James Dunn: Invested in the next generation

Published: July 6, 2015

by C. Mark Batten, Office of Communications


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.

  • Alan Sherouse (MDiv ’05): “Dr. Dunn was larger than life, but tonight I’m remembering that he was also small and intimate enough to be interested in an individual life. When I say he made a difference in my life, I’m talking about the breadth of his legacy, but I’m also talking about things like two phone calls, without which I might have never connected to the two institutions that have shaped me the most.”
  • Emily Hull McGee (MDiv ’09): “He of the bowties, fiery Southern draw, and unforgettable one-liners is surely the delight of the saints he joins today. Thanks be to God to Dr. Dunn, who taught me more than anyone ‘for it is precisely for freedom that Christ has set us free!’”
  • Mark Reece (MDiv ’08): “Beneath his bow tie and cowboy boots was an intellectual genius, prophet, and scholar, but most of all, a husband who loved his wife and a pastor who loved and cared about his students.”
  • Corinne Causby (MDiv ’17): “I have been thinking about one of the last conversations I had with Dr. Dunn and I keep coming back to the encouragement and support he gave me (along with countless others) to pursue my calling to ministry. I will miss his familiar greeting, ‘How ya do?!’ And his mischievous smile. But most of all, I’m going to miss that gentle encouragement.”

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. View the live stream here beginning at 11:00, provided by Knollwood.

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.
Coverage of Dunn’s Legacy
– Winston-Salem Journal
Winston-Salem Journal Opinion
– Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC)
Collection of Quotes by James Dunn (BJC) 
– Baptist News Global, by Robert Dilday
– Baptist News Global, by Aaron Weaver
Religion News Service
– Baptist Press
– Photos: A Look at the Career of James Dunn (BJC)
– “Dunn deals,” by Bill Leonard












James Dunn in his office, 2001 (top left); with Christianity and Public Policy class, 2011 (bottom left); giving benediction for Class of 2014 (bottom middle); with his wife, Marilyn, and Dean Gail R. O’Day, 2012 (bottom right); in community worship, 2014 (middle right); with Church and State in America class, 2013 (top right)