DIVINITY Online Edition
Duke's Baptist House Celebrates 15 Years
by Bob Wells

Founded as an alternative for moderates fleeing fundamentalist takeovers at SBC seminaries, Duke’s Baptist House of Studies today anchors students from diverse Baptist identities.

 The number of Baptist students at Duke Divinity School has grown from about 25 in 1988 to 117 in 2003-04. Director Curtis Freeman, center, gathered with other Baptist faculty and students for this 2002 photograph.

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.”

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.”

“In hindsight, what happened … is almost fortuitous. It caused Baptists to look again at the value of theological education in a university setting.”

- Furman Hewitt, who served as
the first director of Duke’s Baptist House

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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