LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Colleagues, students, family and friends remembered Baptist ethics pioneer Henlee Barnette as an “unashamed Baptist radical” at a funeral service in Louisville, Ky.
Barnette, 93, died last week. He taught Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1951 to 1977 and wrote several books, but he was better known for controversial stands for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, remembered his former colleague as a “curmudgeon, prophet, father, eccentric” in a eulogy Monday at Crescent Hill Baptist Church.
“Humanly speaking, Henlee Barnette was what Jesus would have been like if he had lived 93 years,” Leonard said. “We’re not talking about deity here,” he quickly added, which he said Barnette would readily acknowledge.
Like Jesus, Leonard said, Barnette was “eccentric to a fault” and was a “teacher/learner” to the end of his life. He was “ever exposing self-righteousness and theological hubris,” not even sparing his own academia—he referred to the faculty’s yearly procession in academic regalia “a peacock’s parade.” He also “was oh so full of grace,” Leonard said, particularly for people who live “in the margins.”
Wayne Ward, a former colleague of Barnette at Southern Seminary and fellow member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, described Barnette jotting his “credo” in a pew Bible that still sits somewhere in a rack near the rear of the sanctuary: “Remember you show your love of this divine word not by the words you say about it but by living it day by day.”
Mary Frances Owens, widow of longtime Southern Seminary Old Testament professor J.J. Owens, read a verse of Scripture she said applied aptly to Barnette: Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”
Paul Simmons, former ethics professor at Southern Seminary, described Barnette as “my mentor, my colleague and my friend.” He lauded Barnette’s “obligation for those who were less advantaged,” reading from Matthew 25, one of Barnette’s favorite passages, about the “incognito Christ,” where Jesus taught he is present in the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
Noting his father’s famous meticulous filing system, Barnette’s son Jim read both humorous and poignant excerpts from Barnette’s “in case of my death file.”
Barnette wrote that his preference would be to be buried like his grandfather, in a simple coffin without embalming, but given modern funeral practices he opted for a Louisville funeral home, noting that since they’ve been doing it 50 years “they must be experts.”
Other notations revealed that Barnette’s wish was that he would die at home—which was granted—and that he would never become a “useless old man.”
Terry Brown, who met Barnette as a middle school student of Barnette’s wife, described him as “a-least-of-these kind of man” and a “man of integrity.”
Brown, an African American, recalled Barnette’s standard reply to people who complained that his role in inviting Martin Luther King to speak at Southern Seminary in 1961 cost the school hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions. “Money well spent,” he said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.