This past Tuesday the field of U.S. history lost a terrific scholar and we lost a wonderful friend, as Jacob Dorn, Wright State University professor emeritus, died at the age of 77 after suffering a heart attack over the weekend.
In his teaching Jake was the best sort of historian, determined to tell the truth about the past, even when that truth included the ways in which the wealthy and powerful have exploited those less wealthy and less powerful. For Jake, true Christianity involved a commitment to the equality of all human beings and advocacy in behalf of the oppressed. Micah 6:8 – which was read at Saturday’s memorial service at Dayton’s Westminster Presbyterian Church – says it all:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Not surprisingly, as a late 19th and early 20th century U.S. historian, Jake was enamored with the social gospel and Christian socialism. Among a host of other publications, he was the author of Washington Gladden: Prophet of the Social Gospel, and editor of Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America. Bill concluded his 2003 review of the latter book with a statement that is even more relevant today:
It is particularly important for evangelical and fundamentalist schools to purchase this book, if for no other reason than to suggest to their students that there exists – bizarre as it may seem these days – a tradition of Christian political thought that imagines the possibility of government as an agent of good, and that understands a just society to be one in which the basic needs of all its citizens are met.
Jake was strongly opposed to fundamentalism in all of its religious and political manifestations. That said, he was also strongly committed to dialogue and tolerance. So it was quite fitting that, at the memorial service, Jake’s daughter-in-law read a selection from one of his favorite texts, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”:
When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems? This is not a lesson which the Fundamentalists alone need to learn; the liberals also need to learn it. Speaking, as I do, from the viewpoint of liberal opinions, let me say that if some young, fresh mind here this morning is holding new ideas, has fought his way through, it may be by intellectual and spiritual struggle, to novel positions, and is tempted to be intolerant about old opinions, offensively to condescend to those who hold them and to be harsh in judgment on them, he may well remember that people who held those old opinions have given the world some of the noblest character and the most rememberable service that it ever has been blessed with, and that we of the younger generation will prove our case best, not by controversial intolerance, but by producing, with our new opinions, something of the depth and strength, nobility and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts. It was a wise liberal, the most adventurous man of his day—Paul the Apostle—who said, “Knowledge puffeth up, but love buildeth up.”
Will intolerance win the day? Will fundamentalism win the day? Not if Jake Dorn – the legacy of Jake Dorn – has anything to say about it.