Donald W Dayton (1942 – 2020) – Remembering one of Northern’s Finest

By: David Fitch

It’s hard to know where to start in describing the man Donald W. Dayton. Donald W. Dayton was associate professor of theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary back in the eighties and nineties.  Today, it’s Northern Seminary and where I work.

I took classes with him at Northern where he introduced me to the theology of Karl Barth and the historiography of evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and the social justice movements of the holiness movements. All these learnings would become so very important for me as I navigated how to be a Christian in the ensuing years after graduating from Northern. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of these opportunities to learn from Don during my life.

Don was a unique dude, often stacking books by the hundred in the back seat of his car (I’m not kidding!). He had some amazing stories of his journeys hanging with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees during the civil rights movement, protesting the Viet Nam war and on and on. The people he knew.

Again it’s hard to know where to begin to tell you any of the amazing stories this guy could tell. If I needed some insight, or a quick read on a theolgical issue, or some history of Barth and the German Christian struggle, all I’d have to do is agree to meet him at a Chinese restaurant, and three hours later, after a hearty meal, I would have assembled notes that would have required years of research if I’d have had to do this on my own. I always paid the bill, because I always wanted Don to know he could depend on me for a good Chinese meal.

Don, I am sure, was an irritant to all educational administrators he served under. He could be a real pain. He did not have the political acuity necessary to get along with people in high places. But with us minions, he could spend hours unwinding the trajectories of our theological questions. And he was always in high demand to expound on the origins of the theological complexities of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. Man, could he bring it!

His dad was a Wesleyan (and a Doctoral graduate of Northern Seminary)  and his mom was Christian and Missionary Alliance (my denomination). And so we could talk all day (I exaggerate) about the mammoth impact these church bodies made in their early days. The heart of evangelicalism, he would say, was in the holiness movements. And oh the revolutionary impact the various holiness denominations had in engaging the poor, abolitionism. Women’s rights, etc etc. Stunning.

It was amazing to think how evangelicals could be a people who took the side of the poor, who could be instigators of revolution and bring change to the plight of the poor, slavery, racism, women’s suffrage, etc. etc. This all helped me figure out who I was and how I fit in and why I should struggle within my own history to be faithful.

Don famously wrote Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Harper & Row 1976) among his many writings. It was a gigantic awakening for me to read this in my early years of seminary. Knowlege Don shared went way beyond that.

Once again, it’s hard to know where to begin to list his extensive academic accomplishments. He served as vice-president of the Karl Barth society one year when I was reading the Church Dogmatics with him. He served as president of the Wesleyan Theological Society and the Society for Pentecostal Studies. He went on from Northern to teach at Drew University where he guided numerous doctoral students. He went on from there to teach at Azusa Pacific University. He leaves behind a huge cadre of students who are having an impact across the globe.

Don experienced more than a few personal tragedies. I’m glad he persevered through some very difficult moments. My last visit with him was in February. He was struggling physically. But he still made space for about 3 hours to talk through some of my work on power, interpreting history, and the church making space for God to work in these times.

The dude was always making space to talk theology and show interest in my work even to the end. I was delivering some lectures at Azusa Pacific on these topics at the time. He said to me he so wished he could get to the lectures but feared he wasn’t feeling up to it. I promised him I’d get back to him with the results once I could tidy the lectures up enough to be presentable for him. But alas that will have to wait for a future time.

Til then, I’ll be thankful for Don Dayton. He has left a lasting legacy. Northern Seminary, many many students, and David Fitch would not be who they are, if not for Don Dayton. RIP my bro. See you on the other side.

May 26, 2020

David Fitch

Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology


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