By Bob Allen
Visitation for longtime denominational leader Duke McCall is scheduled for 1-5 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at a pavilion bearing his name on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His funeral will be 10 a.m. April 8 at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, followed by burial at Cave Hill Cemetery.
At 21, after graduating summa cum laude from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and looking forward to entering Vanderbilt University Law School, McCall surrendered to preach one rainy night while driving through twisting mountain roads in East Tennessee.
He postponed his entry to law school and instead enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Realizing he should be a minister and would spend several years in seminary studies, he became pastor of an every-other-Sunday country church 340 miles away in Tennessee, commuting on an overnight train that so many seminary students used for redeye trips that it became known as the “seminary sleeper.”
Two years later he became pastor of the Centertown, Ky., Baptist Church and received a master of theology degree in 1938. While completing a doctor’s degree at Southern, he became pastor of Louisville’s historic Broadway Baptist Church at age 25.
A year after receiving his doctor’s degree in 1942, McCall was elected president of Baptist Bible Institute in New Orleans. Still under 30, he was the world’s youngest head of a theological institution. In 1946, he was named executive secretary of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, where he rose to prominence in denominational life and received international publicity by opposing President Truman’s appointment of a representative to the Vatican.
At 36, McCall became the youngest man ever elected president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1951, a record eclipsed by current President Albert Mohler, who was elected to the post in 1993 at age 33. McCall led the seminary from 1951 until 1982. After retiring as president he remained as chancellor until 1990.
He was elected to a five-year term as president of the Baptist World Alliance, an organization he had been deeply committed to since attending the first youth congress at age 16 in Czechoslovakia in 1931, at the 1980 Baptist World Congress in Toronto.
McCall’s administration at Southern faced a major challenge in 1958, when 13 theological professors were dismissed by the board of trustees. Controversy between McCall and the professors developed over time, but came to a head when faculty reported to trustees low morale caused by the administration.
Things turned more serious when 13 professors signed a document with specific charges against McCall and presented it to an investigating committee of the trustees which visited the campus. Trustees voted to accept an investigating committee report clearing McCall and firing 13 professors. Later the board of trustees rescinded the firings and instead accepted the resignation of 12 of the 13, a move intended to signal reconciliation but criticized as public relations.
The end result was that 15 of the 30 members of the theology faculty were gone. They included the entire Old Testament, archaeology and church history departments, four-fifths of the New Testament department, half of the ethics department and a third of the theology department.
In 1980, McCall told a meeting of the SBC Historical Commission and Society of his great concern about a plan announced by Houston judge Paul Pressler and Baptist minister Paige Patterson to dictate Southern Baptist presidential elections and use the office’s appointive powers to turn the denomination to the right.
“If I did not believe in God, I would predict and bet on the dissolution of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s,” McCall told the audience. He added in a later interview that the issue was power, not theology. “Theology is simply the flag they wave,” he said. He likened possible success of the group to a “communist takeover” and said it would mean the end of free elections in annual conventions.
In 1982, McCall was nominated as president of the Southern Baptist Convention representing moderates seeking to stop a string of election of conservative presidents during a period commonly known as the “conservative resurgence. He lost to Jimmy Draper by a sizeable margin.
In a 1984 Southern Seminary commencement address, McCall invoked both Dickens – describing the state of affairs as “the best of times and the worst of times” — and the story of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, encouraging young ministers not to lose the dream of restoring the lost glory of Camelot.
McCall’s first wife, Marguerite Mullinnix McCall, died exactly 30 years ago (April 3) on Easter Sunday, 1983. He is survived by his second wife, Winona Gatton McCall; four sons, Duke Jr., Doug, John and Michael; 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
The family requests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of donations to Hosparus of Kentucky, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Baptist World Alliance or Broadway Baptist Church.