TAMPA, Fla. (ABP) – Accepting this year’s J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty June 24, former BJC leader James Dunn identified “soul freedom” as the driving force behind the church-state watchdog organization now in its 75th year.
Dunn wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dawson, the first executive director of the BJC, an education and advocacy organization composed of 15 national, state and regional Baptist bodies in the United States.
Dunn went on to become a successor to Dawson, serving as executive director of the BJC from 1980 until his retirement in 1999. He now works as president of the Baptist Joint Committee Endowment and professor of Christianity and public policy at Wake Forest Divinity School.
Dunn accepted the award at a luncheon held in conjunction with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Tampa, Fla. Dunn described Dawson’s legacy to members of the Religious Liberty Council.
Dunn said it was not a “rugged individualist, cowboy Christianity” criticized by some academicians that moved Dawson, but instead the “biblical priesthood of the believer.” It is the same notion, he said, described by Roger Williams as “freedom of conscience” and by E.Y. Mullins as “the competence of the individual before God.”
Dunn described Dawson’s “incarnational” theology — that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” — as “utterly unlike the Southern Baptist creed of 2001 that even omitted Jesus Christ as the criterion of Baptist beliefs.”
“They took that out of an earlier Baptist Faith and Message,” Dunn said of the confession of faith that the Southern Baptist Convention actually revised in 2000, not 2001.
Dunn said Dawson applied soul freedom “to the challenge of creedalism.”
“I almost deleted part of this speech, because it is pretty strong,” Dunn said. He then quoted a line written by Dawson that, “No creed may transcend the interpretation of God’s word by the unfettered conscience of the individual.”
He said Dawson also embraced an “experiential religion” that is not “captured or capturable in creeds.” He quoted from Walter Rauschenbusch’s classic defense Why I Am a Baptist that “Baptists tolerate no creed.”
“It condemns a grownup still to think and talk like a child,” Rauschenbusch wrote. “A creed tells you what you must believe. Baptists have not bound the religious intellect.”
“Or as Bill Moyers puts it,” Dunn said, “ours is a grown-up religion.”
“Soul freedom allows authentic community to happen,” he said. “It does not prevent community. It allows authentic community to happen.
Dunn said koinonia, a word from the Greek New Testament translated as fellowship and referring to the church, “is predicated upon soul freedom.”
Dunn said Dawson also preached a personal faith that “responds directly to God without formula or filter.” He quoted George W. Truett, Dawson’s contemporary and friend.
“The right of private judgment is the crown jewel of humanity,’ Truett opined, “and for any person or institution to come between the soul and God is a blasphemous impertinence and a defamation of the Crown Rights of the Son of God.”
Brent Walker, the current BJC executive director elected to succeed Dunn in 1999, made the presentation of what he describes as the organization’s “flagship award.”
Named for Dawson, who headed the BJC between 1946 and 1953, it recognizes the contributions of individuals in the areas of the free exercise of religion and church-state separation.
The Dawson Award was established on the BJC’s 50th anniversary in 1986 and has been presented 11 times since. Previous winners include broadcaster Bill Moyers and former President Jimmy Carter. Dunn is the 16th recipient.
The Religious Liberty Council, formed after the Southern Baptist Convention defunded the Baptist Joint Committee in 1989, is only BJC member body open to individuals, said Mark Wiggs of Jackson, Miss., the council’s co-chair. He said 13 of the 45 members of the BJC board are from the Religious Liberty Council.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.