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Henlee Barnette, Southern ethics professor from 1952-77, dies

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Henlee Barnette, who served as professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1951-77, died Wednesday, Oct. 20, at his home in Louisville, Ky. He was 93.

Barnette was perhaps best known for his work on behalf of social and civil rights causes. In 1961, Barnette hosted civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on the campus of Southern Seminary and later marched with King in Frankfort, Ky.

Born Aug. 14, 1911 near Taylorsville, N.C., Barnette was a two-time graduate of Southern Seminary, receiving his Ph.D. in 1948 and a master of theology in 1943. He taught at Howard College (now Samford University in Alabama) from 1946-47 and served as professor of sociology and religion at Stetson University in Florida from 1947-51, before joining the Southern Seminary faculty. After retiring from Southern, Barnette served as clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville from 1977-92.

In 1957, he met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Kremlin and helped establish a college student exchange program between the United States and Russia.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, served as one of Barnette’s teaching assistants in the mid-’80s. He praised Barnette’s courage in working for civil rights and recalled his love for teaching.

“Henlee Barnette was a rare individual who combined a serious passion for teaching with an incredible personality and genuine love for his students,” Mohler said.

“He took brave and courageous stands on behalf of civil rights when he knew his actions and words could put him in jail. He helped Southern Baptists understand the biblical imperatives for racial integration, and he had a passion for full civil rights for all citizens. In that sense, he was a powerful prophet in an age that had too few prophets.”

Barnette did not agree with the theologically conservative direction that Southern Seminary took under Mohler’s administration, but he continued to visit the campus. He took part in a forum on the Christian response to terrorism sponsored by the seminary’s Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement in February 2002.

“He was a personal friend to me for many years, and even as events and developments led to some distance between us, I always knew him to be a man of integrity and graciousness,” Mohler said.

“There can be no doubt that on a number of issues, Dr. Barnette and I were in fundamental disagreement. But he was a man with a gift for civilized, rational and calm conversation. He was always an intelligent and passionate discussion partner. He will be greatly missed not only by this institution and the hundreds of students who were touched by his teaching, but by all who knew him personally.”

Former professor of Christian theology Wayne Ward, who worked closely with Barnette throughout his entire career at Southern, called his friend a “gentle prophet.”

“He was the most gentle doer of the Word of God I have ever met,” Ward said. “He was self-effacing and humble in his style. He could carry the day because he had such a Christ-like spirit. He could also be hard as nails when it came to standing for [his beliefs].”

Barnette is survived by four children, John, Wayne, Martha and Jim. Funeral services will be held at 1:00 p.m., Oct. 25, at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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