A Baptist giant died this week and the shame of it is, most Baptists didn’t know him.
Walter Harrelson was born in Winnabow, N.C., between Wilmington and Southport, in 1919. He studied at Mars Hill College when it was a junior college, served in the Navy from 1941-45, and graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1947. He then went on to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he earned a three-year Master of Divinity in two years, followed by a Th.D. Harrelson loved the Bible and all the languages that might help him to understand it better, devoting untold hours to Greek, Hebrew, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Ethiopic and any other ancient or modern language that might help him get to a better biblical translation.
His expertise was so widely recognized that he chaired the Old Testament committee of scholars working on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and later served as general editor of the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary series, in addition to producing several significant books of his own, including The Ten Commandments and Human Rights and his classic Interpreting the Old Testament.
Harrelson taught first at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, then became dean of the Chicago Divinity School at the age of 35. Being dean took him away from research and teaching, though, so he remained only five years before going to Vanderbilt’s divinity school, where he taught for many years and served a stint as dean — with the understanding that his teaching and research came first.
The old scholar officially retired in 1990, but was asked to help get the new divinity school at Wake Forest University off the ground in 1995, and contributed heavily to that project before finally retiring to his home in Southport.
Harrelson was a giant of a scholar who earned great respect in the academic world. Yet, though he remained an active Baptist all of his life, few Baptists outside academia knew him. That was, in part, because his impeccable scholarship was laced with a serious and gentle humility: he was a southern gentleman who never lost his charm. More than once, he was a quiet encourager to me, as he was to many others.
About ten years ago I was invited to preach at Southport Baptist Church, which he attended regularly and served faithfully as a deacon. It was Prof. Harrelson who met me and escorted me from place to place. After the worship service, I stayed to visit with him on the way out, but it took a while — it was his turn to lock up the building, and he attended to that task with the same care he applied to his scholarship.
He was that kind of man, and Baptists are poorer for his loss.
A memorial service for Walter Harrelson is scheduled for Sunday, September 23, at 3:00 p.m. in Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC.
[Photo, at age 91, from a blog by Travis Rogers, Jr., who offers a lengthy and affectionate tribute.]