George D. Kelsey was Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Christian Ethics at Drew University, where he taught for 24 years. While teaching at Morehouse College, Kelsey became a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., then a student. Kelsey served as an executive with the Federal Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. He was the author of Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man and Social Ethics Among Southern Baptists, 1917-1969, and was a frequent contributor to religious and academic journals and symposia. He died in 1996.
George Dennis Sale Kelsey was born on July 24, 1910 in Columbus, Georgia to 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 African-American students. Kelsey married Leola B. Hanks in 1930 and they had three children, George II, Everett, and Holly.
Kelsey entered Morehouse College in Atlanta in the fall of 1928 and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934 with high honors. He graduated from Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, MA with a Bachelor of Divinity degree, and as valedictorian, in 1938. During this time, Kelsey served often as a preacher and lecturer, beginning a long tradition of public oration.
Kelsey entered the Ph.D. program at Yale University in 1937. He postponed completion of the degree program in 1938 to accept a teaching position as 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 to contribute to books and journals, and his first article titled “The Nature of the Christian Ethic” was published in The Journal of Religious Thought in 1945.
It was during this time that Kelsey first met 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 prior to 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 correspondence 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 consolidated 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 position of Associate Professor of Christian Ethics 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.
During his time at Drew, Kelsey published numerous articles, chapters, book reviews and pamphlets. 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. He died after a long illness on April 3, 1996 in Madison, NJ.
Courtesy of the Drew University Archives