Jack Harwell, Southern Baptist Editor Who Commented Against Racism, Dies at 86

Jack Harwell (center) was tapped as president-elect of the Southern Baptist Press Association (now Association of State Baptist Publications) during the editors’ 1976 meeting in San Francisco. Hudson Baggett (left) of The Alabama Baptist was the association’s president; R.G. Puckett of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder, secretary-treasurer. BP file photo

MORROW, Ga. (BP) — Jack Harwell, editor of The Christian Index for 21 years during his 30 years with Georgia Baptists’ newsjournal, died Jan. 18 at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

A family obituary described Harwell, 86, as “a respected editor, but a controversial one, serving during a time of division in Baptist life over both theological and social issues. Harwell was part of the moderate branch of Southern Baptists that would later break away and form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”

The family obituary also stated, “Perhaps his greatest editorial was written after the [1968] assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Harwell called him ‘a noble Baptist leader’ who ‘did more to help his race and to combat the evil oppression of racism and inequality than any other person in modern times.’ He called on Georgia Baptists to be in the forefront in seeking ‘human equality for all our citizens.’

“That editorial was reprinted on the front page of The Atlanta Constitution,” the family obituary recounted, “and while it seems rather mild in the light of today’s attitudes about racism, it was seen by some as rather controversial at the time, and Harwell received obscene phone calls and death threats as a result.”

In December, Harwell resigned his 10-year staff position as minister of pastoral care at First Baptist Church in Morrow, Ga., due to failing health, The Index reported after his death.

Harwell’s theological views were challenged in 1976 — three years before the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence took root — by the late Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell, author of “The Battle for the Bible,” who focused on Harwell in one of eight subsections in a chapter on Southern Baptists.

Lindsell cited 1974 correspondence in which Harwell stated he did not believe Adam and Eve were “one man and one woman” but represented “mankind and womankind.” Harwell wrote that he did not believe in the “verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible” because of “many, many instances where a literal, absolute, blind acceptance of the Bible without an understanding of human nature leads to all types of contradictions.”

Lindsell wrote that “once a denomination departs from a belief in biblical infallibility, it opens the floodgates to disbelief about other cardinal doctrines of the faith.” The theological drift of the SBC “will not get better if the disease now eating at the vitals of the Convention is not treated and the patient cured.”

After the election of the late Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979, theological controversy at the state level became “most evident in Georgia,” wrote Jesse Fletcher in his book, “The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History,” citing Harwell as a major point of controversy for conservatives.

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Source: Baptist Press

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