Braxton trains new doctors of the soul

Brad Braxton (Religious Studies ’91) always knew God was calling him to be a preacher. But it wasn’t till he came to U.Va. as a Jefferson Scholar that he knew just what kind of preacher he was supposed to be.

By Heather Ferngren Morton (MA, English '00)
For a full academic year, a sign inside the room at 25 West Lawn proclaimed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s incisive observation: “Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

Not that thinking came painfully to Lawn resident Brad Braxton (Religious Studies ’91). To the contrary, by his fourth year the Jefferson and Echols scholar viewed “thinking” as a leisure activity. And he knew he was uniquely gifted to help others think more seriously, too — about matters of life and death.

As a high school student Braxton had felt God’s call to the ministry. The son of a Baptist pastor, he knew what that would mean: a significant investment of time and energy that would earn a comparatively insignificant financial return. But when he won the Jefferson Scholarship, it seemed to be a sign from God that he was meant to be at U.Va. — a school his parents otherwise would have struggled to afford — and a confirmation of his call.

“The Jefferson Scholarship had everything to do with providence and not coincidence,” Braxton said. “It was God’s way of saying, ‘If you’re faithful to the call that’s on your life, I will make a way for you to be where you need to be.’”

A religious studies major, Braxton approached his coursework at U.Va. “as if it were a corporate job,” studying four hours each day — all the while preaching at Charlottesville churches, singing in Black Voices, serving as a University Guide, and recruiting for athletics.

Classmates and professors alike encouraged his call to preach, but one professor directed him to a particular ministry. “The Church needs people like you,” Judith Kovacs, assistant professor of religious studies, told him. “The Church needs scholar-pastors.”

As a fourth-year student, Braxton applied for — and won — the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where he earned a master’s degree in New Testament studies from Trinity College in 1993.

Back in the United States, Braxton once again received the call to ministry — this time, in the form of an advertisement at Emory University, where Braxton had just begun a doctoral program in Biblical studies. To his surprise, Douglas Memorial Church, a well-known, historically black congregation in Baltimore, chose Braxton — only 26 at the time — to be its senior pastor. They also offered to fly him to Baltimore every weekend to preach, and back to Atlanta again every Sunday night to resume his studies — for 13 consecutive months. The decision seemed ordained.

Now, having served as fulltime pastor at Douglas Memorial for five years while simultaneously finishing his dissertation, Braxton is the Jessie Ball duPont Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Biblical Studies at Wake Forest Divinity School. Instead of preaching to masses every Sunday, he is “training students to be more effective doctors of the soul,” he said.

But he still sees his calling as a ministry. “There’s something intoxicating about teaching students to think deeply,” he said. “I always thought that the University could use a little more passion, and the Church could use a little more precision.”