By Aaron Weaver
“A Texas-bred, Spirit-led, Bible-teaching, revival-preaching, recovering Southern Baptist.”
That’s Dr. James M. Dunn (June 17, 1932 – July 4, 2015) in his own words. He definitely was that but he was also so much more.
He was a teenage clarinetist, seminarian, doctoral student, campus minister, music minister, youth minister, senior pastor, ethicist, professor, adviser and counselor, reformer, advocate, activist and the list goes on.
He was also son to William and Edith, a milkman and homemaker, who showed Dunn and his sister, Ann, day in and day out what “applied Christianity” looked like — loving God and loving neighbor, planting in young James the Christian ethic of equality that demanded that all people be treated with equal dignity and respect in then-racially segregated Fort Worth.
Most importantly, he was husband to his bride, Marilyn — whom he had known since his days in the primary department at Fort Worth’s Evans Avenue Baptist Church and began dating while Marilyn, a talented musician, was a student at Baylor University.
To countless Baptists, James Dunn was an instrumental influence. His wit, wisdom and fight moved us to take our faith more seriously, to better understand and value God’s gift of soul freedom and to never ever take our shared heritage and liberty for granted.
For me, James Dunn was a mentor, friend and personal hero all rolled up into one. His influence on my life has been profound. He has significantly shaped who I am and what I believe —probably in ways that I don’t even fully understand yet.
I will never forget a visit a handful of years back to his home in Winston-Salem, N.C. He treated me to a bowl of ice cream while we watched a little MSNBC — Dunn talking back to the television, voicing his agreements and disagreements with the various commentators throughout the show. Afterward, we retreated to his study and he began to slowly walk me through his life story — the story of one of the most important Baptists of the last 100 years, a Baptist freedom fighter like no other.
From 1968 to 1980, as director of the Texas Christian Life Commission, Dunn taught Baptists in the Lone Star State about the necessity of practicing Christian citizenship. He was an undoubtedly influential advocate for a wide range of pressing social concerns from juvenile justice reform to world hunger relief to ensuring equal rights for women and minorities. As the Vietnam War was still raging, Dunn urged peace. Under his leadership, Texas Baptists became one of the first Christian groups in the nation to support strict environmental regulations in the late 1960s.
During his nearly 20-year tenure as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Dunn aggressively took on the Religious Right with his trademark confrontational style and colorful rhetoric, loudly opposing their attempt to sponsor and supervise prayer in public schools and calling out President Reagan for “playing petty politics with prayer.”
The new leaders of Dunn’s own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, attempted to smear his name in the 1980s — but Dunn couldn’t be silenced. In the face of much adversity, he relentlessly pursued a pro-religious freedom agenda that gave equal worth to both religion clauses of the First Amendment. Consequently, the BJC played a critical role in securing passage of landmark legislation like the Equal Access Act (1984) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993).
Year after year, Dunn and the BJC successfully fought off a barrage of public school prayer proposals and endless voucher schemes. When his longtime friend Vice President Al Gore backed federal funding for faith-based groups during his 2000 presidential campaign, Dunn wrote him an open letter:
“Dear Mr. Vice President. I know you. I like you. You mean well. But this time, as we say in Tennessee and Texas, you’ve ripped your britches.”
Throughout his lengthy ministry spanning six decades, James Dunn has embodied and articulated a paradigm for Baptist advocacy in the public arena based on the concept of soul freedom: voluntary uncoerced faith and an unfettered individual conscience before God. He has shown generations of Baptists how to apply and live out their Christianity in a manner consistent with the historic Baptist commitment to freedom — reminding us that responsibility “rode piggyback” to soul freedom and required Baptists of conviction to speak up and be counted.
Dunn taught us and showed us that the Baptist tradition was true to itself when it promoted and supported public policies that safeguarded the individual conscience, maximized religious freedom and insisted that church and state remain separate. He recognized that soul freedom has historically served as the basis of an authentic Baptist identity.
Dunn’s paradigm for Baptist advocacy — his linking of soul freedom to the social gospel — is an example to embrace and cling tightly to our rapidly changing and increasingly polarized culture. In a day when both the left and right demand conformity to their respective creeds, let’s remember the life and legacy of James Dunn who refused to remain silent, shunned inaction and never capitulated when conscience was at stake.
Since Baptist pioneer Thomas Helwys’ bold proclamation that “the king is not Lord of the conscience,” the hallmark of the people called Baptist is that “dogged determination to be free — free and faithful,” Dunn liked to say.
Let us be free. Let us be faithful. And, like Dunn, let us always champion soul freedom — “the fire that burns in the innards of every true Baptist.”