This story written by C. Mark Batten was originally posted on the School of Divinity website.
James Dunn, who was a champion of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, passed away on July 4 at the age of 83. For Wake Forest University School of Divinity, Dunn was a teacher and mentor with an inspirational ingenuity and comedic wit.
Dunn served as resident professor of Christianity and public policy from 1999 until his retirement in 2014. He taught courses on Christian Ethics and electives on the Church and State in America, Christianity and Public Policy, and God and the New York Times.
Many of Dunn’s courses involved travel to Washington, D.C., giving Divinity students the opportunity to meet with national, political religious leaders, many with whom Dunn had developed lasting relationships when he served as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (1981-1999). These courses have given lasting memories to students of James Dunn and the role of religion in the public sphere.
Melissa Rogers, who led the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at the School of Divinity before being named director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2013, co-taught several courses with Dunn. She also received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Wake Forest in 2014.
“James had the ear of presidents and other high officials, and he had a deep impact on law and policy,” Rogers said. “He also had a deep impact on his students and the many others he mentored through his passionate advocacy and compassionate care for us as individuals. His work and witness will live on through the laws, policies and people he helped to shape.”
Dunn’s legacy continues at the School of Divinity in the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies.
“It is an honor to have the Dunn name as a permanent part of the school,” said Gail R. O’Day, Dean of the School of Divinity. “I hope future generations of students will have his energy and passion.”
Bill Leonard, who currently holds the Dunn Chair and also serves as professor of church history, was a lifelong colleague and friend of Dunn. “James became a fixture in the faculty with an unceasing engagement with students, contributing to their theological formation, but engaging them in the hard question of ethics, politics, and religious liberty.”
The manner in which Dunn engaged students will be irreplaceable. As news got out of his passing, many students and alumni took to social media to express gratitude and thoughtful memorials in honor of Dunn’s influence on their lives.
No doubt Dunn was invested in the next generation of religious leaders. He often provided counsel for ordination, congregational studies, and ministry placement, aiding students in connecting to congregations and community agencies for their employment after graduation. It was an authentic and selfless way of relating to those discerning calls to ministry.
“It was an honor for the School of Divinity that James chose to finish out his remarkable career with us,” O’Day said. “His genuine care for students was one of the hallmarks of his time with us.”
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, July 18 at 11:00 a.m. at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. Visitation with the family will follow the memorial service.
Later this fall, Bill Moyers, journalist and longtime friend of Dunn, will lecture in Dunn’s honor at the School of Divinity. More information will be posted at divinity.wfu.edu.
Other coverage of Dunn’s Legacy: