Henlee Barnette, a pioneer in teaching and living Christian ethics who influenced generations of Baptist ministers and professors, died Wednesday at his home in Louisville, Ky.
Barnette, 93, taught Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1951 to 1977. For many he shared the mantle with T.B. Maston, who taught from 1922 to 1963 at Southwestern Seminary, as a trailblazer in the field among Southern Baptists.
Beyond his teaching and writing, however, Barnette is best known for courageous and prophetic stands for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
In 1961 he helped bring Martin Luther King to Southern Seminary to deliver a lecture series and speak in Barnette’s class in Christian ethics. Though King’s presence on campus had strong support, it also brought protests from some church leaders.
His activism in the civil rights movement, along with a 1957 visit to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, led to Barnette being investigated by the FBI, though he didn’t learn about it until years later.
A strong advocate of peacemaking, Barnette often aroused anger with his opposition to the Vietnam War. His activist spirit continued till his later years when, so the story goes, he offered to sit-in with students outside the seminary president’s office protesting the firing of a social work dean.
“I’ll sit-in with you, but I’m so old that somebody will have to help me get back up,” he told the students, according to a report at an event honoring Barnette in 2001 by former colleague Bill Leonard.
When he retired from the seminary after 26 years in 1977, professors, staff and students pleaded with the administration to keep him on the faculty as a senior professor. Those pleas fell on deaf ears, and the board of trustees at the University of Louisville responded by appointing him a full clinical professor at the School of Medicine.
Barnette said in a 1995 interview that he never regretted the trouble he caused the various administrators with whom we worked. “I felt I was doing God’s will,” he explained.
A native of North Carolina, Barnette credited his parents and first pastor as early influencers of his own set of Christian ethics. During his student years at Wake Forest University, Professor Olin Binkley introduced him to the works of Walter Rauschenbusch. Binkley later supervised Barnette’s doctoral program at Southern Seminary.
Some viewed one of his earliest ministries as one of his most amazing. Influenced by an appeal from Clarence Jordan–at the time superintendent of missions for Long Run Baptist Association and later founder of Koinonia Farms and author of the “Cottonpatch Gospel” series–Barnette volunteered to minister in a slum area of Louisville called “The Haymarket.”
He served first as an unpaid evangelist and later as pastor of the Union Gospel Mission on Jefferson Street. It grew into the largest mission of its kind among Southern Baptists, earning him the title of “Bishop of the Haymarket.”
A self-described “follower” of Barnette, Glen Stassen, Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, said Barnette lived a “fruitful life” and bore “a true witness.”
“Henlee Barnette was a trail-blazer of compassion, humor, commitment to justice, and huge integrity and independent judgment, never cowed by pressure from whatever powerful authority,” Stassen said. “What a trail he pioneered for us to follow!”
Ron Sisk, a student of Barnette who wrote his doctoral dissertation about his professor, wrote an article for EthicsDaily.com in 2002 titled “Giant in the Land.”
Sisk, professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D., called Barnette both a “hero” and a kind and compassionate friend.
“He combined an absolute love for the Lord with an equally intense love for living the Christian life as well as we can possibly live it,” Sisk said. “He never feared to say what he believed, to be right. He was both intensely biblical and engaged with contemporary life.”
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics issued the following statement:
“Henlee Barnette’s death leaves me with a deep sadness–sadness that Baptists have lost a great Christian and sadness that we failed to honor him for who he was and what he gave us.
“Just a few days ago, I reached across my desk for his pivotal work Introducing Christian Ethics, published in 1961. The continued relevance of that book illustrates both his earth-bound practicality and his vision beyond the horizon.
“He showed generations of seminary students how to read the Bible faithfully and intelligently. He showed us how to live prophetically and generously.
“The best we can do now is to give thanks to God for the gift of Henlee Barnette and try to capture his commitment to peace and justice.”
Other books written by Barnette include Exploring Medical Ethics, Your Freedom to Be Whole and Clarence Jordan: Turning Dreams into Deeds.
Barnette’s memoir, A Pilgrimage of Faith, is due out in November from Mercer University Press.
Funeral services for Baptist ethics pioneer Henlee Barnette are scheduled Monday at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., with burial in Cave Hill Cemetery.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Henlee Barnette Fund at Baptist Theological Seminary, 3400 Brook Road, Richmond, VA 23227.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.