Posted by: Luther Rice College & Seminary | April 3, 2013

Luther Rice alum Called the ‘Billy Graham of Mulberry’

Mulberry Minister Called the ‘Billy Graham of Mulberry’

The Rev. Gerald Bagwell stands in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Mulberry recently. Bagwell retired as pastor in December, but is still active in the church and local politics.


Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 4:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 3:17 a.m.

MULBERRY | As preachers go, the Rev. Gerald Bagwell said he hardly fits anybody’s mold.


Gerald Ezra Bagwell

Date of birth: Feb. 20, 1936.
Place of birth: Winder, Ga.
Occupation: Southern Baptist minister.
Family: His wife of 57 years, Betty; sons Greg, Jeff and Phil; four grandchildren.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in education, Piedmont College, Demorest, Ga.; master’s degree in divinity, Southeastern Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.; master’s and doctorate degrees in theology, Luther Rice Seminary, now in Atlanta.
Motto: “People don’t care what we know unless they know we care.”
Favorite food: Fried okra.
Favorite book: The Holy Bible.
Pet peeves: People who profess to be Christians but you can’t see it in their daily lives; Christian leaders who live in a box that is so narrow they would exclude Jesus.
Hobby: Politics, because the process is fascinating. “What you can do, even in a small way, can affect the outcome of an election.”

“I won’t be like any Southern Baptist minister you’ve ever known,” he said. “I’m not going to go anywhere and be anything but what I am, and I’m for God. And God has burned Mulberry on my heart.”

Though health issues compelled him to retire as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Mulberry in December, Bagwell can’t quite step away from his passion for the city’s politics and its people.

He’s been called the Billy Graham of Mulberry — a faith-based leader who pulls together rival forces when politics is tearing them apart.

And it’s a role he willingly embraces.

“He has brought a lot of calm to our community,” said the Rev. James Sykes, pastor of the Mount Zion AME Church in Mulberry. “He has brought unity, and he’s brought us together racially, politically, and as a community.”

When Mulberry’s City Commission meeting degenerated into a shouting match a few years back, it was Bagwell’s calming reason that restored peace.

And when financial mismanagement rocked the city last year, leading to the arrests of then-City Manager Frank Satchel Jr. and Tracy Harris, the city’s public works manager, Bagwell tiptoed behind the scenes to help allay the turbulence that followed.

“He reminded us that we should focus on the positive things that are going on in Mulberry,” said City Commissioner Jim Splaine. “He’s got that soft-spoken voice, and I think that’s why he’s so effective. He listens to everybody, then he offers his advice. I can tell you this, he is very good at being a pastor. He lives it.”

Bagwell never intended to be a pastor. Growing up, he was intrigued by political science and thought he’d pursue that path, but it wasn’t to be.


Gerald Ezra Bagwell was born near the rural town of Winder, Ga., on Feb. 20, 1936, the younger of Cecil and Ola Bagwell’s two children. His father had a third-grade education, and his mother attended through only the fifth grade, but they built a home based on faith in God and a commitment to seeing their children educated.

Bagwell heeded that call. After finishing high school, he married his longtime sweetheart, Betty, and began working his way through Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga.

“I finished my courses by noon and went to work in an auto parts store,” he said.

While pursuing his degree in education, Bagwell also pastored a small congregation, making his ministry calls in the evenings. Six months into that ministry, the church burned to the ground. Bagwell, who was taking his final exams the next day, could salvage only 50 chairs and a blackboard.

“I found out we had $1,500 in insurance and we owed $3,000,” he said. “We had nowhere to turn but to God.

“It’s amazing I didn’t throw up my hands and say ‘I don’t want to do this. I didn’t want to do this to begin with,'” he said. “But I didn’t.”

That wouldn’t have been in Bagwell’s nature, said longtime friend Landis Fleming.

“His first love is God, and out of that flows his love for his family,” he said. “He just loves people so much, and he loves to help them in any way he can.

“He is a loving person and genuinely talks to the Lord, and listens for His instruction. If he feels that the Lord is giving him a direction to go, then whatever the price that entails, that’s what he’s going to do. Obedience is first and foremost for him.”

In the end, Bagwell’s congregation rallied at that Georgia church, signing for the financing to rebuild the church.


Bagwell eventually received his bachelor’s degree from Piedmont College, and while raising three young sons and pastoring a series of community churches, he found time to complete his master’s degree in divinity at Southeastern Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and master’s and doctorate degrees in theology from Luther Rice Seminary, which has moved from Jacksonville to Atlanta since Bagwell attended there.

Early on, church leaders discovered Bagwell’s talent for parlaying a small group into a thriving congregation, having done just that with a couple Southern Baptist churches in the Atlanta area.

“He has a good understanding of public relations and that has enhanced his ministry,” said the Rev. Robert Roberts, director of missions for the South Florida Baptist Association in Lakeland, who’s known Bagwell since he came to Lakeland in 1978 to pastor the First Baptist Church.

For years, Bagwell has mentored young pastors and lay people in the ministry, Roberts said.

“Leaders prepare other leaders, and Gerald has done that,” he said. “Pastors tend to be a lonely lot, and he’s been a friend to many, many pastors.”

While at First Baptist Church in Lakeland, Bagwell attracted many new families to the congregation, said church member Buddy Fletcher, a former mayor of Lakeland.

“He’s a dedicated Christian man, and he brought that out in the way he lived and the way he preached,” he said. “You’re going to build a congregation if you give them what they want and need, and that’s what he did.

“He’s also very humble, and he’s committed to what he believes,” Fletcher said. “He’s a peacemaker, and I don’t think I ever saw him get mad about anything.”


Bagwell returned to Atlanta in 1986, but the friends he’d made in Lakeland lured him back to the First Baptist Church six years later.

After five years, he left that church to pastor a series of fledgling congregations before joining the First Baptist Church of Mulberry in 2005.

“They were in trouble, and I went there to be interim pastor for three Sundays,” he said. “I stayed for seven years.

“God uses pastors in different ways, and there was a reason he needed me there.”

When Bagwell joined the Mulberry congregation, the political chaos at City Hall had permeated nearly every corner of the city, including its houses of worship.

“I had my work cut out for me,” he said. “But there’s one thing I’ve learned as a pastor: People don’t care what we know unless they know we care.”

Though he’s retired from the church, Bagwell continues to join his friend, the Rev. James Sykes, in prayer to begin each Mulberry City Commission meeting.

“I’ve tried to show them that I care and I want to help,” he said.

Sykes said he’s achieved that goal, and then some.

“Gerald has a beautiful spirit,” he said. “I don’t think it can really be put into words.”

[ Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at or 863-533-9070. ]



  1. Reblogged this on The messy planting of Oaks of Righteousness and commented:
    Proud of this great Luther Rice alumnus.

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