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Theological education pioneer dies at 100

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)—Robert Gee Witty, a pioneer in the development of non-residential theological education and doctor of ministry studies, died at the age of 100 on June 20 in a Jacksonville, Fla., hospice.

Witty, in 1962, was the founder of Luther Rice Seminary in Jacksonville, Fla., which relocated in 1991 to Lithonia, Ga., and last year became Luther Rice University.

Witty, who was in the ministry 86 years according to family members, served as Luther Rice Seminary’s president from 1968-82 and chancellor until 1987. At the time of the seminary’s founding, Witty was pastor of Jacksonville’s Central Baptist Church, which he led from 1943-70.

Over the years, Luther Rice has recorded an estimated 5,000 graduates. Currently, the university has 1,100 students (400 undergraduate, 700 graduate), 450 of whom are at the Atlanta-area campus.

He was born on Oct. 6, 1906, in Glasgow, Ky. Last year on Oct. 8, his church, Mandarin Baptist in Jacksonville, celebrated his 100th birthday with a special Sunday worship service.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and president of the SBC Council of Seminary Presidents, described Witty as “a great Christian leader, a passionate Christian educator and one of the great innovative minds of his generation.”

Mohler said Witty was “a man ahead of his time…. His vision of taking educational programs to the people set the pattern for the radical expansion of educational opportunity in the United States. Long before the secular world had caught sight of this vision, Dr. Witty was already doing it.

“He leaves a lasting impact on Baptist education and Baptist churches,” Mohler said, “but most importantly in the lives of so many he taught and served and led.”

Tom Elliff, senior vice president of the SBC International Mission Board and a former SBC president, said Witty, known as “Doc” to friends and colleagues, “though in his 90s, continued travelling, speaking, teaching, hosting a website and encouraging others in the faith.”

“Witty was the consummate soul-winner whose pockets brimmed with Gospel tracts. His stated goal in life was to leave each person with whom he came in contact ‘with eternity in view,'” Elliff said.

Mohler recounted the last time he visited with Witty: “We had enjoyed lunch in a Jacksonville hotel and he had big plans for the afternoon, as I saw him off he drove away with a twinkle in his eye and a plan of action in his heart — and he was 98 years old. Dr. Witty lived life to the fullest as a devoted follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will be greatly missed.”

Witty was a visionary, said Roger Willmore, pastor of Deerfoot Baptist Church in Trussville, Ala., and president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention who, as a Luther Rice student in 1975, was befriended by Witty. “He enabled others to see more than they otherwise would see.”

Witty’s vision for Luther Rice Seminary “provided a means of non-traditional theological education which was ahead of its time,” Willmore said. “Today, many seminaries, including SBC seminaries, use distance learning methods that were devised by Robert Witty. He played a significant role in creating the doctor of ministries degree. It was his desire to provide practical education and training for those who serve the church.”

Willmore added that Witty had “a shepherd’s heart. He was gentle in his demeanor. He always had a special place in his heart for the smaller church pastor. Dr. Witty was one of the dearest friends I have ever had. For more than 30 years he poured his life into mine — and many other pastors as well. He will be remembered for his passion for mentoring others and enabling them to be successful in their ministry.”

In addition to serving as a pastor in Jacksonville, Witty also led churches in St. Petersburg and Davenport, Fla.

He authored numerous books, including “Power for the Church,” “Help Yourself to Happiness,” “Signs of the Second Coming” and “Church Visitation, Theory and Practice.” With Elliff, he coauthored “In Their Own Words,” a book of testimonies of men and women of faith.

In addition to earning a Ph.D. from the University of Florida and a doctor of theology degree from Burton Seminary in Vermont, family members said Witty also had earned degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, Asbury Theological Seminary, Willamette University and Campbell School of Theology.

His wife Katherine died in 1994 after 55 years of marriage. Witty is survived by three sons, Robert Witty, Daniel Witty and Robert Hoover, and three daughters, Mary Love Spann, Ann Weisel and Edith Krblick; eight grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Monday, June 25, at Mardarin Baptist Church in Jacksonville, with burial in Oaklawn Cemetery.