Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors #5 James Wm. McClendon, Jr.

mcclendonI have postponed this entry long enough. 

James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000) was a gentle giant who came to have more influence outside his home denomination than in it, more’s the pity. Born and raised in Louisiana to a Methodist father and a Southern Baptist mother, both traditions would influence him, although he was converted and baptized in his mother’s congregation–though only after exposure to African-American Baptist life. (His family was wealthy enough to have a black maid and she exposed Jim to Black Baptist life.)  Jim went to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating just as the Japanese surrendered, ending WWII. Along with many other U.S. sailors of his generation, Jim saw the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki firsthand–an experience that had a slow, but lasting, effect on his life and thought–though he did not immediately recognize this.

After leaving the military, McClendon earned a second B.A. from the University of Texas and a Bachelor of Divinity (a graduate degree equivalent to a modern U.S. Master of Divinity) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before earning a Th.M. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Unable to work with the mentors he wanted at Princeton, McClendon returned to SWBTS to pursue a Th.D. under Walter Thomas (W. T. ) Conner (1877-1952), the greatest theological mind SWBTS has ever produced. Unfortunately, Conner died before McClendon’s doctoral work was much off the ground and he later accused the seminary of not giving him much supervision, nor teaching him much in the way of theology. Ironically, he found this liberating: First in the pastorate and then as a teacher, McClendon explored every major contemporary theologian without much in the way of preconceptions and asking all the fresh questions he should have been exposed to in seminary! Everyone from Barth to Tillich was a live possibility!

McClendon was recruited by Southern Baptists to teach theology at their (then-brand-new) institution, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco. The U. S. Black Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement was in full swing and McClendon rocked the boat by speaking out in its favor. When he helped students raise money to respond to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea for volunteers to come to Selma, Alabama, Golden Gate promptly fired him–despite his tenure and without a hearing!

This began McClendon’s long career of teaching outside Baptist institutions, something rare for most Southern Baptists until quite recently. He was first hired by the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, thus becoming the first Protestant in America to teach theology at a Catholic institution.

But this, too, was not to last. The Vietnam War was heating up, McClendon’s sons were facing decisions about whether or not to resist the draft, and McClendon opposed the war on Just War grounds. He said so publicly and in print and joined students at “teach-ins” and other protests–which was too much for a Catholic institution in 1965–McClendon was fired again.

Now, at this point, all my readers who are academics or would-be academics should be horrified. It is the rare academic career that survives one forced termination, never mind two in close succession! It is amazing that McClendon ever recovered. He did, but not without scars. He began taking every Visiting Professor slot that came his way, criss-crossing the country to teach at such places as Stanford University, Temple University, the University of Notre Dame, St. Mary’s Moraga, and Goucher College before eventually finding another tenured position at the (Episcopal) Church Divinity School of the Pacific, part of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.  (McClendon was also part of the core faculty of GTU.) McClendon was to stay at CDSP/GTU from the early 1970s until his first retirement in 1989, but by the time CDSP/GTU hired him the strain of a vagabond existance after 2 firings had taken a huge toll on his marriage. Though he sought marital counseling, his first wife, Marie, mother of his sons, divorced him. At this time, divorce was rare among clergy and unheard of among Southern Baptist ministers. This tragedy alone would have prevented McClendon from ever again being hired by an institution of his home denomination. (Years later, McClendon would marry again: a former Catholic turned Anabaptist who had a Ph.D. in philosophy of science from CalBerkely and was one of Jim’s students at GTU earning a Th.D.! Dr. Nancey Murphy, Jim’s widow, is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained Church of the Brethren minister. During their life together, she was also nearly half his age! I first saw Nancey with Jim’s sons and mistook her for a daughter! Fortunately, I figured things out before opening my mouth. ) After retiring from CDSP/GTU, Jim became Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena where his wife was on faculty.

By the time he arrived at CDSP he had become a full pacifist, but he was yet to discover what that meant theologically.

When he arrived at CDSP, this Anglican/Episcopal seminary was fond of saying that they were both “Catholic and Protestant.” Jim figured that since he had taught at both Catholic and Protestant schools, he would fit right in, but he didn’t. In reading Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus in 1974 (two years after it was published), McClendon rediscovered his heritage in the Radical Reformation–part of what he liked to call the “small b” baptist tradition. He undertook to write a dogmatics from this tradition, but in a way that could be understood by the mainstream. The result was the incredible 3-volume Systematic Theology, written in the order, Ethics (1986, rev. ed., 2002), which explored the question “How must the church live in order faithfully to be the church in this time and place?” Doctrine (1994), exploring the question, “What must the church teach in order to live that faithful life?” and finally Witness (2000), exploring the cultural conversations with the arts, music, sciences, and philosophy–dialogues of a faithful church in a late North American context (NOT a prolegomena stuck at the end). The final volume was finished and Jim saw the finished product just before his death at 76.

Along the way, Jim helped launch the narrative theology and anti-foundationalist reactions to the Enlightenment and modern theology (both liberal and conservative), but distanced himself from the faddish forms of these movements and from anti-realism. His influences included Karl Barth (1886-1968), John Howard Yoder (1927-1997),  the irrepressible Stanley Hauerwas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the later Wittgenstein, the philosopher of language John L. Austin, as well as Clarence Jordan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day,  Jonathan Edwards, and Roger Williams. His students and dialogue partners included an atheist philosopher (James M. Smith), a rabbi and Jewish theologian (Michael Goldberg), a radical biblical scholar and activist (Ched Myers), a Catholic philosopher (James Burrell), a cranky, foul-mouthed Methodist (Hauerwas), a few a-typical feminists (Molly Marshall, Elizabeth Barnes, Georgia Harkness, Tammy Williams, etc.) and numerous “baptists” like myself who found in McClendon an alternative to fundamentalism or liberalism’s equally poor straightjackets. My dissertation tested and (slightly) modified McClendon’s methodological approach to ethics and renamed his “baptist vision” as Incarnational Discipleship.

I remember at one meeting of the American Academy of Religion seeing Jim huddled together in conversation with John Howard Yoder, Glen H. Stassen, Stanley Hauerwas, and Fr. Simon Harak, S.J.–all old friends and colleagues. I was convinced that only the Holy Spirit could have welded together such friendships: Yoder, taciturn and lacking many people skills, brilliant, but brusque and hard to get to know; Stassen, the Minnesota populist, gregarious-but-competitive–son of a politician, a former scientist turned theologian; Hauerwas the Texas Methodist who insisted on displaying his working class roots with his constant profanity (He once bought me a beer right after calling me an s.o. b. ! I accepted only after he agreed to leave my mother out of things!); Harak the deeply pious Palestinian Jesuit; and Jim, genteel with a Southern patrician air and constant good humor. Jim, I thought, was the conduit the Spirit used to keep these disparate folks as friends –and it is a tribute that these and many more widely diverse circles continued their friendships after Jim’s passing.

My debt to Jim McClendon is huge–behind only Yoder and Stassen–and I miss him constantly. I am deeply glad that I was able to contribute to one of the Festschriften in his honor. This mentor is a giant on whose shoulders I try to stand.


December 7, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, mentors, theology


  1. Great tribute. I met Jim while doing PhD work at NOBTS. He spoke to the theology students and then did a wonderful devotional that only a couple of faculty attended.

    Thanks for reminding me of him. He was truly one of those “baptists” that I admired for his theological insight and stand against racism and war.

    Comment by Howie Luvzus | December 8, 2006

  2. Thanks, Howie. I wanted to write up Jim much earlier in my series on mentors, but I kept trying to find a photo to go with it as I had with the others in my series (John Howard Yoder, Glen Stassen, Molly Marshall, Glenn Hinson). I was about to keep trying while blogging other things, but the tribute was just too overdue.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 8, 2006

  3. […] the “[b]aptist Vision,” i.e., the constitutive vision of the Believers’ Churches, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000).  Theology, McClendon said, is “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and […]

    Pingback by What is Theology? « Levellers | May 21, 2007

  4. How saddened I was to learn of Jim’s death today. I accidentally came across his Ethics book in a Barnes and Noble and began thinking of and wondering about him. So, today I decided spend the time to locate him. My heart was deeply saddened to learn of his death. He was my professor at GGBTS where I earned my B.D. and Th.M. It was his dedication to truth, discovery, thinking and teaching that inspired and challenged me to become more of whom God wants me to be, and I will always be indebted to him for encouraging me, by the way he lived his beliefs and shared them with such love, compassion, conviction and commitment, without being offensive. Not only did he force individuals to think, but how to think – if they wanted to know who God was and what he was about. I am not surprised, therefore, by the response to him at NOBTS. Somehow, I see that as more of a tribute to him than had the entire student body turn out

    Comment by Lawrence Guido, Th.M,Ph.D | August 9, 2007

  5. Lawrence, it is good to hear from one of Jim’s Golden Gate students. Through the years I have met many of his students and colleagues from CDSP, from Fuller, and elsewhere, but no one from Golden Gate who wanted to admit even knowing Jim!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 9, 2007

  6. Michael – thanks for such a good biography of McClendon. I’m meeting up with some friends today to talk about “how to read McClendo” and your post here will I think be of great help.

    Comment by brodie | August 31, 2007

  7. […] George F. R. Ellis (Fortress Press, 1996).  Nancey Murphy, widow of one of my mentors, the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), baptist theologian extraordinare, is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren and teaches […]

    Pingback by Science, Theology, and the Doctrine of Creation « Levellers | November 3, 2007

  8. I know this is an old post, but I thought you’d be interested in this picture…



    Comment by Andrew | February 24, 2009

  9. […] late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theological Mentors « Levellers | April 2, 2009

  10. Thanks, Andrew. I have finally edited this post to include the photo and deleted the description.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2009

  11. […] over the next decade or so.   McClendon wasn’t widely known in the evangelical world (see here for a good bio), but his work was highly respected and admired in academic circles and I suspect […]

    Pingback by McClendon – Theology as Convictions « Just Wondering | June 20, 2009

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