Faith on the firing line

The Joseph Mitchell papers tell the story of a tempest among North Carolina Baptists.
Writer: 
March 7, 2017

The Duke University Archives recently received the Joseph Mitchell Papers on Max Wicker, a collection of letters, news clippings, and other documents that culminate in a 2006 paper, “The 1954 Firing of Max Wicker and Two Other North Carolina Student Directors, Jimmy Ray and J.C. Herrin,” by Joseph Mitchell M.Div. ’53, Ph.D. ’62.

Max Wicker, a 1952 Duke Divinity School graduate, was president of Duke’s Baptist Student Union (BSU) in 1953. After graduating, he was hired to work at Duke by Jimmy Ray, secretary of the statewide BSU.

Later that year, Baptist student leaders began planning their annual BSU conference, to be held in November 1953. Ray invited Christian theologian Nels Ferré, a Congregationalist who taught at Vanderbilt University, to be the conference’s main speaker. But some on the North Carolina Baptists’ general board had heard that one of Ferré’s books cast doubt on the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Ferré’s speech was canceled.

The general board then began an investigation of the programs and leadership in the Baptist Student Union throughout the state— as Time magazine’s April 12, 1954, issue put it, “digging into charges that the Baptist student pastors have been guiding their young congregations independent of regular church supervision.” By 1954, the board had scheduled a hearing for three student leaders—Ray, Wicker, and J.C. Herrin, the secretary of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill BSU chapter.

The hearing lasted six hours, ending just after midnight on March 31, 1954. Wicker delivered a three-page statement to the board explaining his faith. (Time quoted him as saying to the board, “I do not deny the virgin birth, and I do not affirm it. My mind is still open.”) In the end, the board dismissed the three leaders from their jobs with the BSU. According to Time, students at the meeting dissented, but “most of the 500 Southern Baptists present thought that the board was right, and that the young ministers were too ‘interdenominational’ for comfort.” The results of the hearing appeared in front-page stories in newspapers around the state.

After the BSU dismissed him, Wicker continued at Duke—where he remained employed—for a few months as a chaplain, then resigned and became a Methodist minister.

Joseph Mitchell had met Wicker while they were both at Duke Divinity School. (After graduating from the divinity school, Mitchell returned to Duke for his doctorate in religion.) Mitchell was also a Methodist minister. After he and his wife, Norma, retired, they moved to Durham in 2001. There, they lived near Wicker and his wife, Ann, and Mitchell began the personal project of researching the nearly fifty-year-old case of his friend’s dismissal to tell his story.

Ryan is the Isobel Craven Drill Intern for University Archives.