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

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Henlee H. Barnette

This continues my chapter-by-chapter review of Larry L.McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen, eds., Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics (Mercer University Press, 2008).

Chapter 5 “Henlee Hulix Barnette (1911-2004): Principlist in the Southern Seminary Tradition” is written by Ronald D. Sisk, who both studied with Barnette and wrote his dissertation on Barnette’s method in approaching Christian ethics. Sisk was born and raised a Southern Baptist and has been a Southern Baptist pastor, but is now Vice President for Academic Affairs, Academic Dean, and Professor of Homiletics and Ministry at Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is a seminary of the North American Baptist Conference (NABC)–an evangelical-pietist denomination in Canada and the U.S. which began among German immigrants.  (This was the tradition which gave us Walter Rauschenbusch.)

Barnette is often compared in influence to T. B. Maston, the subject of chapter 4, but, as Sisk’s title implies, there are some major differences. Maston literally created the Christian ethics department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, whereas Barnette was an early pioneer in a tradition which already existed at the denominational mother seminary (SBTS) in Louisville,  KY.  The department had been created by J.B. Weatherspoon (1886-1964) and expanded by Barnette’s teacher Olin T. Binkley(1908-1999)–two shapers who are not profiled in this book. (Binkley went on to found the  Christian ethics department at the newer Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.)

Born in a one-room log cabin in Sugar Loaf Mountain, NC and raised in nearby Kanapolis, Barnette had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to work in the textile mills.  His personal experience of child labor and poverty would be  a major influence in his ethics forever after.   At age 13, weighing about 74 pounds, Barnette worked 1o hour days in back breaking labor–an experience which left both physical and psychological  marks on him as well as giving him a heart for the oppressed.

At 19, Barnette and his father were converted in a revival meeting. He was baptized and joined the North Kannapolis Baptist Church.  Within a year he was “called to preach” as the tradition describes personal vocations to ministry and soon was pastoring a mission church.  He returned to formal education in 1933 by entering the ninth grade.  In 1936, having belatedly finished high school, Barnette enrolled in Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University), a Baptist institution, and earned a B.A. in religion and philosophy, becoming lifelong friends with classmate Wayne Oates (later a pioneer in the fields of pastoral counseling and psychology of religion) and studying with influential scholars. Barnette was introduced to laboratory methodology and biological evolution by W. L. Poteat, the biologist and university president who was one of the few liberal voices among Southern Baptists in that day.  He also studied sociology and Christian ethics with Olin T. Binkley (Ph.D. Yale) who introduced Barnette to Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, as well as the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr and Binkley’s own mentor, H.Richard Niebuhr.  Binkley also emphasized the leading of the Holy Spirit in Christian ethics, a theme which Barnette continued to emphasize.

Binkley left Wake Forest in 1943 to teach sociology and Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville,  KY.  Barnette had become a B.D. student at SBTS in 1940.  At SBTS, Barnette was influenced by such major Baptist scholars as John R. Sampey (Old Testament), W. O. Carver (theology and missiology), J. B. Weatherspoon (sociology and ethics).  Barnette especially credits Weatherspoon with first sparking his career length interest in racial justice and reconciliation. (Weatherspoon, who founded the Southern Baptist Social Service Commission –later known as the Christian Life Commission–, was boldly calling for Southern Baptists to integrate their churches as institutions as early as 1930! In many places in the South, integrating Baptist schools or other institutions would have been illegal, but Weatherspoon advocated doing so anyway!) He also continued to study under Binkley,  who supervised his Th.D. dissertation on Walter Rauschenbusch.

At SBTS, Barnette also met and befriended the Baptist prophet and social reformer, Clarence Jordan, subject of another chapter in this book.  Jordan (1912-1969), a contemporary of Barnette’s from South Georgia, was a doctoral student in New Testament at SBTS during Barnette’s B.D. days.  He was also, at the time, Supervisor of Missions for Long Run Baptist Association. As a guest preacher in the SBTS’ chapel, Jordan challenged students to bypass easy surburban student pastorates for work in the inner city.  Barnette responded and became pastor of the Union Gospel Mission in the notorious Haymarket District of Louisville–at the time, one of the worst slums in America. (Full disclosure: My congregation, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, is the contemporary incarnation of Union Gospel Mission.  I have profiled our colorful history here.) As pastor of Union Gospel Mission, Barnette also met and married Charlotte Ford, with whom he would have two sons, John and Wayne.

While still writing his doctoral dissertation, Barnette became Assistant Professor of Sociology at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, AL in 1946.  Barnette’s prophetic approach to social activism (9 years before Rosa Parks began the modern civil rights movement in that same city) was so controversial that he was removed after one year by the school trustees.  Barnette had founded the Interracial Baptist Pastors’ Conference in 1946 in Birmingham–a group whose actions would seem timid today, but which were far too radical for white Birmingham in 1946.  He also brought his students into black churches and encouraged “participant observer” study of poverty in a variety of settings–not the kind of activities that a conservative Baptist college wanted in its new sociology professor!

From Birmingham, Barnette soon moved to DeLand, FL to teach sociology and Christian ethics at Stetson University, another Baptist school.  The environment at Stetson was friendlier and the administration more supportive, but this was still the segregated South.  DeLand is not Miami nor was 1947-era Florida the multi-cultural crossroads that it is today.  (In 1923, the African-American town of Rosewood, FL was burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan.  During the Civil Rights Movement (c. 1955-1970), some of the bloodiest, underreported campaigns were in Tallahassee (1955) and Daytona Beach (1964).  During my childhood in Florida in the 1960s and 1970s, one could find both interracial and multicultural friendships AND lingering racism.  Racism played a part in the contested U.S. presidential race in 2000 when FL Secretary of State Katherine Harris, at the order of Governor Jeb Bush, brother to presidential candidate George W. Bush, purged the Florida voter rolls of thousands of African-American names to prevent them from voting.)

At Stetson, Barnette finished his dissertation and was awarded his Th.D. and continued his teaching and activism.  A student accused him of Communism, leading to questions by the president.  (This is ironic because Barnette was a lifelong anti-Communist, though not of the rightwing knee-jerk variety.) Articles and speeches he gave on racism, economic justice, and peacemaking led to angry denunciations in the Florida Baptist Witness (the paper of the Florida Baptist Convention) and calls for his dismissal, but Stetson’s administration supported him as Howard/Samford’s had not.

In 1951, at the invitation of Acting President Gaines Dobbins, Barnette returned to Louisville to become the second Professor of Christian Ethics in the expanding department, alongside his mentor, Olin T. Binkley.  Within a year Binkley would depart to begin the Christian Ethics department at the fledgling Southeaster Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, leaving Barnette to head the department at SBTS.  Barnette remained at SBTS until his retirement in 1977 whereupon he joined the faculty of the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine, pioneering in the field of biomedical ethics.  His time at SBTS was marked with both triumph and tragedy, both on a personal and professional level.  In 1953, his wife, Charlotte, died in childbirth,  leaving him the widowed father of two young boys. In 1956, he married Helen Poarch, a much-younger woman (and a social work student at SBTS!), who stimulated his writing career and was a spiritual and intellectual companion. Together they raised both John and Wayne and  two more children, Martha, and James. 

Barnette’s children would be a major influence on his ethics that Sisk does not adequately explore. Both John and Wayne came of age during the Vietnam War.  John decided that his patriotic duty lay in volunteering for service and became a captain in the Air Force serving two tours of duty in Vietnam.  Wayne, to the contrary, became a pacifist and conscientious objector, and when denied a CO waiver from the draft, fled with his new wife to Sweden, leading the U.S. draft resistance movement in Europe.  Martha is an out lesbian (which Sisk ignores) freelance journalist who is an activist in both feminist and gay rights movements. James became a minister and teaches homiletics at Samford University.

During Barnette’s tenure at SBTS, he had to rebuild the faculty after a dispute with the president resulted in the resignation of 13 faculty members. He also brought Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak in the seminary chapel in 1961.  Along with a group of other clergy,  Barnette travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and helped to thaw the Cold War by setting up educational exchanges by students–a breakthrough he achieved by meeting directly with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev.  He was a strong advocate for the United Nations, but also for its reform.  Despite writing two books on Communism (neither of which were admiring), Barnette was continually vilified as a Communist sympathizer by the rightwing in the U.S.–including within the SBC. 

Barnette used sabbatical leaves to study at Harvard University, earning a second doctorate (Ph.D.) under James Luther Adams and becoming critically influenced by Paul Tillich.  This is unmentioned by Sisk. Also unmentioned is the role Barnette played in the early history of the Society of Christian Ethics, the primary professional society in the U.S. of Christian scholars in Christian ethics.  These ecumenical ventures were unusual for a Southern Baptist of Barnette’s generation.

Contributions to Christian Ethics Among Baptists:

Three portraits hung in Barnette’s office when I knew him in the 1980s and ’90s:  One of Walter Rauschenbusch, his social gospel hero; one of Clarence Jordan, his friend and Southern social prophet; and one of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Barnette considered the greatest social prophet of his era. (The portrait of King was one in which a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi hung behind King.)  He saw himself situated firmly in a tradition formed by the confluence of these influences.  Like all three, Barnette spent time as a working pastor.  Like Rauschenbusch, he moved to a position as a seminary professor.  Like each, he was a writer and, like Jordan and King, he wrote mostly for non-academics, for laity.  He managed to fit in the denominational institutions more than King or Jordan (or even Rauschenbusch), but was enough of an iconoclast that Southern Seminary did NOT ask him to continue as senior professor upon retirement–leading to his post-retirement post at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

Barnette’s textbook, Introducing Christian Ethics (Broadman, 1961) was widely used in Baptist colleges and seminaries, as well as other evangelical institutions, for over two decades.  It has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese (and used throughout Latin America), as well as Japanese and Korean.  In it Barnette identifies a middle ground between legalism (treating Scripture as a book of “rules” to be followed woodenly) and situationism (in which love is the only rule, guided by the exigencies of the situation).  He advocated an approach that sees the Christian life motivated by agape love, but sees that love embedded in principles which underly particular rules.  These principles give more concrete guidance than situationism allows, but can override particular rules if they are being used to subvert the underlying principle.  This method, explained in clear, non-technical, prose was aimed at the non-fundamentalist (but very biblicist) evangelical ethos of the Southern Baptist Convention of his era. (Barnette interacted with wider ecumenical and interfaith influences, but he always wrote first and foremost for his own context.)  Sadly, as Sisk notes, today’s SBC no longer finds Barnette’s methodology helpful. It is legalist in thinking.

Barnette’s own biblicism had its center and focus in the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus.  This has been typical of the wider Baptist tradition, but it is missing from the SBC since the fundamentalist takeover. 

In addition to methodology, Barnette was hugely influential because of the areas of ethics he tackled.  He adapted the Social Gospel to the U.S. South.  He was a pioneering advocate of racial justice and reconciliation.  While T.B. Maston’s writings were more influential among Southern Baptists in this regard, Barnette was more socially active.  He helped to found the Kentucky chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with A.D. King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s younger brother, who was a Louisville pastor at the time. Barnette marched for open housing and school integration.  He helped to form the Louisville Commission on Human Relations (now a part of the Louisville Metro Government) and was a member of the NAACP.

Peacemaking.  Sisk accurately notes that, unlike King and Jordan (and even Rauschenbusch in the last year of his life), Barnette was never a complete pacifist.  He mistakenly characterizes Barnette’s approach to war and peace as one of “Niebuhrian realism,” but Reinhold Niebuhr’s view was far more cynical about peacemaking than Barnette ever was.  Sisk is also mistaken in characterizing Barnette’s support of the Allied cause during WWII as a “crusade against the Nazis.”  Barnette specifically rejected the holy war or crusade ethic.  He was a supporter of Augustinian Just War Ethics and, in this, was influenced by Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsey.  (There were differences, however. Ramsey believed that JWT justified nuclear weapons, and Barnette did not. Ramsey believed–at least until the Tet Offensive–that Vietnam was a Just War, but Barnette did not. They had several public debates on these topics.)  This is sloppy on Sisk’s part.

However, Sisk  notes that Barnette, at least as early as a Christmastime sermon in 1950 (during the height of the Korean conflict) promoted Jesus’ practical politics of peacemaking.  Barnette believed that practical peacemaking was centered in the promotion of human rights and economic justice.  The Korean War was over the spread of Communism–a spread Barnette opposed strongly. But Communism, Barnette noted, “spreads wherever there is social injustice, poverty, and the denial of basic human rights.”  As Sisk recognizes, this early sermon showed a very mature analysis of the roots of war in the Third World that would replay throughout the rest of the century.  From 1950 0nward, practical peacemaking was a major theme.

In 1954, Barnette testified before Congress on the need to strengthen and reform the United Nations, affirming its basic peacemaking and human rights mission.  He rejected nuclear war and nuclear “deterence” through greater firepower.  “No atomic war can be just in either intention or conduct.” Barnette’s trip to the Soviet Union was part of a sustained attempt to work for peace during the midst of the Cold War.

His peacemaking was tried most thoroughly during the Vietnam War.  As a Baptist, he had raised his children with respect for individual liberty of conscience and the “priesthood of all believers.” Thus, when one son, John, volunteered for military service and another, Wayne, became an exiled draft resister, Barnette stood by both of them–taking considerable heat in the process.  (Both denominational and governmental authorities found his support of Wayne’s draft resistance to border on treason. The FBI wiretapped Barnette’s phone for years–wiretaps he was later to obtain under the Freedom of Information Act.) Barnette himself objected to the Vietnam War on just war grounds.  He called himself a “selective conscientious objector,” a position not legally recognized but which is entailed by any Just War ethic.

After the attacks on the U.S.  on 11 Sept. 2001, Barnette reluctantly supported the U.S. military action in Afghanistan. (He and I debated the topic hotly.) But he opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the shredding of the Constitution and torture of terrorism suspects that followed.

This regard for human life and for reconciliation between God and humans and between estranged humans, also led Barnette to oppose capital punishment.  Sisk omits reference to this, probably for space considerations. But since I have been involved in the struggle to abolish the death penalty since my teens, this is an area I note.  Barnette’s views influenced many Southern Baptist official publications in the 1970s, but always swam upstream against the popular support for the death penalty in SBC churches.

Ecology.  Barnette pioneered environmental ethics among U.S. evangelical Christians.  He began writing on the need for care for God’s creation in the 1960s, culminating in his 1972 book, The Church and the Ecological Crisis. He advocated environmental care as part of the human vocation of “stewardship” for God’s creation.  This may strike some today as too anthropocentric and not adequate to the depths of the ecological crisis,  but it was pioneering in its day–the term “stewardship” had previously been reserved almost entirely for tithing and other monetary support of churches!

Barnette also pioneered in the field of biomedical ethics applying “in-principled agapism” to the often secular world of medicine.  Barnette admired,  but also debated, the Episcopal ethicist Joseph Fletcher, controversial advocate of “situation ethics,” but also pioneer of  biomedical ethics.  Fletcher believed one could judge the ethics of say, euthanasia, only from within the situation with only agape love to guide.  Barnette, to the contrary, believed that agape was embodied in principles, such as the sacredness of human life and personality.  Thus, direct and active euthanasia (directly killing a terminal patient) was never justified, but indirect and passive euthanasia (allowing a patient to die naturally) could be justified under specific circumstances.  He took a similar approach to abortion:  Respect for developing human life and potential personhood led to a presumption against abortion, but this presumption could be overruled in specific instances.

Sex and family ethics.  Sisk omits any reference to this area of Barnette’s thought.  Here he was far more egalitarian than his Southwestern colleague, T. B. Maston.  Barnette’s two wives, Charlotte (who died in childbirth) and Helen (who died of cancer), were both equal companions and not subordinates.  Barnette was also a single parent for a time as a widower.  These experiences, perhaps, plus a focus on Jesus’ interaction with women in the New Testament, led him to become an early advocate for women’s ministry.  By the 1960s, he was an open proponent of “women’s liberation” as feminism was then known.  In an article on Genesis, he argued that the original biblical pattern of the sexes was not patriarchy (rule of fathers), but “co-archy,” co-rule of equal marriage partners. (Barnette always seemed to me to be somewhat perturbed that his neologism of “co-archy” never caught on!)

In other ways, Barnette’s sexual and family ethics were more traditional. He advocated celibacy for all who are not married and sexual fidelity within monogamous marriage–and seems to have practiced what he preached.

What about same sex relations?  Sisk rightly notes that Barnette was less willing to prescribe on this area than on any other subject with which he dealt.  He noted the lack of permission for sexual relations between those of the same sex in Scripture (and Barnette tried to be faithful to Scripture always) and he noted the debates in the psychological and medical communities over the causes of homosexuality, whether it was a neuroses, if it could be “cured,” etc.   These were all active debates when Barnette was writing, and he made suggestions for church ministry that was non-judgmental, but worked for change toward a heterosexual norm. 

What Sisk fails to note is that Barnette’s only daughter, Martha, outed herself as a lesbian shortly after Barnette wrote those prescriptions.  The two remained close and Barnette wrestled with the continuing debates on the subject.  Did he ever change his mind and conclude that there was a place for same-sex monogamy? If so,  this is not reflected in any of his published writings.  For myself, I believe that he was still struggling to reconcile the way he interpreted Scripture on the subject and his experience with Martha.  Sisk’s failure to note the personal dimension of this “issue” in the form of Barnette’s daughter, Martha, makes it seem as if Barnette came to his conclusions in an isolation booth or in clinical detachment.  The omission also makes it seem as if Barnette’s only writings on this (1970s and 1980) formed a final conclusion, whereas I believe he was still wrestling and rethinking this area throughout the final years of his life.

Sisk notes that the most glaring deficiency in Barnette’s writings is the lack of a fully formed theological grounding.  It’s true that one finds nothing like detailed theological ethics of Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I think Barnette’s theology is most revealed in his unpublished dissertation on Rauschenbusch:  It is a Southern Baptist adaptation of the Social Gospel.  This was modified by his interactions with the Niebuhr brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Luther Adams, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  But the popular, lay, nature of most of his writings, while they made his work very accessible, also prevented him from being taken as seriously in theological circles as a Paul Ramsey, Stanley Hauerwas, or John Howard Yoder (each of whom Barnette knew through the Society of Christian Ethics).

Henlee Hulix Barnette was a major shaper of Baptist social ethics in the 2nd half of the Twentieth Century.  Sisk’s chapter is a good introduction to his life and work for a new generation.


February 7, 2009 - Posted by | Baptists, ethics

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