To the Garden Alone:
The Life and Legacy of Edgar Young Mullins
Part Two

May 5, 2012

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,[1] 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.”[2]

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.[3] 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,[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8] 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.”[9] 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.[10] 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).


[1] The Testimony of Christian Experience. vol. 4, in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, ed. R. A. Torrey, 314-323 (Los Angeles: The Bible Institute of Los Angeles, 1917), 314.

[2] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Baptist Theology at the Crossroads: The Legacy of E. Y. Mullins,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3, no. 4 (1999): 8.

[3] William E. Ellis, A Man of Books and a Man of the People (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), 38.

[4] Mohler, 8.

[5] Edgar Young Mullins, The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression (Philadelphia, PA: Roger Williams Press, 1917), vii.

[6] Mohler, 9.

[7] Ellis, 155-56.

[8] Edgar Young Mullins, The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith, ed. C. Douglas Weaver (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), 66.

[9] Daniel L. Akin, A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2007), vii.

[10] Associated Baptist Press, News, April 20, 2012; Camp, Ken. Christians need to formulate embodied theology, speaker asserts [Online news]; available at http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/7327/53/; accessed 20 April 2012.

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Robin Foster

Wes,

Excellent work. You hit the essence of Mullins failure to future generations: The elevation of the individual experience and preference over the church. While this alleviated his immediate concerns, it ultimately led to the heightened liberalism of the SBC. Praise God for men like Adrian Rogers, Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler, and Jerry Vines who sought to elevate the church back to her position of directly under the Lordship of Christ. Again excellent article.

Frank Gantz

Wes, I really appreciate these articles on Mullins. Mullins has been one of the most influential Southern Baptists in our history. My only critique would as to why one would advocate for Mullin’s via media for current SBC theological issues when the research presented demonstrates the path leads to a weakened theological position.

Still these articles hopefully will serve as an impetus to more thoughtful dialogue amongst the Baptist brethren.

    Joshua

    Frank,

    That is a good point regarding the recent usage of Mullins as a Baptist Identity advocate. What Mullins’ via media wrought is hardly what the Baptist Identity crowd would desire.

      Wes Kenney

      Joshua,

      I’ve been a bit out of the loop lately, so I need some help. What was Frank’s point regarding Baptist identity, because I guess I missed it. Also, who is arguing for Mullins as an advocate of Baptist identity? I’ve missed these arguments as well. I consider myself to be an advocate of Baptist identity, and the only application I made of Mullins-style moderation is in the controversies regarding Calvinism. While there are real concerns, I think much of the anti-Calvinist rhetoric is overhyped, and some of it is dangerous. Help me understand the points you were making.

        Joshua

        Wes,

        If I am understanding Frank correctly, I am picking up off of his critique of Mullins’ “via media.”

        It is the cry of “via media” that is at the center of Lemke, Yarnell, et al. in the “not Calvinist, not Arminian, but Baptist” agenda. This “via media” is not only wrapped in rank category error but also fails to account for the legitimacy of Southern Baptist Calvinism as genuinely Southern Baptist.

Wes Kenney

Robin, thanks for your kind words. Frank, I’d like to approach Mullins the way he approached the “Calvinism-Arminianism” by appropriating what is helpful and discarding the rest. I think it was his elevation of experience, and not his penchant for mediation, that led to people today taking that approach with the scriptures themselves.

    BDW

    But Mullins’ position with regard to individual experience was a middle one. He staked out a middle ground between creedal traditions and the experience-only liberalism of Schleiermacher.

    As you note, he took the same approach with regard to Calvinism-Arminianism and Darwinian Evolution-Creationism.

      Wes Kenney

      Yeah, it was, but it was also the introduction of an epistemology that Baptists hadn’t embraced before. He didn’t like Schleiermacher’s detachment from scripture, but his introduction of Schleiermacher’s method opened the door for later Baptists to become just as detached from scripture as Schleiermacher was. Is there a working abbreviation for Schleiermacher? :)

        BDW

        Well, I join many other historians in disagreeing with your premise! :-)

        Mullins’ theological contributions were great but far from entirely unique.

        He certainly wasn’t the first Baptist to focus on individual freedom and conscience. Mullins simply articulated – perhaps in a more sophisticated way – for 20th century Baptists what freedom entailed and its implications for ecclesiology, church-state, etc.

        Mullins did note that “soul competency” – the term he popularized – was the “peculiar teaching” of Baptists. He traced his ideas on freedom, experience, etc. back to Roger Williams.

        I don’t deny that Mullins was influenced by Fred S. But his ideas also – in my opinion – were rooted firmly in the Baptist tradition. Mullins’ “right of private judgment” (which necessarily implies a focus on experience) wasn’t even a new idea among Southern Baptists. William Johnson – the first president of the SBC – referred to private interpretation of Scripture as a Baptist distinctive.

        Just to add re: the influence of Fred S: Fisher Humphries has argued that Mullins’ emphasis on experience was due more to revivalism than Fred S. or William James. Certainly revivalism – with its focus on experience – more greatly influenced Baptists than modernist theologians and philosophers.

      Wes Kenney

      And Mullins was so good at navigating the middle that both sides in the Scopes “monkey trial” were sure they’d have his support.

Richmond Goolsby

Wes,
Great post. You still give credit where credit is due. We all have our weaknesses as imperfect theologians, and the next generation always tends to take the conclusions of their teachers one step further. Glad to see the emphasis you place on the authority issue. I hope others will begin with submission to Scripture rather than Reason and Experience. You rightly diagnose much of the Liberalism of our day as the result of an upside-down structure of authority.

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