Initially, one of Baptist House’s greatest challenges was to gain credibility within the moderate Baptist community. Hewitt’s appointment as director in 1991 did much to provide that credibility.
“Baptists in North Carolina and the Southeast knew Furman, and he had credibility with them,” says Terry Hamrick of Atlanta, leadership coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “He opened the door for Duke students to have connections with Baptist congregations.”
As more and more Baptist students have graduated from the divinity school and entered ministry, they have continued to build credibility for the program. “The quality of the Duke graduates who have gone into Baptist churches has been a strong advocate for Baptist House,” says Hamrick.
Many students say seminary with those from other denominations actually strengthens their Baptist roots.
“Studying at Duke made me much more aware of my Baptist identity,” says Lauren Tyler, a 2003 M.Div. graduate. “Sitting in class with people from other denominations, you’re able to talk about and view the subjects through the paradigms of different traditions.”
Duke Divinity School’s Baptist House is particularly important to women interested in ministry, says Tyler. “It was nice to sit beside other female Baptists who are in the process of ordination. Here, that’s an option.”
Today’s moderate Baptists have a variety of educational alternatives as new moderate seminaries or other Baptist programs have been established. Even with all these options, Duke will continue to draw Baptist students, says Hewitt.
“It’s a place where academic achievement is honored,” he says. “But Duke also produces people who are committed to the life of the church and skilled in the practice of ministry. And that is a rare combination.”
In turn, the world-class theological education that the divinity school provides helps attract a diverse student body rarely seen in Baptist theological education, says Freeman.
“We have American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Free Will Baptists, National Baptists, Swedish Baptists,” he says. “We have white Baptists and African-American Baptists. Male Baptists and female Baptists. This ‘pan Baptist’ presence is unlike anywhere I know.”
That’s significant, insists Freeman, because it forces students to talk with and be in fellowship with people who are different—theologically, politically and otherwise. Duke Divinity, he contends, is the perfect place to have such conversations because the school defies traditional categories of “right” and “left.”
“That’s a needed thing,” he says. “It’s part of what I’m trying to figure out in Baptist life. To find the way between the controversy over liberalism and fundamentalism that has characterized Baptist life.”
Dean L. Gregory Jones agrees. “We live in a time where we need a dynamic center that offers alternatives to the polarization in our culture and in the churches,” he says.
“Duke Divinity School seeks to provide that kind of dynamic center, and the strength and vitality of the Baptist House of Studies enriches our programs and provides an opportunity to help re-envision the future of Baptist identity.”
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