My office has photos of two important Southern Baptists – John A. Broadus and E.Y. Mullins. Broadus was one of the founders of Southern Seminary. He played an instrumental role in the beginning of LifeWay (the Baptist Sunday School Board), and he wrote a book on preaching that is still in circulation today.

Mullins’ accomplishments are even greater. He was president of Southern Seminary from 1899-1928. He helped establish the Baptist World Alliance and served as president from 1923-28. He was the framer of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of the influential systematic theology textbook, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression. 

If you want to understand the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and the theological discussions among Southern Baptists in the past hundred years, you need to get acquainted with E.Y. Mullins. In my estimation, the Southern Baptist Convention has been more strongly influenced by Mullins than by any other theologian.

Yet despite Mullins’ influence, he remains an enigma. People from all sides of theological controversy claim him as their own.

Why is Mullins enigmatic? Perhaps it’s because, so often, he tried to mediate the crosswinds of cultural and theological change by charting a middle course. Sometimes, he succeeded. Other times, he didn’t.

Here are interesting things about Mullins:

  • He became president of Southern Seminary after the previous president was ousted for his views on Baptist successionism, views that Mullins actually agreed with!
  • He was a confessionalist who opposed creeds. He was the framer of the Baptist Faith and Message 1925, and he contributed to The Fundamentals. Yet he made caveats with his confessionalism in order to avoid creedalism.
  • He considered himself a “little f” fundamentalist instead of a capital F fundamentalist, which meant his attitude was always toward peacemaking and usually not inclined to confrontation.
  • He was Calvinistic, but only moderately. He took a middle-of-the-road approach that retained doctrines like unconditional election, but discarded limited atonement and refined total depravity.
  • He grounded theological knowledge in personal experience and championed the concept of “soul competency.” But he also emphasized the importance of Scriptural revelation, and his last book, Christianity in the Crossroads, decried the doctrinal drift of his era.
  • Though he was a stalwart defender of the supernatural and miracles, Mullins left the door open for evolution by separating “religion” and “science” to different spheres. His position was so unclear that during the Scopes trial, Mullins was invited to counsel both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

Mullins and the Conservative Resurgence

During the Southern Baptist battle in the last twenty years of the 20th century, both sides claimed Mullins as an ally. The more I’ve studied his work, the more I’m convinced that both sides had legitimate reasons for claiming his mantle. The conservatives could champion his generally conservative theological views and confessional leanings. The moderates could camp out on his confessional caveats and distaste for “capital F” fundamentalism.

Moderates claimed Mullins’ axioms of religion, particularly his emphasis on soul competency as a key component of Baptist identity. One’s individual experience with God trumped creeds and confessions, and Baptists were to be free to experience God as they saw fit. Conservatives retained Mullins’ emphasis on experience too. Consider that one of the biggest selling Baptist works of spirituality in the late 20th century was Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby.

Perhaps this is an overstatement, but there is at least some truth to the idea that the entire Conservative Resurgence can be seen as a battle between Mullins’ grandchildren. The Conservative Resurgence was just the triumph of Mullins’ doctrinal confessionalism over Mullins’ doctrine of experience.

Others on the Mixed Legacy of E.Y. Mullins

Literary critic Harold Bloom:

Edgar Young Mullins I would nominate as the Calvin or Luther or Wesley of the Southern Baptists, but only in the belated American sense, because Mullins was not the founder of the Southern Baptists but their re-founder, the definer of their creedless faith. An endlessly subtle and original religious thinker, Mullins is the most neglected of major American theologians.

Fisher Humphreys:

Mullins was wise to insist that Christianity is about persons – about a personal God in interpersonal relationships with human persons. Mullins saw that science and philosophy threatened the personal categories, but he did not seem to notice the greater threat of the psychology of the unconscious to persons.

William E. Ellis:

Mullins personified the dilemma of moderate Southern Baptists and, more generally, moderate evangelicals in America. His theological position remained consistently stable between that of modernism, which eventually disavowed supernaturalism, and fundamentalism, which relied almost entirely on its nineteenth-century antecedents. His devotion to evangelicalism never wavered, but he desired something more than old-fashioned camp meeting religious fervor for his denomination.

Albert Mohler:

The central thrust of E. Y. Mullins’ theological legacy is his focus on individual experience. Whatever his intention, this massive methodological shift in theology set the stage for doctrinal ambiguity and theological minimalism. The compromise Mullins sought to forge in the 1920s was significantly altered by later generations, with personal experience inevitably gaining ground at the expense of revealed truth.

Russell Moore and Gregory Thornbury:

If appropriators of Mullins see themselves in the mirror as they study his work, it is due to the fact that Mullins’s thought itself was largely a mirror of his times and culture. The parties within the SBC that contend with each other over Mullins, disagree not so much over particular doctrines or positions Mullins held as they do over agreement as to the center of his thought.

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6 thoughts on “The Enigmatic Edgar: Why E.Y. Mullins Is Essential To Understanding Southern Baptists”

  1. Ed Roberts says:

    I might be mistaken, but I believe that at least two essential features of EY Mullins’ theology need to be highlighted in order to assess accurately Mullins as a venerable SBC historical figure:

    Mullins’ doctrine of scripture and his doctrine of the atonement.

    His doctrine of Scripture seems rather unorthodox in that he seems to have denied any propositional truth content in the Scriptures, viewing them instead ONLY as a record of the personal experiences of the Biblical writers. Didn’t he deny plenary inspiration of the Bible?

    Also, he went quite a bit further than simply discarding the limited nature of the atonement didn’t he?; Mullins explained the atonement in confusing ways that seemed designed to undermine propitiation, and penal substitution, didn’t he? Exactly what his theory of the atonement was is difficult to determine, but it is not difficult to determine that his was not the orthodox protestant view (whether limited or definite).

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    Ed,

    In all my reading of Mullins, I don’t believe either his doctrine of Scripture or doctrine of the atonement was unorthodox. Regarding Scripture, at times Mullins writes of the Bible as “the record” of God’s revelation. Other times, he mentions God speaking through the inspired writers. His dynamic view of inspiration keeps him from a strong affirmation of the plenary view, but he does not deny this is the case. He still saw the Bible as “truth without any mixture of error.”

    On the atonement, he unequivocally affirms substitution, even as he shows how Jesus’ appeasement of the wrath of God is different than that of pagan sacrifice.

    The difficult thing about Mullins is that his emphasis on experience colored everything he wrote, which means there are often areas in which his language is orthodox, but the meaning is disputed.

  3. Ed Roberts says:

    Greetings brother,
    Thanks for your response.
    I’m sure that you know Mullins writing better than I do, but I would wonder whether his language was always orthodox, particularly in his description of the atonement in Christian Religion pp. 320-325. He seems insistent on denying or at least redefining aspects of the atonement that were not fashionable among “moderns,” without ever stating a clear doctrine of the atonement. Perhaps it was his experientialist epistemology that made him comfortable with less than crystal clear statements of doctrine; so long as his writer got a “feel” for whatever he was trying to say, that might have been sufficient. Unfortunately, that also makes it very easy for readers to draw different conclusions as you say. Without questioning his integrity, one might be forgiven for wondering if that may, perchance, have been his intention.

    Enigmatic?, yes, extremely!

  4. Stephen Sprague says:

    Eeeek! I read this post just moments after reading Harold Bloom’s “The American Religion” where you got his quote from. I understand that your purpose was to show just how “mixed” Mullins’ legacy really was, but I think in doing so you took Bloom’s quote grossly out of context. Bloom, before and after stating that argued that Mullins was arguably closer to a 2nd century gnostic than an orthodox Christian and that his influence on the SBC had more to do with gnostic thought and practice than anything Christian. For Bloom, this is a good thing which deserves full praise as he rejoices in the rise of gnosticism in U.S. and is clearly opposed to orthodox Christianity. Within that context, the quote from Bloom that you posted takes on a whole new meaning, and I’m not sure if it’s the meaning that you were wanting to convey with your article.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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