The Enigmatic Edgar: Why E.Y. Mullins Is Essential To Understanding Southern Baptists

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:

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.