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James Leo Garrett Jr., leading Baptist theologian, dies at 94

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — James Leo Garrett Jr., distinguished professor of theology emeritus at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), died Feb. 5 in Nacogdoches, Texas. He was 94.

Garrett found widespread acceptance not only in Baptist circles, but also in the wider community of Christian scholars. He had held emeritus status at Southwestern Seminary since his retirement in 1997. His career included a combined 28 years at Southwestern Seminary over two stints.

“James Leo Garrett Jr. is a distinguished Southwesterner whose teaching ministry on Seminary Hill impacted thousands of students,” said Southwestern president Adam W. Greenway. “And through those students, unknown multitudes of believers across the globe. I am fortunate to have been one of those students and count it a unique privilege to have been taught by such a scholar and minister of the Gospel. I encourage the entire Southwestern Seminary family to lift up the Garrett family during this time of grief.”

During Southwestern’s chapel service the day after Garrett’s death, Greenway specifically prayed for the Garrett family and for the “countless” students of his “who are more faithful in ministry and more mighty in the Word today because they sat under the tutelage and the teaching ministry of James Leo Garrett Jr.”

Greenway also thanked God for “the life, the legacy, the ministry, the writings, the teaching, the mentorship” of Garrett, calling Garrett’s teaching “winsome yet convictional, gracious yet committed to the faith once and for all delivered unto the saints.”

Garrett was born Nov. 25, 1925, in Waco, the only child of James Leo Garrett Sr., an accounting professor at Baylor University, and his wife, Grace Hasseltine Jenkins Garrett, a teacher. In 1935, he was baptized into membership at the Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco.

During the 1940s, Garrett earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Baylor University and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Southwestern, married fellow SWBTS graduate Myrta Ann Latimer, and earned a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.

He then returned to Fort Worth to teach at Southwestern and study toward a Doctor of Theology degree, which he completed in 1954. While a SWBTS student, Garrett pastored three Baptist churches.

In 1950, Garrett attended his first Baptist World Alliance meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, beginning a 50-year association with the world’s largest organization of Baptist churches. In 1962, as part of a faculty panel that invited Martin Luther King Jr. to lecture at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Garrett and his colleagues rejected intense pressure to withdraw the invitation.

In 1965, Garrett attended the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, Italy, as a guest of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. One year later, he was awarded a doctorate from Harvard University, where he wrote his dissertation on American Protestants’ writings on Roman Catholicism between the two Vatican councils.

In addition to Baptist institutions like Southwestern Southern seminaries and Baylor, Garrett’s career as student and professor took him to London, Rome, Hong Kong, South America and Europe. Garrett and his wife, Myrta, received Southwestern Seminary’s L.R. Scarborough Award in 2007.

Garrett authored, co-authored, edited, and co-edited more than 130 published works. He is best known for his two-volume Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical. He contributed articles to more than 20 other books and authored hundreds of journal articles, encyclopedia articles, and book reviews.

In 2009, he authored Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, which covered decades of interest in the question of Baptist identity. Garrett considered the book a career-long project that began during an elective course in 1950 and continued into his retirement. It presents the history of Baptist doctrinal beliefs through primary sources, confessions, and teachings of major theologians.

Malcolm Yarnell, research professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Seminary, notes that Garrett has been called “the last of the Gentlemen Theologians” and “the Dean of Southern Baptist Theologians.” But he says he knew Garrett “as so much more.”

Yarnell recalls that during his first semester as a student with Garrett, Garrett asked him what God had called him to do. Trembling, Yarnell said he believed God wanted him to teach theology “like James Leo Garrett Jr.”

“He blessed me on the spot and never stopped blessing me through the years,” Yarnell says. “Dr. Garrett was my theological father, and I will miss his continual encouragement to be all that our Heavenly Father called me to be. After I joined the Southwestern faculty, he literally gave me his office — for that honor, I remain grateful. Perhaps these things explain why, like many of his other students, Karen [my wife] and I named our second son in his honor.”

The James Leo Garrett Papers in Southwestern Seminary’s Roberts Library comprise 105 boxes, which include correspondence, engagements, writings, research, and teaching materials related to his time serving on the faculties of Southern Seminary, Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary.

David S. Dockery, distinguished professor of theology at Southwestern Seminary, said “it was certainly a great privilege for me to study with James Leo Garrett Jr., the premier Southern Baptist theologian of the second half of the 20th century.”

“Not only was he a superb scholar and great teacher,” Dockery said, “but he was a faithful churchman and a person of deep and genuine piety, an exemplary ecclesial theologian with a love for the Gospel and an infectious commitment to and hope for the unity of the people of God.”

When news broke of Garrett’s passing, many of his former students and colleagues took to Twitter and other outlets to share their feelings about him:

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, said, “So sorry to hear of the death of Professor James Leo Garrett, who taught at @SBTS and then for decades at @SWBTS — a legendary influence and towering figure in Baptist theology. He was also well described as a gentleman theologian, a kind man with a keen mind.”

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity graduate of Southwestern (1983), said, “One of our Lord’s finest servants! What a gift he was!!”

Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, called Garrett a “great teacher. Great theologian. Great human being. Man of God.”

Former SWBTS president Ken Hemphill said, “It is hard for me to express the respect I had for Dr. Garrett. He was not only one of Southern Baptists’ leading theologians, he was a genuine follower of Christ.”

Bart Barber, former SWBTS trustee, said, “So much emotion at the news that James Leo Garrett is in heaven this morning. Words fail me.”

Garrett was preceded in death by his wife, Myrta, in 2015. He is survived by three sons, James Leo Garrett III, Robert T. Garrett, and Paul L. Garrett; four grandsons; and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, at Meadowridge Community Baptist Church, 3400 Charleston Ave., Fort Worth, Texas 76123. A funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, with burial following at 3 p.m. at Oakwood Cemetery in Waco.

    About the Author

  • Julie Owens and Alex Sibley

    Julie Owens is a writer for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Alex Sibley is associate director of news and information at SWBTS.

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