A student at Beeson Divinity School once came to preaching professor Robert Smith Jr. in tears. The young man’s fiancée had returned the ring to him and called off their engagement. Smith cried with him. Then he made the student preach his scheduled sermon that day in class.

“I told him ministry is like that,” Smith said. “You can’t cancel a sermon” and say, “I won’t preach today because my heart is broken.”

It’s a lesson Smith has learned well through his own tragedies. He has performed the funerals of one wife and two sons, yet he keeps preaching.

Over his decades in ministry, the 74-year-old has trained classroom after classroom of aspiring pastors to proclaim the Word and earned acclaim for his powerful example. He preaches in the traditional African American exhortation style with a rich array of theological and cultural references sprinkled in. His sermons always center on a biblical text.

Beeson’s founding dean Timothy George said Smith “once wanted to become a professional baseball player, and he preaches like a great shortstop: agile, athletic … musical, and strategic, poetry in motion.” He recalled seeing him “stride an entire pulpit in an exuberant pulpit moment.”

Smith serves as the Beeson’s Charles T. Carter Baptist Chair of Divinity, and the school named its preaching institute for him.

He has spoken at 135 colleges, universities, and seminaries worldwide along with churches from a slew of major US denominations. His book Doctrine That Dances was named the 2009 Preaching Book of the Year by CT’s Preaching Today. Smith received a living legend award in 2017 from the E. K. Bailey Expository Preaching Conference, a prestigious honor among African American pastors.

Dean Douglas A. Sweeney called him “one of the most influential preachers and teachers of preaching in the world,” yet he’s also known for investing in students so much that “hundreds around the world count him as a spiritual father.”

Upon his retirement the end of this semester, Smith will launch a new chapter in his ministry journey. Yet he will remain a popular preacher characterized by joy and shaped by tragedy.

From Cincinnati to Louisville

Four decades ago, it seemed unlikely Smith would become a preaching legend. He was pastor of New Mission Baptist Church in Cincinnati, the father of three young boys, headed back to school for his bachelor’s degree at Cincinnati Bible College.

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Smith was one of the college’s only African Americans, and the registrar once suggested he should “go to one of your own schools.” But he persevered.

Then the bottom fell out in early 1984. His wife, Gayle, who had lupus, caught a cold she couldn’t shake. Eventually, she went to the University of Cincinnati Hospital, where a doctor said she would be fine. Smith left the hospital on a Sunday morning to preach before returning with some clothes for Gayle to wear home.

That afternoon her hospital room was empty. A nurse said Gayle had been taken to ICU with seizures. A week later she died. Smith preached her funeral from Ezekiel 24, where the prophet’s wife died and God told him to continue preaching.

Image: Courtesy of Beeson Divinity School

The big question was “Can you go on and preach the message that God has given you even though your heart is broken?” Smith said.

He could.

Smith graduated from college two months later, continued pastoring in Cincinnati, and earned a master of divinity degree four years later from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Amid his educational journey, he married his second wife, Wanda, who remains by his side 38 years later.

In 1993, he earned a PhD in homiletics from Southern and immediately was given a position as associate professor of preaching by the administration of Albert Mohler, then in the controversial first year of a presidency focused on turning the seminary back to its conservative roots.

For a year and a half, Smith was a full-time pastor and a full-time professor, driving the 254-mile round trip from Cincinnati to Louisville hundreds of times. “I know the road from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Louisville,” he said. “I can drive it with my eyes closed.”

In 1997, Smith ended his 20-year pastorate at New Mission Baptist, feeling released to leave once the congregation’s mortgage was paid off. Now focused fully on teaching, he began to pile up awards, honors, and speaking engagements. He led Southern’s preaching department, wrote curriculum for African American doctor of ministry students, and was on track to receive tenure.

Smith even planned to be buried at Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where Southern Seminary legends James P. Boyce, John Broadus, and A. T. Robertson have their graves (along with the graves of KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders and boxing legend Muhammad Ali).

‘My students became my parishioners’

But God wouldn’t let Smith coast through the rest of his academic career. In 1997, he received a call from Beeson, the divinity school of Samford University in Birmingham. Established in 1988, Beeson was less than a decade old, and its success was not assured. When Wanda advised him to give Beeson a résumé in case God was up to something, he replied, “I don’t want God to be up to anything.”

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Nonetheless, Smith said, he was. Smith accepted the call and has been teaching there 27 years—commuting between Birmingham and Cincinnati the whole time. Smith’s chief legacy at Beeson has been caring for students. He meets individually with each of his students each semester. Often he marries them. Sometimes he buries them.

“I asked the Lord to let me pastor again,” he said. But “the Lord said no,” and “my students became my parishioners.”

Beeson’s interdenominational atmosphere fits well with Smith’s theological affinities. The school’s professors and students are Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, and Presbyterian, along with a sprinkling of other denominations. Smith says he won’t compromise on doctrinal essentials, but he is at home in various theological camps.

He has friends with different views of female pastors, baptism, church polity, and social ministry.

“People hold things that are different from me that are nonessential, and it’s okay,” Smith said. “I baptize people through the mode of immersion. Presbyterians don’t. We’re not going to split, in terms of fellowship, over that. It’s not essential. Whether you baptize in the Pacific Ocean or pour some water over their head,” in “all things there must be charity.”

Uncharted waters

Tragedy continued to follow Smith through his journey at Beeson. His son Tony was murdered in 2010 during a failed robbery at the restaurant where he worked. Tony’s death helped inspire Smith’s 2014 book The Oasis of God: From Mourning to Morning, Biblical Insights from Psalms 42 and 43. Last year, his son Bobby succumbed to cancer after a 15-year battle. Smith preached both funerals.

George said Smith’s preaching has been shaped by tragedy.

“Robert has lived in the depths,” George said, “and he preaches out of the depths.”

Enduring tragedy isn’t a badge of personal honor, according to Smith. He sees it as a badge of honor for Christ alone.

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“It wasn’t a matter of trying to be heroic and trying to show people how strong I was,” he said. “I wasn’t strong, and they knew that. But they got a chance to see God demonstrate his power through a weak vessel.”

Smith’s spiritual endurance through tragedy is due, at least in part, to what George calls his “inscripturated soul.” Smith is known to quote lengthy Bible passages from memory during sermons. Long car rides together have given George a front-row seat to Smith’s knowledge of the Bible.

“Sometimes we will be traveling along in the car, and he will just start singing Scripture,” George said. “While we travel maybe 40–50 miles, he will just be singing Scripture over and over again. I think it’s in the deepest level of his soul.”

At Beeson, Smith brings a fishbowl to preaching class, filled with papers listing challenging Bible passages. Students each draw a passage, then preach on the text they draw.

In retirement, Smith plans to do something similar: accept whatever new challenges he draws and keep preaching the Bible.

“I am sailing uncharted waters,” he said. “It’s really exciting to see what God is doing. I’m more excited and more passionate than I have ever been before in ministry.”

David Roach is a freelance reporter for CT and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Saraland, Alabama.