Duke K. McCall, Southern Baptist statesman and Southern Seminary president, dies at 98

Communications Staff — April 2, 2013

Duke Kimbrough McCall, a Southern Baptist statesman and former president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, died, April 2, near his home in Delray Beach, Fla., from congestive heart failure and respiratory distress. He was 98.

McCall, whose contributions to the Southern Baptist Convention cover nearly 70 years, profoundly shaped both Southern Seminary and the denomination in ways that continue to define them today. When he became the seventh president of the seminary in 1951 at the age of 36, he already owned a remarkable record of denominational leadership.

He served as president of three different Southern Baptist entities: New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (1943-1946), the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (1946-1951) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1951-1982). Second, he invested in denominational leadership as a very young man: he was only 28 when elected president of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Third, he exercised denominational leadership over an extraordinary period of time: 40 years across five decades of the 20th century, and then continued to be an active Baptist voice after his retirement.

By the time he retired in 1982, he had become the longest-serving president in the history of Southern Seminary. Throughout his extraordinary career, his purpose was to serve faithfully the people of God as they followed Christ in advancing his kingdom.

“A giant has fallen in Israel. The death of Dr. Duke K. McCall reminds us of the lengthened shadow one man can cast over a great denomination,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., who is the current president of Southern Seminary. “Dr. McCall was a giant among Southern Baptists. He belongs to that great generation of Southern Baptist leaders who shaped the convention as the 20th century brought new opportunities and new challenges. He, along with Drs. W.A. Criswell and Hershel H. Hobbs, brought the Southern Baptist Convention into the modern age.

“He was Southern Baptist to the core, and he entered denominational leadership at an incredibly young age. He was president of the Baptist Bible Institute, and helped it to become New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was the president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and then he came home to his alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he was to serve as president for three decades.

“His leadership at Southern Seminary represented an entire epoch in this institution’s history. He was president during some of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century, and he guided the seminary through years marked by both peace and controversy. This campus, including the James P. Boyce Centennial Library, bears the marks of his vision and leadership. I was greatly honored to preside at the ceremony that commemorated the opening of the Duke K. McCall Sesquicentennial Pavilion when Southern Seminary marked its 150th anniversary. The Duke K. McCall Lectures on Christian Leadership bring some of the world’s great leaders to the Southern Seminary campus,” Mohler said.

He continued: “My relationship with Dr. McCall goes back to my childhood, when he came to my home church as a visiting preacher. Later, he was the president of Southern Seminary when I arrived as a student. I saw his leadership up close, and my admiration only grew. Later, I was able to develop a deep and very personal friendship with Dr. McCall, and for that I am so very thankful. When I was elected president of Southern Seminary, in the midst of difficult days in our denomination, Dr. McCall was among the very first to call me. He offered prayer and friendship from the start, and, even when he would have disagreed with my decisions, he respected the office and offered true friendship.”

Frank S. Page, current president of the Executive Committee said of McCall: “Southern Baptists are indebted to Dr. McCall. I know that I follow some great men, and Dr. McCall is one of them. He now moves to his ultimate reward and stands before our Lord. Southern Baptists have lost a great leader today. He leaves a powerful legacy.”

Chuck Kelley, the current president of New Orleans Seminary, said, “Dr. Duke McCall was one of the most influential leaders in SBC history. He made an indelible impact in New Orleans, presiding over our transition from Baptist Bible Institute to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. His influence throughout the SBC was profound, extending from our seminary to the Executive Committee to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and beyond. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, you had to take account of his perspective. He earned the respect and appreciation even of those who disagreed with him. The story of the modern Southern Baptist Convention cannot be told without including the story of Duke McCall.

“I am thankful for Dr. McCall’s giving his life in kingdom service to Southern Baptists and the global Baptist family. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary will always be in his debt.”

Son of judge John W. and Lizette McCall, Duke McCall was born in Meridian, Miss., in September of 1914, and he grew up with his four siblings in Memphis, Tenn. Following high school, McCall entered Furman University in Greenville, S.C. There, McCall met Marguerite Mullinnix. The couple married shortly after McCall graduated from the university as valedictorian in 1935. The McCalls raised four sons.

1951, McCall beginning his presidency of Southern Seminary

After McCall graduated from Furman University in 1935, he enrolled at Southern Seminary, earning a master of theology degree in 1938 and a doctor of philosophy degree in Old Testament studies in 1942 from Southern Seminary. Through most of his student years he pastored churches, including the prestigious Broadway Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky.

In 1943, the trustees of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, at that time still called the Baptist Bible Institute of New Orleans, elected McCall, despite his youth, because he had earned a reputation for powerful preaching, evangelistic zeal and bold leadership. He looked, however, like an incoming freshman. “Are you new here too?” a freshman asked him in 1943. “Yes I am,” McCall replied, “they have just made me president.”

As president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and as president of the Executive Committee, McCall exercised visionary leadership and attracted the support of leaders throughout the denomination. He was able to move Southern Baptists to accomplish some of the challenging things that the gospel demanded of them. Though young, he demonstrated wisdom and power, and a heart to serve the churches. These things endeared him to Southern Baptist pastors and laypersons.

In 1951, the trustees of Southern Seminary brought McCall back to his alma mater. He  had already proven himself capable of bold leadership in challenging circumstances at Broadway, New Orleans and the Executive Committee. And the seminary trustees ultimately concluded that McCall was their candidate; the search committee brought him to Louisville for the interview in early August 1951. McCall accepted and became the longest serving president in the institution’s history.

On the 60th anniversary of McCall’s election, the seminary honored him at an event, Sept. 6, 2011. In an unprecedented service afforded only few institutions, Mohler led a full-to-capacity Alumni Chapel, in celebrating McCall’s more than 32 years as president of the school.

Earlier that same year, in April, the McCall Family Foundation established the Duke K. McCall Chair of Christian Leadership and the McCall Leadership Lectures series at Southern Seminary. The inaugural lecture in that series came at the anniversary celebration.

2011, McCall at a celebration of the 60th anniversary of his election as SBTS president

Duke K. McCall made deep and varied contributions to Baptist life throughout his remarkable career. Some of them came outside the Southern Baptist Convention, as in his long service and leadership in the Baptist World Alliance. But it was within the life of the Southern Baptist Convention that he made his most durable and impressive contributions. He launched a new era of progress for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He reconceived the work of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in ways that resulted in advances in denominational giving, missionary expansion and institutional prosperity. And in less tangible ways, he left his imprint on Southern Baptists.

McCall leaves behind his wife, Winona McCandless, a widow whom he married after Marguerite died in 1983, and his four sons: Duke Jr., Douglas, John Richard and Michael.

“When a giant of this stature falls, we realize just how few men of his stature are,” Mohler said. “What a remarkable life. Southern Seminary is praying for the entire McCall family. Our prayers are with Mrs. Winona McCall, his beloved wife, and his four sons and their families. I am so thankful to have known Dr. Duke K. McCall as president, statesman, churchman, preacher and friend.”

The family will hold visitation services in the Duke K. McCall Sesquicentennial Pavilion at Southern Seminary, at 1 p.m., Sunday, April 7. A funeral service will be held the next day at Broadway Baptist Church, 4000 Brownsboro Road, Louisville, KY, at 10 a.m.

Gregory A. Wills is professor church history at Southern Seminary and director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention; Aaron Cline Hanbury is manager of news and information at the seminary.

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