Back in 1988, when moderate North Carolina Baptists approached Dean Dennis Campbell about starting a program for Baptist students at Duke Divinity School, no one knew where the discussion might lead.
At the time, the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention was in its earliest stages. Faculties were being purged from SBC seminaries, including nearby Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and disaffected moderates began looking for viable alternatives for theological education.
“People were seeking a life raft, an escape, a parachute,” recalls Furman Hewitt of Easley, S.C., a former Southeastern faculty member.
But what they found, he says, was something better, something that would be more successful than they dreamed.
What they found was Duke Divinity School’s Baptist House of Studies program, which this year celebrates its 15th anniversary.
“In hindsight, what happened at Southeastern and other Baptist seminaries is almost fortuitous,” says Hewitt, who served from 1992 to 2001 as the first director of Duke’s Baptist House. “It caused Baptists to look again at the value of theological education in a university setting.”
Since the late 19th century, Southern Baptist theological education had been conducted in a handful of large, freestanding seminaries, Hewitt explains. But after the fundamentalist takeover, moderates came to value programs within larger universities or seminaries.
Name to the contrary, Baptist House is not a literal “house”—though that was one of many options considered in the beginning, but a program of support and education for Baptist students enrolled within the divinity school.
To Curtis Freeman, the program’s current director, Baptist House is a metaphor for hospitality, shelter and care. It’s a lot like Interpreter’s House in one of Freeman’s favorite books, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—a place that offers the pilgrim sustenance and support, a connection to the pilgrim’s tradition, and guidance for the journey.
“When students come here, Baptist House keeps them anchored in their Baptist identity,” says Freeman. “It helps connect them to one another and to the larger Baptist world, while they’re getting the theological formation they need.”
Baptists, of course, have attended the divinity school from the very beginning. But with the creation of Baptist House, their ranks increased greatly. From 25 or so students in 1988, the number of Baptist students has grown to 117 in the current school year. In all, more than 200 Baptists have graduated from the divinity school in the past decade.
The Rev. Mel Williams, pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, remembers well the beginnings of Baptist House. On July 5, 1988, his very first day as the new minister at Watts Street, Williams received a call from Dean Campbell asking if he would attend a meeting to discuss the possibility of starting a program for Baptist students. Williams, who attended Yale Divinity School with Campbell, ended up chairing the Committee on Baptist Studies, which oversaw the planning and creation of Baptist House.
“It has been exciting to see this growth,” says Williams. “It’s been a great partnership.”
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