Basil Manly, Jr., one of the four founders of Southern Seminary, is primarily remembered today as the author of three important compositions: the Abstract of Principles, the hymn “Soldiers in Christ, in Truth Arrayed,” and The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration Explained and Vindicated. All three have played important roles in the history of Southern Seminary, and each is a testament to the school’s theological identity in training Christian ministers and missionaries to proclaim God’s Word. The first two compositions were prepared for the first year of the seminary’s existence, but the book-length Bible Doctrine of Inspiration did not appear in print until 1888.
In May 1879, Old Testament professor Crawford H. Toy resigned from the seminary due to public controversy regarding his heterodox views of biblical inspiration. Toy’s departure left an obvious void in the seminary faculty—which had reduced to only three in number—and it needed to win back the trust of its commitment to orthodoxy in the minds of many Southern Baptists. In its hour of need, the seminary called upon Manly to return to the institution he had helped establish two decades earlier. Manly, who had been serving as the president of Kentucky’s Georgetown College since 1871, answered the call, signed the Abstract of Principles a second time, and made efforts to promote a robust view of biblical inspiration in his classes and publications.
In an 1878 letter to his son, George, Manly confessed that one of his own besetting sins was procrastination, often due to indecision rather than indolence. He noted that he could become hesitant to finish many planned projects on account of his penchant for being “too omnivorous” in his reading of subjects in varied fields of literature. (( [Basil Manly Papers, 1852– 1892], Volume 10, 296– 99, SBTS Archives; Joseph Powhatan Cow, “A Study of the Life and Work of Basil Manly, Jr.” (Th.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1954), 275– 77.)) Thankfully, Manly’s procrastination problem would not prevent the publication of his most ambitious contribution a decade later.
The 1888 publication of The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration reached a wider audience than any of his classroom lectures. In the preface, Manly dedicated the book “to the candid, faithful examination of those in all Christian denominations who love and honor God’s blessed Word.” (( Basil Manly, The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration Explained and Vindicated (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1888), vi.)) The product of his lifetime of study, Manly sought to lay out an extensive defense of the doctrine while taking into consideration as many viewpoints as possible. (( Ibid.)) Its publication was timely, as Manly passed away only four years later.
In his history of Southern Seminary, Gregory Wills noted that Manly’s defense of verbal, plenary inspiration “rejected Toy’s method of extricating the spiritual meaning from the external framework of human speech.” (( Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859 – 2009 (Oxford University Press, 2009), 140.)) Manly contended that the Bible was “all written by man, all inspired by God,” and “it is all by singular and accumulated evidence declared to be the Word of God.” (( Ibid.; Manly, The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration, 29.))
During the latter half of the 20th century, however, some seminary faculty members openly taught a contrary position on the doctrine of biblical inspiration. (( Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 431.)) Although most of the seminary’s faculty had drifted far away from the doctrine of biblical inerrancy by the 1980s, Manly’s book still proved a significant influence on the seminary’s conservative resurgence. Arkansas evangelist David Miller joined the seminary’s Trustee Board in 1988, and he wanted to see the seminary’s doctrinal identity reflect the Abstract of Principles. While on the board, Miller acquired 65 copies of Manly’s Bible Doctrine of Inspiration and sent a copy to each of the seminary’s trustees, insisting that Manly’s book would provide the best interpretation of the intention of the Abstract’s first article on biblical inspiration:
Since Basil Manly wrote the Abstract, he was in a better position to explain what the Abstract meant than ‘academics’ who, sadly, too often re-write history for their own agenda. (( “The SBJT Forum,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13.1 (2009): 113.))
Miller also noted, in a 2009 interview, that an inerrantist interpretation of the Abstract’s article on “The Scriptures” served as a fundamental motivation in selecting a new seminary president “who embraced all twenty articles,” ultimately leading the trustees to choose R. Albert Mohler, Jr. as the institution’s ninth president in 1993. (( Ibid.))
More resources on Basil Manly, Jr. can be accessed courtesy of the SBTS Archives and Special Collections, located in the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
Any historical record of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is incomplete without an honest telling of their complicity in American slavery and racism. For more on that story, read here.