Jack Harwell, editor of The Christian Index for 21 years during his 30 years with Georgia Baptists’ news journal, 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  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 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) “will not get better if the disease now eating at the vitals of the Convention is not treated and the patient cured.”
BP file photo
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.
Theological controversy at the state level became “most evident in Georgia” after the election of the late Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979, wrote Jesse Fletcher in his book The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History citing Harwell as a major point of controversy for conservatives.
At the Georgia Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in November 1979, Harwell received a vote of confidence from messengers, with Baptist Press reporting observers’ estimates of 2,500 standing to vote for a motion to “express our full confidence in the personal and professional integrity of the editor” and 500 voting against. The heated discussion included a statement by The Index board of directors chairman that Harwell had “repeatedly affirmed his loyalty” to Southern Baptists’ Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement.
In August 1986, The Index board of directors created an editorial review board to “reflect the spirit and theological position of Georgia and Southern Baptists” in response to a 32-page document of complaints after Harwell had editorialized against conservative nominees elected to the SBC’s boards, commissions and committees at that year’s SBC annual meeting.
But in October of the following year, Harwell announced his resignation, stating that he “could not continue with the restrictions or the pressures that have been created by the review board analyzing everything we do.” At that year’s annual meeting in November, Harwell’s supporters prevailed in a vote that he return to the paper. But the following month, the convention’s executive committee, vested with final hiring authority, narrowly voted that Harwell’s resignation remain in effect.
Harwell retired on Dec. 31, 1987, at age 55. Among tributes printed in The Index, Presnall Wood, president of the Southern Baptist Press Association and editor of the Texas Baptist Standard, wrote that Harwell “believed and practiced ‘trust the Lord and tell the people’ as he sounded a strong note for responsible editorial freedom in Baptist life.”
Harwell subsequently served 10 years as editor of SBC Today, a publication of Baptist moderates subsequently named Baptists Today, and 10 years at First Baptist in Morrow where he was ordained to the ministry and his wife Teliea was serving as minister to senior adults.
Born Jack U. Harwell in Mobile, Ala., he made a profession of faith in Christ at age 13; earned an undergraduate journalism degree from Samford University in Birmingham; served as a public relations specialist for the U.S. Army from 1953-1956 and the Air Force in 1957; and was associate editor of The Index from 1957 until he was named editor in 1966 at age 34. He was the 1977 president of the Southern Baptist Press Association.
In addition to his wife, Harwell is survived by a son, Ron; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
His funeral was held Jan. 26 at First Baptist in Morrow, with one his successors at The Index, Bill Neal, officiating.