Beware Freelance Clubs: Gambrell, Mullins, and Baptist Creeds


The final decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a period of controversy and transition in Baptist life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean due to a change in the winds of doctrine. In Great Britain, Baptists experienced turmoil and division within the British Baptist Union as leaders such as C.H. Spurgeon and John Clifford differed over the direction of theology within the denomination. The conflict between Spurgeon and Clifford centered upon how confessionally bound British Baptists would be.

Across the Atlantic, Northern and Southern Baptists faced challenges in how to maintain Baptist principles in an era of Christian Unionism, an early twentieth century form of ecumenicism. To steer Southern Baptists through these choppy waters of the early 1900s, J.B. Gambrell and E.Y. Mullins provided direction in how Southern Baptists should be creedal (or confessional) in an age that increasingly detested such forms of dogmatic theology. (Carroll provides a helpful definition of a creed and confession being interchangeable: “What is a creed? A creed is what you believe. What is a confession? It is a declaration of what you believe. That declaration may be oral or it may be committed to writing, but the creed is there either expressed or implied.”)

Navigating Turbulent Waters

J.B. Gambrell and E.Y. Mullins served as two of the most esteemed Southern Baptist statesmen at the beginning of the twentieth century. Both Gambrell (1917–20) and Mullins (1921-24) served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Gambrell and Mullins toured Europe together in 1920 to strengthen European Baptists. The two men represented the first two seminaries in the SBC with Mullins being the president of SBTS (1899–1928) while Gambrell was a close confident of both B.H. Carroll and L.R. Scarborough, the first two presidents of SWBTS, and served on the faculty at SWBTS during the 1910s. Representing two different institutions and different streams in SBC life, Gambrell and Mullins each demonstrate how confessional integrity still possessed an important role in the Southern Baptist Convention.

By the 1910s, the spirit of progressive theology and a desire for union among Christian denominations challenged Southern Baptists. In response to these currents, Southern Baptists in the 1910s articulated the need for setting forth publicly Baptist beliefs. At the 1914 Annual Meeting, the SBC adopted the “Pronouncement on Christian Union and Denominational Efficiency” which set forth why Southern Baptists could not enter a union with other denominations. The report read, “We have declared ourselves on those matters which enter into the question of outward or organic Christian union…We regret that it is not great enough to remove our separateness from brethren in Christ who bear other names." Gambrell lauded E.Y. Mullins for addressing Texas Baptists at the same time and pushing back on the age of downplaying the role of Baptist distinctives. For Gambrell, the issues of the day demonstrated why creeds had a valuable place in Baptist life.

Lacking in Sound Judgment: Gambrell on Creeds

In 1914, Gambrell penned two articles in the Baptist Standard regarding the usage of creeds and confessions in Baptist life. In January 1914, Gambrell wrote “Concerning the Uses of Creedal Statements” that Scripturally based creeds clear the thinking of the people in “times of looseness, vague expression, cunning craftiness in dealing with religious things.” Lauding the recent address by E.Y. Mullins to Texas Baptists, Gambrell highlighted the way that creeds helped churches know where they stood, and that doctrinal commonality was the only means of unity. He warned that creeds could be used in a negative way if they are treated as substitutes for the authority of the Scripture.

However, for Gambrell, that was not the threat for Baptists at that hour. Looking at attempts for ecumenicism, at the expense of doctrinal distinctives, Gambrell declared, “It is not to be expected that everybody will accept the Baptist view, but everybody can understand the Baptist position, and that is an immense gain to all interested in the matters set out…Very much of the war of the sects is fighting in the dark because of vague statements.” Creeds provided light, guidance, and consistency. Surveying the push for a creedless religion, Gambrell charged, “The cry against creeds is lacking in sound judgment. It comes mostly from those who wish to evaporate religious thoughts into theological mist that it may be crystalized into other forms. They wish all the fences pulled down and everything unsettled.” From Gambrell’s perspective, Baptists needed to reject a call for doctrinal minimalism and embrace the creedal faith passed down to them.

Gambrell penned “The Uses and Abuses of Creedal Statements” in June 1914 following the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. He begins this article by defining a creed as “what one believes. It may be written or spoken.” He conceded that there might be some who put a creed between a believer and the Lord in an unhealthy manner. However, like his January 1914 article, he does not see that as the threat for Baptists. Speaking again of the ecumenical movement encouraging Baptists to move away from a dogmatic commitment to their faith, Gambrell launched into a defense of creedal statements. Rather than seeing creeds as a burden, Gambrell saw them as helps to the churches. He wrote, “The true function of a creed is to put in a clear form, easy to grasp, vital truths and to call the reader back to the scriptures for verification, to the end that the student might be rooted and grounded in the truth.”

Gambrell then brings the importance of creeds in Baptist life. This lengthy paragraph sheds light on how Gambrell saw creeds function and shape Baptist theology. He expounded,

The large matters of the Baptist faith have been condensed into two creedal statements, the New Hampshire and the Philadelphia Articles of Faith. There is no vital difference between the two. The have had wide use among our people and have done much to clarify the thinking of Baptists. The have fixed the Baptist mind on the nerve centers of revealed truth. They have put fences against the invasions of many hurtful heresies and have contributed largely to the efficiency of the denomination by promoting unity. On the understanding of truth, as set out in these articles, most of our churches and associations have been constituted. Our two seminaries in the South [SBTS and SWBTS] were founded on the well defined articles of faith, as a safeguard against the seducing spirits which haunt such places.

At each level of Baptist life, confessional accountability and integrity had played an integral part in maintaining doctrinal purity. Citing Spurgeon, Gambrell forcefully stated that Baptists should beware those who made vague statements and instead should set forth clearly what they believed. Utilizing the imagery of mist and fog, Gambrell called on his Baptists to not settle for a “sentimental mist” and a “dense fog of ignorance” that was being championed in the name of “unity.” Instead, it was time for Baptists again to clearly set forth what they believed in the light of day.

A Creed is Like a Crystal: Mullins on Creeds

As noted, Gambrell mentions E.Y. Mullins twice in these two 1914 articles. Much could be said about Mullins’ theology, debates over his legacy, and even where he stood on the matter of Baptists and creeds. Nettles helpfully points out that Mullins blended the New England Baptist tradition of individualism, exemplified in Francis Wayland, with his Southern Baptist confessional heritage, demonstrated by James P. Boyce. Observing this blending, Nettles writes in Volume 3 of The Baptists: Key People in Forming Baptist Identity, “When he defended the use of confessions, or even creeds, he did so sincerely but seemingly as a foil, as a contrast to enhance his own objections.” Despite the enigma that can surround Mullins’ views at times, his writings do provide important admonitions for Baptists concerning creeds. While he might have been more cautious than Gambrell on the importance of creeds, one can deduce that Mullins had sympathies with his brother from the Southwest.

In 1912, Mullins published Baptist Beliefs which was an exposition of the New Hampshire Confession as well as giving a preview of articles that would be a part of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message. The first five pages cover Mullins’ thoughts on creeds. In defining a creed, Mullins noted that “A creed is like a crystal with many angles and facets.” Launching from that point, Mullins devoted several paragraphs to how creeds can be misused, suppress freedom, and can violate the voluntary principle of Christianity.

However, even with all of that said, Mullins argued that Baptists had a right to set forth their views. He stated, “In this the group or denomination corresponds to the individual in the matter of freedom. Consequently they themselves must judge when an individual or group within the larger body as departed from the common view sufficiently to warrant separation.” In striking terms, Mullins defined religious freedom as “the right of the group as well as of the individual. The voluntary principle applies equally and alike to both.” Despite his sensitivities, Mullins understood that creeds helped bring about unity in a church or denomination. Freedom of conscience was not to be used by an individual when they were in deliberate contradiction to the confessed truths of a body.

The following years saw Southern Baptists wrestle with the place of confessions in denominational life. The 1914 report by the “Committee on Denominational Efficiency” was written by Mullins and championed by Gambrell. In 1919, the Foreign Mission Board approved “A Statement of Belief” that applicants for the mission field had to affirm to be considered for the field. In that same year, Southern Baptists approved the Fraternal Address which sought to lay out Baptist beliefs afresh to the world. Northern Baptists chafed at this exercise by Southern Baptists seeing it as an attempt by the SBC to recruit more conservative Northern Baptist churches to join the SBC.

In an attempt at reconciliation, Mullins approached Northern Baptists about releasing a joint confession between the two bodies. In 1922, while serving as President of the SBC, Mullins attended the annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention. This meeting was supposed to see Northern Baptists adopt a confession. While a motion was made to adopt the New Hampshire Confession, a substitute motion was approved which stated that the New Testament was the final authority. Having personally witnessed this action, in the words of Nettles, Mullins “knew that the adoption of a confession of faith was inevitable for the Southern Baptist Convention…Mullins had just witnessed a theological coup on the part of the liberal wing of the Northern Baptists.” These events served as a catalyst for the SBC to appoint a committee headed by Mullin which would produce the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message.

It is in this environment that a fascinating essay was penned by Mullins entitled “Baptists and Creeds,” most likely written between 1920 and 1925. Mullins argued that “Creed and confession of faith mean the same thing.” In contrast to his earlier writing in Baptist Beliefs, Mullins laid out fallacies that existed about creeds. He names four: 1) that Baptists have no creeds, 2) Baptist liberty prohibits creeds, 3) creeds are governed by a dead orthodoxy, and 4) creeds means a prohibition of thinking. Mullins then defined a creed as a “statement of the meaning of the facts of religion.”

Facing the objections in his day to creeds, Mullins charged straight at those who opposed creeds due to their wish to keep hidden their views. From that group, he faced down those who would use liberty in Baptist circles as a reason for their opposition to creeds. Mullins argued that their concept of liberty was “an exaggerated individualism…the moment you join any group other than a free lance club, you accept limitations. The Baptist denomination is not a free lance club as some would like to make it.” In language that hearkens back to Gambrell, Mullins agreed that Baptists never believed a creed could be imposed upon anyone by an external force. However, Mullins warned that “A denomination controlled by a group who have no declared platform is heading for the rocks…Baptists have always insisted upon their own right to declare their beliefs in a definite, formal way, and to protect themselves by refusing to support men in important places as teachers and preachers who do not agree with them.”

This was the historic pattern for confessional cooperation in Baptist life. Concluding this section, Mullins wrote:

If a group of men known as Baptists consider themselves trustees of certain great truths, they have an inalienable right to conserve and propogate those truths unmolested by others inside the denomination who oppose those truths. The latter have an equal right to unite with another group agreeing with them. But they have no right to attempt to make of the Baptist denomination a free lance club.

Having seen what had happened over the preceding decade, Mullins knew that the Southern Baptist Convention needed confessional unity and cooperation if it were to hold fast the truth once for all delivered to the saints.

Taking Up the Mantle

J.B. Gambrell and E.Y. Mullins admonished Baptists to not loosen the cords of truth in the hopes of achieving a false sense of unity. Their words a century later should still be a guide for Baptists navigating the waters once again as to how to cooperate confessionally. The last word should be given to Mullins who wrote, “Practical cooperation is, after all, a fine test of doctrinal fellowship, and doctrinal fellowship is a fine test of the limits of practical cooperation…As Baptists we must not permit ourselves to become silent on our fundamental beliefs in an age which calls for outspokenness in clear terms.” In the spirit of Gambrell and Mullins, may this generation of Baptists avoid theological mist and freelance clubs while embracing cheerful, convictional confessionalism.

Editor's Note: As a part of its commitment to fostering conversation within the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist Review may publish editorials that espouse viewpoints that are not necessarily shared by the TBR team or other contributors. We welcome submissions for responses and rebuttals to any editorials as we seek to host meaningful conversations about the present and future of our convention.

Jake Stone

Jake Stone

Jake Stone (B.S., William Carey University) serves as a Junior Fellow at the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, Research Expert at the James P. Boyce Centennial Library at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Baptist Editor for the London Lyceum. He will graduate in December 2024 with his MDiv with an emphasis on Church History from SBTS.