Into his 10th decade now, Baptist ethicist, author and preacher Henlee Barnette continues his unflinching call to Christian integrity in thought and action.
His career spans seven decades of Baptist history in the South. From the time of his conversion as a teenager from the cotton mills of Kannapolis, N.C., Barnette has brought to the task of ethics both his strong biblical faith and his willingness to examine honestly any issue.
His career as an activist began with a seminary chapel at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a call by the Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan to minister to Louisville’s Haymarket district of flophouses, tenements and bordellos. With Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel as a guiding light, Barnette spent years as pastor and friend to that blighted neighborhood, earning the nickname “Bishop of the Haymarket.”
As a Baptist professor of religion in the ’40s, he found himself confronted with the quintessential Southern issue of racism. In the activist spirit that would characterize all his work, he began to search for things he could practically do. While a professor at Howard College (Samford University), he was instrumental in founding the Interracial Ministerial Association in Birmingham. After returning to Southern as professor of Christian ethics, Barnette marched for fair housing in the city of Louisville and invited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to campus.
He has always been in trouble. Friends long ago gave him a pair of asbestos gloves to use in opening his mail from outraged Baptists. In every issue though, Barnette searches for a way to bring the biblical principle of love to bear in concrete ways. He describes himself as an SCO, a “selective conscientious objector.”
“I reserve the right,” he says, “to decide which wars I will support and which I will not.”
During the Vietnam conflict, he found himself forced to re-examine his convictions in a particularly personal way. Of his two young adult sons, one became a bomber pilot in Vietnam and the other fled to Sweden as a conscientious objector. Asked which of his sons he supported, Barnette always replied, “I support them both. Each is doing what his conscience under God leads him to do.” No father, he believed, could ask for more.
Along with his second wife, the late Helen Poarch Barnette, he championed the role of women in Baptist life. Describing their marriage as a “coarchy”—a partnership of equals—Barnette found ample biblical evidence for the freedom of Christian women to assert both relational and spiritual equality with men.
An accomplished author, Barnette has always written about ethics with a Southern Baptist audience in mind. His text Introducing Christian Ethics served for many years as a standard for those taking their first venture into the field. From ecology in the ’70s to biomedical ethics in the ’80s and ’90s, he applied his voracious curiosity to researching and writing on ethical topics.
His method is both simple and sophisticated. He seeks the best possible scientific input. He never flinches from the facts. As an academician his first task is to understand. But then, as a theologian, he searches for and applies relevant biblical principles. And as an activist Christian he seeks the leadership of the Holy Spirit to discover what can actually be done.
Often he’s paid a price for his candor. Retired at age 65 by a seminary administration weary of his ethical forthrightness, Barnette found a home in the University of Louisville Medical School where he continued and expanded his research in biomedical ethics. Later brought back into favor at the seminary by a friendlier administration, and then once again alienated by the fundamentalist takeover, Barnette never missed a beat.
Today, he continues his work from the same little white house next door to the seminary where he raised four children and generations of conservative hackles. His ethical interests remain catholic in their inclusivity. He maintains a lively interest in local and national politics. His letters to the editor, often about the evils of fundamentalism, appear frequently in Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder.
At noon on the first Thursday of every month he hosts a luncheon called “Barnette’s Buddies,” where Louisvillians gather to discuss topics of interest in Baptist life and beyond. In an article written for Baptists Today just this summer, Barnette dealt with the issue of a Christian response to terrorism. “Outthink them!” and “Outlove them!” were two of his pithy and salient conclusions.
As a graduate student at Southern in the early ’80s, I wrote a dissertation on the career and ethical method of Henlee Barnette. I sought to sum up and characterize his work. Silly me. I seem to have been at least a quarter of a century too early. But I can say this: As long as we have Henlee Barnette among us, faithful Baptists have an articulate advocate and friend.
We need not fear those who would force us into an intellectual or ethical box. We have a giant in the land.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.