By Aaron Wilson
I recently came across a 104-year-old letter written by James Marion Frost, Lifeway’s founder and first president. Frost wrote this letter when he was 68 and Lifeway (then the Baptist Sunday School Board) was only a quarter of a century old.
Frost didn’t dictate this letter from his office as a way to impart leadership principles to the next generation. He wrote it from a state of despair, thanking his younger cousin Frank for his words of encouragement following the death of Frost’s son Virginius at age 25.
Nevertheless, Frost’s correspondence reveals five leadership qualities that demonstrate the heart behind the man who built Lifeway. Here are five excerpts from his letter that highlight these principles. (Frost’s entire letter is included at the bottom.)
1. Christian leaders practice gratitude.
“I find that the aftermath [of Virginius’ death] is much more trying on me than I had dreamed. I thought to be very brave and courageous, but as billow after billow swept over it has been so trying, and yet I make no complaint in word or thought. God has wrought so wonderfully for me though all the years that I could not fail to maintain my profound gratitude even in this hour while I sit in the shadow and wait.”
Frost was known for his proper demeanor and professional qualities. But he also knew there was a time for grief—even as the intensity of despair sometimes swept over him, such as with the death of his son.
Still, Frost’s trust in the goodness and sovereignty of God carried him through such times. He had “no complaint in word or thought” against his Maker as he reflected on God’s goodness to him over the years.
It’s clear Frost’s “profound gratitude” during the good days allowed him to endure the more difficult ones to the glory of the Lord.
2. Christian leaders value character.
“Virginius had developed into a very fine Christian character…It is more than likely that you do not realize the immense asset which you have in your character. It is just the kind of character that men of [business] affairs are looking for and has a value which cannot be stated in dollars and cents.”
As the leader of a self-sustaining ministry that took no funds from the Southern Baptist Convention, Frost clearly understood the importance of dollars and cents in the world of business.
But Frost esteemed character above cash, encouraging his younger cousin with advice that seems drawn from Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is to be chosen over great wealth; favor is better than silver and gold.”
3. Christian leaders chase God’s glory.
“Doing large things for the honor of the Master is basal to all else, and life without it is bound to be a failure in the end.”
As his cousin prepared to start a new business venture, Frost could have counseled him on the importance of raising capital, scaling for growth, or any other number of skills he’d need to hone as a young entrepreneur.
Instead, Frost keyed in on the need to “honor the Master” in every sphere of one’s life. Without this focus, Frost argued, the greatest success in the world’s eyes would amount to nothing but a chasing of the wind in the end.
4. Christian leaders love the local church.
“There can be no very great earnest Christian life except as it finds expression in church life.”
Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church makes this a timeless leadership quality in the most literal sense of the word.
5. Christian leaders empathize with others.
“[I] will rejoice in every good that comes to you and every disappointment, if they should come, will be painful to me.”
In the modern world of memes and tweets, there’s something refreshing about taking in the charm of a personal correspondence written more than a century ago.
Frost was unapologetic about the emotions he had for his cousin as he expressed his willingness to follow Frank’s heart into seasons of both rejoicing and grief.
As Paul proclaimed in Romans 12:15, Christian leaders should be sensitive and empathetic toward others—ready to walk alongside them in the good and the bad times.
Regardless of the spheres in which we live and work, may we all, like Frost, continue to esteem the importance of gratitude, character, God’s glory, the local church, and caring for others as we go about our daily lives and responsibilities.
Read Frost’s letter in its full context below. Minor edits, primarily indicated by brackets, have been made to improve readability.
I am writing you and Margaret this letter supposing you are both by the sea. I want to thank you and her very earnestly for the good letters which you wrote concerning the going of Virginius [James Frost’s son who died at age 25]. Margaret’s letter was charmingly beautiful and was appreciated by us all so much, and your letter was just like your own good self.
Virginius maintained up to the day before he died the same vigorous mental condition that you used to see in Denver. It was amazing to see the battle between his mental and physical condition, and yet failure came in the end. We laid him away at Louisville in Cave Hill Cemetery, one of the most beautiful spots in the world.
I find that the aftermath is much more trying on me than I had dreamed. I thought to be very brave and courageous, but as billow after billow swept over it has been so trying, and yet I make no complaint in word or thought. God has wrought so wonderfully for me though all the years that I could not fail to maintain my profound gratitude even in this hour while I sit in the shadow and wait.
Virginius had developed into a very fine Christian character which was surprising to me for one of his age and is now my chief support. How grateful I feel to you for all you did for him in those early years when the fight first came on. Everything was done for him that could possibly be done and yet of no avail. Your letter and Margaret’s with others are laid up as balm to our hearts.
I think so much about you and [your wife] as you are launching out in your new life. Really, I have an ambition for you as if you were like one of my children, both for large success in affairs of life [business] and in this way of doing large things for the honor of the Master [ministry]. [The latter] is basal to all else and life without it is bound to be a failure in the end. There can be no very great earnest Christian life except as it finds expression in church life.
I wish you would think about this and lay yourself out to be worthwhile in the cause of our Master. You will find that this will enrich all the rest of your life and thinking. It will not interfere in the least with any great, genuine success in the business affairs of life—indeed it will be their charm and glory.
It is more than likely that you do not realize the immense asset which you have in your character. It is just the kind of character that men of [business] affairs are looking for and has a value which cannot be stated in dollars and cents. It seems that all your past life and all the making of yourself has been in getting ready for some great onward move in your business success. I do not think it wrong for me to have ambition for you and Margaret. There are great capabilities and I want to see them bring in their greatest and richest fruition.
I am writing to you, as I have often written before, as if you were my son. Surely I feel the same deep interest in your Margaret as in my Margaret [James Frost’s daughter]. [I] will rejoice in every good that comes to you and every disappointment, if they should come, will be painful to me.
This letter is no doubt too free to be seen by the other members of the family. They will hardly understand how a man can turn loose his heart in genuine expressions of high regard, but they have been so kind and gracious to my children that I shall never cease to think of them except with gratefulness. Howard [James Frost’s son] enjoyed his Sunday in the Pratt home more than I can tell you. He had so many good things to say about everyone.
I am nearly at the end of letter writing even through dictation, but the dictation conceals nothing of the genuine heartbeat underneath.
With very much love to you both, I remain,
Sincerely you cousin,
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor for Facts & Trends.