Making a Heretic: Crawford Toy’s Tragic Path from Star Student to False Teacher

Toy illustrates that excellence in theological studies must be accompanied by true virtue.

Toy’s life and legacy provides a warning for seminary students today, but his clear example of error actually provides a helpful framework for how not to be the next Crawford Howell Toy: Submit to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, both its historical and spiritual claims; evaluate your faith and spiritual fruit, not just your seminary GPA or academic credentials; and do not elevate spiritual intent above doctrinal integrity. After he graduated from seminary, Toy caused a small stir by commending heterodox worship services in the Baptist newspaper for their spiritual devotion, foreshadowing his adherence to pragmatism.

 

When the fifth professor elected to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary signed the Abstract of Principles, his pastor, mentor, and colleague John Broadus proclaimed he was “our shining pearl of learning — not an ordinary star, but a brilliant meteor.” Founding President James Petigru Boyce soon regarded his former student “easily best” in scholarship among the professors. But 10 years later, Crawford Howell Toy resigned amid a denominational controversy over his views of biblical inspiration, an event which branded him a heretic. And, by the end of his life, he had abandoned the Christian faith.

Toy’s fate entered Southern Seminary lore and later became a cautionary tale for the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Legendary SBC pastor and Southern alumnus W.A. Criswell popularized the story in his famous 1985 sermon “Whether We Live or Die,” reclaiming the narrative from moderates who viewed Toy as a martyr for academic and intellectual freedom. To this day, SBTS President R. Albert Mohler Jr. begins each ceremonial signing of the Abstract of Principles with a grave reminder of Toy’s heresy. But the full story of his time at Southern, recounting his meteoric rise from star student to the school’s most popular professor, makes his eventual departure from the faith even more tragic and raises questions about the value of placing eternal confidence in academic success.

An important note from the outset: Unlike the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, our goal is not to victimize the fifth professor to sign the seminary’s confessional document; he is responsible for his own heretical theological trajectory. Toy was unquestionably a man of supreme intelligence and appeared to be very pious, but taking an honest look at his life and legacy is more sobering than a brief morality tale, demonstrating the difference between academic achievement and spiritual maturity. Toy illustrates that excellence in theological studies must be accompanied by true virtue.

‘AN UNCOMMONLY CONSCIENTIOUS AND DEVOTED MAN’

Toy was among the original class of students when Southern Seminary opened its first session October 1859 in Greenville, South Carolina. He enrolled so he could prepare for service with the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC (now known as the International Mission Board) because he believed “all young ministers ought to become missionaries to the heathen unless they could show good reason to the contrary.”

Toy first met John Albert Broadus when he enrolled at the University of Virginia, where Broadus was assistant professor of ancient languages. Toy regarded him as “an admirable Greek scholar” and attended the Broadus-led Charlottesville Baptist Church.

Toy demonstrated a remarkable knack for languages in college, taking Latin, Greek, Italian, and German. He no doubt inherited this ability from his father, Thomas, who owned a successful drugstore and developed a proficiency in seven languages.

A year before his conversion, Crawford Toy encountered the issue of biblical inspiration in his studies at UVA, as in one letter he recounts philosopher David Hume’s “attempts to prove the probable falsity of the New Testament narratives.” Toy may not have questioned the inspiration of the Bible at this time, and in 1854 he was converted and baptized by Broadus. Four years later, Toy joined a group from his home church in Virginia to protest, unsuccessfully, the new seminary’s hiring of their pastor.

Soon after graduating from college he began teaching at the Albemarle Female Institute, where one later admirer would note his classroom demeanor was “so extremely dignified and exquisite that the girls stand in awe of him.” One of his first students was the brilliant skeptic Charlotte Moon, whose friends called her “Lottie.”

During a spring 1859 revival meeting, which Broadus led at the school, Lottie Moon professed faith in Christ and was baptized. As she continued her education at Albemarle, Moon determined to serve on the mission field. When Toy, who had developed a relationship with her beyond that of a teacher, asked to marry her in 1861, Moon rejected his proposal because of her commitment to go overseas. But Toy’s friendship with Moon would continue through letter writing for nearly 20 years and finally end in painful circumstances.

At Southern, Toy’s missionary zeal and intellectual aptitude instantly impressed his professors and he shot up to the top of the class by completing three-fourths of the curriculum in the first year. He was elected president in 1859 of the Andrew Fuller Society, a debate club named after the seminal Baptist theologian. During the Christmas holidays, when students were not able to return home, Toy launched a student prayer group.

Reporting on the progress of the seminary in its first year, Broadus remarked that Toy “is among the foremost scholars I have ever known of his years, and an uncommonly conscientious and devoted man.” Had seminary awards been a practice as they are now, Toy would certainly have won his share.

In June 1860, Toy appeared before the Foreign Mission Board and was appointed to serve in Japan. Later that month, Broadus and several other pastors ordained Toy to the gospel ministry.

The Civil War interrupted the Board’s plans to send Toy to Japan, a decision which Toy nearly protested by going without support. Instead, Toy enlisted in the Confederacy, serving first as a private in the artillery and then as a chaplain in General Robert E. Lee’s army. During the war, observers said Toy occupied his time studying languages, carrying his Hebrew Bible and dictionary and also reading German “for amusement.”

After the war, Toy wanted to study in Europe, and in 1866 he set sail for Germany and possibly away from orthodoxy.

CHAMPION OF ORTHODOXY? THE SEEDS OF TOY’S HERESY

Historians have sometimes pointed out the apparent irony that Toy resigned over the issue of inspiration when he began his teaching career as a champion of orthodoxy. But even before he left to study at the University of Berlin, Toy expressed in religious newspapers a troubling admiration for Virginia worship services that he said demonstrated the “spirit of the Lord” despite being doctrinally unsound.

Toy’s separation of spiritual intent and doctrinal integrity parallels his biblical hermeneutic of distinguishing between the inner and outer meanings of Scripture. This also foreshadows his eventual adherence to religious pragmatism — a theistic belief that truth is what “we are constantly creating for ourselves.”

After returning to the United States in 1868, Toy briefly accepted a teaching position at Greenville’s Furman University before being elected to the faculty of Southern Seminary. In a meeting with the founding faculty, Boyce and Broadus decided Toy should give the inaugural address to the 1869 academic year.

His ensuing address, “The Claims of Biblical Interpretation on Baptists,” made a resounding impression throughout higher education. At the dawn of its second decade, Southern Seminary had a rising star and was on the cusp of academic respectability.

Toy’s conclusions in this lengthy address fit within the confessional document he signed that year, specifically the statement on Scripture in the Abstract of Principles: “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God, and are the only sufficient, certain and authoritative rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.”

In fact, Toy’s emphasis on the special responsibility on Baptists for studying Scripture echoes the confessional statement, as he describes “our complete dependence on the Bible.”

“We profess to make it, and it alone, our religion,” Toy said. “We accept all that it teaches, and nothing else. In doctrine and practice, in ordinances and polity, we look to it alone for instruction, and no wisdom or learning of men avails with us one iota, except as according with the inspired Record. … It is our pole star.”

Yet even Toy’s inaugural address hints at a theological trajectory that would quickly cause him to drift from a conviction in the Bible’s inspiration. Southern Seminary’s Gregory A. Wills, who wrote the sesquicentennial history of the school, describes Toy’s hermeneutic as a Nestorian division of the spiritual and literal meanings of Scripture (Nestorianism is a fifth-century heresy emphasizing the disunity of Christ’s divine and human natures).

In his address, Toy encouraged seminary students “to lay hold of the Word of God, on its divine and on its human side, in its intellectual and in its spiritual elements.” One of the methods for doing this is to accept scientific discoveries, “furthering the understanding of the Bible.” Although he expressed neutrality on Darwinism at the time, Toy said further research in this evolutionary theory “will produce valuable results, and will illustrate rather than denude the Scriptures.” Take for, instance, this troubling remark which gives more evidence to Toy’s spiritual-literal dichotomy:

Very slowly the Christian mind has come to the conclusion that the Bible is not a teacher of science — that such a character would interfere with the intellectual development of the race, or would make its language, which would necessarily in that case be conformed to perfect science, unintelligible up to the moment of the culmination of man’s studies — that it rather conforms its language to that phenomenal observation which will probably last to the end of time, as demanded of a book intended for all time — that its standpoint is not that of science, and the emphasis which it puts on things not a scientific one, since it uses all the array of worldly facts and experiences simply as framework for the scheme of redemption.

Subsequent to his address, the Virginia Baptist newspaper The Religious Herald praised Toy for his “eminent lingual attainments, his sound judgment, amiable manners, and earnest piety” and concluded that he would one day “rank among the foremost biblical scholars of the world.”

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