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Duke McCall at 100 & Why He Still Matters

duke mccallIf still living, Duke K. McCall would have celebrated his 100th birthday this week. The centennial marker of his birth is a fitting occasion to reflect again on McCall’s influence and to reconsider, in particular, one aspect of his legacy.

Duke McCall was a titanic figure. He strode center stage on Baptist life for more than a half century. By age 37, he had pastored Louisville’s most prominent Southern Baptist church and served stints as president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and as the SBC’s top administrator—CEO of the SBC Executive Committee. At the age of 37, Southern Seminary’s trustees elected McCall the institution’s seventh president, a post he would hold for more than three decades.

I was honored to know Dr. McCall well during the last decade of his life. So much so that when he passed away on April 2, 2013, his family invited me to serve as a pallbearer at his funeral. I was pleased to so participate. At that time, I penned these words of tribute. Greg Wills’ sesquicentennial history of Southern Seminary devotes two chapters to McCall’s tenure, and well documents his leadership of the seminary and broad engagement in Baptist affairs.

Yet, as one leading a Southern Baptist seminary, I find Duke McCall’s inaugural convocation, delivered in Southern Seminary’s newly completed Alumni Chapel on March 11, 1952, especially noteworthy. The address has been largely forgotten, but it points to why McCall’s influence persists and merits renewed attention.

In “Southern Seminary and the Denomination” McCall set forth his vision for Southern Seminary’s future. After overviewing the institution’s history and summary references to the leadership and contributions of the previous six presidents, McCall sets forth a robust call for the seminary to serve the denomination’s churches.

Intriguingly, McCall’s address portended the 1958 controversy, which led to the departure of 13 theology professors, most all of whom landed at Southeastern and Midwestern Seminaries. The 1958 crisis was a tug-of-war between the faculty and the president over whether the seminary’s primary ambition should be to serve the churches of the SBC or to seek the approbation of the broader academy. According to McCall, the seminary’s constituency unequivocally would be Southern Baptist churches. Faculty with ears to hear had been fully apprised at McCall’s inauguration of where he intended to take the seminary.

“Southern Seminary and the Denomination” is a timeless address, which merits renewed attention, not only from those who serve in Southern Baptist seminaries, but by all interested in theological education.

Of course, in the final analysis McCall’s Southern Seminary deviated theologically from the churches of the SBC, thus straining his own vision of a seminary for the denomination’s churches. Nonetheless, this address is a compelling vision for theological education—a vision worth reconsidering on the centennial celebration of McCall’s life; a vision worth informing Southern Baptist theological education in the 21st century as it originally did in the 20th.

topicsDuke McCallSouthern Seminarytheological education

3 Responses to “Duke McCall at 100 & Why He Still Matters”

September 04, 2014 at 9:13 am, stan craig said:

Thank yo Jason for remembering Dr McCall leadership. he was a man who loved our Lord deeply and sought to serve Him with his personal best. He loved Southern and our Baptist denomination and served faithfully. his decisions were not always the decisions others would make but were always made with a focus on following his Lords calling to the best of his ability. I am pleased that he is remembered fondly at Southern and also thankful for Southerns legacy being created on solid ground today.

September 04, 2014 at 10:45 am, Greg Barnes said:

It is vital that we learn why Southern drifted towards modernism theologically despite having a real man of God like Dr McCall in the top post, so that we can avoid repeating the experience here at Midwestern. Remembering that the task of MBTS is to equip people to serve and lead churches, and not to gain the approval of the wider academic community, will greatly help.

September 05, 2014 at 9:19 pm, Dwight A Moody said:

Institutions and agencies serve a constituency (denomination) not merely by reflecting their image and identity but by leading them, in the way like pastors serve and lead a church. This SBTS and McCall sought to lead the SBC on a host of issues, race and theology being two, just as SBTS seeks today not merely to regurgitate what the SBC is or believes but by seeking to Influence (even change) the status and ideology of the SBC. The real question is whether SBTS today or then is more out of step with, or out in front of, its denominational network. In each case SBTS sought/seeks to serve the SBC by leading it to where the school thinks it needs to be.

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