A giant of man
Since 1945, the name of Columbus Roberts has been associated with the Department of Religion. A Georgia Baptist layman deeply committed to education, Roberts gave his money and his name to establish the Roberts School of Christianity, later renamed the Roberts Department of Christianity and now the Roberts Department of Religion.
In his day, Roberts was a giant of a man. More than 50 years after his death, he still casts a long and impressive shadow at Mercer University and across Georgia. His story is a classic. He was a self-made man in the best way, guided throughout his life with remarkable commitments to his family and his faith.
The Reconstruction Era shaped Roberts’s life and values. Born in 1870 as the first of 14 children (11 survived to adulthood) of George and Mary Alice Roberts, Columbus Roberts learned the value of hard work and the humility of poverty. By age 10 he had come to the end of his formal education and had begun life as a tenant farmer.
What Roberts learned in school was the importance of reading and basic arithmetic. He reports that he read at least two hours every day, especially enjoying history, geography, biography, and the Bible. As a young man Roberts earned a reputation as a knowledgeable, hard working Christian man.
Through an exciting series of events beginning in 1888, Roberts entered the world of business and learned the necessary skills to make him a success. He began as a shipping clerk in an Atlanta firm and progressed through learning experiences as a deliveryman, a grocer, and finally, as a pioneer in the soda-pop bottling industry. In 1901, Roberts took a risk and signed an exclusive contract with a new soft drink company in Atlanta: Coca-Cola.
The unexpected and phenomenal growth of Coca-Cola made Roberts a wealthy man. His wealth, however, never changed his basic commitments to family and faith. His reputation as a keen businessman and a person of unquestioned integrity continued to push Roberts into the spotlights of civic and ecclesiastical responsibility. In late 1912, Roberts was elected as a deacon of the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Georgia. For 38 years he was a deacon there. In the late 1920s, his civic commitments led to his election to the Georgia House of Representatives. For the rest of his life, Roberts served his church and his community, even when his church was as large as the Georgia Baptist Convention and his community spanned the whole of Georgia.
By the time of his death on Aug. 26, 1950, Roberts had served all of Georgia as the state commissioner of agriculture from 1936 through 1940, and he had served Georgia Baptists as the president of the convention in 1946 and 1947.
Roberts was, indeed, a giant of a man.