William Louis Poteat (1856-1938) was a prominent educator, Progressive reformer, and leader in the Baptist denomination in North Carolina. He was the son of a slaveholder and grew up on a large tobacco plantation in Caswell County, North Carolina. From 1872 until 1877 he attended Wake Forest College, a Baptist school near Raleigh. He returned there in 1878 as a tutor and soon became a largely self-taught professor of biology. His introduction to modern science forced him to liberalize somewhat his conservative religious beliefs. He was a rarity in the South for openly teaching evolution beginning in the 1880s and was widely known among Southern Baptists for his advocacy of social Christianity. He led numerous campaigns for reform during the Progressive era on subjects including prohibition, public education, child labor, race relations, care of the insane, and eugenics. From 1905 until 1927 he served as president of Wake Forest College and guided the college based on a philosophy of Christian culture, a contrast to the zeal for practical training that simultaneously swept through the New South's state universities. In 1920 conservative Tarheel Baptists began to criticize Poteat for teaching his liberal (for the region) views on science and religion. He withstood assaults in 1920, 1922, and 1925 in a decade when a number of southern colleges dismissed professors for teaching evolution.
This study advances historical understanding on several topics. It examines the intellectual compromises necessary for a social critic to avoid condemnation in the South in this period. Historians have identified Poteat as a foremost southern exemplar of social Christianity, but this biography reveals the individualistic, traditional roots of his quest for Progressive social reform, emphasizing the lack of a social gospel in the South. Analyzing Poteat's philosophy of education is a first step toward interpreting the history of denominational higher education in the South in the early twentieth century. Further, regarding the history of science in the postbellum South, Poteat's efforts toward original research indicate that he sought professional development but faced many obstacles such as a lack of resources and colleagues as well as his own commitment to broad liberal learning. This study also reinterprets the evolution controversy of the twenties by placing the religious conservatives who attacked Poteat within the context of a democratic opposition to Progressive-era bureaucratization, rather than regarding them only as irrational zealots.