The last denominationalist

This week’s death of longtime denominational leader Duke McCall marks the end of an era in Southern Baptist life.

Correction. This column was edited after its original posting to correct errors in the third and fifth paragraphs.

By Bill Leonard

Duke Kimbrough McCall was an institution, bearing in himself elements of American religious corporate and institutional life across much of the 20th century. His death this week at age 98 in many ways marked the end of an era reflecting the height of denominational identity in the United States, and its subsequent dramatic collapse.

In some ways he was the ultimate denominational administrator, presiding over three significant organizations -- New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the Executive Committee and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary -- each owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention.

In other ways, he seems the last denominationalist -- a symbol of denominational identity that no longer prevails, even among Southern Baptists themselves.

Born in Memphis, Tenn., to a family of southern Brahmins, McCall was nurtured in the Southern Baptist ethos of a believer’s church, missionary vision and denomination-related schools. Graduating from Furman University, he entered the Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., an institution with which he would be connected for the rest of his life.

Seminary lore from those years suggested that he was the first student in the school’s history to own a car. Although he served as pastor of Broadway Baptist Church, a bellwether Louisville congregation, his career was given primarily to administrative service in multiple denominational institutions.

McCall’s more than 30-year tenure as president of Southern Seminary, the denomination’s oldest theological school, is the longest in the school’s history. His administrative approach helped extend the seminary’s national reputation for academic excellence even as it created upheaval within the faculty, leading to the departure of 13 senior professors in 1958.

His ability to weather “the ’58 crisis” and stabilize the school with a new generation of outstanding faculty illustrated his ability to negotiate administrative if not relational difficulties.

Those qualities were less beneficial for him when the “conservative-moderate controversy” descended on the SBC intensely in 1979. McCall retired as president of the seminary early in the controversy as conservatives were slowly gaining control of the convention.

He ran unsuccessfully for the denominational presidency, in those days the major frontline of conservative/moderate political conflicts and a major source for controlling appointments to SBC boards and agencies.

That a person of his organizational stature lost to a conservative candidate was an indication that McCall’s style of institutional vision and maintenance was increasingly less viable.

That style rested in what many have called the “conservative middle,” a traditionalist approach that reflected a broad spectrum of theological positions and ministry practices but which kept those at either end of the theological spectrum from dominating the denominational center.

It was an approach by which boards and agencies were comprised of conservatives, moderates and even liberals (in the SBC sense of the term) but where one overarching ideological mandate did not dominate.

Thus progressives and conservative alike frequently criticized McCall for compromising prophetic principles or confessional orthodoxy for the sake of denominational stability. As that “grand compromise” collapsed, McCall’s lifelong approach became less sustainable -- evident in the eventual departure or disengagement of moderates from SBC life.

Curiously, McCall later suggested that had he remained as president of the seminary he would have sought to disengage the institution from denominational control, perhaps even making it the centerpiece of a new Baptist endeavor. Whether that approach would have been possible for him, or any other president in the volatility of those times, remains a great unknown.

Duke McCall and Provost William Hull hired me at Southern Seminary in 1975, inviting me to the faculty as assistant professor of church history. On our mantle sits a photo of McCall presiding over the moment when I signed (with a quill pen) the seminary’s Abstract of Principles in a book that contained the signatures of generations of professors who participated in that ritual when granted tenure.

Certain SBC conservatives would later suggest that McCall’s great fault was admitting my “type” of Baptist academic to the faculty. I recall with gratitude his consistent encouragement and the space he offered me to explore issues in Christian history and American religion with an amazing group of faculty and student colleagues.   

Throughout his long life and work, Duke McCall bridged multiple generations of Baptist life nationally and globally. In some ways he was the personification of the amazing organizational success and regional strength of Southern Baptists in much of the 20th century.

In other ways he represented the last of the Baptist denominationalists, a leader who both shaped and was shaped by the cultural and spiritual solidarity of America's largest denomination in a particular era.

Controversial throughout, he contributed to a denominational breadth inside the SBC. He lived long enough to see that breadth diminish, but died hoping, if not believing, that it would someday return.

Nonetheless, with his characteristic political and theological insight, there is little doubt McCall recognized that the denominational consciousness that powerfully informed his own Christian and Baptist identity no longer endures for liberal or conservative alike.

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