We are blessed with a rich heritage, a heritage that some need to reclaim, a heritage about which a new generation needs to know. A good slice of our heritage comes from Henlee Barnette, whom we honor as part of BCE’s luncheon next month at the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

–The 15th anniversary of the founding of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
–The 45th anniversary of Henlee Barnette’s sponsoring Martin Luther King on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
–The 55th anniversary of Barnette’s first year of teaching at Southern.
–The 55th anniversary of the first report of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
–The 95th anniversary of Barnette’s birth.
–The 115th anniversary of the birth of A. C. Miller, pioneering leader of both the BGCT and Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission.
–The 145th anniversary of the birth of Walter Rauschenbusch, father of the social gospel movement.

Imagine the interpretation that numerologists could put on this confluence of dates!

Or rather imagine instead the renewal that moderate Baptists could make to our prophetic and pragmatic heritage of biblically based ethics.

We are blessed with a rich heritage, a heritage that some need to reclaim, a heritage about which a new generation needs to know.

A good slice of our heritage comes from Henlee Barnette, whom we honor as part of BCE’s luncheon next month at the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Barnette, likewise, honored earlier Baptist moral pilgrims. In his December 2003 portrait, he stood with simplicity, cradling a copy Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel.

“I owe so much to so many.… I have crossed bridges I did not build…. I have drunk from wells I did not dig,” wrote Barnette in a collection of prayers, poems and barbs under the title Homely Joys.

Barnette certainly dug wells from which I drink. I met him at the end of his last semester of full-time teaching at Southern and before my first semester there. After we visited, he took me to meet Glen Stassen, as if passing a baton to the next runner, the newest ethics professor on campus. I studied with his beneficiaries—Stassen, Paul Simmons and Larry McSwain. I also studied his foundational book Introducing Christian Ethics (1961) my first semester and read The Church and the Ecological Crisis (1972) my second semester.

I continue to consult Barnette’s introduction to Christian ethics, 45 years after it was published.

Before Barnette wrote that book he showed his brand of Christian ethics in 1959 to Emmanuel McCall, now CBF’s moderator-elect.

“I was the only black student on campus. There were other African and Caribbean students, but they were treated differently,” McCall told me. “Henlee went out of his way to see that I and Marie were included in campus activities.”

McCall said that Barnette “openly dealt with negative student attitudes such as the ‘hate stare’ during our student days.”

“Henlee’s legacy for many of us was the courage to stand tall and independent, if need be, for what we believed to be right. Courage was his hallmark,” said McCall.

Ron Sisk, who wrote his dissertation on Barnette, underscored Barnette’s courage.

“Where others shied away from getting involved in difficult issues, Henlee was always right in there,” Sisk said. “He wasn’t afraid to tackle anything, and he not only talked about it, he did what he thought was right.”

Tom Graves, president of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, said Barnette “was one of the most progressive voices in Baptist life, yet he never lost the ability to speak with honesty and care to Baptists across the whole spectrum of the church. He seems to have a special sensitivity to see where future ethical issues would emerge.”

“To use King’s analogy, he was the headlight showing us where to go, rather than the taillight showing us where we had been,” said Graves.

“I don’t think very many of Barnette’s Ph.D.s ended up in teaching positions, but he turned out quite a number of discerning and socially active pastors,” said historian Glenn Hinson.

“His attention to the biblical foundations of Christian ethics probably gave a certain respectability to Baptist writing on ethical issues.  He and T. B. Maston [ethics professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary] helped to create a consciousness of ethics among hundreds, who then spread their outlook far beyond,” said Hinson.

The heritage of Barnette and Maston is at risk, at least from my vantage point.

When I arrived at Southern, the school had two ethics professors and two church-and-community professors. Southwestern had four ethics professors. Southeastern had two. New Orleans, Midwestern and Golden Gate each had one. The CLC had a staff of around six Ph.D.s in ethics. The Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina each had a couple ethics workers. The Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia state conventions all had ethics workers. These ethicists were heirs of the Barnette/Maston tradition. It was the golden age of Baptist ethics.

Heirs outside the denominational structure also contributed. One of Barnette’s students, Andy Loving, started Seeds magazine and pulled the SBC bureaucracy into concern about world hunger at a time when the Foreign Mission Board didn’t want to do hunger relief and development work. Others advocated for women in ministry.

Within a decade, everything was falling apart. All too soon, ethics professors were replaced with religious-right activists. Most state conventions abandoned ethics work. The CLC head asked for a wedding ring from the Republican Party, saying he wanted to consummate the relationship between the religious right and the Republican Party.

What is left behind are a few smoldering fires and a few streams of well water.

I’m not sure how we rekindle the fires and replenish the wells. I think we need to do so. Our people need to know that the right-wing ideology is a deviation from the biblical witness. Our society needs a prophetic critique and a pragmatic application.

What do we do to rekindle the fires and replenish the wells? We begin with remembrance.

Remember the past with Charles Wade’s tribute to T. B. Maston and Larry McSwain’s homage to Henlee Barnette.

Attend BCE’s 15th anniversary luncheon, Thursday, June 22 in Atlanta.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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