ATHENS, Tenn. – In January, Durwood Dunn was too sick to meet an interviewer in person, nor was he able to talk or eat.
However, he responded quickly and thoughtfully to emailed questions about his fourth and final book, “The Civil War in Southern Appalachian Methodism,” published in late 2013.
“Bishop Asbury warned Methodists to separate their faith from politics,” Dunn said in an email, “but few Methodists on either side heeded this warning.”
In the early morning hours of Feb. 15, 2014, the Tennessee Wesleyan College history professor died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 70 years old.
Colleagues say he was ready to pass on, although his illness had been diagnosed less than a year ago in April 2013.
“A.L.S. is a terrible disease – he said ‘the sooner the better,’” said the Rev. William McDonald, chair of religion and philosophy at the United Methodist-related college where Dunn taught for 39 years. “But Durwood was also ready because he had a firm, abiding faith. He was Methodist down to his boots.”
Dunn said something similar in his January emails, when asked about his faith:
“I am a devout Christian and have always believed Methodism’s particular grace lies in the lives of its members – fine people I have known throughout my life.”
Dunn did not have immediate family but was close to his niece’s family in Florida. He was the son of Charles Dunn, the first ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
His ancestors were early settlers in an isolated Tennessee valley that inspired Dunn’s first book, “Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community, 1818-1937.”
Published in 1988, the book is now in its 12th printing and is the best-selling book in University of Tennessee Press history, according to Scot Danforth, director.
“The Cades Cove book is really considered to be a foundational work for Appalachian studies,” Danforth said.
Danforth worked with Dunn on his next three books, but it was the fourth and last book the author anticipated most – after researching since the 1990s and completing it before his diagnosis.
“The hardest book to write was the last one,” the award-winning author responded in January. “I had to search high and low for local records, quarterly meeting minutes, or journals to see what was happening in Holston Methodism at the grassroots level.”
McDonald describes the Civil War book as a “painful part of our history.”
“He really zooms in on the people and events and how it played out in Holston when the Methodist church split over slavery,” said McDonald. “I once said the subtitle could be ‘Sinners and Saints.’”
While local pastors in the pre-Civil War 1800s tended to be abolitionists, the more educated, professionalized clergy identified with the Confederate cause and supported slavery, the book shows.
“The church was making concessions to the gentry and wealthy, and it becomes a rather tawdry tale,” McDonald said.
According to Danforth, Dunn’s extensive research will be controversial for some. “People in general want to identify with the more progressive side,” he said. “But Emory & Henry will be sort of shocked to find that they have Confederates in the attic.”
Emory & Henry College’s president from 1852 to 1879, Ephraim Emerson Wiley, was a “strident Confederate” who taught southern nationalism and approval of slavery to Holston’s students and future leaders, Danforth said. (Emory & Henry is a United Methodist-related college in Emory, Va.)
Dunn dedicated the book to the “memory of the antislavery local preachers of Holston Conference who remained fiercely loyal to the Union.”
Friends and colleagues remember Dunn as a private, scholarly man who cared deeply about his church and students.
“He never missed a Sunday, until last summer when he got sick and could no longer sit,” said the Rev. Steve Brown, pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Athens, where Dunn was a member since 1984.
A self-described “fifth-generation Methodist,” Dunn served three years as a lay delegate to the Holston Annual Conference and 12 years on the Holston Conference Commission on Archives and History.
He grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where his father served as superintendent of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. When Dunn was 17, his father retired and the family moved to Townsend, Tenn. The teenager transferred his membership to Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church.
Dunn’s parents are buried at the Tuckaleechee cemetery, according to his long-time friend and retired Tennessee Wesleyan professor, the Rev. Sam Roberts. Every December for the past 15 years, Roberts and another friend, Susan Buttram, accompanied Dunn to place a wreath on his parents’ grave.
“On our last trip in December, we vowed that we would continue to do that,” said Roberts, who was with Dunn in his last hours.
Dunn completed his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He taught at another United Methodist-related college in Holston – Hiwassee -- for five years before beginning at Tennessee Wesleyan in 1975.
The history teacher was committed to Tennessee Wesleyan and believed it had a mission to provide a liberal-arts education to students from the region, especially first-generation college students, his friends said.
Dunn’s last wish was to “live long enough to see my book published,” Brown remembers.
In November, after a few tense weeks when Dunn’s illness was progressing and the publishing process “wasn’t happening as quickly as I wanted it to,” Danforth was finally able to deliver advance copies to Dunn's home in Athens.
It was a very happy day for the author and history teacher, Roberts remembers.
“Everyone takes different lessons away from history,” Dunn wrote in January through email. “Abraham Lincoln said both Union and Confederates believed God was on their side during the war.
“History is an ongoing process to discover the whole truth, and I hope future historians will go beyond what I have uncovered to find even more answers.”
A memorial service for Dr. Dunn will be held at 11 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 20, at Trinity United Methodist Church in Athens, Tenn.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.