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Page H. Kelley: Old Testament scholar and devoted Baptist.

Southern Baptists have not been known for producing internationally recognized scholars.

This probably has a lot to do with the love/hate relationship Baptists have had with their scholars in general; the Whitsitt Controversy comes to mind. (1) In Old Testament studies, Southern Baptists have likewise produced only a few scholars with a widespread reputation. For example, one of the most promising figures in Baptist Old Testament scholarship was Crawford H. Toy. He was part of the inaugural class of Southern Seminary in 1859, while the school was in Greenville, South Carolina, and he later taught at Southern Seminary for ten years (1869-79). (2) Unfortunately for Southern Baptists, however, Toy made his major contributions to the discipline after he departed Southern Seminary (under fire) for Harvard, and ironically, he is most widely remembered among Southern Baptists, not for his scholarship, but for his role as Lottie Moon's romantic interest! (3)

I will make the case in this article that Page Hutto Kelley should also be remembered for his considerable contributions to Old Testament scholarship. It was only at the end of his career that he began to publish primarily scholarly materials, and thus his contributions to the discipline are easily overshadowed by the previous decades when he kept a quiet profile as a dedicated professor and denominational servant. His scholarly activity should not be neglected.

Life Before Southern Seminary: 1924-59

Kelley was born on July 19, 1924. A biographical essay of his life, accenting his early years, will soon be published, and the reader should look there for many other interesting details. (4) He was born as the first of seven children to Roy and Jessie Kelley, who were tenant farmers in Geneva County, Alabama. As a result of his father's work, Kelley grew up all over Geneva County, which is in south Alabama perched atop the Florida panhandle. We could characterize the Kelleys as poor; Page once remarked to me about not always having shoes. In Depression-era south Alabama, however, they would have been among the middle class of rural farm workers. Joining the family for a while was Kelley's great grandfather on his mother's side who had been part of the Confederate Army with Lee which surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

Roy Kelley became ill in 1938, and Page, as the eldest son, now in high school, took over work on the farm. He was unable to attend school regularly for a year and did his lessons by night. Roy later died, and although the exact culprit was not known, Page speculated that it was cancer of some sort. He made ends meet through a newspaper delivery route and selling peanuts at ball games all the while running the farm.

In 1941, Kelley entered Howard College in Birmingham (now Samford University). During his college years he served as assistant pastor of Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and pastor of Verbena Baptist Church. He graduated from Howard in 1945 and went on to Southern Seminary. Riding on the same train with him from Dothan to Louisville was Vernice Macintosh, a classmate whom Page had met in a Shakespeare class. She planned to attend the WMU training school. Page and Vernice married two years later in 1947. During the years Kelley worked on his B.D. degree, he pastored Livonia Baptist Church in southern Indiana. He graduated in 1948 and entered the Th.D. program at Southern the same year. He also moved to become pastor of the Tea Creek Baptist Church, North Vernon, Indiana.

The year 1952 was a busy one for the Kelley family. Page gave up his pastorate so he could finish his dissertation. He also taught Hebrew at Southern. But, more significantly, in July 1952, Page, Vernice, and their infant daughter sailed to Brazil to begin work as missionaries. After completing language school in 1953, Kelley taught Old Testament and Hebrew at the Baptist Seminary in Rio de Janeiro from 1953-59. He also served as the librarian. In 1955, he became pastor of the Itacurussa Baptist Church.

During the 1957-58 academic year, Kelley was on furlough and returned to Southern as visiting professor of Old Testament. Southern's president, Duke McCall, invited Kelley to join the Old Testament faculty at that time, but Kelley declined. Kelley returned to Brazil for one last year on the mission field, but in 1959, he decided to return to Louisville to take McCall up on his offer. Thus began Kelley's long career at Southern Seminary that did not conclude until his retirement in 1992.

Southern Seminary: 1959-92

It is not enough to note that Kelley began his tenure at Southern in 1959. For a full understanding of the situation, one must be aware of the events that began in 1957 that created the vacancy Kelley filled. (5) Duke McCall, president at Southern Seminary from 1951 to 1982, reorganized the seminary's administration in reaction to recommendations made by external consultants in 1957. The result of this reorganization consolidated decision-making into the hands of the seminary's administration; many of the faculty felt threatened by these changes and became dissatisfied with McCall's leadership. A bloc of thirteen faculty members moved against McCall and attempted to get the seminary's board of trustees to side with their complaints. After several months of upheaval, the trustees decided to support McCall, and the twelve dissenting professors were dismissed. (One later withdrew his support of the opposition.)

Such a large faculty turnover in such a short period of time would in itself be damaging, but the events also led to a suspension of new admissions into the Th.M. and Th.D. programs at Southern, and the institution was placed on probation by its accrediting agency. (6) Obviously, in the aftermath of this controversy, Southern Seminary was in immediate need of qualified faculty members. The faculty which were hired to fill the vacancies influenced Southern's Old Testament department for the next three decades: Joseph Callaway (1958), Marvin Tate (1960), Don Williams (1961), and, of course, Page Kelley (1959). Clyde Francisco and J. J. "Red Top" Owens, both of whom began teaching in 1942, stayed on through the upheaval of 1958. (7) Owens had originally been a part of the coalition of thirteen, but he was subsequently reinstated. Francisco had resigned to join the faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, but he later rescinded his resignation to stay at Southern. (8)

The first indication that Kelley received that he was being considered for a full-time faculty position at Southern was in December 1957, when the other Old Testament faculty members met with him about the possibility. (9) Kelley noted that he "had a ringside seat from which to observe the developing controversy? (10) When Kelley saw that the impasse between McCall and the faculty was not going to be resolved in a timely manner, he decided to return to Brazil in the summer of 1958. Among the reasons Kelley cited for declining the invitation to join the faculty were (1) his sympathies tended to be with faculty members, and (2) he was afraid that he was going to be the lone Old Testament faculty member when classes resumed in the fall of 1959. (11)

So Page and Vernice left for Brazil "feeling fairly certain that we would never be invited to return." (12) A year later, however, McCall contacted Kelley again, based on the recommendation of Owens, Francisco, and Callaway, and asked him to reconsider. In spite of the challenge presented by these difficult times, Kelley accepted, and the new generation of Old Testament faculty became his colleagues throughout most of his teaching career.

Kelley spent the bulk of his time at Southern with classroom instruction and denominational service through guest Bible studies, interim pastorates, and a copious amount of publications aimed at Southern Baptist laypeople. He generally kept a low profile and that was in a large part due to the quiet "pastoral demeanor" that characterized his style both in and out of the classroom. (13) In 1985, Kelley was promoted to the John R. Sampey Professor of Old Testament Chair, a prestigious-named chair.

In an ironic twist, however, Kelley's final years at Southern would also be marked by significant controversy. During the 1980s, the fundamentalist controversy rocked Southern Baptists, and Kelley was well aware of the dangers posed by a fundamentalist takeover. At first, Kelley did not enter the pubic fray, but eventually, he felt the need to speak out. In a series of articles and letters for the Western Recorder, the Kentucky state Baptist newspaper, Kelley protested what was happening in the convention.

In response to charges that seminary professors did not believe the Bible, Kelley wrote of the SBC: "Instead of using the Bible to reach and win the lost, we are using it to try to destroy each other." (14) In response to a personal charge that Kelley was a "higher critic," he responded, "To charge that everyone who teaches higher criticism is bound to become a theological liberal is as illogical as to say that every gun owner is bound to become a criminal. (15)

Kelley's tone in these articles showed that his noncontentious style had reached a breaking point. In his obituary, the Louisville Courier-Journal described him as "frustrated by increasing tension and power struggles between conservative and moderate factions.... (16)

Retirement: 1992-97

Kelley retired from Southern in 1992 to take a teaching appointment at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR). BTSR was among the first of the "alternative" Baptist theological schools sponsored by the moderate faction of Southern Baptists. Kelley was excited by this opportunity, and it meant a great deal to him to be able to contribute something of himself to the budding movement in Baptist education that resisted the fundamentalist takeover. (17)

Kelley's tenure at BTSR was unfortunately very short. In the spring semester of his first year, he suffered a stroke. Although he recovered, he did not return to teaching. He returned to his Louisville home in the summer of 1993 and devoted all of his time to writing projects. This was a very productive time in Kelley's life for his academic writing. Although Kelley continued to produce educational literature, he now did so for moderate Baptist publishers.

In February 1997, Kelley entered a local hospital for hip replacement surgery. He expected this to be fairly routine, a short interruption in the work schedule on his book about the Hebrew Masorah. As late as four days before he entered the hospital, on February 20, 1997, Kelley wrote, "I'm busy taking tests and making last minute plans for surgery on the 24th (next Monday) and won't be able to do anything else at this time." (18) In the postoperative ward, immediately after surgery, Kelley suffered a sudden heart attack. He died several days later, on March 13, 1997, at the age of seventy-two.

Page Kelley: Baptist Scholar

Kelley spent most of his career as a dedicated seminary professor and denominational servant. His publications reflect that commitment. Between 1952, when he completed his doctoral dissertation, and 1998, when his last book appeared, Kelley produced approximately fifty publications in various categories: books, journal articles, educational literature, etc. The vast majority of this prodigious output was devotional material (e.g. Sunday School lessons and companion materials) or material related to Southern Baptist publishing outlets (Broadman Press, Convention Press, Review and Expositor). Late in his career, when the conflict in the SBC grew tense, Kelley moved to more scholarly publications.

The background for Kelley's academic work can be found in his own research areas: Hebrew grammar and Masoretic studies. Masoretic studies is an esoteric subdivision of the broader field of Old Testament studies. It is a study of the transmission of the Old Testament text by the Masoretes (A.D. 500-900) and their faithful preservation of the text by means of notes inserted in the side, upper, and lower margins of Old Testament manuscripts (The Masorah). These notes are almost entirely written in Aramaic in a form of shorthand abbreviations. Masoretic studies is a field dominated by Jewish and Israeli scholars. In the United States, it receives little attention, with the result that even seasoned Old Testament Ph.D.s feel uncomfortable around the Masorah. It was most unusual that Kelley, a Southern Baptist, should choose Masoretic studies as one of his favorite areas.

Masoretic studies is supported by a professional organization called the International Organization for Masoretic Studies (IOMS). Kelley maintained a long affiliation with IOMS and created professional friendships among scholars with whom he otherwise had little in common. In 1981, Kelley began offering graduate seminars in Masoretic Studies. This was the only course of its kind being offered in the United States, including even Jewish graduate schools. Between Kelley's professional friendships and his seminars, he developed the reputation of being a leading scholar of the Masorah in the United States. All of this, however, was largely unnoticed by his Southern Baptist constituency who did not appreciate Kelley's arcane interests and knew him through his devotional literature.

One of the by-products of Kelley's research interests is that he developed genuine international and interfaith friendships. Although a cursory glance at his career might lead one to believe that Kelley was only interested in Baptist piety, the truth of the matter is that Kelley's scholarship embraced both the Christian and Jewish worlds. David B. Weisberg, longtime professor of Bible and Semitic languages at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, described Kelley as "a man of sensitivity and faith." (19) Their long friendship began in the early 1970s when Kelley expressed interest in Weisberg's research on rare Hebrew accents.

This background led to Kelley's primary academic publications in the latter years of his career. The first of these was a commentary that landed in his lap by pure coincidence. The Jeremiah volumes of the Word Biblical Commentary, a respected series that has been in production for two decades, had been originally assigned to renown Canadian scholar Peter Craigie. Craigie died unexpectedly in 1988 after having finished the commentary only through Jeremiah 8:3. The Old Testament editor, John D. W. Watts, who had been a part of the Southern faculty since 1982, assigned the rest of the work to his Old Testament colleagues at Southern Seminary. Kelley's assignment was to continue from 8:4 through chapter 16. The Word Biblical Commentary is an academic series that includes a fresh translation from the Hebrew text, textual criticism, review of previous scholarship, and a verse-by-verse commentary. Watts remarked that Kelley's section "shows Page's customary clarity of language and interpretation, his attention to detail, and his ability to find contemporary meaning from the text? (20) The volume, which appeared in 1991, had sold almost 13,000 copies by the end of 2001. (21)

Kelley's most enduring contribution to Old Testament scholarship will undoubtedly be his textbook Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar. This work was years in the making and went through numerous revisions as it was used by graduate students at Southern teaching Hebrew. The book is clear and thorough in its explanations, but its real advantage is that all of the examples and exercises are drawn from the Hebrew Bible itself. Hebrew grammars frequently "invent" artificial examples so that students will not be frustrated by the countless exceptions. Kelley spent hours working through concordances and the Hebrew text itself so his grammar would be based on the Bible.

The result was one of the most popular Hebrew grammars during the decade of the 1990s, and it continues to be widely used. Scholars from differing perspectives embraced the grammar; it was used simultaneously by fundamentalist institutions as well as schools that had no stake what soever in Baptist feuding. The grammar appeared in 1992, published by Eerdmans, an internationally known publisher in religious books. (22) While the book was in its final stages of production, one of Eerdmans' anonymous reviewers accused Kelley of using too many "southernisms" in the book, a criticism that amused Page immensely. As of May 2002, Biblical Hebrew had sold 42,500 copies. (23)

As a companion volume to Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, Kelley produced A Handbook to Biblical Hebrew, also published by Eerdmans. (24) This book is essentially a supplement to the grammar, assisting students as they work through the exercises. Kelley, always the consummate educator, attempted to aid struggling students as they acquired the language to which he had devoted years of research. By providing assistance with the exercises, Kelley enhanced the usefulness and popularity of his grammar. As of May 2002, the Handbook to Biblical Hebrew had sold 16,000 copies.

The result of Kelley's career-long interest in the Masorah was The Masorah of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. (25) This is a textbook designed to teach students of Hebrew how to navigate, read, and interpret the Masoretic notations of the standard scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. One could characterize this volume as both original and novel. It is original because it filled a void in the field. A large portion of the literature on Masoretic studies is in modern Hebrew, and there was no introductory textbook in English.

The book is novel because it was conceived and developed by a Southern Baptist, born in rural Alabama and educated through Baptist institutions. Baptists had previously shown little interest in the Masorah, much less produced a primer to the field. Leonard Greenspoon, Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization, Creighton University, descnqJed the book: "It is difficult to imagine anyone with an interest in the Hebrew Bible ... who will not benefit enormously from consulting this work. Never before has so much information on this topic ... been put together in so accessible a format. (26) As of May 2002, Masorah of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia had sold 4,200 copies.


Kelley once remarked to me that Baptists had nurtured him, educated him, and given him a way out of a life of poverty. That much is beyond dispute. In return, Baptists received a scholar who devoted his life to the cause of higher education. Decades of classroom teaching yielded Kelley's greatest contribution to Southern Baptists: hundreds of young ministers who benefited from his expertise and who continue to pass it on in their ministries.

Nevertheless, Kelley's contributions to Old Testament scholarship should not be overshadowed. Baptists had produced few Hebrew grammarians and never a Masorete. In Page Kelley, Baptists produced a quiet, humble scholar. His published scholarship in the fields of Hebrew grammar and Masoretic studies will continue to influence them in the foreseeable future. Given Kelley's scholarly productivity in the last decade of his life, one could conclude that his unexpected death cut short sustained research and publication.

(1.) William Whitsitt was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a church historian who dared to dispute the notion that Southern Baptists began with John the Baptist. His scholarly pursuits cost him his job. See Walter Shurden, Not A Silent People (Macon, Ga.: Smyth and Helwys, 1995), 9-17.

(2.) Joel E Drinkard Jr. and Page H. Kelley, "125 Years of Old Testament Study at Southern," and Expositor 82 (1985): 7-19.

(3.) Catherine B. Allen, The New Lottie Moon Story (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 137-39.

(4.) Greg Mobley, "Page H. Kelley: A Biographical Essay," Perspectives 28, no. 4 (Winter 2000): publication forthcoming. Perspective is the journal of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, and the article is in a Festschrift honoring Kelley. I am greatly indebted to Mobley, Kelley's son-in-law, for information on Kelley's early years and missionary career, both from the aforementioned article and personal material that he shared with me. One of those is "Jessie's Boy," unpublished memoirs regarding Kelley's childhood.

(5.) Duke McCall's memoirs of this famous episode in the history of Southern Seminary have recently been published in Duke McCall: An Oral History (Brentwood, Tenn.: Baptist History and Heritage Society and Fields Publishing Inc., 2001), 161-211, coauthored by A. Ronald Tonks.

(6.) Ibid., 200.

(7.) Drinkard and Kelley, 17.

(8.) McCall and Tonks, 186-87.

(9.) Kelley's recollections about these events have been documented in the minutes from the February 10, 1997, meeting of the Mullins Circle, a faculty support group which no longer meets. The minutes were provided to me by Marvin Tate. Ironically, Kelley died a month after this meeting.

(10.) Minute, s, Mullins Circle, 1.

(11.) Ibid., 2.

(12.) Ibid., 3.

(13.) Mobley, publication forthcoming.

(14.) Page H. Kelley, "What the Bible Means to Me," Western Recorder (May 7, 1985): 4.

(15.) Page H. Kelley, "Confessions of a Higher Critic," Western Recorder (January 7, 1986): 9.

(16.) "Page Kelley Dies at 72," Courier Journal (March 14, 1997), 1.

(17.) I was Kelley's last Ph.D. student, and in an odd coincidence, on August 24, 1992, the day I defended my dissertation, Kelley and I both went home to pack up our things to leave Louisville.

(18.) Letter from Page Kelley to Daniel Mynatt, February 20, 1997.

(19.) Statement by David Weisberg in personal correspondence, December 19, 2001.

(20.) Statement by John D. W. Watts in personal correspondence, November 28, 2001.

(21.) Peter Craigie, Page Kelley, and Joel Drinkard, Jeremiah 1-25, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 26 (Dallas: Word, 1991).

(22.) Page H. Kelley, Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

(23.) Sales figures for Biblical Hebrew, as well as all other Eerdmans books, were provided by Allen Myers of Eerdmans Publishing, in personal correspondence, April 29, 2002.

(24.) Page H. Kelley, Timothy L. Burden, and Timothy Crawford, A Handbook to Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

(25.) Page H. Kelley, Daniel S. Mynatt, and Timothy G. Crawford, The Masorah of Biblia Hebrair. A Stuttgartensia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

(26.) Leonard Greenspoon, Review of The Masorah of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartesia, by Page Kelley et al. Religious Studies 26 (2000): 69.

Daniel S. Mynatt is associate professor of religion, Anderson College, Anderson, South Carolina.
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Author:Mynatt, Daniel S.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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