Ralph Smith, a retired pastor who once led the fastest-growing Baptist church in the country, died in his sleep Saturday morning after suffering a series of health problems, his son Peyton Smith said. Smith would have turned 86 on March 19.
Smith built a legacy during his 36 years leading Hyde Park Baptist Church, and later supported the founding of Austin Baptist Church. While at the fast-growing Hyde Park congregation, Smith oversaw construction of buildings; planted new congregations throughout the city; acquired the Quarries, a recreational facility in North Austin; and established the Hyde Park Baptist Foundation, a financial endowment for church ministries.
“He was a builder, not a divider,” Peyton Smith said of his father. “He never got into politics in Austin … it didn’t matter if you were a Republican or a Democrat, a Jew or a Christian or Buddhist, dad was a friend of yours. And he was an encourager, and always an eternal optimist. He made people feel better about themselves. Every relationship he had, whether for five minutes or for a lifetime, he made it count. He knew your name, your kid’s name, your wife’s name. He was a pastor’s pastor – he’d be there to marry you, to bury you.”
Smith was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas to a non-religious family, his son said, but Smith joined the church at age 8. While initially attending the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville to become a lawyer, Smith changed paths and began studying to become a pastor. He transferred to Ouachita Baptist University to continue his studies, earned his doctorate at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and preached in Rosenberg, Texas.
He married Bess Noble in 1951. The couple and their first two children moved in 1960 to Austin, where Peyton Smith was born four years later.
When Smith began preaching at Hyde Park Baptist, the church’s membership was around 1,000 members. Smith grew the congregation through outreach and his sermons, which were televised. When health problems forced Smith to retire in 1996, the church had grown to more than 12,000 members.
Longtime Austin developer and philanthropist Dick Rathgeber said Smith’s preaching had a strong impact on the local Baptist community.
“He did good, sound biblical preaching,” Rathgeber said. “I characterize it as, you go to church with an empty bucket and I want to have something in the bucket when I leave. Ralph never left you with an empty bucket. He did his own research. He would have in each sermon four or five stories to illustrate a point, backed up by a biblical reference.”
His service extended well beyond the Austin area. Smith was elected chairman of the board of trustees for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1971. He served as president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from 1973 to 1975, and he served in the 1980s as a regent for Baylor University.
Smith is survived by daughter Diane Smith Love and her husband, Bill; son Wallace Smith and his wife, Lanette; and son Peyton Smith and his wife, Beth; as well as seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Bess Noble Smith.
A family graveside service will be held at Texas State Cemetery at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. A worship service will take place at 11 a.m. that day at Austin Baptist Church.
“He always told people when it comes to personal trials in life, there are three things to remember,” Peyton Smith said. “Things are not as bad as they seem, things could get worse, but they will get better.”