Distinguished professor of theology James Leo Garrett Jr. dies
James Leo Garrett Jr., distinguished professor of theology emeritus at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, died Feb. 5 in Nacogdoches, Texas, after a long and illustrious academic career, including a combined 28 years at Southwestern Seminary over two stints. 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.
“James Leo Garrett Jr. is a distinguished Southwesterner whose teaching ministry on Seminary Hill impacted thousands of students, and through those students, unknown multitudes of believers across the globe,” said President Adam W. Greenway. “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 Seminary’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. In 1935, he was baptized into membership at the Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco.
In 1945, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Baylor University, where he was president of the centennial class. In 1948, he was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Southwestern Seminary and married fellow graduate Myrta Ann Latimer. He received a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1949, then returned to Fort Worth to teach at Southwestern Seminary as well as study toward a Doctor of Theology, which he completed in 1954. He wrote his dissertation on the theology of Baptist scholar and former Southwestern Seminary professor W.T. Conner. While a student at Southwestern Seminary, 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 Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Garrett and his colleague rejected intense pressure for the invitation to be withdrawn.
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 Doctor of Philosophy from Harvard University, where he wrote his dissertation on American Protestants’ writings on Roman Catholicism between the two Vatican councils.
In 1967, Garrett served as coordinator of the first Conference on the Concept of the Believers’ Church, an international gathering in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1968, he studied postgraduate courses at the University of Oxford (Regent’s Park College) in England and was appointed chairman of the Study Commission on Cooperative Christianity for the Baptist World Alliance. In 1973, he was named director of J.M. Dawson Studies in Church-State and a professor of religion at Baylor, later becoming the Simon M. and Ethel Bunn Professor of Church-State Studies. In 2008, he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Baylor.
In his lengthy and celebrated academic career, Garrett taught at Southwestern Seminary (1949–1959, 1979–1997), Southern Seminary (1959–1973), and Baylor University (1973–1979). In 1988, he was a visiting professor at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary. He also lectured in Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, the Ukraine, and Romania, and at various other schools in the United States. Garrett and his wife, Myrta, received Southwestern Seminary’s L.R. Scarborough Award in 2007.
“I’m grateful for Dr. Garrett’s influence in my life as a teacher, a churchman, a colleague in theological education, a fellow follower of Jesus, and a personal friend,” says Russell H. Dilday Jr., president of Southwestern Seminary from 1978-1994. “He will be missed.”
Kenneth S. Hemphill, Southwestern Seminary’s president from 1994-2003, says, “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. He and his gracious wife, Myrta Ann, were friends and encouragers to Paula and me.”
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.
Garrett was honored with a festschrift in 1991 titled The People of God: Essays on the Believers’ Church, edited by Southwestern Seminary alumni David S. Dockery and Paul Basden. A second festschrift in Garrett’s honor was published in the spring 2006 issue of Perspectives in Religious Studies, the journal of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion.
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.” Dockery added that Garrett’s contributions to the church as well as to the academy were “of great significance.”
“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 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 Seminary and a Master of Divinity graduate of Southwestern Seminary (1983), said, “One of our Lord’s finest servants! What a gift he was!!”
Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, called Garrett a “great teacher. Great theologian. Great human being. Man of God.”
Bart Barber, former trustee of Southwestern Seminary, said, “So much emotion at the news that James Leo Garrett is in heaven this morning. Words fail me.”
Tyler Brown, a 2002 Master of Divinity graduate of Southwestern Seminary, said, “He was a legend and one of the most caring professors I ever encountered. His tests wore me out though…. God bless. Praying for his family. All of the @SWBTS family mourns with them.”
Phillip Herrington, a 1991 graduate of Southwestern Seminary, called Garrett one of his “absolute favorite professors,” saying that he “challenged me to deep levels of thinking.” Herrington concluded, “I stand in a long line of those greatly impacted by his wisdom, knowledge, and humility! Well done our dear brother.”
Paul Turner, a 1989 Master of Arts in Religious Education graduate, said, “What a beautiful example of a man allowing God to be his Lord and Master. Loved having him as my OT professor many years ago. Praying for his family.”
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. on Wednesday, Feb. 12, at Meadowridge Community Baptist Church, 3400 Charleston Ave., Fort Worth, Texas 76123. A funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, with burial following at 3 p.m. at Oakwood Cemetery in Waco.