The Case of Professor Hinckley G. Mitchell

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy Comes to STH

As is well known, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy was a defining point for Christianity in America. The debates famously came to a head in the famous 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial.” A Tennessee high school teacher, John Scopes, violated the state’s Butler Act by teaching human evolution in publicly funded schools. In the court case that ensued, the defense attorney Clarence Darrow put the prosecutor William Jennings Bryan on the stand to demonstrate the inconsistency of biblical literalism. The scene was immortalized in the popular imagination by the 1960 film, Inherit the Wind.

Yet even before Mr. Scopes taught his high school students about Darwin and evolution, young men at the Boston University School of Theology questioned some of the more “liberal” propositions of their professors. Professor Hinckley G. Mitchell studied in Germany, where “new ideas” about the Bible and higher criticism had been popular for some time. Yet it was only after several years of independent study that Mitchell cautiously accepted Julius Wellhausen as his guide to the Old Testament. As he recalled in 1922, “the more deeply I went into the new views, the more strongly they appealed to me. I did not, however, adopt them wholesale, or any of them without thorough examination.”[1]

When he introduced these ideas to his students, some were unfazed, others confused, and still others outraged. This will come as no surprise to those who have been to seminary. Even today, many main-line students are uneasy with professors who assert that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible and that the virgin birth of Jesus is a myth. In 1895, the students were not exactly sure what to make of new teachings, and so a group of Middlers and Seniors petitioned the president, asking for an investigation of the teachings to take place. At that time, Mitchell had a conference with the concerned students, answering their concerns, and assuring them that he believed that Jesus was the Son of God and the revelation of the Godhead. Indeed, he was a faithful scholar—he did not neglect scholarly ideas for the sake of faith, nor did he neglect faith for the sake of scholarly ideas.[2]

New ideas, particularly those that have implications for people’s religious beliefs, generate heated debate and argument. For the faculty of the Boston University School of Theology, especially W. R. Warren, Henry Sheldon, and Borden P. Bowne, Mitchell’s ideas were very exciting. Mitchell was not a boring professor. He made students think critically about their own positions, and he was more than happy to engage them in arguments. He also led evangelistic groups for preaching to immigrants throughout the city of Boston. Mitchell’s colleagues understood him to be a great asset to the School of Theology.

Other students did not think so. In 1899, the very intelligent, somewhat bellicose, and no doubt arrogant Harcourt W. Peck led the charge against Mitchell. Even before Peck attended Boston University, he had proven himself to be a skilled machinist, orator, teacher, and preacher. As a man with a charismatic personality, he had gathered a group of 55 Methodists in Hawaii in the 1890s and formed a new Church. At the school of theology, Peck fulfilled the requirements for a two-year degree in one year, and he still found time to draft a list of complaints against Mitchell. Unlike the previous petition, which remained in the school, Peck and his crew sent this new list of grievances to the Board of Bishops in Chicago.[3] Commenting on the matter, Mitchell said:

I am accused of teaching that a belief in the Deity of Christ is not necessary for salvation. This is correct, and in so teaching I have the support of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and I am proud to be his follower. I am reported to have said that a man may be saved through believing another, without any knowledge of, or teaching about Christ. This is only another way of putting the Wesleyan doctrine, my idea being that the Highest that one knew might be a human being taken as an ideal. I am said to have belittled the significance of the death of Christ. I prefer to speak of salvation through Christ, rather than lay the whole stress on His death, and in this I follow Wesley. I shall have to plead guilty to the charge of believing that one of the stories in the first chapters of Genesis are more or less legendary…I do not believe that the world was actually created in the length of time given.[4]

The faculty defended Mitchell, and the Bishops were not exactly sure what to do. And thus, for a little while, as the Bishops scratched their heads and pondered the puzzle of historical criticism and the doctrine of the Word of God, Mitchell continued teaching. Not to let his case evaporate into indecision, Peck called Mitchell out at the General Conference in Los Angeles in 1904. Again, the Faculty and Board of the School of Theology supported Mitchell, renewing his contract, but this time the Bishops sided with the fundamentalists; in 1905, they refused to confirm his appointment. As historian Gary J. Dorrien argues, some of the Bishops did this out of conservative conviction, while others just wanted to see the controversy ended.[5]

Mitchell went on to Tufts College, now University, where the President offered him a position on the theological faculty. He also took students from Jackson College for Women. He found his students and the faculty at Tufts to be very supportive and interested in his ideas. He wrote, “From the first I have had in my classes men and women of all shades of religious belief, but they have all, naturally, been inclined to be liberal;— otherwise they would not have been there;—and they have always given me a fair hearing.”[6]

Thus, Boston University lost a talented scholar. But not all was lost. The action by the Bishops led to a new chapter in Methodist education. Mitchell wrote, “The Bishops have put themselves so clearly in the wrong that I am sure they will have to retreat from their position.”[7] His colleagues were likewise outraged. The Bishops’ action represented an unconscionable check on intellectual freedom at a University. The fall out from the case led not to a move toward fundamentalism, but rather in the opposite direction. Appeals from the supporters of Mitchell led to a 1908 decision that Bishops were not to have any power in the appointment of professors at Seminaries.[8] Thus, the Boston University School of Theology, and indeed all seminaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church, would become places where students could engage received tradition critically, not shying away from the findings and rich debates of the scholarly community, but rather embracing them.

S. J. Lloyd


[1] Hinckley Gilbert Mitchell, For the Benefit of my Creditors (The Beacon Press, 1922), 93.

[2] Benjamin L. Hartley, Evangelicals at a Crossroads: Revivalism and Social Reform in Boston, 1860-1910 (UPNE, 2011), 119-120.

[3] Mitchell, 220.

[4] Student Appeal to the Bishops, San Francisco Call 87/74 (February 12, 1900).

[5] Gary J. Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 290.

[6] Mitchell, 301.

[7] Mitchell in Dorrien, 291.

[8] Glenn T. Miller, Piety and Profession: American Protestant Theological Education, 1870-1970 (Eerdmans, 2007), 109-110.