James Dunn was a saint and a hero for so many— not just those of us who had the good fortune of working with him, but the multitude who knew and loved him. It is hard to believe my mentor and friend has been gone sixteen months.
In 1999, I edited a book about James as he retired from the Baptist Joint Committee, titled, James Dunn: Champion for Religious Liberty. It contained a dozen essays about James penned by, as James would say, his “friends and cronies.” Since I had the privilege to eulogize James at his funeral, I decided to let several of the contributors to the book speak a word about the James they knew.
Foy Valentine reminisces that he first met James when James was a boy in Fort Worth, Texas: “Even then James Dunn was awash in energy, alive with ideas, smart enough to hear grass grow, alert to all things bright and beautiful, tuned in to everything around him, and ethically concerned about what was happening in the world.”
Tony Campolo recollects, when he first met James, “he talked like a hillbilly preacher, and yet the things he said revealed the mind of a sophisticated social critic. As the years unfolded, I realized that both of these impressions were valid. He possessed a preaching style that would make him welcome among the simplest people in America. …But what most characterized him in my mind is that he is an articulate spokesperson for basic Baptist principles, especially as they relate to the relationship between church and state. “
Mark Hatfield, who served five terms in the U.S. Senate from Oregon, observes: “A many-faceted man with unique skills such as James Dunn leaves footprints in multiple areas of life—from rural to urban American, from the wastelands of Texas to the verdant forests of Oregon to the nation’s capital. He has made many contributions to my life. … James Dunn taught me about my Baptist heritage and tradition as he engaged in battles for religious liberty and the separation of church and state.”
Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, who worked with James and me both, says: “James Dunn has been called many things: saint, scoundrel, genius, fool, banty rooster, Chihuahua who thinks he’s a German Shepherd, a lion trapped in the body of a house cat. But I have another word for James, a word no one embodies quite like he: Baptist. Asked to define what that means, James will flash a smile and sum up three centuries of Baptist theology like this: “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to believe!”
Baptist historian Buddy Shurden compares James to John Leland and analogizes them to James and John, the disciples of Jesus, and says: “James (Dunn) and John (Leland), Baptist Sons of Thunder! … Separated by ninety-one years and two thousand miles, they are nevertheless blood brothers in many ways….Both James and John are (1) heart-centered pietists, (2) freedom-loving Baptists, (3) hard-working separationists, and (4) down-home populists.”
This brief sampling of the treasures contained in that book attests to the inimitable ways James profoundly affected so diverse a group of friends and cronies as he incarnated the love of God in his life.
Brent Walker is the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty