The Life of W. Burkette Raper
10/01/2011 - 8:00am
Frederick Douglass once said, “Measure me not by the heights to which I have climbed but by the depth from which I have come.”1 The Reverend Dr. William Burkette Raper was and is one of the most influential members of the Original Free Will Baptists. He overcame great adversity and arose from great depth to be one of the most well respected and influential members in the history of the Original Free Will Baptists. He has lived a life that has sought to improve and empower people through education and commitment to God. Dr. Raper says, “I was born a Free Will Baptist.” He has never held any employment outside of the Free Will Baptist denomination.2 He is an innovator and a leader in the Original Free Will Baptists. He was a successful pastor and an even more successful President of Mount Olive College. He proved himself to be a talented writer and orator. He was and is very skilled at networking. He is a man of the utmost character and great intellect.
W. Burkette Raper was born in 1927, in Wilson County, North Carolina, to Beulah and Cecil Raper. He was the oldest of four children. Dr. Raper has two younger sisters and a younger brother. His father was a tenant farmer. The Rapers were a good Christian family. They attended Little Rock Free Will Baptist Church in Wilson, North Carolina, and both of Dr. Raper’s parents were members there. Dr. Raper has fond memories of his childhood and remembers being in church with his father.2 The Raper family lived in a one room schoolhouse that had been converted into a residence.3 They lived on an unpaved road, as many did in the twenties and thirties. They were not a wealthy family, but they were a loving family.4
W. Burkette Raper lived with his parents until the age of eight. The winter of 1936 was a harsh and cold winter in eastern North Carolina. The schools had let out for Christmas and had not reopened in February due to the effect of the weather conditions on the unpaved roads of rural North Carolina. Lee Woodard School in Black Creek, North Carolina, was still closed when Dr. Raper’s father passed away on February thirteenth, during the bitter winter of 1936.5 Dr. Raper says that his father made a very meaningful impact upon his life during those short eight years he shared with him. His father had taken him to church and instilled some Christian values in his oldest son.4
After the death of his father, young Burkette went to live at the Free Will Baptist Orphanage in Middlesex, North Carolina. The Free Will Baptist Orphanage was completely full with one hundred children under its care. Dr. Raper’s uncle, Barney R. Raper, and the pastor at Little Rock Free Will Baptist Church, Simon H. Styron, interceded on behalf of Mrs. Beulah Raper and her children. A deal was negotiated between Mrs. Raper and the Board of Trustees of the orphanage. The agreement was that if she would buy the beds needed, the three oldest children would be admitted. Mrs. Raper sold her late husband’s farm equipment to obtain the necessary funds to purchase the three beds, and her three oldest children were accepted into the orphanage.6
Dr. Raper describes his first days at the orphanage saying, “life was like being shipwrecked upon a faraway island.”7 His mother thought that he would be better off at the orphanage. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, it was very difficult for many families to make ends meet, especially a single mother of four children. There were no state or federal programs for his mother to turn to for help. His mother really did not have a home of her own for some years following her husband’s death. She was a frequent visitor at the orphanage and continued to be part of her son’s life.4 Dr. Raper says his mother would tell her children frequently, “It was not that I did not love, but I had no means of caring for you. I brought you here because I wanted you to have the opportunity of an education and to be brought up right. I will never have anything to leave you. Whatever you have in life, you will have to earn it.”6 I believe this is something that resonated deeply with Dr. Raper during his youth and young adulthood. These words of his mother had a tremendous impact on W. Burkette Raper.
Dr. Raper lived at the Free Will Baptist Orphanage in Middlesex for about eight years. He has many fond memories of the orphanage along with some memories that are painful. The orphanage was a powerful factor in influencing the life of W. Burkette Raper. The Free Will Baptist Orphanage helped to determine the kind of person he would become and the direction that his life would take in the years to come.8 He especially remembers the infamous bell of the orphanage.
Dr. Raper says, “In many ways, the bell was like a campus clock. It rang for every purpose: for meals, religious events, and any other time for the children to gather. The sound of the bell meant to cease whatever we were doing and gather at appropriate places. One of its most welcome sounds was five o’clock in the evening when it told us to come in from the fields where we were working. Perhaps the most anticipated time, when we thought it would never ring, was the night for the Christmas tree gathering. The peak of my work assignments at the orphanage was when my daily assignment was to rise at five a.m., start the wood fire in the kitchen stove and at five thirty ring the bell as a wake-up call for everyone to ‘rise and shine.’”9
The Free Will Baptist Orphanage which would later become the Free Will Baptist Children’s Home, was the first ministry to be established by the North Carolina Convention of Free Will Baptists. It was known as the “Convention of Free Will Baptists” back then. The “orphanage” that Dr. Raper spent eight years in and the “children’s home” we have today are quite different. The children of the orphanage were called “inmates” and the care provided was not as focused on being nurturing to the children as what we have today with the Free Will Baptist Children’s Home.10 Dr. Raper described the lifestyle of the children at the orphanage as “Spartan.”11