Leonard installed in Baptist studies chair at Wake divinity school

Amid academic pageantry, Baptist historian Bill Leonard was officially installed Jan. 24 as the first Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

By Jim White

James Dunn and Bill Leonard recessing after the divinity school's spring convocation in Wait Chapel on the campus. (Wake Forest University photo/Ken Bennett)

The ceremony featured an address by noted Harvard University scholar Harvey Cox, who spoke on “The Baptist Motif.” Cox is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard, an academic position which is the first and oldest endowed chair in the nation, established by a British Baptist almost 300 years ago. The Dunn chair of Baptist studies is the newest endowed chair at a divinity school.

Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, and divinity school dean Gail O’Day brought greetings and offered congratulatory remarks.

Named in honor of James and Marilyn Dunn of Winston-Salem, both of whom attended the event, the endowed chair will provide an on-going Baptist studies faculty presence at the divinity school.

The Dunns have a long history of contributions to Baptist life, she as a musician and soloist, and he in a career focused on ethics and religious freedom. Long a champion of the separation of church and state, Dunn led the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty from 1980 until 1999, when he joined the divinity school faculty as Resident Professor of Christianity and Public Policy -- a position he continues to hold.

In his remarks, Cox chose to wed the “soul liberty” of Roger Williams and the “beloved community” of Martin Luther King Jr. into what he referred to as the Baptist motif. He affirmed that from the beginning the Baptist mindset firmly held that religious liberties should be extended to all persons. “Jews, Protestants, Papists and Turks” were specifically named by Williams, said Cox, as being guaranteed religious liberty.

Harvey G. Cox Jr., who fills the oldest endowed academic chair in the nation, spoke at the installation of Bill Leonard to the newest. (Wake Forest University photo/Ken Bennett)

Williams did not regard Baptists as Protestants, Cox reminded his hearers.  Remembering such incidents as the failed gun powder plot in which Catholic Guy Fawkes and others of like mind planned to assassinate King James I in 1605, “Papists [Catholics] were the international terrorists of the day,” Cox noted. “Today we no longer think Catholics are terrorists, but some think the Turks, Muslims, are.”

What Williams granted “went far beyond mere toleration. It was true religious liberty,” Cox said. “Williams didn’t agree with Papists, but he welcomed them.”

But according to Cox, soul liberty is unfulfilled without the beloved community of Martin Luther King Jr.  King’s influence cannot be rightly understood apart from his Baptist pulpit, Cox believes. The beloved community is rightly understood in the context of understanding and freedom. “You need one to do the other. If you have the beloved community without soul liberty, it runs the risk of being co-opted by other forces,” he said.

Ending his message with a challenge, Cox asked, “Who will be the next Roger or Rachael Williams or the next Martin or Martha King? Perhaps a graduate of this institution!”