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March 20, 2012 / Matthew K. Johnson

This is Not a Hagiography…

When the March edition of Baptists Today arrived at my church, I was reminded again how sad I was to not have been at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity spring convocation on January 24th of this year.  Right there on the first page of that fine publication was a picture of one of my favorite people, James Dunn, with his arm draped around another of my favorite people, Bill Leonard.  The occasion marked the naming of Dr. Leonard as the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies for the Divinity School.

I was glad to see that WFUSD took the step to establish a Chair of Baptist Studies.  With Leonard stepping down as dean, it was important to maintain an intentional Baptist identity and presence at the Divinity School.  My hope is that this will grow into something like the Baptist House at Duke Divinity School.*  I believe that the presence of Leonard and Dunn and the existence of a Chair of Baptist Studies at WFUSD is vital for shaping the next generation of progressive North Carolina Baptist leaders.

I first met the Dunns as an undergraduate at Wake Forest.  Marilyn and I sang in a community choir together.  I knew Dr. Dunn by reputation, but I wasn’t so sure about his positions on church/state issues.  They seemed too liberal for my taste.

I also remember hearing Bill Leonard preach during those undergraduate years at some university function or other.  His message was unsettling to this (then) Southern Baptist boy.  He seemed to revel in the heresy of historical religious sects.

But as the years passed, I began to appreciate the vision of Baptist identity that these two men put forward in their own unique ways.  James Dunn, with his rabid but commonsensical notion that religion and government are both best served when one does not exert undue influence over the other.  Bill Leonard, haunted by the ghosts of 17th century Baptists and their commitment to freedom of conscience.

When I discerned a call to ministry, the decision to return to Wake Forest was based in large part on the desire to be taught by Drs. Dunn and Leonard.  I never regretted that decision.  To say that these two giants of Baptist life have shaped my identity as a Baptist minister would be an understatement.  I will never forget the words James Dunn spoke to my wife and me in his charge at our ordination service several years ago.  He spoke of all the people who had invested in us and believed in us.  His last words were, “Now, don’t screw it up.”  Classic Dunn…

Those are words I try and remember every day, as I seek, in my own unique way, to be a witness to my own convictions and for my Baptist forbearers, all the way from Smyth and Helwys to Dunn and Leonard.

*NB: This is the hopefully only time you will see me praise Duke.  As a person who holds two degrees from Wake Forest, I am required to hate and despise all things Blue Devil…but I digress…

One Comment

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  1. Matthew K. Johnson / Mar 20 2012 12:42 pm

    Glad that I published this on Bill Leonard’s birthday…

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