LOUISVILLE, Ky. (ABP) — Henlee Barnette, a former professor and author who pioneered the study of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, died Oct. 20 at age 93.
Barnette's dogged insistence that actions must match belief undergirded his writings and teachings, according to friends and former students. “He was an ethical activist,” recalled Wayne Ward, emeritus professor of theology at the Louisville seminary and life-long friend of Barnette's. “He said, 'Jesus isn't going to ask you what you believe. He's going to ask you, 'Do you love me, and do you love your neighbor as yourself?'”
Barnette, who taught at Southern from 1951-1977, and T.B. Maston, who taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, were considered co-pioneers as Southern Baptist ethicists, according to Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University's divinity school.
“Both addressed the racial issue very early and then helped Baptists think through the moral crusades of the last half of the 20th century,” said Leonard, a friend and former student of Barnette's.
Ron Sisk, also a former Barnette student who later served as his pastor, noted that the professor invited Martin Luther King Jr., to preach a chapel service at Southern as part of an invitation to Louisville to take part in a fair-housing campaign during the 1960s. King was not popular among many Southern Baptists or other white Southerners at the time.
“He got in all kinds of trouble for that, but he did it because he believed it was right,” said Sisk, who now teaches homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Ward was more blunt in describing Barnette's handling of that incident: “He almost got fired over it.” As a result, he said, more than 200 Alabama Baptist churches stopped sending money to Southern.
Born in Taylorsville, N.C., in 1911, Barnette and his family later moved to the mill town of Kannapolis, where he worked as a child in a textile factory. Ward said the experience gave Barnette an early concern for the downtrodden and abused — a concern that never left him.
While doing his undergraduate work at Wake Forest, Barnette served as pastor of a small church. Sisk, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Barnette, recalled the professor telling about a lynching that happened in the community where the church was located.
“He talked about seeing a picture of the lynching in the local newspaper and seeing the body of the African-American hanging there — and one of his deacons standing by the body,” Sisk recalled.
“I think that was a significant moment in his own concern for race relations.”
Southern Seminary's current president, Al Mohler, credited Barnette with helping Southern Baptists understand the biblical imperatives for racial integration and civil rights. “In that sense, he was a powerful prophet in an age that had too few prophets,” Mohler said.
Barnette was influenced by the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister among the poor and industrial workers in New York who pioneered what is often referred to as the “social gospel.”
While in graduate school at Southern Seminary, Barnette met Clarence Jordan, a student who later would move to Americus, Ga., to establish Koinonia Farms, a biracial community farm committed to living out Jesus' economic and social principles in the rural South.
Before leaving Louisville, Jordan invited Barnette to head his Haymarket Mission, a ministry in a rough part of town known for liquor stores and prostitution, Ward recalled. “It was a jungle,” Ward said, describing scenes of children arranging “meetings” between men and their mothers.
Known as the “bishop of the Haymarket,” Barnette headed the mission for three years while working on his doctorate. “He learned to confront anybody…. Barney was beat up more than once,” Ward said. “He was a healer. He helped families.”
After graduation, Barnette taught at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Ala., and later at Stetson University in Florida before joining the staff at his alma mater seminary.
“The thing that is significant about Henlee as an ethicist is that he was extraordinarily adept at doing ethics from a Baptist point of view,” Sisk said. “His approach was highly biblical. It was very practical and yet fearless in addressing the issues that he felt needed to be addressed.”
A text he authored, “Introducing Christian Ethics,” is still used widely in college and seminary classrooms, Ward said.
His personal memoir, “A Pilgrimage of Faith,” is due to be published next month by Mercer University Press.
Undeterred by criticism, Barnette often gave as good as he got, Leonard said. “The seminary always got letters about Barnette,” Leonard said. “There's this story that he would sometimes write back and say, 'Sir, some jackass wrote this letter and put your name to it. I thought you'd like to know.'”
His controversial stands strained Barnette's relationship with Southern Seminary President Duke McCall. While other professors were offered senior professor positions at retirement age, Barnette was not and therefore forced to retire from teaching at Southern in 1977.
Former Southern colleague Wayne Oates recruited Barnette to become a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville Medical School.
When Roy Honeycutt became president at Southern, Barnette returned as a senior professor.
Mohler, a teaching assistant for Barnette in the 1980s, helped usher Southern's transformation into a conservative campus when he became president in the 1990s. Nonetheless, he noted that while their relationship changed through the years, their respect for each other did not.
“He was a personal friend to me for many years, and even as events and developments led to some distance between us, I always knew him to be a man of integrity and graciousness,” Mohler said. “There can be no doubt that on a number of issues, Dr. Barnette and I were in fundamental disagreement. But he was a man with a gift for civilized, rational and calm conversation. He was always an intelligent and passionate discussion partner.”
Barnette's first wife, Charlotte, died in childbirth. He didn't marry again until he began teaching at Southern and met Helen Porch, who was one of his students. “Helen was wonderfully intelligent and a beauty and they fell in love,” Sisk said. “Helen used to say that she made a 'C,' but got a great deal out of the class.”
In retirement, he hosted a monthly meeting in his home that he dubbed “Barnette's Buddies.” The participants would study and discuss issues of theology or current events.
Leonard said Barnette was among a group of unique professors in his generation, “eccentrics in the best sense.”
“To the bitter end, he was a teacher — whether it was a letter to the [Louisville] Courier-Journal or the [Kentucky Baptist] Western Recorder or with that group in his house,” Leonard said. “He never stopped teaching and learning.”
Barnette's funeral will be held Oct. 25 at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, where he was a member, with burial at Cave Hill Cemetery.
Barnette was preceded in death by his wife. Survivors include his sons, John, Wayne and Jim; his daughter, Martha; and four grandchildren.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Henlee Barnette Fund at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Va.