Jonathan Walton, an acclaimed author, social ethicist and religious scholar currently teaching at Harvard, has been named third permanent dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
The first African-American to lead the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship theological education partner institution that opened in 1999, Walton currently serves as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the Harvard Divinity School.
He also is Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, Harvard’s official house of worship, where he follows Harvard legend Peter Gomes, a renowned Baptist preacher and scholar who challenged intolerance and prejudice from the pulpit for nearly 40 years until shortly before his death in 2011.
Walton, 45, grew up in Atlanta hearing kitchen table stories of the Civil Rights Movement. An ordained Baptist minister, he graduated from Morehouse College – alma mater of Martin Luther King – before earning his master’s degree and doctorate at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 2015, he delivered the baccalaureate sermon during Wake Forest’s commencement weekend and was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree.
“Jonathan Walton will be a cherished member of our community, at the School of Divinity and across/beyond our campus,” said Wake Forest Provost Rogan Kersh, who chaired the national search committee. “His admirably collaborative style, inspirational and creative approach to colleague-ship, and deep roots across theological and religious communities will make him an invaluable leader and partner for faculty, staff, and students alike.”
The Wake Forest School of Divinity opened as an ecumenical institution informed by a progressive Baptist heritage after seminaries operated by the Southern Baptist Convention embraced fundamentalism in the 1980s.
Two of the original four faculty members – Bill Leonard and Frank Tupper – taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, until they were forced out by the theological and political campaign that supporters called the Conservative Resurgence.
Leonard, an opinion writer for Baptist News Global, served as founding dean of the Wake Forest divinity school until 2010, when he stepped down from administration while continuing to teach. In 2011 Leonard was named the first James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies at the divinity school, honoring the longtime leader of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who died in 2015.
Gail O’Day, a New Testament scholar and minister in the United Church of Christ, followed Leonard as dean in 2010. She stepped down last June and died in September following a nearly four-year bout with cancer.
Walton officially assumes duties at Wake Forest School of Divinity July 1. He succeeds Jill Crainshaw, Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology, who is serving as interim dean.