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Remembering Dr. James Dunn, 1932-2015

“I’m a Texas-bred, Spirit-led, Bible-teaching, revival-preaching, recovering Southern Baptist. That’s neither a boast nor a whine, just an explanation of ‘where I’m coming from’ as the kids say.”
–Dr. James Dunn Address to American Baptist Churches, 1995

Photo courtesy of WFU/Ken Bennett
Photo courtesy of WFU/Ken Bennett

The Baylor Family is mourning the passing of Dr. James M. Dunn on July 4, 2015, at the age of 83.  Dr. Dunn, who is being remembered as one of the leading defenders of religious freedom and of the importance of the separation of church and state in the 20th century, was the first winner of the Baylor Alumni Association’s Abner V. McCall Award for supporting religious liberty.

“To countless Baptists and other people of faith, Dr. James M. Dunn was an instrumental influence, said Aaron Weaver, MA ’08 and Ph.D ’13, the author of the book, James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom.  “His wit, wisdom, and fight moved us to take our faith more seriously, to better understand and value religious liberty and its essential corollary — the separation of church and state — and to never ever take the right to a free conscience for granted.  He devoted his life to pursuing justice, freedom, and equality for all, showing and teaching us how to be better advocates and activists in the public square, and most importantly, how to do so with authentic Christian integrity.”

Weaver, who was a Graduate Fellow with Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning from 2011-2013 and a lecturer at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2012, added, “For me, James Dunn was a mentor, friend, and personal hero all rolled up into one.  His influence on my life has been profound, shaping who I am and what I believe — probably in ways that I don’t even fully understand yet. I will miss our always-lively conversations, but I will continue to learn from Dr. Dunn, re-reading his words and re-committed to carrying on his legacy as a champion for soul freedom.”

When asked why Dunn should “matter” to Baptists, Dr. Doug Weaver, Baylor Professor of Religion and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Baylor’s Department of Religion — and Aaron’s father — said, “If separation of church and state is the proper corollary of religious liberty — and it is — then Dunn mattered and matters!  If soul freedom matters — and it does — Dunn matters.  One of my favorite images of Dunn is his pulling on his Texas roots when he said — with a drawl — that the wall between church and state was more like barbed wire.  The two do of course relate, but watch when they get entangled.  It is a mess…” 

Baylor Religion Professor Bill Pitts ’60 said Dunn was a personal friend and he cherished the connection they had. “He was bright and well-read…and utterly courageous,” Pitts said.  “He was always willing to step forward and say what he thought, and his views of the importance of the separation of church and state represented one of the finest traditions of Baptist tradition in the United States and worldwide.
Dr. Pitts said Dr. Dunn’s work followed the same principles as those espoused by Baylor’s J.M Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, which was founded in 1957 to promote “the separation of church and state and the advancement of religious liberty around the world.”

Henry Holcomb, winner of the BAA’s W.R. White Meritorious Service Award in 1994, said Dunn “brought the Sermon on the Mount to life.  He proclaimed the Gospel with great faith, courage, and scholarship but not in a reckless way.  He had a wonderful sense of humor, which helped in difficult situations.  He never wasted an opportunity to talk to someone.  We’ll miss him very much and our work will miss him.”

“James was one of my heroes,” said Ella Wall Prichard ’63, who said she had been thinking about Dunn recently in the light of recent flaps in North and South Carolina over the Confederate flag and the flying of the American flag over the church flag.  “He was very opposed to the American flag in church because he felt it muddied the waters theologically.”

Prichard said she crossed paths with Dunn in the early 2000s while she was serving on a few moderate Baptist boards.  She said she loved his explanation of why Texas Baptists are so conservative yet resisted fundamentalist attempts to take over the state convention.

“He said it was the ‘independent frontier spirit’ that Texans have.  Their attitude is ‘ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to do except Jesus.’  I just loved that,” she said.

Here are links to just a few of the tributes to Dr. Dunn…and to a couple of videos featuring Dr. Dunn.  The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty page has a lot more.  Please feel free to add your thoughts in the Comments about how Dr. James Dunn influenced you.

“Freedom is not absolute. No one is ‘free as a bird.’ Only a bird is free as a bird. We are not free to deny basic freedoms to others. When anyone’s freedom is denied, everyone’s freedom is endangered. We are not free without responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are like two sides of a coin, inseparable. No matter how thin it is sliced, the coin of responsible freedom still has two sides. God made us able to respond, response able, responsible, and if responsible, free.”
–Linfield College Commencement, May 30, 1999

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