Henlee Barnette was one of the most influential of Southern Baptist’s Christian ethicists of the 20th century in his work as college and seminary professor, author of substantive works in the field, activist in a variety of ethical causes and human being whose very life became a testimony of his faith.
In this autobiography completed only a few months before his death on Oct. 20, 2004 at the age of 93, he tells with modesty the story of his varied experiences and activities.
Barnette was a product of Southern mountain culture, raised in poverty and impressed throughout his life with a demanding work ethic that began in his teenage years working in a cotton mill for subsistence wages.
Never losing his touch with the common person, he prided himself on his ability to relate to the disposed, the poor and the outcasts. Converted in the North Kannapolis Baptist Church in Kannapolis, N.C., at the age of 19, he returned to high school, graduated from Wake Forest College, Southern Seminary and engaged in sabbatical study at Harvard University.
His family itself is such an integral part of his story as he describes the pain of the death of his first wife, Charlotte; the happy marriage to his student Helen; the birth of four children; and the vortex of issues that swirled within it.
It is ironic that on the day he died, his youngest, James, now university minister and professor of religion at Samford University, told the story of his older brothers in worship at McAfee School of Theology.
John’s choice to voluntarily serve in the Air Force with duty in Vietnam at the same time Wayne chose to move to Sweden to avoid the draft thrust the family into the national media limelight.
Henlee and Helen supported the decisions of both, though his personal stance was one of outspoken criticism of military involvement in Vietnam.
This story focuses on civil rights, his friendship with Clarence Jordan, his travels to the Soviet Union and perceptive writings on communism, his invitation to Martin Luther King to speak in chapel at Southern in 1961, his writing of the classic text Introducing Christian Ethics (still in print though published in 1961) and his pioneering work on ecology and medical ethics.
After retirement from the seminary, he served at the University of Louisville Medical School, where he enlarged his influence in medical ethical issues.
Originally written for his children, the book is clearly written and lacks the format of a formal scholarly work, much to the reader’s advantage.
The pathos of his grief at the loss of two wives, the struggles to support his four children, the internal politics of his work as acting dean of the seminary during its most difficult crisis, and his humor in responding to multiple critics make it a delightful book to read.
More importantly, it chronicles the steadfast commitment to the ethics cause of an icon known by too few of the present generation.
No one who reads this compelling book need ever feel distant from the man whose life touched so many in the classroom, the inner city of Louisville and the national arena of Christian ethicists.
Larry McSwain is professor of ethics and leadership at McAfeeSchool of Theology in Atlanta.
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