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

Recovering Neglected Theologians #4: James M. Dunn

A guest-post by Aaron Weaver, Ph.D. student in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor University’s J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies.  This post is adapted from his Baylor M.A. Thesis, “ James Dunn and Soul Freedom: A Baptist Paradigm for Political Engagement in the Public Arena.”   The son, grandson, and nephew of Baptist ministers, Aaron was a Congressional intern for the legendary civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and previously worked for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.  He also has the great personal blog, Big Daddy Weave.

 “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”[1]  This famous phrase characterizes the ministry of Baptists such as Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Leland and others.  In the last half of the twentieth century, James Dunn has been the loudest and most aggressive Baptist proponent for religious liberty in the United States.  Dunn is best known for his leadership as Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization comprised of multiple Baptist bodies that deals solely with religious liberty issues on Capitol Hill.  Dunn’s defense of religious liberty and the separation of church and state became one of the pivotal issues in the Southern Baptist Controversy during the 1980s.  He was one of the primary targets of the “Conservative Resurgence” or “Fundamentalist Takeover” that ultimately gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention and subsequently defunded the participation of Southern Baptists in the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. 

                        James Dunn embodies and articulates a paradigm for Baptist political engagement in the public arena which is based upon the concept of soul freedom:  voluntary uncoerced faith and an unfettered individual conscience before God.  His vision of religious liberty and separation of church and state is especially rooted in the doctrine of soul freedom.  Dunn argues that soul freedom is the cornerstone that precedes and demands religious liberty and separation of church and state for all persons in the political arena.  With uncompromising intensity, Dunn defends soul freedom as the historic Baptist basis for religious liberty.  Dunn attempts to so identify with the radical component of the Baptist witness to religious liberty that Baptist historian Walter Shurden has called him a modern day “John Leland,” the eighteenth and early nineteenth century’s strongest proponent of a thoroughgoing separation of church and state.[2]

         James Dunn: A Biographical Overview

 A self-described “Texas-bred, Spirit-led, Bible-teaching, revival-preaching, recovering Southern Baptist,”[3] James Milton Dunn was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 17, 1932 to William Thomas Dunn and Edith Campbell Dunn.  Dunn began his educational journey in the Forth Worth public school system where he played in his high school’s eighty member symphony orchestra.  After a stint at Texas Christian University, Dunn transferred to Texas Wesleyan University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1953.  As a nineteen-year-old junior at Texas Wesleyan, Dunn accepted a “call” to vocational ministry.  Consequently, Dunn pursued graduate theological training.  His educational experience at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary began in 1953.  Dunn received his Bachelor of Divinity in 1957 and his Doctor of Theology in 1966.  While a seminary student, Dunn served Texas Baptist Churches in several ministerial roles from 1954-1961 including one four-year pastorate.[4]  Dunn finished his long educational journey in 1978 as a post-doctoral research scholar at the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science.[5]

Dunn’s work in the arena of public policy began to flourish when he served as director of the Texas Christian Life Commission (1966-1980).  He attempted to “stir the consciences” of Texas Baptists regarding “applied Christianity.”[6]  Anchored upon the influence of T. B. Maston and J. M. Dawson, Dunn was involved in developing Baptist viewpoints on issues such as gambling, race relations, Christian citizenship, hunger, and religious liberty.  Regarding his approach, Dunn commented, “In some areas-gambling, liquor, pornography-this agency has been hardline conservative.  In others-concerns for victims of a rotten welfare system and for bilingual education-we have been wild-eyed liberals.”  Dunn was a battler:  “You could be wrong but you can’t be quiet.  You can’t just shut up and let the other forces that would hurt people have their way.”[7]

 James Dunn and Soul Freedom

 Ideas such as soul liberty and soul competency that had been trumpeted frequently in Baptist history found a home in the thought and rhetoric of James Dunn.  Dunn became the heir of Edgar Young Mullins[8] and those before him who insisted that freedom of the individual conscience and the emphasis upon direct personal experience of God without reliance upon ecclesiastical leaders were at the heart of the best of the Baptist tradition.  In fact, Dunn’s work for an unfettered conscience, religious liberty for all, and the separation of church and state was especially rooted in his understanding of soul freedom.  While prominent early twentieth century Southern Baptists E. Y. Mullins and G. W. Truett referred to “soul competency,” James Dunn again used the earlier Baptist language of “soul freedom.”  Dunn believed, like Mullins did, that soul freedom, the key distinctive of Baptists and their greatest contribution to understanding the Christian faith, was simply the freedom, ability, and responsibility of each person to respond to God for herself or himself.  This freedom implied the ability to have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and the capacity to deal directly with God without a human mediator such as a priest or bishop.  This is a gift from God.[9]  Throughout his career, Dunn has often described soul freedom as “the fire that burns in the innards of every true Baptist.”  According to Dunn, since Thomas Helwys’ bold proclamation that “the king is not Lord of the conscience,” the hallmark of the people called Baptist is that “dogged determination to be free – free and faithful.”[10]

            For religious faith to be authentic, Dunn believes, it must be free and cannot be coerced.[11]  Citing E. Y. Mullins, Dunn declares that to deny a person direct access to God “is nothing less than tyranny.”  The influence of Mullins and The Axioms of Religion on Dunn’s thought is undeniable.  Dunn has credited Mullins with investing energy and meaning into the phrase “soul competency” and placing it at the center of a “coherent cluster of beliefs that define Baptists.”[12]  Like Mullins, Dunn also affirmed that the biblical revelation clearly pointed to the principle of soul freedom.  He also agreed with Mullins that “the voluntary principle is at the heart of Christianity” and consequently “the right of private judgment in religion is a right that lies at the core of Christian truth.”[13]  Building on Mullins’ cornerstone that religious experience was the beginning point of understanding divine revelation, Dunn asserted that soul freedom is axiomatic, a self-evident truth “that when seen needs no proof of its reality.”[14]

            Dunn believes that soul freedom is based on a biblical view of persons.  In the creation account  found in Genesis 1:26-27, God called the first humans imago Dei which presupposes freedom.[15]  Regardless of how one reads the biblical description of creation, in Dunn’s view, it clearly suggests that all humans are moral beings, capable of responding to God.[16]  According to Dunn, whatever else the classical doctrine of imago Dei means, it reveals that persons, made by God, can respond to their Creator.  “The roots of freedom are deep within the intimate personhood of God.  All true freedom is in a real sense religious freedom.  It is that which replicates the Divine in all of us that makes us response-able, responsible and free.”[17] 

Dunn’s view of soul freedom is far reaching and extends beyond personal morality and personal faith.  As the ultimate source of all modern notions of human rights, it is the cornerstone that precedes and demands religious liberty and the separation of church and state for all persons in the political arena.  It is the biblical and theological starting point from which religious liberty naturally follows.  According to Dunn, “if we all, in some serious way, replicate God, religious liberty is a moral and social inevitability.”[18]

Not surprisingly, James Dunn’s understanding of soul freedom has not been spared from criticism.  Like E. Y. Mullins, Dunn too has been accused of promoting a radical form of unbounded individualism, a faith without authority.  Nearly fifty years ago, Winthrop Hudson, an American Baptist historian, stated that “the practical effect of the stress upon ‘soul competency’ as the cardinal doctrine of Baptists was to make everyone’s hat their own church.”[19]  Other scholars have followed Hudson’s lead.  Curtis Freeman has argued that James Dunn has abused individualism even further by turning “soul competency” into “sole competency.”  Freeman claims that Dunn’s popular quip, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus goin’ to tell me what to believe,” quickly devolves into “Ain’t nobody goin’ to tell me what to believe” as the “me” becomes the exclusive arbiter of what Jesus is saying.[20]  Other scholars have made sweeping claims against the excessive individualism they find in Mullins and/or Dunn in attempts to chastise Baptists for a poor social ethic or a poor doctrine of ecclesiology.[21]

However, Dunn has repeatedly refuted the criticism of his opponents that soul freedom leads to a hyper individualistic lone-ranger Christianity.  He believes that the dichotomy of individual and community is a false one.  The choice was not one over the other, but both together.  Dunn contends that the desire for Christian community presupposes voluntary faith.  According to Dunn, “The competence of the individual before God does not demand and in fact precludes Lone Ranger religion…no matter what critics left and right may say, autonomous individualism…does not mean that everyone’s church is one’s own hat.  The longing for community and social Christianity presupposes voluntarism.  Without individual autonomy, there can be no authentic community.”[22]

One must remember that Dunn is not a systematic theologian.  He is an activist for religious liberty.  He has not written about community at length, but he has practiced it.  Dunn is no “lone ranger” Christian.  His audience is not simply Baptist individuals, but Baptist bodies (local churches and larger Baptist groups).  His writings do reveal that he believes genuine voluntary individual faith leads a believer into the life of the church.  He expects Baptists to use freedom responsibly and practice local church community.  On one occasion, Dunn applauded the early writings of Jim Wallis which advocated an intentional community of communal discipleship.  Dunn wrote, “No where have I seen a Baptist church that measures up to the vision of community held up by Wallis.  Nor have I known a Baptist church that wouldn’t be a bit frightened by his idealism, nor one that couldn’t use a good dose of it.”

            After serving as Executive-Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for 19 years, James Dunn “retired” in 1999 to his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where he serves as Resident Professor of Christianity and Public Policy at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, still pushing for soul freedom, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. 



[1] Wendell Phillips, in The Home Book of Quotations, ed. Burton Egbert Stevenson (New York: Dodd & Mead, 1964), 1106.

[2] Walter B. Shurden, “James (Dunn) and John (Leland), Baptist Sons of Zebedee,” in James Dunn: Champion for Religious Liberty, ed. J. Brent Walker (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1999), 109-122. 

[3]James M. Dunn, “Being Baptist,” in Baptists in the Balance, ed. Everett C. Goodwin (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1997), 219.


[4]John Newport, “A Texas-Bred, Spirit-Led Baptist,” in James Dunn: Champion for Religious Liberty, ed. J. Brent Walker (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1999), 18-26. See also James Dunn, e-mail message to author, January 21, 2008.  Dunn began his professional ministerial service in 1954, serving as associate pastor at a Baptist church in Celina, Texas for a year and at First Baptist Church in Weatherford, Texas, from 1955 to 1958, and then as pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Weatherford, Texas from 1958 to 1961.  In an interview with Dunn, he noted that he was the first pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church which began with just fifty-eight members and grew to two hundred members in just three years.  The growth at Emmanuel included twenty-one baptisms. 

[5]James Dunn, telephone conversation with author,  January 21, 2008.  In 1978, Dunn was a research scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  He studied economics under Ian Roxborough and the sociology of religion under Eileen Barker. 

[6]James M. Dunn, “Christian Life Commission Report,” Annual of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (Dallas, TX: BGCT Press, 1971), 93-95.

[7]Toby Druin, “Dunn – Off to Washington,” December 31, 1980, 5.

[8] Known as “Mr. Baptist,” E.Y. Mullins was a well-known Southern Baptist theologian.  Princeton Seminary’s J. Gresham Machen described Mullins as the “spokesman not merely for the Southern Baptist Church [sic] or for the Baptist churches of America, but also to a considerable extent for the Baptist churches throughout the world.” 

[9]James M. Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2000), 63-65.

[10]Ibid., 67-68.

[11]James M. Dunn, “Separating church, state, good for both,” Report from the Capital 50, no. 11 (November 14, 1995): 2.

[12]James M. Dunn, “Church, State, and Soul Competency,” Review and Expositor 96, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 62.

[13]Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, 64.


[15]Genesis 1:26-27 NRSV. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind* in his image, in the image of God created them; male and female he created them.’ ” 

[16]James M. Dunn, “The Baptist Vision of Religious Liberty,” in Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty, ed. Walter B. Shurden (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1993), 32.


[17]Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, 7.


[18]Dunn, “The Baptist Vision of Religious Liberty,” 33. See also Dunn, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, 65.

[19]Winthrop S. Hudson, “Shifting Patterns of Church Order in the Twentieth Century,” in Baptist Concepts of the Church, ed. Winthrop Still Hudson (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1959), 215.

[20]Curtis W. Freeman, “E.Y. Mullins and the Siren Songs of Modernity,” Review and Expositor 96, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 41.

[21]Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 82-115. See also John Hammett, “From Church Competence to Soul Competence: The Devolution of Baptist Ecclesiology,” Journal for Baptist Theology an Ministry 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 145-163. Charles Marsh cited Douglas Hudgins’ as a minister who hid behind soul freedom to avoid addressing the issue of race during the 1950s and 1960s.

[22]James M. Dunn, “Yes, I am a Baptist,” in Why I Am A Baptist: Reflections on Being Baptist in the 21st Century, ed. Cecil P. Staton Jr. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1999), 46-47.

August 22, 2008 - Posted by | Baptists, church-state separation, human rights., religious liberty, theology


  1. I’ll start the comments off by thanking Aaron for this guest post. I know Aaron only electronically, but I have met and admire James Dunn. However, I am one of those critics who think that the rhetoric (if not the practice in the hands of people like Mullins and Dunn) of “soul competency” or “soul freedom,” can and has led to excessive individualism and lack of accountability. I have preferred the EVEN OLDER Baptist term, liberty of conscience. However, I also think some critics, such as Curtis Freeman, who is a friend of mine, go too far in overcompensation. Community without liberty of conscience is tyrannical and Freeman’s vision of community, unlike John Yoder’s or Jim McClendon’s, frightens me because I suspect it has a strong authoritarian streak in it.

    But balance is seldom achieved by sitting in the middle of the see-saw (teeter-totter). Dunn, like Mullins and others before him, takes strong communal church life for granted. He emphasizes soul freedom in response to dictatorial fundamentalist preachers and authoritarian politicians. Freeman and those like him, on the other hand, worry more about the hyper-individualism of modernity on church life, especially in America. Freeman correctly realizes that the early Baptists, like their Anabaptist forerunners, balanced their cries for freedom with strong communal ecclesiologies and the “associational principle” between churches–features that have since eroded.

    I usually end up thinking that people like Dunn and people like Freeman are talking past each other. But Aaron has done a masterful job of articulating one half of that conversation–in an era when authoritarian, state-sponsored, religion is on the rise.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 22, 2008

  2. Great job, Aaron. Thanks for posting this, Michael. Michael, I think your point about context is very insightful.

    Comment by Melissa Rogers | August 22, 2008

  3. Awesome post. James Dunn is awesome. You forgot one big difference between Freeman and Dunn. Freeman works for Duke University and Dunn for Wake Forest University and tobacco road basketball will forever keep them apart.

    Comment by pomopirate | August 23, 2008

  4. James Dunn is one of the heroes of Baptist thought

    Comment by roy donkin | August 24, 2008

  5. James Dunn is one of my heroes and role models. He as much as anyone helped me to see how vital freedom is to my experience as a Baptist. I had a flirtation with Reformed theology in my earlier life, but the Baptist in me finally overcame the authoritarianism of Calvin and his followers. For me, freedom in a religiously neutral state is far more attractive than the theocratic ideal that underlies the contemporary evangelical attack on separation of church and state. I am glad to see young scholars like Aaron taking up the cause when so many other youths have fallen prey to the practitioners of authority.

    Comment by Richard Pierard | August 27, 2008

  6. I remember James Dunn speaking at a state BSU conference in Virginia in the mid-1980’s. It was not a universally friendly audience, as the divisions among Southern Baptists impacted student organizations as much as any other Southern Baptist organizations. It was refreshing to hear a defense of Baptist principles with passion and fidelity to the Gospel–in such a way to demonstrate that this was not merely an intellectual debate–but a struggle for essential faith identity. Another speaker at that same meeting was Peter James Flamming of First church Richmond–another champion of principle in the face of fundamentalism. I did not enter the Baptist fold until later in my life (who wanted to join a family in the midst of a full-fledged food fight?)–but these were obviously positive impressions that stayed with me until now.

    Comment by Jeff | September 2, 2008

  7. Glad to see this recognition of James Dunn, and so glad to see soul freedom presented. My own father was a Southern Baptist minister and was the one who instilled in me that sense of soul freedom which James Dunn also declares.

    I heard Rev. Dunn speak when I was a student at Samford University in Birmingham back in the 1970s and again at Golden Gate Seminary in Mill Valley California. He is such a refreshing voice. Thanks for the posting, Aaron!

    Comment by Charles Kinnaird | September 14, 2008

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