Dr. Henry Mitchell: A celebratory journey
February 1, 2022
Every year I wrestle with new ways for a congregational observance of Black History Month. As a pastor, how can I adequately lead a congregation in appropriately honoring the courageous and creative ancestors on whose shoulders we now stand? How do we share the narratives and personalities that have shaped our collective and individual sojourn?
This year I’m encouraging folks to celebrate the dynamic women and men who have personally, intimately, and authentically shaped their lives. As poet Maya Angelou said, “How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!”
This year I honor the Reverend Dr. Henry Heywood Mitchell: professor, pastor, preacher, and prolific author. Today I think of him in the context of the Scripture text he shared in a sermon titled “Therefore” in his book “Fire in the Well”: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
In this passage, the apostle Paul argued that death does not have the final say. “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Because of the Christian’s victory over death, the former tentmaker from Tarsus encouraged believers to be “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord.”
Dr. Mitchell was born September 10, 1919. His recent death at age 102 leaves a treasured legacy within Christendom, the academy, and the Black church. His influence on Black preachers and the Black church is incalculable. His biography is one to be studied during Black History Month and any other month.
The Columbus, Ohio, native was steadfast from the moment he preached his initial sermon on January 1, 1939 and would go on to serve as pastor of two congregations in California. He was unrelenting and unshakable in his quest to obey God’s call on his life. To borrow from his lexicon, he began life with a “behavioral purpose.” He was focused. He was steadfast.
I first met Dr. Mitchell in 1986, just months after I accepted the call to Christian ministry and Second Baptist Church (Roselle, New Jersey) licensed me to preach the gospel. My pastor, Dr. Walter W. Johnson, taught me that a call to ministry was a call to serious theological preparation. He wholeheartedly recommended his alma mater, the School of Theology at Virginia Union University (STVU). The school is known for training some of America’s most gifted preachers.
I telephoned the seminary and expressed my interest in enrolling. Mrs. Ella Grimes, the registrar, transferred me to Dr. Mitchell. Although Dr. Mitchell was the outgoing dean at that time, he graciously spoke with me and agreed to schedule a time for me to tour the historic Richmond campus on Lombardy Street.
Dr. Mitchell met me at the Richmond Amtrak station on Parham Road. He gave me a tour of STVU, carefully explaining the rich story of the seminary whose roots are traced back to 1865. When the Civil War ended, the American Baptist Home Mission Society sought to establish a school to educate newly emancipated Black folk. They rented Lumpkin’s Jail (also known as the Devil’s Half Acre) in downtown Richmond; the space had been used as a jail cell and auction block for enslaved Africans.
Rev. Dr. Henry Mitchell’s recent death at age 102 leaves a treasured legacy within Christendom, the academy, and the Black church. His influence on Black preachers and the Black church is incalculable. His biography is one to be studied during Black History Month and any other month.
Like the “homiletical moves in consciousness”[i] he taught, Dr. Mitchell moved with “immovable” commitment to his ministry. He had a distinguished academic career prior to STVU. He was the founding director of the groundbreaking Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellows Project in Black Church Studies (BCS) and was the first MLK Professor of Black Church Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (CRCDS).
The BCS program was established in 1969 with the assistance of the Lilly Endowment and the Irwin Sweeney Miller Foundation. Designed to provide leaders for the Black church in the context of the universal Christian mission, the CRCDS Black Church Studies Program was the first seminary program of its kind in the nation. It hosted a distinguished list of preachers, including H. Beecher Hicks Sr., James Forbes, the late Wyatt T. Walker and the late William Augustus Jones.
Dr. Mitchell taught at Claremont School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary, and the American Baptist Seminary of the West. He held the deanship position at STVU from 1982 to 1986 and would later teach homiletics with his beloved wife of 64 years, Dr. Ella Pearson Mitchell, at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
I remember thinking at the time how extraordinary it was for a seminary dean of Dr. Mitchell’s influence and renown to take such a personal interest in the life of a prospective student, literally a stranger. I later discovered that that was who he was. He had the heart of a pastor. He was relatable and relational. It even felt as though he gave a little extra attention to those of us who were not “preacher’s kids,”[ii] those of us “not born in the parsonage.”[iii] Dean Mitchell truly believed, “The witness of our lifestyle and the sincerity of our faith are still what really counts before God. And these are what a leader needs to have to share the gospel with integrity.”[iv]
STVU admitted me as a first-year student in the fall of 1986. Over the next few years, Dr. Mitchell would return as a visiting homiletics professor at STVU, and I believe I may have registered for every course he taught. Because he loved learning and his students (and was a good steward!), he usually utilized on-campus housing during those semesters he taught. With Dr. Mitchell, lectures did not conclude when the class ended at the designated time in the C. D. King Building. His wisdom sharing could continue into the dinnertime hours or even late night in the dormitory lounge. That was Dr. Mitchell.
Dr. Mitchell affirmed the Black religious experience, teaching his captivated students about the powerful preaching tradition of our ancestors. He breathed life into his storytelling about the social and political activism of Black preachers. He was a joyful storyteller, par excellence.
Dr. Mitchell emphasized the need for formal training, while acknowledging and appreciating that “Black preachers have always served a kind of apprenticeship, sometimes formal, but more often informal, under a known master of the craft of preaching.”[v] He himself was “always excelling in the work of the Lord.”
His books include “Black Preaching,” “The Recovery of Preaching,” “Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art,” and “Celebration & Experience in Preaching.” He also wrote “Black Church Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years.” He coauthored two books with Dr. Ella, “Fire in the Well: Sermons by Ella and Henry Mitchell” and “Together for Good: Lessons from Fifty Five Years of Marriage.”
And with all of his work, Dr. Mitchell took time to read my book manuscripts and offer straightforward insights. He even wrote endorsement blurbs for my Judson Press book “Journey with Jesus through Lent” and my self-published work, “The Glory of Gillfield & the Challenge of the Modern Church: A Study for Congregational Transformation.” Upon reflection, I realize that Dr. Mitchell was nearly a centenarian when he reviewed “Journey with Jesus through Lent.” It seemed like he was always working, always engaged in a project related to the Black church.
Even with his hectic schedule and my increasing personal and professional responsibilities, we managed to stay connected over the years. It was always a joy to see him at a conference or to speak with him on the telephone. Like Samuel D. Proctor, Miles J. Jones, Allix B. James, and Paul Nichols—all STVU professors—Dr. Mitchell was one of those extraordinary mentors whose life lessons taught me about the power of presence, intellectual curiosity, servant leadership, and humility. It’s an amazing influence that flows from generation to generation.
Dr. Mitchell consistently affirmed a homiletic that embraced “holistic faith,” involving the “heart, soul, mind, and strength”—both head and heart, cognitive and emotive. He taught, “The preacher’s goal is to be used of God to move the hearers’ supporting core beliefs, and entire style of living, closer and closer to the new person in Christ. This will include information and reasoning, of course, but the main goal is not informational; it is, rather, experiential. It is related to the intuitive depths of being, where trust and distrust reside. The faith referred to here is ‘gut’ faith, with or without the believer’s ability to put it into a coherent abstract faith statement, and one lives by it.”[vi]
Dr. Mitchell taught that the art of Black preaching requires a celebration. There must be the celebratory conclusion! So how fitting it is that Dr. Mitchell, a passionate, prophetic teacher and preacher in the Black tradition, would transition from labor to reward on a high celebratory note! He “finished his course”; he “kept the faith.” The inaugural MLK professor of Black Studies departed this life on January 15—the very day on which Martin Luther King Jr. was born! Hallelujah!
Now we can celebrate with him. We can celebrate with his family, who shared him with the world. We can celebrate with the countless preachers whom he taught. We can celebrate with those in the academy, the church, and community. We can joyously celebrate that his living was not in vain. He triumphantly, heartily, rapturously declared, “There is no greater joy than knowing that I have not lived in vain. I have not preached in vain. I have not moved from town to town and job to job in vain. I did not learn a foreign language in vain. I have not labored in vain, sweated in vain, prayed in vain, suffered in vain. Now I know how the old people felt when they sang,
“‘I went to the valley, I didn’t go to stay,
but my soul got happy and I stayed all day.
My hands got stuck to the gospel plow,
and I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.’
“I know the joy that the psalmist was talking about when he said, ‘Weeping may endure for a night. But joy, joy, joy will come in the morning.’”[vii]
“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Amen!
[i] Henry H. Mitchell, “Celebration & Experience in Preaching” (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), 23.
[ii] Henry H. Mitchell, “Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art” (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 39.
[iii] Mitchell, “Black Preaching,” 39.
[iv] Henry H. Mitchell, “A Tradition of Faith,” in “The African American Devotional Bible” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 1311.
[v] Mitchell, “Black Preaching,” 39.
[vi] Mitchell, “Celebration & Experience in Preaching,” 131.
[vii] Jacqueline B. Glass, ed., “Fire in the Well: Sermons by Ella and Henry Mitchell” (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2003), 52–53.