Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Baptist Book Review #4

Continuing my preparation for Baptists 400th birthday in 2009 by reviewing books that explore our heritage. This one is an autobiography or memoir of my beloved professor, Dr. Henlee Hulix Barnette (1911-2005).

Henlee H. Barnette, A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story (Mercer University Press, 2004). This is the first and, to date, only volume in the series “Baptists” by Mercer University Press to be an autobiography. It chronicles the life and faith of one of the most colorful characters that Southern Baptists produced in the 20th C.

Born in deep poverty in Sugarloaf, NC, Barnette worked in the textile mills before the New Deal cancelled child labor–a development that made sure he never voted Republican. All his life, Barnette was a New Deal/Great Society Democrat with little time for “economic royalists.” Though he was to travel a long, long way from his roots, he never forgot where he came from–never neglected or betrayed his heritage.

Initially a drop-out, Barnette experienced a call to preach the gospel shortly after his teenaged conversion and baptism. He became an evangelist and pastor while still a teen. But his home church convinced him that he needed a theological education to be the most effective for God. So, Barnette enrolled as a special student at Wake Forest College (now university), while simultaneously returning to high school. Upon graduating high school, Barnette became a regular student at Wake Forest and earned a B.A. in religion and philosophy in 1940. [Correction: Re-reading that chapter, I realized that I had conflated two people. Barnette returned to high school at 22 and finished BEFORE attending Wake Forest College.] He would go on to study at the mother seminary of his denomination (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY), Th.M., 1943; Ph.D., 1948; and do post-graduate work at Columbia University (1954), Union Theological Seminary of NY (1954), Harvard University (1959-1960; Barnette did the coursework for a Th.D. at Harvard Divinity School with James Luther Adams, but his responsibilities prevented him from finishing a second dissertation), and the University of Florida (1971-1972).

The former drop-out boy preacher was introduced to Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel and, dedicating himself to the field of Christian ethics, adapted Rauschenbusch (the subject of his dissertation) to the Southern context. Other influences included Barnette’s teacher at Wake Forest and SBTS, Olin T. Binkley; his fellow maverick students Carlyle Marney, Frank Stagg, Wayne Oates, and Clarence Jordan; his two amazing wives (Barnette was twice a widower), Charlotte Ford Barnette and Helen Porch Barnette; and Martin Luther King, Jr.–whom Barnette brought to preach in SBTS’ chapel–at considerable risk and cost. Barnette was very ecumenical–willing to learn from all branches of Christianity–but his office wall was dominated by 3 portraits that embodied the type of Baptist Christian he tried to be: Walter Rauschenbusch, Clarence Jordan, and Martin Luther King, Jr. A large portrait of Barnette and King together (shown in the front flap of this book) hung in Henlee’s home.

The book describes the major episodes of his life and thought: Hired to teach at Howard College (now known as Samford University) in Birmingham, AL (1942), Barnette immediately founded the first multi-racial pastor’s conference in the city and was fired by the college after one year for “radical race mixing.” Hired to teach at Stetson University in Deland, FL, he lasted only slightly longer–as the Baptist state paper kept calling him a communist and “race traitor.” He lasted longer at SBTS, but he stirred up enough trouble during his decades at Southern that he became the first prof. not given automatic Senior Professor status when he reached automatic retirement. So, Barnette became Clinical Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine.

Although he wrote books against Communism, Barnette also worked to set up student exchanges and other peace programs with the USSR. He was called a Communist sympathizer the way that later peacemakers are called pro-Islamist or “objectively pro-terrorist. The FBI tapped his phone for 16 years, although Barnette later was able to use the Freedom of Information Act to get his FBI file.

Although a strong peacemaker, Barnette never followed Clarence Jordan, Martin Luther King, Jr., or even his colleague, Frank Stagg (NT prof.) in becoming a complete pacifist. Formally, Barnette still held to Just War Theory, although his peacemaking went beyond anything in Augustine, and the nonviolence of Jesus did lead him to oppose the death penalty. One son, John, joined the army and volunteered for Vietnam. Another, Wayne, evaded the draft by going into exile in Sweden with his new bride and leading the draft resistance there. Barnette supported both sons–at considerable cost in Southern Baptist circles.

During his student days at SBTS, Barnette became the pastor of the Union Street Gospel Mission, one of the inner-city missions supervised by Clarence Jordan before the latter returned to South Georgia to found Koinonia Farm. The newspapers called Barnette “the bishop of the Haymarket” area. Union Street Gospel Mission was founded in the 19th C. by a converted riverboat gambler turned Baptist preacher. Today, now known as Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, it is my church home. Barnette loved the fact that our congregation called Rev. Cindy Weber as pastor, since he was an early champion of women in ministry and of the complete equality of the sexes in home, church, and society.

All prophets fall short of perfection. Barnette’s sexual ethics were considered in his day “liberal” on the question of “homosexuality.” But today, his view would be considered a version of the “welcoming but NOT affirming” position that falls short of full inclusion. Yet, when his only daughter, Martha, came out as lesbian, Barnette refused all calls to reject her. They remained in loving relationship without either compromising the integrity of the other.

All this and more is in this wonderful, humorous, sometimes self-critical book. But I cannot read this memoir without deep sadness. The Southern Baptist Convention of Barnette’s day was racist, conservative, in-grown, parochial and prideful–but it struggled to make room for prophetic voices like his. Today’s SBC, as Barnette’s own story makes clear, would have no room for this prophet of God. This Baptist who has left the SBC hopes that, after the current generation of “leaders” dies off, the SBC will begin again to make room for prophets and reformers. Otherwise, no matter how large its numbers are, it will be spiritually dead.

But inside or outside the SBC, I pray that Baptists around the world will still be open enough to the Holy Spirit to produce a Henlee Hulix Barnette every generation or so.

September 19, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, heroes


  1. The Baptist History and Heritage Society is pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of a new booklet titled Baptist Prophets: Their Lives and Contributions. A 35 percent discount will be applied to all advance orders received by October 15, 2006. You will pay only $1.95 per copy; our catalog price after October 15 will be $3.00 per copy. Really special offer: purchase 50 copies or more and pay only $1.75 each.

    “Where have all the prophets gone?” is a question some Baptists have asked in recent years. By that, they do not mean whether Baptists have lost the ability to predict the future; rather, they are commenting on Baptists’ willingness (or non-willingness) boldly to proclaim the word of the Lord in addressing critical issues facing Baptists. Because the prophetic function has been a dynamic ingredient of Baptist history, our Society staff has decided that now is a good time to resurrect the lives and contributions of 14 selected Baptist prophets. What can we learn from the experiences of these noted individuals that can help Baptist teaching, preaching, writing, and living?

    Prophets treated include the following:

    1. Thomas Helwys—founder of Baptist life in England

    2. John Clarke—religious liberty advocate in Colonial America

    3. William Carey—Baptist missions pioneer

    4. John Leland—liberty of conscience defender in late 1700s and early 1800s

    5. Johann Gerhard Oncken—founder of Baptist work in much of continental Europe

    6. Lottie Moon—Baptist missionary to China

    7. Walter Rauschenbusch—leader of the Social Gospel Movement

    8. Nannie Helen Burroughs—leader of African American Baptists

    9. Clarence Jordan—founder of Koinonia Farm in Georgia

    10. Helen Barrett Montgomery—first female president of the Northern Baptist Convention, New Testament translator, and women rights spokesperson

    11. T. B. Maston—longtime Baptist seminary professor of ethics

    12. Martin Luther King, Jr.—internationally renowned civil rights leader

    13. Henlee Barnette—longtime Baptist seminary professor of ethics

    14. Foy Valentine—noted Baptist ethics program leader.

    These 14 short studies can serve as excellent resources for special study classes in your church.

    The writer for this special publication is Dr. Bill Tillman, T. B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics in the Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University. Bill is an especially gifted interpreter of the prophetic and ethical sides of the Baptist experience.

    To place your advance order, simply reply to this e-mail, indicate how many copies you would like, and provide your name, address, and telephone number. Your copies (with an invoice) will be shipped as soon as we receive them from the printer in mid-November. Shipping and handling charges will be added.

    Charles W. Deweese

    Executive Director-Treasurer

    Baptist History and Heritage Society

    P.O. Box 728

    Brentwood, TN 37024-0728


    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 21, 2006

  2. Michael, this does not address your particular book review, but I got a book called “Christian Perspectives on Politics” I forget the author’s name, but you may find it interesting. Personally, I disagree with the guy’s views, because he is more big-government than I like, but I think he is a Republican-Democrat Hybrid who believes gov’t should have a role in enforcing individual (don’t smoke pot) and collective morality (give to the poor). Anyway, he analyzes different Christian approaches. I have not had a chance to read it all, it is very deep and absorbing, which tends to make me sleepy sometimes, but if you are looking for a political/Christian book, you may like it.

    Comment by Chance | September 22, 2006

  3. Chance,
    I think the book to which you refer is J. Philip Wogaman’s _Christian Perspective on Politics._ I own it and read it in seminary.

    Wogaman is Democrat of the Great Society variety. He taught for 20 years at Wesley Theological Seminary and then was Pastor of the Historic Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C. (During that time, Hillary Clinton was a member and she and Bill & Chelsea attended, but Bob & Elizabeth Dole were also members! )Now Wogaman is Interim President at Iliff Seminary in Denver, CO.

    Wogaman is better at analyzing others’ positions than in putting forth his own.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 22, 2006

  4. […] the 1930s and ’40s, Henlee H. Barnette, later a Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was the pastor […]

    Pingback by Baptist Peace Churches #3 « Levellers | August 3, 2008

  5. […] not all the Baptists that went to Harvard were conservative evangelicals. Henlee H. Barnette(1911-2006 ), Christian ethicist and Social Gospel advocate, earned a 2nd doctorate (Th.D.) at […]

    Pingback by Harvard and the Baptists « Levellers | August 10, 2008

  6. […] I have reviewed Henlee Barnette’s A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story (Mercer University Press, 2004) on this blog earlier and won’t repeat the review.  But it’s a great book. […]

    Pingback by Some Theological Memoirs « Levellers | April 5, 2009

  7. […] Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  At SBTS, the teachers who influenced him were Henlee H. Barnette (Christian Ethics), and Eric C. Rust (Philosophical Theology).  He also met the famed Clarence […]

    Pingback by Mentors, #2: Glen H. Stassen « Levellers | October 17, 2009

  8. […] Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  At SBTS, the teachers who influenced him were Henlee H. Barnette (Christian Ethics), and Eric C. Rust (Philosophical Theology).  He also met the famed Clarence […]

    Pingback by Theological Mentors # 2 Glen H. Stassen « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | August 20, 2010

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