Lester Roloff

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Lester Leo Roloff
Brother Lester Roloff.jpg
Born (1914-06-28)June 28, 1914
Dawson, Navarro County
Texas, USA
Died November 2, 1982(1982-11-02) (aged 68)
Near Normangee, Texas
Residence Corpus Christi, Texas
Alma mater

Baylor University

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Occupation Author, teen home operator, Independent Baptist evangelist and pastor

Lester Leo Roloff (June 28, 1914 – November 2, 1982) was an American fundamentalist Independent Baptist preacher and the founder of teen homes across the American South. It was the operation of those teen homes (primarily his Rebekah Home for Girls) which placed him in the public spotlight.

Early ministry[edit]

Born of German descent, Roloff was reared in Dawson in Navarro County in east central Texas. He began preaching at the age of eighteen. He attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas (Roloff is reported to have brought his dairy cow with him to raise tuition funds through the sale of its milk), and later Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

After graduation, Roloff began preaching at small country churches in southern Texas before taking on pastoral duties at churches in Houston and later Corpus Christi.

The Family Altar[edit]

It was in Corpus Christi in 1944 that Roloff began his radio show, The Family Altar.

The show consists of recordings of his sermons, aired in both 15 and 30-minute programs. Roloff also incorporated singing into his sermons, and would occasionally break into impromptu singing of hymns and/or leading his choir to sing along. The Family Altar program begins and ends with a recording of Roloff singing ("When Jesus Comes (One Sat Alone Beside the Highway)" at the beginning, and "The Stranger Who Sat By the Sea" at the ending) accompanied only by organ.

Ministry expands[edit]

In 1950, Roloff was called upon to fill in as preacher at a series of revival meetings in Corpus Christi after the scheduled speaker, B. B. Crim, died. The enthusiastic reaction to Roloff's preaching led him to resign his pastorate and pursue full-time evangelism. Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises was hence incorporated the following year.

Roloff preached stridently against homosexuality,[1] communism, television, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gluttony, and psychology. His strong stands led to disagreements with most of his Southern Baptist brethren. In 1956, after giving a speech at his alma mater Baylor University criticizing denominationalism, Roloff broke with the SBC and joined the Independent Baptist movement.

In 1954, Roloff returned to pastoral ministry by the establishment of the Alameda Street Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, an Independent Baptist congregation. He would remain there until 1961, when he resumed full-time evangelistic ministry. In 1967, he started another Independent Baptist church in Corpus Christi, Peoples Baptist Church, at which he remained until his death.

The Roloff Homes[edit]

Roloff began actively ministering to alcoholic and homeless men. His first mission house was established in Corpus Christi in 1954. Additional children's homes were eventually added throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. The first Roloff home for females, Rebekah Home for Girls, was established in 1968, which brought in young girls who were addicted to drugs, involved in prostitution, serving jail time, kicked out of their homes, or in need of refuge.

The only literature permitted to those living in the Roloff homes was the King James Version of the Bible. Television was forbidden, and only one hour of radio per day was permitted to listen to Roloff's radio sermons. Daily church attendance was mandatory; each Roloff home had its own church and pastor on the grounds. Other policies, in accordance to the state, included windows being locked and alarm systems in order to prevent any truancy or escape. Contact with the outside world was denied except for monitored phone calls with parents. In addition, each dorm room had an intercom and loudspeaker.

In December 2001, Texas Monthly reported on the (then closed) Rebekah Home:[2]

Some of the homes were temporarily closed in 1973 because Roloff refused on church-state issues to license the home through the state government. The institutions reopened in 1974 after Roloff successfully appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled in Roloff's favor that it was unconstitutional to close the homes down. At one point, Roloff transferred ownership of the homes from his evangelistic corporation to his church, thus compelling the state to sue the "new" owners (and restart the entire litigation) while he kept the homes running. The Attorney General refiled the case and secured an injunction that tried to shut down the ministry. In 1975, the state passed laws that required the licensing of youth homes. Roloff was arrested twice for refusing to comply with this law.

In 1979, in an incident known as the "Christian Alamo," Roloff urged churches and pastors across America who supported his ministry to come to Corpus Christi and form a human chain around the church to prevent the Texas Department of Human Resources from removing children from the homes. Legal battles with the State of Texas continued, and the homes were closed in 1985.

However, the homes reopened in 1997 after a new law was passed which allowed faith-based institutions to opt out of state licensing requirements. The law was subject to renewal in 2001 and was not renewed at that time (primarily on the basis that, of the then 2,015 faith-based institutions operating various types of child-care facilities, only a mere seven chose the opt-out provision), whereupon the homes were once again closed.

Death[edit]

Roloff had always had a fascination with flight. He purchased his first airplane in 1954 and used it to travel between his various speaking engagements throughout the country. On November 2, 1982, the same day that the Democrat Mark Wells White, the outgoing attorney general, unseated Republican Governor Bill Clements, Roloff's plane crashed during a storm outside Normangee, Texas. Roloff and a ladies' singing trio from the home for adult women, along with another woman working at the home, were killed. White had vowed if elected governor to shut down Roloff's homes. The wreckage of the crashed airplane used to be a centerpiece of Roloff Park at Hyles-Anderson College, a Bible college in Crown Point, Indiana, partly named for the pastor Jack Hyles.

Roloff's legacy[edit]

Roloff is cited as a major influence on both the Christian fundamentalist homeschooling and youth movements. His final recorded sermon was preached at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is entitled "Hills that Help." Roloff was posthumously inducted in 1993 into the National Religious Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises is still in operation and the ministry continues to broadcast reruns of "The Family Altar" program on smaller, privately owned radio stations, and sell copies of Roloff's sermons. In 2017 the organization moved its mailing address to Fort Thomas, Arizona.

People's Baptist Church also remains in operation but no longer operates teenage group homes. The church now operates homes for adult men and women being treated for alcohol and drug addiction.

References[edit]

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