To the Garden Alone:
The Life and Legacy of Edgar Young Mullins
By Wes Kenney, currently a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
So begins Charles Austin Miles’s gospel song entitled In the Garden. Written in 1912, its lyrical depiction of a personal and intimate religious experience with the risen Christ illustrates well the theology, and indeed the legacy to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), of Edgar Young Mullins, fourth president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In this two part blog article, I will summarize the life of Mullins, provide a brief analysis of his understanding of the role of experience in the life of the Christian, and discuss how his work based on that understanding influenced the theological consensus that dominated the SBC for much of the twentieth century.
Before a discussion of Mullins’s impact on Southern Baptist life, we will survey the beginnings of the career of this leader, a career that had great impact on Baptist life and thought and continues to have influence today.
The fourth of eleven children, and the first son, borne by Sarah Cornelia Barnes Tillman Mullins to her husband Seth Granberry Mullins, Edgar Young Mullins was born on 5 January 1860 in Franklin County, Mississippi. Seth Mullins was a Baptist preacher like his father before him, and an 1857 graduate of Mississippi College.
Though the Civil War did not directly affect the Seth Mullins household, they did suffer great economic turmoil, as did the Baptist churches of Mississippi. War was also accompanied by a general breakdown of law and order across the South. Reconstruction did not improve life for Mississippians like the Mullins family, and late in 1869, they began the journey west to Texas. They eventually settled in Corsicana, where Seth aided in the reorganization of a Baptist church, and established a school. It was in this school that the young Edgar would receive his first formal instruction. Though he grew up in the home of a Baptist preacher, he was not coerced by his parents to accept their beliefs, and would not profess faith in Christ until adulthood.
Edgar was put to work to earn money to help defray the cost of education for his older sisters. He did several jobs for a local newspaper, before teaching himself Morse code and telegraphy. When he was fifteen, he was running the local telegraph office, receiving the same pay an adult would receive for his work. After his sisters finished their studies, Edgar entered the first class of what would become Texas A&M University, graduating in 1879.
He returned to telegraphy, planning to pursue a career in law. Those plans were interrupted a few months after graduation when he attended a revival meeting at the First Baptist Church of Dallas. W. E. Penn, a lay-evangelist, was leading the service at which Mullins “yielded [his] will to Christ” and experienced what he described as an old fashioned conversion. He was baptized by his father in the church at Corsicana on 7 November 1880.
His conversion was followed very nearly by a clear sense of God’s call to Christian ministry, and at his father’s encouragement, he entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a student in the fall of 1881. As his wife so elegantly put it in the biography she published soon after his death, “There was for him no conception of school work except that it should be of the highest grade obtainable.”
Mullins was a standout at Southern, and was determined to go to Brazil as a missionary upon the completion of his studies there. He was selected by his fellow students to manage the dormitory, a post he held for his final two years of study. At the beginning of his final year, he met Isla May Hawley at a Louisville church. At the conclusion of his studies, Mullins was awarded the Full Graduate degree, the highest then bestowed by the school, and was chosen by his classmates as one of five student speakers at graduation.
Mullins sought an appointment from the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC as a missionary to Brazil, but funding constraints prevented his appointment. His doctor later advised him that a tropical climate would negatively impact his health, and though he would later serve in an administrative post at the board, he never served as a missionary.
Having supplied the pulpit at the First Baptist Church at Harrodsburg, Kentucky before graduation from Southern, he accepted the call as their pastor in May of 1885. Shortly thereafter, he and Isla May were married, and they remained in Harrodsburg until the fall of 1888, when Mullins accepted a call to the pastorate of the Lee Street Baptist Church in Baltimore. Within the first few weeks in their new home, their first son, Edgar Wheeler, was born. Three years later a second son, Roy Granberry, was born, though he died within his first month of life due to a prescription error. Tragedy would visit the Mullins home again five years later when Edgar Wheeler would succumb to illness.
Mullins experience in Baltimore was formative. He took graduate courses in logic and ethics at Johns Hopkins University, and his wife became a member of the Woman’s Missionary Union executive committee. The urban setting was a stark contrast to rural Harrodsburg, and his writings and activities during that time reveal an emerging social consciousness. Ellis goes so far as to describe the development in Mullins of “a Social Gospel that was quite liberal for his time, particularly for a Southern Baptist.” In spite of this, Ellis notes that Mullins held fast to Christian orthodoxy, specifically the virgin birth and divinity of Christ.
In July of 1895, Mullins left Baltimore for an administrative position at the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, Virginia. He insisted on being designated an associate – rather than an assistant – secretary at the board, in order to exercise more freedom in the job. This freedom, however, eventually led to conflict between Mullins and R. H. Willingham, the board’s corresponding secretary; and Mullins would hold this post for less than a year. He accepted the call to another pastorate, and it was during his last trip for the board before his tenure there ended that his eldest son died after a brief illness.
In March of 1896, Mullins and his wife moved to assume the new pastorate of the Baptist church in the Boston suburb of Newton Centre, Massachusetts. This position accomplished several things in Mullins life that would prove critical to his future and his legacy. The position exposed him to the more liberal theology being explored by northern academics, specifically at Newton Theological Institution, which was the oldest Baptist seminary in the nation at the time, and which was immediately adjacent to his new charge. Many members of the faculty at Newton, including its president, were members of Mullins’s church.
It also removed him from the SBC, where controversy was brewing between the president of Southern Seminary and Landmark Southern Baptists over Baptist origins. This controversy would eventually result in the vacancy of the presidency of Southern Seminary, which Mullins himself would fill, and though he had written in support of the position espoused by W. H. Whitsitt, Southern’s embattled president, as a northern pastor, he was viewed by both sides as insulated from the controversy.
After four years at the Newton Centre church, and after the “Whitsitt Controversy” had come to a head with Whitsitt’s forced resignation of the presidency of Southern Seminary, on 29 June 1899 Mullins was unanimously elected as the fourth president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mullins took some time to consider whether to accept the new responsibility, but after a trustee made a trip to Newton Centre to make a personal plea, and after a trip to Louisville to consult with the faculty, Mullins accepted the job and moved to Louisville to assume the presidency of his alma mater beginning with the 1899-1900 session.