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Reflections on the Legacy of Bill Pannell

Legendary preacher and teacher William E. “Bill” Pannell has left an imprint on the Fuller Seminary community—and, by extension, on global evangelicalism—that’s beyond measure. He has served on Fuller’s faculty 40 years and, in 1971, was the first African American to serve as a Fuller trustee.

At Fuller’s Pasadena campus January 27 through 29, we will honor this great theologian and the work he has inspired through a series of special events—dedicating the newly named William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. We will hear from leading voices from across the African American community as we dialogue, worship, and celebrate together. We hope you will join us—learn more and register here.

In anticipation of our celebration, four of Dr. Pannell’s former students tell us about the impact he’s had on their lives and ministries. Read their reflections below.


It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to study under the leadership of Dr. Pannell. When I first went to Fuller, it was not my intention to graduate. I just wanted to get some knowledge, to take a course here and there. But Dr. Pannell encouraged me to go all the way with it, and I did. I’ve been a pastor now 32 years, and I thank the Lord all the time for guiding me to Fuller Seminary and to Dr. Pannell.

Dr. Pannell taught us about commitment to the cause of Christ. He encouraged us to be faithful. He wanted to make sure that as pastors we knew what it meant to be sound in our doctrine—that when we stood up to preach, we knew what we were talking about. He reminded us frequently that we’re not there to entertain folk. We’re there to preach the gospel.

I always looked forward to his class because I knew I was going to get something I could use, something that was coming from his heart. Often we would go over to the coffee lounge and we would talk, mostly about the ministry. He inspired me to keep climbing. God did a wonderful thing when he made a Bill Pannell.

Rev. Drake has been pastor of Greater Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles since 1982. In an earlier career, “Solly” Drake—as he was popularly known—was an outfielder in Major League Baseball, playing in the 1950s for the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Philadelphia Phillies.

Pannell Tribute - Drake


The first time I met Bill Pannell I had the distinct impression that I was talking to a man from the future. He seemed to be the kind of evangelical that I wanted to be and that we all should be—one who was politically attuned, socially and culturally astute, and theologically very clear. Through my student years at Fuller and since then, my impressions of Dr. Pannell were proven to be exactly right.

But he has been more than the future of evangelical Christianity. He has also been the antidote to America’s one-sided vision of evangelism. Long before the rest of us understood the problems of whiteness in Christianity and what actual reconciliation should look like, Bill was teaching generations of students these deep truths. Bill showed us what it means to be unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian and, equally important, what it means to embody boundary-breaking friendships. Always Christian, always clear, and always committed to a God who reconciled the world and makes us ambassadors of that reconciliation. Ambassador Pannell—that sounds exactly right.

Dr. Jennings is associate professor of theology and Black church studies at Duke Divinity School. An ordained Baptist minister and award-winning author, he recently received the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.

Pannell Tribute - Jennings

JOSHUA SMITH (DMin ’12, MDiv ’02)

I met Bill over 20 years ago, while a teenager, when he came and preached at my home church. I had never heard preaching like his before: funny, earthy, grounded, honest, challenging, and hopeful—all at the same time. From time to time, Bill would come back to our church to preach, and I was consistently challenged and encouraged by what he would share.

Years later, I was considering a major transition in vocational ministry. I was stuck and knew that I needed some advice. One of the first people I thought of when considering who to reach out to was Bill. I remembered Bill's preaching and called him out of the blue, not having talked with him for quite some time. He agreed to meet me for breakfast a few days later.

Not surprisingly, the advice and feedback he gave was funny, earthy, grounded, honest, challenging, and hopeful—all at the same time. It's just who he is. Bill has been a means of God's grace for me, both personally and vocationally, and I'd like to think that as we have continued to meet over the years some of who he is has rubbed off on me.

Dr. Smith has served as founding pastor of Mountainside Communion in Monrovia, California, for the last seven years. Ordained in the Church of the Nazarene, he is also an adjunct faculty member at both Fuller and Azusa Pacific University, teaching courses in congregational mission and Christian vocation.

Pannell Tribute - Smith

PAUL DUMAS JR. (MDiv and MAT ’93)

The following is excerpted from a longer article by Dr. Dumas about Bill Pannell. Read the full article here.

During my tenure at Fuller I had the privilege of working very closely with Dr. Pannell as both his teaching assistant and his research assistant. The experience impacted me profoundly and was instrumental in laying a foundation for my personal development as a homiletician. Of the countless take-aways I gained from my apprenticeship, the most outstanding was Professor Pannell’s leadership model of relating to his students as colleagues. In a collegial atmosphere of genuine Christian love, seminarians were freed up to grow in their ministries as heralds of God. At the heart of this supportive and affirming learning environment can be seen the heart of a mentor: the experience and sensitivities of a veteran of the pulpit, who knows how to encourage and empower preachers to communicate the gospel effectively.

The dedication of the Pannell Center is a time for dreaming. It is a time when we consider not so much the legacy of a remarkable man but rather the impact of a ministry and the character of a minister, who as a preacher and as an evangelist sought to transform his listeners into hearers of the gospel—leaving them, through his preaching, in the very presence of God, that the Lord himself might finish the conversation.

Dr. Dumas, who completed his PhD in Preaching and Practical Theology at New College, Edinburgh, and King’s College, University of Aberdeen, has served as a missionary, pastor, itinerant preacher, counselor, and freelance writer, and has taught preaching and theology at various seminaries.

Pannell Tribute - Dumas

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