Facing the Challenges of Modernity: William L. Poteat and Augustus H. Strong in Contrast

William L. Poteat and Augustus H. Strong, both presidents of influential Baptist institutions of higher education in the early twentieth century, were confronted by the weighty intellectual challenges of era that were shaking the foundations of Protestant Christianity in America. Both Poteat and Strong took these challenges seriously and devoted careful reflection over time to find satisfying answers, both for themselves and with the intentional of guiding the institutions that they served, namely Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Rochester Theological Seminary in New York. In the end, Poteat, the Southern Baptist, embraced the liberal solution and reconceptualized Christianity in light of the modern age and he led his college to be the most significant base of theological liberalism in the Baptist south, while the Northern Baptist, Strong, took a more nuanced and conservative approach in which he personally preserved the core of theological orthodoxy but also left room for a range of views among members of the faculty, including a more liberal perspective. This comparison provides an unexpected outcome in which the more conservative southern context yields an outspoken proponent of theological liberalism, while the more progressive urban north reveals a creative but generally traditional response to modernity. However, in the end, Strong’s professional approach to maintain institutional openness to liberal streams of thought overtime seemed to yield a similar outcome as Poteat’s open advocacy of liberal ideas at Wake Forest—liberalism became dominant. The older of the two, Strong, passed away in 1921 with some unease as he thought about the seminary’s future. Strong died before the main denominational battles of the 1920s, while Poteat endured them at the most personal level and prevailed, which secured space for liberal ideas in Southern Baptist life for decades to come.

4 thoughts on “Facing the Challenges of Modernity: William L. Poteat and Augustus H. Strong in Contrast”

  1. more Poteat
    The paper would be a substantive follow-up to the prior year paper on Poteat. The repeat emphasis diminishes my preference somewhat for the paper’s inclusion, but on the other hand it does attest the author’s proven expertise. This should be a “Strong” contender.

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  2. Of interest; contribution?
    Topic fits our section. Like Glenn, I wonder about the thesis. The paper should prove to be a solid comparison of the two Baptist presidents, but I wonder about the “so what?” question.

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