Reverent and Irreverent: Chaplain Emeritus Ed Christman receives Medallion of Merit

Chaplain Emeritus Ed Christman (’50, JD ’53), the kindly white-haired man who touched countless lives as friend and counselor to generations of students, received the Medallion of Merit at Founders’ Day Convocation on Feb. 22, 2007. Christman retired in 2003 after serving as chaplain for 34 years.

“Seldom does an institution spawn a graduate who so thoroughly embodies its soul, Pro Humanitate,” said President Nathan O. Hatch, who presented Wake Forest’s highest honor to Christman during the program in Wait Chapel.

Christman arrived on the Old Campus in the late 1940s intent on becoming an attorney, but instead he found a different calling and became one of the University’s legendary figures of the last half century. Reverent and irreverent, prayerful and playful, wise and witty, “Brother Ed” transcended the role of chaplain.

He was, to many, the conscience of the University. To others, he bore a striking resemblance to the Demon Deacon. He played God in a University production of the “Passion Play” and a singing grandfather in the play “Guys and Dolls” in the 1980s. Every year, he led the Christmas Love Feast in Wait Chapel. He was the most visible face of the University’s Baptist heritage, but he also expanded the campus ministry program to include faiths other than Baptists. He was among the first to champion integration of the student body in the early 1960s, and he worked throughout his career to bring people of different faiths and backgrounds together.

“The thing I like most is engaging people in meaningful conversation,” he said in an interview in 2003, shortly before he retired. “I like to ask people questions that don’t have answers. God put us here to think and feel this life. My opportunity is to try to connect the Biblical stories to our modern lives and make that work in a college setting.”

Christman’s influence on students began almost from the time they first set foot on campus. In 1955, he helped start the popular Pre-School Conference, still held before Orientation each year, to introduce freshmen to religious life at Wake Forest.

For years, he delivered a speech during Orientation, “What’s in a name?,” that included the name of seemingly every freshman and took on legendary status. “I never learned all 1,000 names but I did do about 250,” Christman said in that 2003 interview. “My goal was to say that you matter enough for me do this. I thought it made a few of the students feel good and think this white-haired guy who squinted a lot had a good memory.”

In later years, he dressed up as Wake Forest’s founder and first president, Samuel Wait, to educate new students about the University’s history. In 1998, the Wake Forest Ministerial Council established a William Louis Poteat Scholarship for North Carolina Baptist students in honor of Christman and his wife, Jean (’51). In 2004, the estate of Kathleen McGill established a Divinity School scholarship in honor of the Christmans.

Christman was in his last year of law school when he felt called to the ministry. After graduating, he stayed on the Old Campus to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which had already opened on the campus in anticipation of the college’s move to Winston-Salem. When Wake Forest moved to Winston-Salem in 1956, he followed as Baptist campus minister. He returned to Southeastern in 1959 to finish his divinity degree and then earned a Master of Sacred Theology degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He returned to Wake Forest in 1961 as Baptist campus minister and assistant chaplain. He was named chaplain in 1969, succeeding L.H. Hollingsworth.

— Kerry M. King (’85)