Jack Upchurch Harwell, prominent Baptist journalist in Georgia, died Jan. 18, at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. He was 86. A native of Mobile, Ala., he had lived in the metro Atlanta area for most of his adult life.
Harwell was born Oct. 18, 1932, the son of the late Horace and Eleanor Harwell of Mobile. His father was a Baptist minister and his parents were big influences upon his life. Jack was the second of seven children. His brothers, Hoyt, Mercer, Frank, and Harold, all survive him. He also had two sisters, Eleanor Ann, and Marilyn Ruth, who are deceased.
Harwell is survived by his wife, Teliea, and a son, Ron Harwell of Newnan, Ga., and three grandchildren: Kelly Parada, Andrew Eliopulos, Kerri Lovvorn; and three great grandchildren. One of his twin sons, Don, died in 1993.
A graduate of Samford University, Jack had completed his stint in the Army and was serving as a public relations specialist at Fort McPherson when he was recruited in 1957 by his mentor, John J. Hurt, to become his associate editor at The Christian Index. Harwell was only 24.
He would remain at The Index for the next 30 years, later serving as editor for more than 21 years, the longest tenure of any editor. At that time The Christian Index, founded in 1822, was the oldest religious newspaper in the U.S. and enjoyed its largest circulation. Harwell wrote a history of the newspaper, published in 1972 on its 175th anniversary.
Harwell was a respected editor, but a very controversial one, serving during a time of great 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.
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 re-printed on the front page of The Atlanta Constitution, and while it seems rather mild in the light of today’s attitudes about racism, it was seen as rather controversial at the time, and Harwell received obscene phone calls and death threats as a result.
In 1987 Harwell offered to resign and take early retirement because of the deep division within the Georgia Baptist Convention. The Georgia Baptist Convention meeting in November that year voted overwhelmingly to ask him to reconsider and stay. However, the Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Committee, in a close and secret vote, decided not to reconsider his resignation and he was forced into retirement at the end of 1987.
In 1988, Harwell was elected as the second editor of Baptists Today, a national publication for moderate Baptists now known as Nurturing Faith Journal. He served in that capacity until his retirement in December 1997 and was named editor emeritus.
In his latter years, Harwell, who always prided himself on being a Baptist layman, gave in to requests that he be ordained by First Baptist Church of Morrow, Ga., to serve as minister to senior adults. At the time of his death, he continued to be an active leader in the Morrow church.
A memorial service will be held at the Morrow church on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 1:00 p.m. with Dr. William T. Neal officiating. The family will receive visitors at the church beginning at noon.
Memorial gifts may be sent to First Baptist Church, 1647 Lake Harbin Rd, Morrow, GA 30260 or to Baptists Today, Inc., P.O. Box 6318, Macon, GA 31208-6318.
Editor’s note: William T. Neal is vice chair of the Board of Directors of Baptists Today/Nurturing Faith and the former editor of The Christian Index, where he also served as associate editor to Jack Harwell.
-Visit nurturingfaith.net for daily religion news, thoughtful blogs, excellent books, inspiring experiences and to subscribe to Nurturing Faith Journal.