the missions offering he so strongly supported.