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Mullins’ legacy tied to both sides of SBC controversy, Mohler recounts

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–E.Y. Mullins, the fourth president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was a “towering figure in the history of the Baptists,” R. Albert Mohler Jr. said.

Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke to the seminary community March 30 as part of the school’s annual Founders Day.

Mohler analyzed the legacy of Mullins, who was president of the seminary from 1899-1928. Mullins was “on the landscape of Southern Seminary’s history, a massive mountain range,” Mohler said. He described Mullins as the most influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention for the first half of the 20th century, which is all the more remarkable since he died in 1928.

But despite his tremendous contributions, Mullins also left a more nebulous theological legacy, Mohler said. Because of his shift from a belief in biblical revelation to religious experience, both sides in the SBC controversy sought Mullins as a symbol for their arguments.

Mullins’ shift in theology was a revolution from the influence of seminary founder James Petigru Boyce and of Mullins’ other teachers at Southern Seminary, Mohler explained.

“Though this revolution would not lead Mullins to reject their doctrinal system as a whole, it did mean that Mullins and his teachers were starting from radically different theories of knowledge and following very different theological principles,” Mohler said. “This revolution did not make E.Y. Mullins a theological liberal. Indeed, he saw himself as a conservative apologist. But his reliance upon religious experience did mean that his theological system and his defense of the faith would share a common starting point with the modernists.”

Born in 1860 in Mississippi, Mullins grew up in Texas as the son of a bivocational Baptist preacher. He attended what is now Texas A&M University before moving to Louisville in 1881 to attend Southern Seminary. After graduating in 1885, Mullins became the pastor of the Baptist church in Harrodsburg, Ky., before taking over as pastor of Lee Street Baptist Church in Baltimore in 1888.

From Baltimore, Mullins moved to Boston where he became pastor of Newton Centre Baptist Church — a Northern Baptist congregation not affiliated with the SBC. It was during this time that Mullins was influenced by such European theologians as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl, by the pragmatism of William James at Harvard and by the personalism of Borden Parker Bowne at Boston University, Mohler said.

Mullins assumed the presidency of Southern Seminary in 1899, a position he held for 29 years until his death in 1928. During his time in office, Mullins became one of the leading figures in the SBC. He was president of the SBC from 1921-24 and served as president of the Baptist World Alliance from 1923-28.

But while Mullins played such a prominent role in the SBC, his theological positions were often not clearly defined, Mohler said. Thus, both sides in the famous Scopes trial sought him as an ally. And as controversy raged in the SBC in the early 1920s, Mohler said Mullins sought to be a peacemaker.

Mohler agreed with one moderate Baptist historian that Mullins did seek to establish a “grand compromise” to bring the SBC through controversy. “What I want to suggest to you is that this grand compromise did not last and could not last,” Mohler said.

“I do not question Dr. Mullins’ motives, for I think just reading his material as I have and becoming acquainted with his letters, there is no doubt to me of the sincerity of his heart, of the clarity of his vision to serve the cause of Christ through this institution and the Southern Baptist Convention,” Mohler continued. “And yet, there is a warning to us in the intentional shift Dr. Mullins made away from revelation as the sole source of religious authority and of Christian theology and the shift to experience. For as we have discovered, human experience is no solid ground for establishing truth.”

Mohler said Mullins embraced the new philosophical currents of his day with enthusiasm, thus explaining his tendencies toward pragmatism and personalism. And although Mullins’ emphasis on “soul competency” — the belief that each person’s soul is independently competent concerning all matters of religious importance — was important for its denial of external human authorities like the papacy, Mohler said it had a negative impact as well.

“The result was an autonomous individualism that has infected the Southern Baptist Convention, and now widespread has infected evangelicalism to this day,” he said.

Thus, because of Mullins’ influence, the SBC fell into moderate hands for several decades, until the conservative movement in the 1980s and 1990s restored the convention to conservative footing.

Still, Mohler was quick to praise Mullins for the legacy he left behind.

“E.Y. Mullins stands as one of the most important figures in Baptist history — a figure who raises some of the most important questions facing contemporary Baptists,” Mohler said. “He deserves our historical appreciation and our personal respect, our most careful consideration and our analysis. It is true that we stand in this generation upon the shoulders of giants. We must take care that we do not stand without appreciation and, indeed, affection for those who came before us, who gave us so much.

“And yet, as successors to this tradition, and as inheritors of this institution, we must also go back to look with a critical eye to judge, with the expanse of time and with the authority of God’s Word, what should be kept and what should be left behind in the legacy of every historical generation,” Mohler continued. “Mullins established such influence, that as a mountain range his shadow extends to us even now. And yet, as we look to it, we thank God for what he did through his servant E.Y. Mullins.

“We respond to E.Y. Mullins with genuine affection, tremendous appreciation and the careful engagement of Christian scholars following in his own legacy.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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