SSHAC live blog: E.Y. Mullins, Pragmatism, and Experiential Religion – R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Communications Staff — February 19, 2009

Speaker: R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Title: President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.

Mullins makes sense in his time and context, but interpreting Mullins is difficult.

Born in 1860, he was shaped by the Civil War and Reconstruction. After graduating from Texas A&M, Mullins became a telegraph operator. Soon, however, he experienced a call to ministry and enrolled at Southern Seminary in Louisville in 1881. Southern Seminary stood for orthodox Reformed theology in Mullins’ student days and experienced great growth.

Mullins became a pastor in Harrodsburg, Ky., upon graduation from seminary. In 1888 he was called to the Lee Street Baptist Church in Baltimore and a more cosmopolitan culture. During the Baltimore days, Mullins developed a growing social consciousness. After seven years in Baltimore, he became associate secretary of the Foreign Mission Board. That position lasted only a short time before Mullins went to pastor a church in Boston.

Only four years into Mullins’ ministry in Boston, William Whitsitt resigned as SBTS president amid controversy. Trustees unanimously elected Mullins president of the seminary and he accepted the call.

Mullins quickly became a leader and influential theologian in the Southern Baptist Convention. He established a writing and speaking ministry in the convention and beyond it.

At Southern Seminary, Mullins reformed administrative and academic practices. He understood Southern’s importance both in the SBC and northern circles. Mullins related to northern liberals, such as Shailer Mathews, in addition to serving as SBC president in the 1920s and helping establish the Baptist World Alliance. Mullins died in 1928.

As chairman of the faculty at Southern, Mullins set his own teaching responsibilities. Controversy erupted over his decision to teach theology when he changed the textbook from Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology to his own theology text. The new text charted a course away from Boyce’s evangelical Calvinism and toward evangelical liberalism. William James’ Pragmatism and Borden Parker Bowne’s Personalism also influenced Mullins’ theology. These influences led Mullins to emphasize experience along with revealed truth.

Bowne’s Personalism was particularly important for Mullins’ shift away from Boyce’s Calvinism. Bowne, and in turn Mullins, shifted the source of authority from revelation to experience. Mullins did not compromise orthodoxy as much as he sought a new method for defending evangelical convictions.

Mullins’ system shared a common starting point with the modernists. Both systems accepted a division between scientific and religious knowledge. Mullins thought religion and science were both empirical. This understanding was similar to that of latter twentieth-century naturalist Stephen J. Gould. Machen was correct that Mullins surrendered the high ground for theological defense of the faith.

Allowing science and religion to operate simultaneously, Mullins may have hoped that conflict between the two areas would eventually disappear. He never took a position on evolution but did oppose anti-evolution efforts. He affirmed theistic evolution to the extent he could do so without appearing to oppose the Bible or favor Darwinism.

Mullins thought was highly ambiguous. For example, both sides in the Scopes Trial asked him to help them. He refused both. We should not categorize Mullins as a liberal though. He was shocked by the doctrinal aberrations of his friends such as Shailer Mathews.

Mullins argued revelation produced the facts out of which experience was born. Religious facts were separate from doctrines, for Mullins. This is similar to James’ Pragmatism. James believed we know facts but have to create truth about the facts-truth is a belief that supplies meaning and is intellectually satisfying. Mullins believed religious facts existed but that experience had to explain whether doctrines worked. Mullins was likely more influenced by Pragmatism than he thought.

Mullins was not a pragmatist in Pragmatism’s anti-supernatural sense. However, he was wrong to assert Christ as the fundamental religious fact, separable from doctrines. Pragmatism also detracted from Mullins’ ecclesiology. He didn’t understand the church as a people created by God for Himself. For Mullins, the church is not central in the purposes of God. Such a conception is like James in that James believed meaning was individual and could not be explained in corporate terms.


Mullins is an example of the failure of mediating systems. He saw himself as a moderating figure between opposing forces.

Though not a liberal, Mullins wanted to be seen as open to various forms of thought. Naively he wanted to take the best of various forms of thought and incorporate them into Christian theology. He thought modern persons could remain both Christian and modern.

Such an effort is not possible, but it is attractive. That’s why SBC moderates like Mullins so much. We must learn lessons from his life and thought.

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