By Wesley Spears
As a student at Samford University, I find myself in and out of professors’ offices a lot. As a religion major, most often it’s to meet with my faculty adviser, Dr. Jim Barnette. In his office hangs a small picture that I didn’t notice at first. Taking a closer look one day I recognized one of the two figures as Martin Luther King Jr. I asked my professor who the other man in the picture was. He smiled broadly and said, “That’s my dad, Henlee Barnette .”
It was the first time I ever heard the name. While I grew up Baptist, like most Baptists, I knew nothing of Baptist history. I knew nothing of the events that gave birth to organizations like the Associated Baptist Press or of the existence of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. While knowing always that I was Baptist, I didn’t know what it meant to be Southern Baptist until I got to college.
At Samford I learned about what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention at the end of the last century. I remember reading Rob James’ book, The Fundamentalist Takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention, and now have a copy thanks to a friend’s father who endured the trial. It was in Steven Lipscomb’s 1997 documentary about Southern Seminary, Battle for the Minds, however, that I actually heard Henlee Barnette speak for the first time.
His remarks were terse and bitingly honest. He knew what it meant to be Baptist, and — more importantly — he knew what it meant to be a Christian. His defense of women in ministry was admirable beyond measure and the way and fervor with which he fought was remarkable. But it may be what happened afterward that makes him so special for so many people.
My pastor now talks about Henlee Barnette, too. He remembers him as the professor who would sit on his front porch, willing to talk to anyone who came by. Bill Leonard talks about Barnette as “what Jesus would have been like if Jesus had lived 93 years.” Jim Barnette’s book Homely Joys, a compilation of both his and his father’s prayers and poems, brings joy to many.
Of all Baptists in history, Henlee Barnette might be the one I’d most like to know. More than B. H. Carroll, Oswald Chambers, Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon and even more than Roger Williams, I believe I would like to meet Henlee Barnette.
It can be argued that Henlee Barnette lived through the best of times and the worst of times. He saw — and helped bring about — the flourishing of Southern Seminary. He saw — and fought against — its seizure by fundamentalists. He saw — actually, brought — Martin Luther King to campus. He saw –and no doubt grieved over — the closing of proud institutions at Southern like the school of social work.
Of the relatively little I know about him – compared to his friends and family — what I respect the most about Henlee is that he knew both the ministry and the academy. He preached and ministered like Walter Rauschenbusch in the Haymarket and taught like the best of them at the Louisville seminary. He was brazenly honest and convicted, yet loving and caring. One of my favorite quotes of his is, “I prefer the homely joys to that of making academic history.”
One of the most flattering things Dr. Jim Barnette ever said was one day on Facebook to me and a couple of others: “I already see a sizable dose of Henlee in each of you.”
So, on what would be his 100th birthday, Aug. 14, God Bless Henlee Barnette and God help us all to be more like him. Doing so until the day we die, perhaps we, too, could become “what Jesus would have been like if Jesus had lived 93 years.”