Harry M. Philpott was born 100 years ago on May 7, 1917, in Bassett, Virgnia. Two years later his father purchased a bankrupt furniture plant and moved the family to Lexington, North Carolina. United Furniture became a thriving industry and the Philpott family started a legacy of community involvement and service. As the six Philpott sons grew up in the Lexington City Schools and the First Baptist Church, they all seemed destined to follow in their father’s footsteps in the furniture industry. But in 1935, 18 year-old Harry discovered a different destiny. He heard the voice of God calling him to be his prophet and in September, 1935, Harry Philpott was licensed to preach the Gospel by the First Baptist Church of Lexington, NC.
He started to live out his calling as a Navy Chaplain in the Second World War. After the war he earned his Ph.D. at Yale Divinity School where he became a Teaching Fellow for Dr. Luther Weigle, a preeminent Biblical scholar who was the lead translator for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Harry Philpott participated in the work of the translation, or in his words, “I did most of the grunt work.”
His calling took him into the educational arena and in 1965, he became the President of Auburn University in the sleepy little town of Auburn, Alabama. A year before he came to Auburn, Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from enrolling. Only after a federal order enforced by the National Guard did George Wallace stand down.
No such theatrics were necessary at the “Loveliest Village on the Plains.” While the University of Alabama was integrated by a federal mandate, Auburn University was integrated by Harry Philpott. During his tenure, the entire university including athletics became fully integrated. For the one who heard the voice of God calling him at the age of 18, this was a matter of righteousness and justice. It was simply the right thing to do.
Dr. Philpott’s passionate conviction for justice and equality was not limited to his professional arena. The new President who grew up in First Baptist Church in Lexington, NC became a member of the First Baptist Church in Auburn. As a typical Baptist church in the deep south, the congregation was all white and women were excluded from ordained leadership. It was Harry Philpott who led his church to change.
On March 19 our church called the first female minister in the 138 year history of our congregation. When Meagan Smith was asked by one of our members if she felt any pressure being a female minister, she responded by saying that it was not until she went to seminary that she realized many Baptist churches limited the role of women. She explained that she grew up in a church with several female ministers as wonderful role models. That church was First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama.
When I called the pastor in Auburn to talk about Meagan, I asked him if he knew of Harry Philpott. “Harry Philpott!” he exclaimed. “He is the patron saint of this church.” He went on to tell me that the church was open and progressive primarily because of the influence of Dr. Philpott.
Growing up in First Baptist Auburn, Meagan was influenced by a wonderful couple, Virgil and Donna Starks. Virgil was a Sunday School teacher, they were youth leaders, and Meagan was close to their family. The Starks are African-American. If not for Harry Philpott, they would not have been in Meagan’s church. Virgil Starks was also my brother’s best friend, but that’s another story for another day!
First Baptist Church of Lexington was full of great joy and excitement on March 19. Our congregation unanimously and enthusiastically welcomed Meagan into our family. We have been searching for a new minister for a year. Little did we realize that this calling actually started one hundred years ago when a baby boy was born in Bassett, Virginia.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I called you to be my prophet.” Jeremiah 1: 5