Crawford Howell Toy – Heretic of the Southern Baptists

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Crawford Howell Toy, a brilliant linguist and theologian, was forced from his position teaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for his progressive views.

When the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky turned twenty years old, in 1879, the attention of the students and faculty was on the trouble surrounding one of the Seminary’s most scholarly and popular professors. The professor was Crawford Howell Toy, a language and theology teacher whose liberal interpretations of the Old Testament were being called into question by educated Southern Baptists.

From Norfolk to the Seminary

Toy was born in Norfolk, Virginia on March 23, 1836 to Thomas and Amelia Toy. Toy graduated from the Norfolk Military Academy with good marks, and entered the prestigious University of Virginia in 1852 at the age of sixteen. While there, he studied and enjoyed Latin, Greek, Italian, German and Anglo-Saxon as well as dabbling in law, medicine and music. After completing his studies at Virginia, Toy went into the graduate program at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

When the Civil War erupted, Toy enlisted in the Confederate Army as a foot soldier, but soon became an army chaplain. He was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg, exchanged, and then, ever the good Virginian, reenlisted. In 1864, Toy left the army and returned to academia.

Unhappy with the limited opportunities for linguistic study in America, Toy enrolled at the University of Berlin in 1866. The two years Toy spent in Germany turned out to be one of the major turning points of his life. Toy studied languages while at Berlin, including Sanskrit and Hebrew. He also came into contact with some of the more progressive European thinkers. It is known that soon after his return to America, Toy had accepted Darwin’s beliefs about evolution and had taken a very liberal position about Biblical criticism.

Toy returned to America and quickly accepted a position teaching Greek at Furman University in 1868. Toy probably would have been happy to remain at the renowned South Carolina University, but the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asked him to join their faculty the next year. At the time of his appointment, Toy was regarded as one of the finest linguists in the world, and it was believed that he had the potential to be one of the top theologians and biblical scholars.

The Baptists’ Controversial Teacher

At Southern, Toy quickly established himself as a believer in the new European style of Biblical criticism. While the administration at Southern wasn’t pleased, most Southern Baptists were unaware that anything unusual was happening at the university. Toy’s schismatic views burst into the public’s consciousness when, beginning in December of 1878, Toy took over writing the “Critical Notes” column of the Sunday School Times, a weekly Southern Baptist publication. In the April 12, 1879 issue, he interpreted Isaiah 42:1-9 in a fashion that made it clear he was not in step with the Southern Baptist mainstream.

The backlash against Toy was immediate. The Christian Intelligencer replied: “The exposition is a base surrender of the chapter to unbelieving, Christ-hating Jews, and infidel neologists.” A Baptist publication, The Journal and Messenger, insisted that the Sunday School Times be more selective about who it let write. A Southern Baptist paper, The Biblical Recorder, was equally quick to condemn Toy. It claimed that Toy was a menace because he was teaching such things to the next generation of teachers and preachers.

Toy chose to resign quietly rather than go through a public debate. He was one of the finest linguists and intellectuals in the country and just one year after he left the seminary, Toy began teaching at Harvard University. Eight years later, in a move that many Southern Baptists felt vindicated their attacks, Toy became a Unitarian. Although Toy thrived professionally, his fiancée, Lottie Moon, was so offended by his publicly stated beliefs that she broke off their engagement. Moon went on to become a well-known Southern Baptist missionary.

Toy lived until 1919 and his obituary in the Boston Evening Transcript didn’t say a word about the Toy Controversy.

Sources:

  1. Billy G. Hurt’s unpublished dissertation “Crawford Howell Toy: Interpreter of the Old Testament,”
  2. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s records.