Heresy is Not Heroic — Is Crawford Howell Toy a Baptist Hero?

Heresy is Not Heroic — Is Crawford Howell Toy a Baptist Hero?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
January 13, 2010

Something deeply disturbing recently appeared at, the Web site for the Baptist Center for Ethics. Tony Cartledge, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and former editor of the Biblical Recorder, recently contributed an article that makes the astounding claim that both Lottie Moon and Crawford H. Toy should be considered “Baptist heroes.”

The article is breathtaking in its argument — that a man who abandoned the Christian faith was “no less devoted to Christ” than Southern Baptists’ most famous missionary.

In “Lottie Moon and Crawford Toy: Two Baptist Heroes,” Cartledge begins by noting the recent news that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth has secured a large collection of memorabilia from the house of Lottie Moon in P’ingtu City, China. Included in the 35,000 pounds of material are remnants of what is believed to be Lottie Moon’s rented home.

Cartledge took issue with comments made by Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson, who noted that Lottie Moon was a defender of biblical orthodoxy. Patterson also cited Miss Moon’s breaking of her engagement with Crawford H. Toy over the issue of biblical authority. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that Lottie Moon broke her engagement with Crawford Toy precisely over this question.

Nevertheless, Cartledge writes, “while there is evidence for a broken engagement, I’ve seen nothing to substantiate the motives Patterson attributes to Moon.” That statement seems especially odd given the fact that Cartledge cites an essay by the late Dan Gentry Kent of Southwestern Seminary — an essay that substantiates those motives.

The most troubling section of Cartledge’s article has little to do with Lottie Moon, however. After stating his admiration for Lottie Moon’s “willingness to suffer deprivation because of her devotion to Christ and to missions,” Cartledge then states, “Increasingly, I have also come to admire Crawford Toy, who was no less devoted to Christ, and was willing to suffer rejection by Southern Baptists rather than surrender to the narrow-minded demand that he forgo scholarship and limit his teaching to popularly accepted notions.”

The admiration of liberal Baptists for Crawford Howell Toy should be a matter of both amazement and genuine concern. It is also a telling indication of how many of those identified as “moderates” in the Southern Baptist Convention controversy actually view the Bible. To celebrate Toy is to celebrate his beliefs about the Bible. Those beliefs were not heroic.

Crawford Toy was a man of unquestioned brilliance. As a young man, he came to the attention of John A. Broadus during the time Broadus was pastor of the Charlottesville Baptist Church in Virginia. As a student in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s first class, Toy established his reputation for scholarship. He joined the faculty of Southern Seminary in 1869 as Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Oriental Languages. Prior to his election as Southern Seminary, Toy had studied at the University of Berlin for the years 1866-1868. As later became clear, Toy drank deeply from the wells of theological liberalism and Biblical criticism during his years in Germany.

In his inaugural address as a professor at Southern Seminary, Toy argued that the Bible has both a human and a divine element. As his theological pilgrimage revealed, Toy would use this hermeneutical distinction in order to argue that the Bible contains nothing but truth in its divine element, even as its human element shows all the marks of human fallibility. The human element contains both errors and myths, but the Bible’s “religious thought is independent of this outward form.”

Concerns about Toy’s teaching led to his eventual resignation from Southern Seminary — a resignation pressed upon him by the institution’s founding leaders and accepted by the vast majority of its trustees. Prior to his resignation, Toy had been warned by Broadus that his trajectory was headed toward serious theological error. Broadus also expressed his concern that Toy might eventually become a Unitarian. Eventually, Broadus’s worst fears were realized.

After his resignation from Southern Seminary, Crawford Toy accepted a professorship at Harvard University, where he taught for many years and established a reputation for scholarship. By all accounts, Toy was an esteemed member of the faculty. Nevertheless, Toy’s theological trajectory did indeed take him not only out of the Southern Baptist fellowship, but out of the Christian faith altogether. During his time at Harvard, Toy eventually became a Unitarian — a faith that denies the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. He also accepted an evolutionary understanding of religion which accepted religion as a purely natural phenomenon.

In other words, Toy became what Christians throughout all the centuries of church history and in all the major traditions of the Christian Church would rightly identify as a heretic. He abandoned faith in the deity of Christ and abandoned the Christian faith. Yet, moderates in the SBC controversy often celebrated Crawford Toy as a hero and as a theological martyr for academic scholarship. Tony Cartledge continues this tradition by expressing his admiration for Crawford Toy, going so far as to claim that he “was no less devoted to Christ” than Lottie Moon. “There’s more than one way to be a hero,” Cartledge concluded.

I can only hope that Tony Cartledge either does not understand or does not mean what he writes in this article. To declare Crawford Toy and Lottie Moon to be equally devoted to Christ defies both common sense and theological sanity.

As Old Testament scholar Paul House, now of the Beeson Divinity School, has argued, the roots of Toy’s later heresies were found in the presuppositions of his hermeneutic as he set forth his thought in his inaugural address at Southern Seminary. House does not question Toy’s personal integrity, noting his honesty in presenting his own beliefs. Toy himself recognized that his beliefs changed even during the years he taught at Southern Seminary. The key issue is that Toy’s understanding of the Bible left him completely vulnerable to every heresy and doctrinal aberration. Broadus rightly warned Toy of this danger at the time of his resignation.

We should grieve the example of Crawford Howell Toy and learn from it, even as we are inspired by the courageous and Gospel-centered witness of Lottie Moon. The story of Crawford Howell Toy contains a cautionary message for every Christian teacher, seminary, church, and denomination. The elevation of Crawford Toy to the status of a hero alongside one of Christianity’s most famous Gospel missionaries is both tragic and scandalous. Heresy is not heroic.


For more on Crawford Howell Toy and the history of Southern Seminary, see Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

This article originally appeared this morning at See here.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).