Jack Harwell, a 40-year Baptist journalist who stood against censorship of the denominational press, died Friday, Jan. 18, at age 86. A memorial service is scheduled Saturday, Jan. 26 at First Baptist Church of Morrow, Georgia, where he served the last decade as minister of pastoral care.
Harwell’s career in Baptist journalism started in 1957, when he was hired as assistant to the editor at the Christian Index, a newspaper owned by the Georgia Baptist Convention. He was promoted to editor in 1966 at age 34, succeeding 19-year editor John Jeter Hurt, who had been hired as editor of the Baptist Standard in Texas.
Harwell was an early target in a late 20th century power struggle in the Southern Baptist Convention over interpretation of Scripture. In 1979, the year most commonly named as the starting point of the Conservative Resurgence, the 38-church Dodge County Baptist Association asked state leaders to dismiss the editor “because of his lack of faith in the entire Bible as the infallible word of God.”
Things got hotter as the SBC conflict trickled down to Baptist state conventions formerly sympathetic to moderate leaders being deposed at the national level. In 1986 the Christian Index board of directors named a review panel to oversee “editorial policies, practices and personnel” after Harwell wrote an editorial critical of nominations of the SBC Committee on Boards chaired by Georgia layman Lee Roberts.
Harwell said initially he was satisfied with the decision but after a couple of months announced plans to retire at age 55, because he could no longer continue in good conscience after a committee member told him he was one unacceptable editorial away from being fired. The Georgia Baptist Convention voted to abolish the review board and asked Harwell to reconsider.
The Georgia Baptist executive board, vested with authority to hire or fire denominational workers, did not interpret the convention’s vote as a mandate and by a three-vote margin dismissed Harwell with a year’s severance pay, ownership of the Index car and medical insurance.
Harwell said the issue was not him but a matter of “editorial freedom and integrity.” He told a gathering of Baptist communicators that the SBC holy war had created a “KGB atmosphere” that in turn forced a “blandness” in Baptist news coverage.
“Whenever someone raises his head and gets to be a little bit different, it gets cut off, a la Randall Lolley, Dale Moody, Jack Harwell and others,” he said. (Lolley was forced out as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Moody, a long-time theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, didn’t get his contract renewed after Southern Baptists in Arkansas accused him of teaching contrary to the school’s Abstract of Principles.)
In 1988 Harwell was named second editor of SBC Today, a national publication launched in 1983 modeled after USA Today to cover the SBC controversy independent of pressure to self-censor beleaguering the denominational press.
The name changed in 1991 to Baptists Today to more accurately describe the paper’s readership after formation of the Alliance of Baptists and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Today it goes by the name Nurturing Faith and publishes books and educational resources. Harwell retired in 1997 with the title editor emeritus.
A layman throughout his journalism career, after retirement Harwell was ordained by First Baptist Church in Morrow, Georgia, where his wife, Teliea, serves as minister to senior adults. He continued working on the church staff until December, when he retired due to failing health.
Saturday’s memorial service begins at 1 p.m. with Bill Neal — Harwell’s one-time associate at the Christian Index who went on to serve as the paper’s editor for a decade before taking early retirement in 2003 — officiating.
The family will receive visitors at the church at noon prior to the service. In lieu of flowers, family request donations be made to First Baptist Church of Morrow or Nurturing Faith.