William Rivers, 88, founder of Baptist church

February 07, 1999|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

The Rev. William Evans Rivers, who in 1950 founded and preached at a West Baltimore storefront church and continued as the church's pastor for almost 50 years, died Monday of pneumonia at Sinai Hospital. He was 88.

Mr. Rivers, who lived in Walbrook in West Baltimore, founded New Bethlehem Baptist Church on Archer Street. At its inception, the church had three members, but the congregation outgrew two subsequent locations.

The current church is on North Carey Street and has more than 200 members.

"When he preached, nothing moved, nobody did anything," said his goddaughter, Carolyn Bailey of Baltimore. "He kept everyone interested and in their seats."

Mr. Rivers, who spoke in a clear, precise and often riveting manner, enjoyed preaching. Friends and parishioners called his sermons "soul-stirring," "very emotional" and "to the point."

"He was one of those fire-and-brimstone preachers," Ms. Bailey said. His godson, the Rev. J. L. Carter, called Mr. Rivers a "tremendous pulpiteer."

"He could interpret Scripture in a way people could apply it to their lives," Mr. Carter said.

Mr. Rivers often preached without notes and rarely repeated himself or lost his train of thought. Ms. Bailey said his sermons, although compelling, were often long. "You could take a nap and wake up and still get into it," she said.

Mr. Rivers also was known for taking an active part in the lives of church and community members. He often helped people who needed food or were faced with eviction or had financial problems.

"He was someone who anybody felt comfortable with," said Raynard Ellerby, who lives near Bethlehem Baptist Church. "He wasn't just concerned about the people of his church, but people in general."

A native of Bennettsville, S.C., Mr. Rivers came to Baltimore in 1948 and was a member and associate minister of the old Jones Tabernacle on West Baltimore Street. He graduated from Loyola College with a divinity degree in the 1970s.

He was a past president of the Baptist Ministers Conference for Baltimore City and Vicinity and the Pastors Conference for Baltimore City. He also was a former member of the Ministers Conference for Hampton, Va.

Mr. Rivers also operated a three-chair barbershop near his church, where for more than 25 years churchgoers and nonchurchgoers heard the word of the Lord while getting a shave and a trim.

The income from the barbershop supplemented his pastoral salary, which was lean during the early days, relatives said.

"But his love was preaching," Ms. Bailey said. "It was his life."

Services were held yesterday.

In 1934, Mr. Rivers married Viola Massey, who died in 1994. He is survived by a sister, Annie Catherine Laster of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a niece, Catherine Short of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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