TWO LOUISIANA TREASURES: DR. FRANK STAGG AND DR. MALCOLM TOLBERT
by Kyle Kelley
You have been impacted by the teaching, lives and examples of Frank Stagg and Malcolm Tolbert, and you may not even know it! Through a Sunday School lesson or Bible study they wrote, or through their teaching and mentoring of countless Louisiana ministers who have served in your congregation--you have benefited. Both were raised in Louisiana, were graduates of Louisiana College, served as pastors and taught for a number of years at New Orleans Baptist Seminary. Both are widely respected for their mastery of New Testament Greek, and keen insights into the Bible and its application to our life. Dr. Stagg and Tolbert have set the standard in Louisiana for scholarship, faithfulness, serving churches, and engaging the issues of our day with biblical principles. By example, they have modeled the daily Christian walk.
Dr. Stagg, who died in 2001 was often remembered for his kindness. Margaret Eskew who now teaches at Mercer University recalls riding to church each Sunday in New Orleans with the Staggs when she was a college student. Their route would take them past fraternity houses. On one of those mornings, "Dr. Stagg had to come to a quick stop as a drunken Tulane student walked right in front of his car. Dr. Stagg didn't curse the student. I can't remember what he said, but I do remember the tears that ran down his face. His own son Bobby and daughter Ginger were in the car. Dr. Stagg was crying out of compassion for the student and his parents." This incident is "indelibly burned" into her memory and part of the witness of a man who continues to influence her life and teaching philosophy.
His pastor, Dr. Steven Meriwether at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, thought of a Frederick Buechner passage as he pondered his distinquished parishioner: "In God's holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints." Meriwether reflected,
Most would agree that Dr. Stagg was one of God's handkerchiefs. At times he even resembled a silk one. As a teacher he was indefatigable in his pursuit of knowledge But his words were surpassed by his actions. Dr. Stagg coined the phrase "the unhindered gospel" in reference to the Book of Acts; he labored to remove thatwhich hindered....While teaching at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Dr. Stagg was approached by the president in the hallway. Evidently students were pushing the president to integrate the then segregated seminary. Evidently Dr. Stagg didn't share in his president's sense of alarm. The president connected the dots: "And Frank, these students are all coming from your classes!" Observing Frank and Evelyn afforded me a picture of opposition/opportunity. The words of the apostle Paul seemed to be their very own: a wide opportunity of effective work has opened to me, and there is much opposition. Dr. Stagg spent a lifetime saying that opposition and opportunity co-exist. He never flinched in the face of controversy.
Malcolm Tolbert similarly speaks of his colleague and friend, I began to study with Frank in 1947 when he was a young professor. He was one of the most honest and courageous people that I have known. He was a true prophet. He took a stand against segregation and racial prejudice when it was very difficult to do so. He opposed the Vietnam War and was very vocal in espousing women's rights. Frank always interpreted the New Testament with an eye on what was going on in the world. His message was always very relevant and dealt with the issues of the time. He opened to us the world of New Testament scholarship, one that had been closed to Southern Baptist seminary students until about the time he started teaching. My study was enriched by exposure to the great European scholars. Perhaps the greatest attribute as a professor is that he was life-changing. He was what I had been looking for all my life without ever knowing it.
Meriwether, as pastor, would visit in the Stagg home and occasionally accompany the Staggs on their boat, as being on the water was one of their favorite passions. Not surprisingly a sea metaphor was on Dr. Stagg's mind as he approached death. "When a life-long friend and colleague visited Dr. Stagg for the last time it is reported that he reached up and pulled the friend close as his voice was weak. Into his ear he said, "My sails are up; I'm waiting for the wind."
Dr. Malcolm Tolbert lived in Baton Rouge until his death in 2014. He most recently served in the post of Minister of Biblical Studies at Broadmoor Baptist, Baton Rouge. His beloved wife Nell died a few years ago. He has four children, ten grandchildren, and six great grandchildren. We were honored that he was the inaugural speaker at the Biblical Forum named partly in his honor.
After his Louisiana College days were interrupted by voluntary enlistment in the Army Air Force in World War II, he returned to Louisiana and later completed his ThD work at New Orleans Seminary. He has pastored since his student days. Throughout his career at academic posts in New Orleans, Brazil, and at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest he has always given focus to the practical application of the study of the New Testament to the church and mission field. For nearly 10 years, he served as a missionary to Brazil. Through the years he has been interim pastor of more than 30 churches, written seven books and numerous articles.
Bill Ichter who served as a fellow missionary in Brazil, spoke admiringly of his effectiveness on the mission field and his command of the language. Ichter recalled the comment of the President of the Brazilian Convention who stated he could count on one hand the number of preachers who were as effective in communicating the gospel in Portugeese, and he was comparing Dr. Tolbert with native speakers! Ichter states he was also present when Dr. Tolbert preached his first sermon in German, after only two months of study. He reports the German pastor complimented Dr.Tolbert on his command of the language with the only slightly critical comment that he was "over the heads" of some of his German audience.
Serving as a pastor in Baton Rouge at the same time as Dr. Tolbert, Irvin Cheney observed his "brilliance and sensitivity as a pastor." Yet what he most treasures is his loyal friendship stretching over 50 years no matter what the trial. Cheney observed all of us have good and bad traits, and admitted as we grow older we "usually get cranky." But Cheney pointed to a "dramatic observation" that through the years the positive traits in Dr. Tolbert have continued to increase and the negative ones have diminished.
Ray Rust, who was Executive Vice President at New Orleans Seminary during Dr. Tolbert's time as professor at the seminary calls him "one of the brightest scholars in our generation." Rust has known Dr. Tolbert since Louisiana College days when they were roommates. When it was discovered that the Biology teacher wasn't taking roll, they would alternate their attendance and take notes for each other so they each could sleep in late every other day. Rust recalls feverishly taking notes to keep up with the volumes of information the teacher gave, but then would gaze in puzzlement at the skimpy short hand his roommate took because Dr. Tolbert had the rest in his head.
Rust was also able to point to the unusual concern Dr. Tolbert shows towards others reflected first in the many friendships at Louisiana College but becoming even more apparent in his work on the mission field. Later Rust observed Dr. Tolbert's care for students but has also witnessed it towards people in all walks of life. This gentle consistency towards others remains to this day.
We were continually blessed in Dr. Tolbert's active participation in CBF-LA up until death. This legacy will endure through the Stagg-Tolbert Forum for Biblical Studies as an annual reminder and celebration of the vital partnership of healthy faith and healthy intellect. There has been no better modeling of this balance than in these two Louisiana treasures: Dr Frank Stagg and Dr. Malcolm Tolbert.