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Tue, 07.24.1900

Dr. George Kelsey, Theologian born

George Kelsey

*George Kelsey was born on this date in 1910.  He was a Black educator, theologian, and administrator.

George Dennis Sale Kelsey was born in Columbus, Georgia, the son of Andrew Zadok Kelsey and Marie Hayward Jones Kelsey.  He and his brother, Andrew II, were raised in Griffin, Georgia.  In 1928, Kelsey graduated as valedictorian of his class from Cabin Creek High School, a Negro Baptist institution dedicated to the teaching of Black students.   Kelsey entered Morehouse College in Atlanta in the fall of 1928 and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934 with high honors.  Kelsey married Leola B. Hanks in 1930, and they had three children, George II, Everett, and Holly.

In 1938, he graduated from Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, MA, with a Bachelor of Divinity degree and as valedictorian. During this time, Kelsey often served as a preacher and lecturer, beginning a long tradition of public oration.  Kelsey began his Ph.D. program at Yale University in 1937. He postponed completing the degree program to accept a teaching position as a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Morehouse College.

Also, in 1938, Kelsey was ordained as a minister in the Providence Baptist Church in Atlanta. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale in 1946. From 1945 to 1948, Kelsey served as the Director of the School of Religion at Morehouse College and was a visiting lecturer at Gammon Theological Seminary.  He began contributing to books and journals, and his first article, “The Nature of the Christian Ethic,” was published in The Journal of Religious Thought in 1945.

During this time, Kelsey first met and taught Martin Luther King, Jr., who studied sociology at Morehouse. A member of the class of 1948, King received his highest marks in his first two years of college in Kelsey’s Bible class.  Later, Kelsey offered criticism of a chapter in King’s Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story before its publication. King later cited George Kelsey as one of his main influences in pursuing the study of race and religion.  Aside from maintaining a long-running association with King, Kelsey worked and studied alongside several prominent religious thinkers of his time, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Benjamin E. Mays.

Later, the writings and views of these authors formed the basis of Kelsey’s teachings on Christian ethics and civil rights.  In 1948, Kelsey took a position with the Federal Council of Churches as an Associate Secretary in the Field Department. The same year, when the Federal Council was merged into the National Council of the Churches of Christ, Kelsey was promoted to Associate Director of the Central Department of Field Administration. He retained this position until 1952. Kelsey became a member of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and the National Council on Religion in Higher Education.

In 1950, Kelsey was a guest lecturer at Drew University in Madison, NJ, and taught a seminar on Christian Ethics. In 1951, he accepted the Associate Professor of Christian Ethics position at Drew and was promoted to full Professor in 1957.  In 1972, he was awarded the title of Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Christian Ethics at Drew, which he kept until his retirement in 1976.  Kelsey published numerous articles, chapters, book reviews, and pamphlets at Drew. Kelsey’s first book, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man was published in 1965.  Social Ethics Among Southern Baptists, 1917-1969, based on his doctoral dissertation Social Thought of Contemporary Southern Baptists, was published in 1973.

In 1979, Kelsey delivered the convening prayer at the 96th Congress of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.  In 1989, Andover Newton Theological School established the Kelsey-Owens Black Ministries Program. Kelsey was honored by Drew University in October 1992 with a luncheon and presentation of a portrait. Dr. George Kelsey died after a long illness on April 3, 1996, in Madison, NJ.

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