Four years after his retirement, Dr. David Calhoun, professor emeritus of church history, remains one of Covenant Seminary’s most beloved figures. He still maintains an office on campus and has been keeping busy in a variety of ways, including delivering the commencement address at this year’s graduation ceremony. We caught up with him recently to find out more about what he has been up to.
the large window beside Dr. David Calhoun’s desk looks out over the lawn and playground behind edwards Hall, the estate house that served as the original home for Covenant Seminary back in the late 1950s. In fact, this spacious, elegant room once was the office of Dr. Robert G. Rayburn, the Seminary’s first president and an important mentor to Cal- houn. When guests ask him, “What did you do to deserve such a nice office?” Calhoun smiles and says simply, “I retired.”
the statement underscores the gentle humor and gracious charm that have helped to make Dr. Calhoun a favorite among genera- tions of Covenant Seminary students, faculty, and staff. though he retired in 2008 after teaching church history for 30 years, he still comes in nearly every weekday morning to work on one of his many writing projects, prepare for one of the classes he still teaches on occasion, answer e-mails, or simply to meet and talk with the many friends, colleagues, and former students who often stop by to see him.
“I love being retired,” he says with a laugh. “I do what I want to do, and I don’t do what I don’t want to do.”
one thing he enjoyed doing recently was visiting Columbia International University (formerly Columbia Bible College) in Colum- bia, South Carolina, where he once studied and also taught for a time, to speak at the dedication of a new library building. “the old one was damaged in a fire a few years ago. the library is named for Dr. G. allen Fleece, the second president of Columbia, who also was my father-in-law. It was an honor for me to speak there,” Calhoun says.
traveling is something Calhoun loves to do, though his health has made this more dif- ficult in recent years. He looks hale and hearty as he sits here now, but he has struggled with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and incurable (but treatable) form of non-Hodgkins lym- phoma, for more than 20 years. He also had a pacemaker installed a couple of years ago and is on medication for his heart. though his cancer is currently in remission, he knows that could change at any time. He still visits the doctor frequently and is on a reduced schedule of chemotherapy. He also is required to have a colonoscopy every six months; he’s had more than 40 thus far. “I’m told I hold the record at
Mercy Hospital” [formerly St. John’s Mercy], he notes with typical good humor.
as his attitude implies, Calhoun has not let his physical sufferings or limitations get him down. “My illness is just part of who I am now,” he says. “It has been hard at times, but it’s also helped me to see that what I believe is really true—the Lord works all things together for our good, and he does walk with me through the valley of the shadow of death. He’s taught me patience and to trust in him. as long as he gives me the opportunity to remain here and do what I’m doing, I’ll love him and love my neighbor as myself.”
this good-natured strength and quiet perseverance are typical of Calhoun, whose path to where he is now—a respected church historian and revered father in the faith—was, as he describes it, “very erratic.” “I never knew what I was up to,” he says, “but God knew.
He put so many diverse things together in my background so I could teach here. He brought things together so I could do here what I prob- ably couldn’t have done anywhere else.”
teaching church history was not even
on Calhoun’s radar when he first came to Covenant Seminary as a student in the third year of the school’s existence. In fact, he wasn’t a Presbyterian at the time, either, having
been raised in the Baptist tradition. But at
the suggestion of Dr. Fleece, who had visited Covenant and recommended it highly, he came to St. Louis and was impressed with what he found. “I had known the biblical stories pretty well before, but Covenant helped me to see the Bible more clearly as one big story and
how the diverse parts all reflect that big story. I loved that aspect of Reformed theology. the other thing that happened was that when I got here I was still a Baptist, but by the middle of my second year I was a Presbyterian.” He adds with a laugh, “My wife sometimes says I became too much of a Presbyterian because I had such an interest in it. But that’s where the Lord led me.”
after completing a Bachelor of Divinity (BDiv, the precursor of the Master of Divinity) and a Master of theology (thM) at Covenant, Calhoun and his wife, anne, became missionaries in the West Indies—another turn of events
he would not have expected—at the behest of then-Seminary president Dr. Rayburn. “He told me one day that he knew of a church on Grand Cayman Island that needed a pastor and he
way, Calhoun also found time to earn another thM, this time from Princeton Seminary. and then, as God’s providence would have it, came another twist in the story.
“I met up with Dr. Rayburn again at the second General assembly of the PCa,” Cal- houn recalls. “He told me it was time for me to come back to Covenant Seminary to teach. I didn’t have a PhD at that time and didn’t know what I would teach. the faculty said there was a need in the area of church history, which I didn’t know much about. But that’s where the need was, and Dr. Rayburn wanted me to do
it. So I went back to Princeton and got a PhD, then came to Covenant to teach.” and the rest, as they say, is history.
During the next 30 years, Calhoun helped generations of seminarians come to know
wanted me to do it,” Calhoun remembers. “I had never heard of Grand Cayman Island.
I thought he was talking about the Grand Canyon. But Dr. Rayburn knew what he wanted, and he could be a very persuasive fellow; so I went.” and that began a long
and fruitful ministry in the islands that also included stints with various mission agencies and several years as principal for Jamaica Bible College and Community Institute. along the
and appreciate the many people and events
of church history. He sees the study of history as important for many reasons. “Without an understanding of the past we have no sense of who we are or where we came from,” he notes. “Studying history helps us to be aware of and imitate the good things that have happened in the past and avoid the bad things. Church history in particular helps us to see ourselves as part of the larger church, part of all God’s people
down through the ages. Church history is really our family history—and as in any family, there are some skeletons in the closet as well as some very encouraging moments. all of these have something important to tell us about ourselves as Christians.”
Calhoun’s influence in sparking a love of history in his students is evident in many of the objects that surround him in his office—each of which represents a treasured memory from
a life lived in the service of the Lord. among these are several of the imaginative “timelines” created by students as final projects in his church history classes over the years: a finely drawn sketch of Westminster abbey in which each intricately penciled brick represents an important person or event; a model sailing ship with similar information adorning its sails; a stuffed pink pig holding a silky scroll ribbon also listing many dates. additionally, audio files from Calhoun’s church history classes
are consistently among the most downloaded resources on the Seminary’s Worldwide Class- room website.
now that he’s retired, Calhoun says that he does miss teaching regularly about the many interesting characters in our Christian family tree. But he still keeps his hand in it by re- searching and writing about church history. Be- sides several published books—a well-respected two-volume history of Princeton Seminary,
a deeply personal study of the life and works
of John Bunyan, several histories of impor-
tant american Presbyterian churches, and a one-volume history of Columbia theological Seminary (due out this spring)—he is currently
working on a biography of influential teacher, pastor, and Southern church leader William Childs Robinson, and an ongoing series of articles on various historical figures for Knowing and Doing, a magazine published by the C. S. Lewis Institute.
In addition, Calhoun scratches his teach- ing itch with occasional courses at the Semi- nary. His classes on Calvin’s Institutes and the Westminster Confession of Faith are perennial favorites among the students and are always well attended. But, surprisingly, he says he gets the greatest response for a couple of classes that are not technically related to his main field at all: Sickness and Suffering, and Christianity and Imagination.
“Sickness and Suffering grew out of my experience in dealing with cancer,” he notes. “It’s an attempt to explore and deal with the issues of pain, grief, and consolation. It’s hard to teach in some ways, but it also seems to be a blessing for many people. It’s very cathartic.”
Christianity and Imagination developed out of Calhoun’s great love of reading. “I love all kinds of books—fiction, poetry, anything. I’m usually reading several books at the same time. In this class, we look at the works of people like erasmus, Dante, George Herbert, John Bunyan, Rembrandt, Kierkegaard, Flan- nery o’Connor, and Wendell Berry, and how their Christian faith is expressed through their art.” to complete the study, Calhoun says stu- dents have the opportunity to create original works of Christian imagination such as short stories, essays, imaginative sermons, lectures, poetry, or art.
Calhoun is currently planning a course that will examine the history and influence of the african-american church. this evolved from his own long association with Galilee Baptist Church, a local black congregation
in which he has served as a guest preacher for many years and where he now has a staff role. “I’m enjoying my closer connection to the folks at Galilee,” he says, “and I’m learning to preach better too!”
all of this may seem like quite a load for someone who claims to be “retired.” But Cal- houn is enjoying his life—and plans to do so
as long as the Lord will let him. He’s happy to have an office right in the center of the Semi- nary campus where he can still interact with students and colleagues on a regular basis. and he’s eager to see what the Lord will do with and through the new generation of church leaders he is raising up.
Reflecting on his own long and winding road through seminary and beyond, Calhoun advises students who are just starting out to not let the uncertainties or hardships they face get in their way. “Just come here and learn,” he encourages. “Don’t worry too much about what you’ll be. test out the various options while you’re here, but don’t forget to relax and have fun. Study hard, yes, but also trust God; enjoy yourself, enjoy the world God made—and know that God is in control.”