Rev. Nathaniel Higgs

Community Activist Headed Southern Baptist Church For 40 Years And Oversaw Numerous Expansion Activities

June 15, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,

The Rev. Nathaniel Higgs, a community activist who also had pastored the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore for nearly four decades, died from complications after prostate surgery June 5 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Towson resident was 78.

Dr. Higgs was born in Palmyra, N.C., and spent his early years on his grandfather's farm. He later moved to Baltimore and graduated in 1949 from Dunbar High School.

After serving for several years in the Army, Dr. Higgs worked at Fort Meade and drove a taxicab.

He earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Morgan State University and then earned bachelor's and master's degrees in theology from the Virginia College and Seminary in Lynchburg, Va.

In 1977, Dr. Higgs earned a doctorate of divinity from Virginia College and Seminary, and he held a doctorate in humane letters from United Baptist College and Seminary in Randallstown.

Dr. Higgs joined the Southern Baptist Church, then located in the 1500 block of East Preston St., in 1957, and three years later became a licensed and ordained Baptist minister.

In 1966, Dr. Higgs was named the third pastor of Southern Baptist Church. He helped the church relocate and build a new building and reach out to the community and those who needed assistance.

"When they moved over to 1701 N. Chester St., the estimated construction cost was $7 million dollars," said the Rev. Robert Lee Haynes, who recently retired after serving as pastor of New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church for 23 years. "Through his leadership, he had that mortgage paid off in four years and 11 months, and he never missed a payment."

In 1982, under his leadership, the Southern Baptist Church became one of the founders of Harbor Bank of Maryland. Dr. Higgs served on its board for more than two decades.

"When I first met him, Dr. Higgs was pastor of a church with 2,000 folks. That was back in 1978. He was a great pastor, leader and builder," Mr. Haynes recalled.

"He was out front of the church trimming the grass and the flowers. He didn't have to do that. I asked him if he was the pastor, and he said, 'Come on Sunday and see,' " he said, laughing. "I went and he wasn't there. He was away in South Carolina. Anyway, we became close friends."

Mr. Haynes added: "He was very, very God centered and he loved people. He had a way with people. He never put on airs and was very natural."

Mr. Haynes said that Dr. Higgs' gift was "building his own church community by bringing in other pastors to preach."

Dr. Higgs also held national office when he served as a board member of the National Baptist Convention USA from 1990 to 1994. He served as president of the United Baptist Missionary Convention and Auxiliaries of Maryland from 1990 to 1994; and was on the board and a trustee of the Maryland Baptist College and Convention.

He was a past chairman of the membership committee of the Ministers Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity and a past president of the Pastors Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity.

During his UBMC presidency, he led the organization's purchase of the former National Cash Register Building in the 900 block of Madison Ave., which was converted into its new headquarters building.

In 2001, Dr. Higgs again led the effort when his church's Southern Baptist Church Community Development Corp. joined hands with Baltimore developer Bill Struever, Savannah Development Corp. and the Enterprise Foundation in constructing 60 homes and a senior center at the American Brewery property on Gay Street.

The senior living center was named the Coel-Grant-Higgs Senior Center after Dr. Higgs and two of his predecessors at his church.

"This is the first major investment in East Baltimore," Dr. Higgs told The Sun in a 2001 interview. "It is critical to the church that, as downtown is redeveloped, the existing senior population can afford to live in the area."

The Rev. Joseph E. Lewis, pastor of the Greater St. John Baptist Church in Turners Station, is another longtime friend and colleaque. "He was a very energetic man. He loved people and he loved working out in the community," Mr. Lewis said.

"He was a very good Christian man and there was nothing that he wouldn't do to help someone," he said. "His inner city outreach programs were very important to him. If anyone needed help, he'd bring them in. If they needed help, then he'd help them."

Dr. Higgs retired in 2002.

He enjoyed deep-sea fishing, golf and riding his motorcycle.

Services were held at his church June 13.

Surviving are his wife of 55 years, the former Bernice Whitaker; four sons, Nathaniel Higgs Jr. of White Marsh, Bruce Higgs of Baltimore, David Higgs and Marvin Higgs, both of Woodlawn; four daughters, Melissa Higgs of Towson, Angela H. Davis, Rosita H. Brooks and Carol H. Baker, all of Rosedale; a brother, Walter Higgs of Raleigh, N.C.; four sisters, Stella L. Long and Bertha Mae Hanson, both of Scotland Neck, N.C., Deborah Butler and Charon Smith, both of Richmond, Va.; 13 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

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