Profile: Ellen Davis

Published March 2013

Thirty years ago Ellen F. Davis—now an eminent biblical scholar, prolific author, preacher and beloved Old Testament professor—applied for an Episcopal Church Foundation grant. Receiving it changed her life.

“It is, for me, the single most significant source of financial support I’ve ever had in my academic career, in both the source from which it came and the time in which it came,” Davis said of the ECF Fellowship Partners program grant. “It meant I went to graduate school. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. It meant that my own church affirmed my sense of vocation.”

In response, Davis has provided an important voice for the church at-large in both ministry and academics.
Supporting transformational leaders at critical points in their ministry, scholarship and teaching is a primary goal for the Fellowship Partners program. With the ECF grant, Davis earned a PhD from Yale University and has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, Virginia Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School. She is now the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke. In 2010 she was named Duke University Scholar/Teacher of the Year, an award granted each year to “one outstanding faculty member for his or her dedication and contribution to the learning arts and to the institution.”

Much sought after as a speaker and preacher, Davis’s research interests focus on how biblical interpretation influences the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues, particularly the environmental crisis and interfaith relations. She has written numerous articles and essays and has authored eight books, her most recent being Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), which integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production.

She expects her next book, Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Contemporary Ministry, to be published in late 2014.

When Davis applied for a grant from the ECF Fellowship Partners program in 1983, she had recently completed an MDiv from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. She said the value of the fellowship extends far beyond the financial.

“The Episcopal Church Foundation has value for one’s lifetime,” Davis said. “It’s a way to bring one’s commitment to scholarship and one’s commitment to the church together.

“It provides a certain amount of networking,” she says. “The Fellowship Program enables seminaries to identify the next generation of excellent scholars with strong church commitments. It even can be a way of providing some mentoring of doctoral students, particularly for those who would like to work in a seminary setting. It’s an opportunity for students to gain clarity on their vocation and on what the church needs at this time. Too many people come out of doctorate programs not as hirable as you’d like them to be.”

Davis’ own work points to emerging areas of the church’s ministry where intellectual leadership is needed. . Since 2003 she has frequently participated in the Building Bridges Seminar, a group of Muslim and Christian Scripture scholars and theologians convened annually by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury until his retirement in 2012. The group is now under the stewardship of Georgetown University.

Davis has a close relationship with the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS), where she works to develop a “holistic model of theological education,” including community health and sustainable agriculture. ECS, a church of 5 million, is essential in building up education, providing social services, and creating stable communities in South Sudan, after some 50 years of devastating war.

In 2009, Davis was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to convene a Roundtable for the Episcopal Church of Sudan at Lambeth Palace. In February 2013, she helped organize a symposium at Duke entitled, "Food Security for Africa: The Case for South Sudan." The symposium highlighted the development at Duke of a non-GMO maize that is high in protein, resistant to droughts, floods and insects, and requires no chemical inputs. The maize is now being field-tested in cooperation with partners at one theological college in South Sudan.

Of her work in South Sudan, Davis said, “It may be the best thing I do; it is certainly the most interesting.”