SSHAC live blog: J. Gresham Machen, E.Y. Mullins, and the American Religion – Darryl Hart

Communications Staff — February 19, 2009

Speaker: Darryl Hart

Title: Author and historian

Americans worry about labels and identity. They fear the labels ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘liberal’ because both are seen as extreme positions. During the era of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy in the 1920s, many tried to position themselves in the middle of these two theological extremes. Machen and Mullins both fell into this pattern, attempting to chart a middle course between the feared extremes.

To force the categories, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ on all figures in this era, is an oversimplification. There were more categories than that.

Mullins became an important figure in the SBC during the era of the Scopes Trial. Mullins pursued a course unacceptable to both evolutionists and fundamentalists. He wanted scientific inquiry as long as it did not challenge traditional morality. Mullins prompted SBC leaders to support less restrictive legislation than they intended to support originally.

After 1924, conservatives in the SBC opposed Mullins. In contrast with Mullins’ position, conservatives passed a statement at the 1926 SBC annual meeting rejecting evolution. Mullins was vulnerable to attacks from conservatives because he appeared to waffle on the subject of evolution.

Machen faced similar circumstances among Northern Presbyterians. He declined to oppose evolution and opposed theological modernists without taking political stands in American culture.

In 1925 a denominational committee concluded that Machen was to blame for the denominational controversy among Northern Presbyterians. The denomination turned against Machen increasingly, resulting in him leaving Princeton Seminary in 1929 and starting the new Westminster Theological Seminary.

Both Mullins and Machen attempted to forge a middle course in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy and failed because of political realities.

Mullins and Machen had similar outlooks. Both believed Unitarianism was the logically consistent outworking of Protestant liberalism. Both thought modernistic thought gutted the church of theological particulars.

The two men, however, went in different directions despite these similar starting points. Mullins argued that religion, rightly understood, did not contrast with natural processes and social reforms. Instead Christ brings together every part of life, he said, adding that liberalism does not explain how a brute man can achieve moral or social good. Mullins argued that humans need the redemption offered in Christ to be saved from sin.

Machen believed churches didn’t understand what was at stake in the battle with modern thought. Believers accommodated modern thought and compromised orthodox theology, he said. He battled modernism by explaining and defending Christian doctrine. According to Machen, the way forward was for Christians to confront error and worship God in strong churches.


Scholars confine Machen’s influence largely to conservative Presbyterian circles and Mullins’ influence largely to SBC circles. In the SBC, moderates and conservatives regard Mullins differently. He is a heroic figure for moderates and a villain for conservatives. But none of these conceptions are accurate.

The two men had some negative assessments of each other. Machen thought Mullins was soft on doctrine. Mullins thought Machen’s appeal to doctrine to authoritarian and rationalistic. Mullins looked down on Machen’s high regard for creeds.

Despite their differences, Mullins and Machen both believed that creeds and liberty went together. Both men affirmed both affirmed that liberty and religious authority could coexist. They thought churches should write doctrinal creeds but that Americans should be free to join any church they wanted.

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