Southern Seminary And Progressive Religion 1870-1940 -- By: Gregory A. Wills

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 13:1 (Spring 2009)
Article: Southern Seminary And Progressive Religion 1870-1940
Author: Gregory A. Wills


Southern Seminary And Progressive Religion 1870-19401

Gregory A. Wills

Gregory A. Wills is Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Archives and Special Collections Librarian with the seminary’s Boyce Centennial Library. Dr. Wills received the Ph.D. from Emory University. Besides numerous journal and dictionary articles, he is the author of Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 (Oxford University, 2003). To coincide with the sesquicentennial anniversary of Southern Seminary, Dr. Wills is writing a history, titled Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University, forthcoming).

Beginning around 1900 the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary began promoting a distinctly progressive theology. Its central elements were a new view of the inspiration of the Bible and the belief that religious knowledge derived fundamentally from religious experience. These distinctive elements of Protestant liberalism undergirded the transformation of the theological character of the seminary’s faculty during the twentieth century. Before the 1940s, the professors who led the transformation were Crawford H. Toy, Edgar Y. Mullins, and William O. Carver.

Crawford Toy And The Inspiration Of The Bible

When Southern Seminary dismissed Old Testament professor Crawford Toy in 1879, it became the first American school to dismiss a teacher over the emerging liberal theology. Charles A. Briggs, the professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary who nearly suffered a similar fate a dozen years later, recognized Toy as modernism’s first martyr: “The first to suffer for the higher criticism in the United States was C. H. Toy.”2 In 1877 Toy wrote a letter congratulating Charles A. Briggs—the two had studied together at the University of Berlin—on his inaugural address as professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York: “I am glad to find that we are in accord as to the spirit of Old Testament study, and rejoice that you have spoken so earnestly and vigorously on behalf of the spirit of broad, free, spiritual minded investigation. There is much work in this country for the advocates of such a view, and it will require patient and wise effort to dislodge the traditional narrowness that has obtained so firm a foothold in some quarters.” Both men would be charged with heresy.

Briggs had the more celebrated trial. Toy was the first to suffer.3<...

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