To the Garden Alone:
The Life and Legacy of Edgar Young Mullins
By Wes Kenney, currently a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Read Part One here.
The impact of Mullins on Southern Baptist life and theology scarcely can be overstated, and most of this legacy was a result of his tenure as president of Southern, which lasted until his death in 1928. As the head of what was, at the time of his election, the only Southern Baptist Seminary, he was immediately influential in the convention, serving on key committees and enjoying free access to the various organs of the denominational press. Additionally, he served as the elected president of the SBC from 1921 to 1924, and as president of the Baptist World Alliance in 1928, ensuring his place as a Baptist statesman virtually without peer, before or since.
The key to theological understanding for Edgar Young Mullins was the role of experience in the life of the Christian. This was the point from which he began the theological task, and this understanding will be shown, in the remainder of this article, to be the defining factor in shaping his approach to the controversies from which his legacy to Southern Baptists would be drawn. The biographical and theological will be blended henceforth, for only taken together can they demonstrate the influence that he would hold even in the present day.
The desire to find middle ground, a mediating position, in virtually every controversy in which he was involved was a hallmark of Mullins’s career. This desire grew out of his fascination with and appropriation of the methodology of philosophers such as the pragmatism of William James, the personalism of William Parker Browne, and especially of the theological approach of Friedrich Schleiermacher, for whom theology was not “the systematic expression of revealed truth, but reflection upon religious experience.”
The resignation just before Mullins assumed the presidency of Southern of the lone member of the faculty unsupportive of his election, F. H. Kerfoot, meant that rather than teaching church history as he had planned, Mullins would teach theology. This would prove significant, as Mullins view of the importance of individual experience would lead him to distance himself from the classical Calvinism of James Petigru Boyce and the other founders of the school, in favor of a via media (middle path) between Calvinism and Arminianism. As Mullins himself would write, with phrasing that could be quite helpful in current controversies within the SBC, “We are learning to discard both names and to adhere more closely than either to the Scriptures, while retaining the truth in both systems.”
His position as professor of theology meant that this move away from the Calvinism of Boyce, et al., would be influential as his students moved out into the churches of the convention. But his position as a denominational leader would give these ideas even greater currency. In 1925, Mullins chaired a committee charged with developing a statement on the “Baptist faith and message.” He led that committee to adapt and adopt not the more widely known Philadelphia Confession of 1742, but rather the New Hampshire Confession of 1833. This confession was less overtly Calvinistic that the Philadelphia statement, a better fit with Mullins’s moderating tone on the issue.
Many of the controversies extant in the SBC today can rightly be called a reaction against the move away from Calvinistic theology, a move begun by Mullins and his desire for moderation, and sustained by his stature and leadership within the convention.
Mullins’s predilection toward a via media would once again appear in his engagement with the controversy between fundamentalists and modernists. His conservative convictions would drive him toward the Fundamentalist position, while his elevation of the Christian experience would forever leave his position open to imposition by modernist scholarship.
For Mullins himself, this infatuation with modern scholarship did not lead to a break with orthodox Christian confession, but the method by which he arrived at his ultimate theological conclusions would provide the groundwork from which future generations would depart significantly from his conclusions. In fact, the method by which he sought to accomplish the work of theology was, according to Mohler, fully shared with modernist theologians, a fact that accurately predicted how his legacy would serve as a point of departure. This departure will be demonstrated in the closing paragraphs of this work.
The controversy that developed in the early twentieth century between advocates of Darwinian evolution and biblical creation would occupy a significant portion of the president’s time, and the compromises he advocated would contribute in significant measure to his legacy to Southern Baptists. He resisted the pressure brought by fundamentalists to include a specific denunciation of Darwinian evolution in the Baptist Faith and Message.
When fundamentalists in Kentucky sought to implement legislation against the teaching of evolution, Mullins worked against them, privately at first, arguing in a letter to state Baptist leaders that such activism violated Baptist convictions regarding the separation of church and state. He would later enter the controversy publicly, appearing before a state senate committee in opposition to a bill they were considering. While he never specifically embraced it himself, he appeared to allow for the accommodating position of “theistic evolution,” another via media in a career characterized by them, and another moderation that would contribute significantly to his legacy.
Mullins argued in The Axioms of Religion that “the biblical significance of the Baptists is the right of private interpretation and obedience to the Scriptures.” This view more than any other captures the essence of Mullins’s theological legacy, and while he himself followed this individualistic modern theological method to conclusions that were unquestionably conservative and orthodox, succeeding generations would reach different conclusions, to the overall detriment of theology and practice among Baptists.
In the preface to the helpfully titled A Theology for the Church, editor Daniel L. Akin argues that the church “should be able to define and defend that body of truth committed to its care by God.” This recognition that theology is given not to the individual but to the church is a crucial step in stemming the tide of individualism that is Mullins’s main legacy today.
While Mullins consistently argued that experience must remain subordinate to Scripture, moderate Baptists following in his footsteps are arguing exactly the opposite. Just last week a moderate Baptist group held a Conference on Sexuality and Covenant, during which one of the speakers argued that Christians must “do theology from the body,” listening to “lived experiences.” The presentation encouraged skepticism toward the Pauline writings in the New Testament, for they “devalue women’s bodies or maintain strict gender hierarchies.” Only by trusting our bodies and formulating “an embodied theology” can we overcome these constraints. This is but one example of the extent to which individualistic theology can become untethered from biblical revelation, with startling consequences.
When Edgar Young Mullins came “to the garden alone,” the voice of Jesus, to whom Mullins spent his life in service, spoke sweetly, clearly, and recognizably, leading him to an exemplary life of service to his church, seminary, and denomination, and to a confession of unshakable orthodoxy. Sadly, his championing of this individual Christian experience, this right of private interpretation, has led to many others after him hearing different voices, claiming to have heard from God, and heading off into neo-orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and outright heresy. Experience is necessary, but it must always be subjected to the test of Scripture and to the accountability of the local church, which is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14–15, NKJV).