Allen Verhey: The Death of a Christian Ethicist


March 3, 2014

In 2004, I moved back to NC from the lovely yet cold city of Chicago. I had recently attained the somewhat coveted status of ABD and decided to relocate back to God’s country. Looking for work, I began teaching at Elon University as well as working as a teaching assistant for a number of courses at Duke. One of the courses I was a TA for was Allen Verhey’s course on Bioethics. It was Verhey’s first semester at Duke and, even though there were only five students in his course, he had me as a TA.

“Why do you think they wanted me to have a TA in a course with only five students?” he asked.

“Probably because of my awesomeness,” I  responded.

“Ha!” Verhey said. “Yeah. Um, no. I think they want me to spend my time writing.”

It was true. Duke wanted him to focus on writing, but because he was such an incredible teacher, they wanted him to also teach. I loved that Duke hired Allen. After all, here was a guy who was quite fond of Niebhur while being terribly un-fond of Yoder and Duke wanted him. We use to argue about those two guys all the time. Occasionally we would break down and actually use scripture against one another–which was kind of a hoot, given how we both thought such exercises were futile. It was fun. And, because of his help, Allen functioned as something of a mentor to me, especially since I was so far away from my own advisor and dissertation committee.

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It wasn’t our talks in theology, however, I’ll remember the most.

Once when I’d stopped by his office, I knocked on his door and he slowly peeped out his head. He urgently said, “Quick! Come in and shut the door!”

As I shut the door behind me, Allen took out a pipe, some sort of flavored tobacco, cracked a window, and like the bad boy of theology he never wanted to be, started puffing away in his office.

“Duke was built on tobacco,” he told me. “I’m just doing my part.”

I sat there reveling in his awesomeness, as if he were somehow the ‘Dallas Winston’ of Duke theology, smoking in the men’s room and all. Or, this instance, in his office.

That’s the memory most engrained in my mind. Sitting in his office, talking about who knows what, while he puffed away on his pipe.

Allen was a kind and gentle soul who knew well the meaning of the word friend.

He will be sorely missed.