An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism

By John D. Hannah
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2009). 399 Pages.

Reviewed by
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 241-243

In 1927, a group of Los Angeles church leaders, concerned with the drift and foment within the American church scene, committed themselves to establishing an institution anchored on the fundamental truths that were being abandoned by a growing number of seminaries. Los Angeles Baptist Theological Seminary was established as a statement and vision against the rising tide of modernism and liberalism. Today, that fledgling Baptist school is The Master’s College and Seminary.

The turbulent years of the twenties was to give birth to another academic institution. Founded in 1924, a mere three years prior to LABTS, the Evangelical Theological College in Dallas, Texas was also launched in the midst of the growing swell and storm within the American church. Today, that institution is known as Dallas Theological Seminary.

John D. Hannah is well-qualified to address a history of Dallas Theological Seminary. Scholastically, Hannah’s doctoral research at the University of Texas (Dallas) resulted in his excellent dissertation, The Social and Intellectual History of the Origins of the Evangelical Theological College. This fine treatment of the social, cultural, and theological milieu that birthed Dallas Seminary provides the archival spadework behind the volume under consideration.

Furthermore, Hannah has been a participant-observer; both as a student at Dallas and as Distinguished Professor of Historical Theology for forty years—a significant percentage of the institution’s history. As such, Hannah’s insights by both archival and anecdotal insight are profound. His distinguished career as both a scholar and professor positions him well to guide the reader through Dallas’ history.

Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalismis organized structurally around the commonly utilized thread of presidential leadership. Like most, institutional histories, Hannah begins by setting the stage for the institution’s genesis—theologically, culturally, and socially. This is followed by development of the issues and challenges facing Dallas’ five presidents. The text takes advantage of rich primary archival resources providing a refreshing scholarship given the secondary and tertiary sources commonly used in other Christian institutional histories.

Hannah does have the unenviable task of writing his history while gainfully employed by the same institution. This challenge is openly and clearly acknowledged in his introduction to the work (16). Uncommon Union must thread the fine line between historical honesty and accuracy with present administrative sensibilities, particularly in regards to the “living history” whose actors are still on, or near, the Dallas stage. This results in a subtle shift from a reflective history early in the work, to a more descriptive history in the more contemporary era. Hannah skillfully and masterfully avoids the trend to begin with humble origins, move to a period of institutional struggle and emergence, and then conclude with the institution as a paradigm of academic arrival, interestingly coinciding with the current administration. The histories of other institutions tell the wonderful tales of by-gone days to warm the hearts and recollections of alma mater to alums, or are written as public relation pieces to be used by development offices in courting prospective donors. Uncommon Union is not hagiography. Hannah is transparent and honest—a daunting challenge for any historian reflecting on the institution with which he is so deeply associated.

In reviewing the work, several observations emerged. First, this reviewer would have recommended to the editor that the rich quantitative data provided would be better presented in tabular form rather than in the narrative. At times, descriptive statistical data breaks the flow of the fine discussion occurring in the narrative, particularly in the latter half of the work. Tables could present statistical information in a visually-comprehensible format that would be more meaningful to the reader without altering the narrative flow.

Second, the assumption might be that Uncommon Union would only interest individuals connected with Dallas. Hannah’s unfolding of the turmoil and upheaval that birthed the seminary, as well as the issues and challenges that molded it, would be of interest to anyone concerned with the forces that have shaped the modern American church scene. As the subtitle suggests, the union between Dallas Theological Seminary and the shaping of American Evangelicalism is profound. The influence of the legions of “Dallas Men” (and later women) have left an indelible mark on evangelical thought and ministry.

Finally, readers may be surprised to find that Dallas Theological Seminary is not as monolithic as they thought; those assuming that Dallas is Arminian in theological orientation may be surprised to find out about its Presbyterian and Calvinistic roots. Readers may be surprised to find that their perceptions of Dallas are in fact wrong.

An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalismis more than a mere institutional history: it is a tour de force of an institution that has both shaped, and been shaped, by American Evangelicalism. It is a window through which one can view and understand the American theological landscape. Its graduates serve influential positions of leadership worldwide, shaping a wide diversity of institutions and ministries. Dallas Theological Seminary’s historical legacy and contribution mirror the evangelical soul, and, together, the two form an “uncommon union” as it has shaped American Evangelicalism.