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Sounding a false alarm: W. O. Carver and the 1914 controversy over the virgin birth: one of the most intriguing questions in the history of southern religion concerns the nature and extent of theological liberalism in denominations, particularly the Southern Baptist Convention (1).

Did theological liberalism exist below the Mason-Dixon line? And if so, how did denominations handle yet another form of outside agitation that seemingly threatened the doctrinal status quo of churches and their institutions? The following case study explores this issue and illustrates how one Southern Baptist seminary professor sought to balance his understanding of traditional orthodoxy with the intellectual challenges of the modern world.

In late 1903, seminary president E. Y. Mullins announced the founding of a new theological quarterly for Southern Baptists, The Baptist Review & Expositor, a tool he hoped would, according to his biographer, "control doctrinal debate among his brethren" and "intellectualize conservative Christian thought." (2) Most Southern Baptists received the journal well, and for years it stood as the denomination's single venue for academic scholarship.

For many years, William Owen Carver served as book review editor for The Baptist Review & Expositor. Born in Tennessee, with degrees from Richmond College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Carver quickly became a revered professor at his alma mater, serving as chair of the department of Comparative Religions and Missions at the seminary. In 1907, Carver was instrumental in founding the Woman's Missionary Union Training School and was, by the second decade of the twentieth century, a well-known leader in the denomination. (3)

The Inside of the Cup

As book review editor of the journal, Carver took the liberty of reviewing many books himself. In the April 1914 issue, over ninety books received either a short notice or a full-fledged review, with Carver reviewing over a third of the books. The wide array of book topics he reviewed is astonishing. Everything from Harvard University professor George Moore's History of Religion to Vilhjalmur Stefannson's ethnographic study My Life With the Eskimo received his attention. One book, however, enjoyed by far the longest review of the issue, five times the length of a typical review. For nearly six pages, Carver critiqued the famous American writer Winston Churchill's 1913 novel, The Inside of the Cup.

Churchill can best be described as a successful novelist turned politician and social prophet. Rallying around the political ideals of progressivism, Churchill ran successfully in 1902 for the New Hampshire state legislature and unsuccessfully twice thereafter for the state's governorship. Churchill, a lifelong Episcopalian, determined early in his youth that religion could not answer the most pressing questions about the world; but by 1910, he had concluded that political and economic reforms could not cure the evils of contemporary society and he turned to religion for guidance. "From then on," his biographer stated, "Churchill devoted most of his time to preaching the new faith, a faith that would allow mankind to survive in an industrial world by inaugurating a utopia of social cooperation." (4) Churchill, in The Inside of the Cup, told the story of a rector who, when faced with the task of pastoring a high-class church in a downtrodden area, converted from orthodox Episcopalianism to liberal, social Christianity. (5)

Carver's lengthy review of The Inside of the Cup contained both praise and censure. Carver wrote, "I think that the author has acquired a remarkable familiarity with the modern situation in society and a quite unusual understanding of the relation of the Church to the intellectual and social situation of the present." (6) On the other hand, Carver chided Churchill for his useless "antagonisms to some of the facts of Christianity," which had no bearing on the book's thesis, and for his occasional interpretations of scripture in which "he misses both words and meaning." In conclusion, Carver advised his audience to read the book. He wrote, "One could wish that every minister and thinking laymen might read this book who desires the best for men and sees that the best lies only in the hope of Christianity." "It needs to be read with discrimination," he warned, "but so does everything that is worth reading." (7)

The Controversy Begins

Without a doubt, at least one of Carver's readers used discrimination in his reading and was shocked by the review. O. L. Hailey, pastor of Corsicana Baptist Church in Texas, fired off a letter to the Texas state paper, Baptist Standard, because, he said, "When I read [the review], I could scarcely believe my eyes." (8) In the review, Carver discussed in one full page Churchill's "groundless and violent opposition ... to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus." He stated there was no purpose to the author's attack because in the grand scheme of things Jesus' being born of a virgin had no consequence. "As a dogma I would, perhaps, care no more for the Virgin Birth than would Mr. Churchill. As an explanation and a proof of the divinity of the Lord it is both insufficient and needless," he said. Carver pointed out that the virgin birth was "purely a question of fact." He stated that it was true that the story was omitted from Matthew's Gospel and that evidence clearly showed it "had been wrought into the text" in Luke and clearly did not mean much to first-century Christians. "There is no reason for being unduly agitated over it one way or the other," Carver concluded. Yet, as if he anticipated criticism from those holding the other position, he stated that the virgin birth tradition came into being because it was true and described the tradition as one with "fitness and beauty." (9)

In Hailey's response to the review, which covered more than a full page in the Baptist Standard, he stated that he was concerned not with Carver's estimate of the book but with "some things he says for himself in his review." Baptists, he said, must be aware of the views of professors who teach in institutions that ordinary laypersons sacrificed financially to build. He believed that Carver touched one of the "vital issues of the hour" and had taken "the wrong side of it." Hailey included in his letter Carver's own words about the virgin birth from the review, so readers could judge for themselves. "He has appeared to assume the position of those higher critics," Hailey charged, "who reject whatever of the Bible does not suit their theory as inspired." "My suggestion to him is that a little reflection on his part would have saved him from making such a statement." Further challenging the intelligence of Carver, he wrote, "[He] accepts the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, but on wholly insufficient reasons, reasons which will not satisfy the thoughtful, whether Christian or infidel." (10) Hailey hoped that Carver had written thoughtlessly and challenged him to respond with his true position, a challenge that received a speedy response.

Carver's Response to Criticism

Carver's reply, published one week later in the Baptist Standard, described Hailey's charge against him as a "nervous emotional exclamation," supposing that Hailey was so excited he could not see clearly as he wrote his diatribe. Carver, using as much print space as Hailey had been awarded the week before, stated the matter simply: "It is not sufficient that I hold the same position with Dr. Hailey. I must also accept his process of reaching this conviction, or be held up for warning as a dangerous teacher." Carver stated that he believed in the virgin birth as "history, not as dogma." He noted that his words about the virgin birth in the book review were meant to suggest a line of reasoning to Churchill that would be acceptable to him and others like him, rather than argue in a way that would "have absolutely no weight with them." (11)

The following week's edition of Missouri's Baptist newspaper, The Word and Way, proved that Hailey was not alone in his dissatisfaction with Carver. Rather than contribute the review to an unfortunate lapse in rational thinking like Hailey had done, the author of the article surmised "there was a deliberate purpose to make his review the occasion for showing his divergence from the views of his honorable forebears and more conservative contemporaries." Not only were the editors disappointed that Carver relegated a low position to the doctrine, but they were "struck with the nonchalance with which the position [was] struck off." They wondered in print what type of education "the preacher boys" were receiving from someone who failed to defend a vital doctrine from the attack of a Unitarian. (12)

Carver's reply to The Word and Way, published three weeks after the charge of heresy, was basically the same response he gave in the Baptist Standard. This time, however, he blamed the dispute not simply on editorial overexcitement, but he noted that the editor of the newspaper "took his cue from someone else and approached what I had written looking for error" because the charge came two months after the review appeared. He affirmed the virgin birth stating again that he believed in it as "history, not dogma" and assured the editors that he "believed the Word and followed the Way." (13)

C. P. Stealey, the editor of Oklahoma's Baptist Messenger, did not wait quite as long after the review was published to register his comparatively short but poignant heresy charge. Baptist Messenger readers were already familiar with the editorial position concerning The Inside of the Cup, since six weeks before the editor had published his own review, stating that the book was written by a spiritually "blind man" to "unsettle the faith of thousands," would "appeal mightily to the followers of liberalism," and frustrated the truth of Christ. (14) Unfortunately, Stealey noted, they now had a fellow Baptist to deal with who had a different opinion of the book. He wrote that, while Baptists should be proud of their seminary in Louisville because it has always been the "bulwark of orthodoxy," they should be grieved "to catch a note from some of its professors now and then" that was out of step with its orthodox tradition. Space did not allow, he wrote, to print a brief extract, but the offense was so serious in the small slice of the review that it needed no context. "Now we do not claim scholorship [sic], but we do possess common sense and ability to weigh credence, and we believe that the drift of the times call loudly for a sounding of the alarm." (15)

Carver responded with surprise to the charges stated in the Baptist Messenger He condemned the editors for taking his words completely out of context. "Now, frankly, Bro. Stealey," Carver wrote, "had you read my review in full when you wrote that editorial? Do you think that you gave me a fair representation before your readers?" "I may not have come at it in the same way you would have done but I was aiming at the same end you would have sought, I think," he exclaimed. Carver then suggested to Stealey that he publish the pertinent part of the letter, a favor granted three weeks later. (16)

One Baptist, G. W. Hyde of Missouri, chose to take his reservations concerning Carver's theology straight to the top. In a letter to seminary president E. Y. Mullins, Hyde stated that he believed, like Mullins, in "liberty of expression." But he also believed that when a teacher's views fall into the "confines of error," "he should be advised, even warned and rebuked if necessary." Referring to the Crawford Toy theological controversy of 1879, which ended with Toy's resignation, Hyde wrote that Drs. Boyce and Broadus "tried hard to save him," suggesting that Mullins do the same for Carver. (17) Mullins replied saying that he regretted the controversy, but felt that Carver had been, to a certain extent, misunderstood. "It is very difficult to avoid misunderstanding and misconceptions in doctrinal matters," he said to Hyde in conclusion. (18)

On the same day that Hyde wrote Mullins, W. C. Bitting of Missouri also wrote, but in favor of Carver. "Evidently the battle is still on and I think must be fought to the finish," he noted. The opponents in the battle, he reasoned, were the "intelligent and unintelligent elements" in the denomination. (19)

Carver received a similar letter the same week from Bitting praising Carver's "brave true words" and assured him that the battle between the "intelligent and ignorant hearts" of the denomination would one day end. (20) W. J. Williamson, also from Missouri, wrote Carver to express his disgust concerning the attack. "I am glad ... that all of us do not have to see things through the eyes of any individual. In other words," he said, "I am glad I am Baptist." (21) E. B. Atwood of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico, in a letter to Carver, called Hailey's attack a "pitiful and meaningless whine," agreed with Carver's position, and felt that Carver was more than a match for his critics. (22) Obviously, Carver was not alone in his theological position and had many allies, one of whom, most importantly, was Mullins.

When Mullins first learned of the controversy, he sent a copy of one of the newspaper articles to Carver, who was lecturing at a retreat center in Pelham, Alabama. Carver replied to Mullins, assured him that he knew about the charges and informed him that he was taking the necessary steps to refute the unfortunate claims. "I do not want to take the matter too lightly nor to ignore responsibility for criticism," he wrote. Mullins replied to Carver, noting that he was sorry the brethren could not grasp the difference between "formal doctrinal statements and a defensive or apologetic statement of a great matter." "But some of them do not seem to have capacity for this," Mullins stated gloomily. He reported that he did not see anything else in the state papers about the matter and reasoned that Hailey must have been satisfied with Carver's response. (23)

Indeed, Hailey was assuaged by Carver's response but surprised that he had responded so strongly. Hailey replied in the Baptist Standard to Carver's rebuttal: "It had not occurred to me that any man in public position should be unwilling to have his public utterances criticized." Hailey noted that his reply would be the last because he had no desire to continue the discussion. He wrote that if Carver said he believed in the virgin birth, that was all that mattered and he would trust Carver to keep his word. (24) The editor of The Word and Way ended the matter by stating his disagreement with Carver's reply. Without intending to press the matter further, he concluded, "To dogmatize where dogmatism is allowable is better than concession where concession is not required." (25) The editor of the Baptist Messenger stated of Carver's reply to the charge that his "method will not be helpful or meet with the approval of a vast number of Bible Baptists." Besides, the editor noted, the method was difficult to understand. Stealey wrote, "It is better to stick to simple language and methods, and when we make our meaning clear to the unlettered, the learned will appreciate it all the more." The review, in his estimation, looked questionable and "the good Doctor should write for the average man." Stealey apologized for any unfortunate feelings his articles may have caused, and, in effect, considered the matter over. (26) The matter had become, for all the newspaper editors, the sounding of a false alarm.

"An Exceptionally Significant Experience"

Carver recalled the events of 1914 in the chapter "My 'Heresies' and Controversies" his posthumously published autobiography and noted that the ordeal had been "an exceptionally significant experience." Carver was surprised that his views irritated so many people. (27) The short controversy, however, provides more than just a colorful example of evangelical anger. In the most immediate sense, the heated exchanges resulting from the book review demonstrate that Southern Baptists were not monolithic in their response to the challenges of the modern world. While Carver sought to meet those adverse to traditional orthodoxy on common ground and sift for the insightful aspects of Churchill's novel, other Southern Baptists employed a common sense approach that would not tolerate ambiguity. In the end, Carver's critics considered the ordeal a false alarm and did not pursue the matter any further because they appreciated Carver's rebuttal statements and his sense of personal honor.

What does this exchange between Carver and his critics reveal about the question of whether or not liberal theology existed in the Southern Baptist Convention? The question, of course, depends largely on one's definition of liberal theology, without which the question cannot be answered. It seems fitting to consider Winston Churchill a proponent of liberal theology. Far to the right of Churchill stood those critics of Carver whose worldview was shaped by a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible and a genuine fear that the direction in which the modern world was moving was reckless and unfortunate. Carver stood in the middle of these two extremes, articulating a theological position not common among Southern Baptists. In the end, his position came much closer doctrinally to those of his Southern Baptist constituency than to those of more liberal positions.

Carver expressed his position cogently in a letter written in the fall of 1914, after the book review controversy was effectively over. He wrote to a pastor in Mississippi who had theological reservations concerning some of the seminary faculty, including Carver. In the letter, Carver first stated that "the ignorant and reckless talking of men here and there hurt the cause" and pointed out that the "mass of ignorance and incompetence among us" was to blame for the constant worry over the theological positions of certain faculty members. He then pointedly summarized his position: "Southern Baptists cannot be obscurantists and be a powerful force in this modern world." (28) Carver is best interpreted not as a theological liberal, but rather as a southern religious pragmatist. As shown in his appropriation of the doctrine of the virgin birth, he ended up at the same place as his constituents, but came home by another way--a way that would defeat obscurantism and express his resolve to be an active, faithful participant in his modern world.

(1.) For a succinct introduction to this historical debate, see Wayne Flynt, "Not an Island unto Itself: Southern Baptists and the New Theological Trends (Liberalism, Ecumenism, and the Social Gospel), 1890-1940," American Baptist Quarterly 12, no. 2 (June 2003): 158-79.

(2.) William E. Ellis, "A Man of Books and a Man of the People": E. Y. Mullins and the Crisis of Moderate Southern Baptist Leadership (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1985), 52.

(3.) For information on Carver, see his posthumously published autobiography, Out of His Treasure: Unfinished Memoirs (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1956). For a study of the WMU Training School, see T. Laine Scales, All That Fits a Woman: Training Southern Baptist Women for Charity and Mission, 1907-1926 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2000).

(4.) Robert W. Schneider, Novelist to a Generation: The Life and Thought of Winston Churchill (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976), 169.

(5.) Ibid., 172; See also, Eric Steinbaugh, Winston Churchill: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1985); Winston Churchill, "The Modern Quest for a Religion," Century 87 (1913): 169-74; and Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880-1930 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1982), 71.

(6.) W. O. Carver, Review of The Inside of the Cup, by Winston Churchill, Review and Expositor 11 (April 1914): 290-91.

(7.) Ibid., 295.

(8.) Baptist Standard, 21 May 1914.

(9.) Carver, Review of The Inside of the Cup, 293-94.

(10.) Baptist Standard, 21 May 1914.

(11.) Ibid., 28 May 1914.

(12.) The Word and Way, 4 June 1914.

(13.) Ibid., 25 June 1914.

(14.) The Baptist Messenger, 15 April 1914.

(15.) Ibid., 27 May 1914.

(16.) W. O. Carver to C. P. Stealey, 5 June 1914, Carver Papers, Correspondence Files, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee (hereafter referred to as Carver Papers; W. O. Carver to C. P. Stealey, 25 June 1914, Carver Papers; Baptist Messenger, 17 June 1914.

(17.) G. W. Hyde to E. Y. Mullins, 9 June 1914, Mullins Papers, Correspondence, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee (hereafter referred to as Mullins Papers). For a concise summary of the Toy controversy, see Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 304.

(18.) E. Y. Mullins to G. W Hyde, 19 June 1914, Mullins Papers.

(19.) W. C. Bitting to E. Y. Mullins, 9 June 1914, Mullins Papers.

(20.) W. C. Bitting to W. O. Carver, 12 June 1914, Carver Papers.

(21.) W. J. Williamson to W. O. Carver, 30 June 1914, Carver Papers.

(22.) E. B. Atwood to W .O. Carver, 24 August 1914, Carver Papers.

(23.) E. Y. Mullins to W. O. Carver, 19 June 1914, Mullins Papers.

(24.) Baptist Standard, 11 June 1914.

(25.) The Word and Way, 25 June 1914.

(26.) Baptist Messenger, 17 June 1914.

(27.) Carver, Out of His Treasure, 71.

(28.) W. O. Carver to Robert B. Russell, 4 September 1914, Carver Papers.

Mark Wilson is a doctoral candidate in history at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
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