“May We Have More Modest Reports?”

I’ve written here in recent months about some of the more moving stories to be encountered through a careful reading of the “News and Notes” column in the Gospel Advocate. It’s an unlikely source, to be sure, but I’ve been edified by my encounter with such stories.

By the 1940s, one can detect an unmistakeable shift of atmosphere in “News and Notes.” What had once been the place where a small, committed band of evangelists shared news and prayer concerns, marriage announcements and jokes, pleas for help and so on, gradually became a bloated vehicle for self-promotion and career-building.

This shift can be seen in at least a couple of ways. First, there is the fact that “News and Notes” ballooned in size during this period. By the 1940s, “News and Notes” typically took up a third or more of the total weekly page count. Most everyone wanted to appear on the page. (Incidentally, John T. Lewis was a notable exception; you’ll only find him there if he’s being mentioned by someone else.) In part, this was because such appearances, especially regular ones, were the currency of a career in preaching. It was a way to get your name out there, to break into the brotherhood of preachers, especially if you were young.

A. E. Emmons, Jr. (1913-1980)

A. E. Emmons, Jr. (1911-1980)

Consider the example of Birmingham preacher A. E. Emmons, Jr., preacher for the new Central Church of Christ from 1942 to 1948. During his time in Birmingham, Emmons became a regular contributor to “News and Notes.” Whether the news was significant or not, Emmons kept the statistical reports coming. These reports, whatever their intrinsic value, served to keep Central — and, just as importantly, Emmons himself — before the brotherhood as an active and growing congregation. Thus it could be seen as a kind of resume-padding.

But that is to be perhaps a bit too cynical. These sorts of reports served another, equally important function. They allowed Emmons to extend the favor of good publicity to young preachers with whom he was acquainted. As was common in those days, Emmons would leave Birmingham during gospel meeting season (i.e., the summer) to hold meetings across the country. While he was gone a young man, usually from one of the colleges affiliated with the Churches of Christ, would fill in for him. For example, Jack Duncan filled in at Central during the summers of 1943 and 1944; Joe F. Watson, a student at Freed-Hardeman College, filled in for the summer of 1945; Bob Crawley, then a student at David Lipscomb College, filled in during the summer of 1946. (Some of you will recall that Crawley later preached at Belview Heights in Birmingham.)

In each case, Emmons repeatedly mentions the young man’s name and compliments him on the work he did for the Central church. Such mentions in “News and Notes” functioned as a brief letter of recommendation for young preachers and songleaders from all over the country who were looking for meeting work or for a position with an established congregation.

A second way in which we can see how “News and Notes” was changing is that the content of entries became more formulaic, more laconic. Individual entries came to consist largely of a tally of meeting locations, numbers baptized, numbers restored. Such information has its uses for the historian, of course. But even the detail-obsessed among us (like myself) can see that something important was lost. Gone is the personal feel of earlier reports: the request for prayers for a dying church member, the wedding and birth announcements, the family news, jokes — in short all of the little gems that one might have found there thirty years earlier.

The Advocate itself, it should be noted, encouraged this change: “News and Notes” editor W. E. Brightwell (1893-1957) frequently exhorted those who sent in reports to strip out all “extraneous” details from their reports. To make clear what it was he was looking for in a good “News and Notes” entry, Brightwell ran a feature called “The Sum Total,” a context-free tally of the number of baptisms and restorations reported in a given issue. At various times, similar tallies were given for the Nashville churches. Brightwell wanted the stats; the personal stories were, it would seem, nice but unnecessary.

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These changes had their critics, none more pointed than Birmingham preacher

Pryde E. Hinton (1897-1978)

Pryde E. Hinton (1897-1978)

Pryde Hinton. Hinton, after spending time in Atlanta and Selma in the ’20s and ’30s, settled for the bulk of his preaching career in northern Jefferson County, Alabama, around Warrior and Oneonta. He was a frequent contributor of articles to the Advocate and a close associate of the Birmingham churches and of John T. Lewis, even though they had their differences from time to time. As was true of Lewis, Hinton was hardly one to shy away from speaking his mind.

A characteristic example of Hinton’s criticism of “News and Notes” can be found in the May 23, 1946 issue of the Advocate, which I transcribe here unedited:

“And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And there they abode long time with the disciples.” (Acts 14: 26-28.)

Some things in the above are more obvious than the identity of a colored parson.

1. God’s grace was considered a major factor.

2. They were responsible to the church which sent them. (Acts 13.)

3. They reported to the church which sent them–not to the “brotherhood.”

4. They did not tell what they had done, but “all that God had done with them.” They seemed only humble tools in God’s hand.

5. They gave God the credit for their success. He opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. In the words of one of these preachers: “Neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” How time changes things–sometimes!

If a Christian moves from Bugtussle to Peepcrack (there are such names in Alabama — well, nicknames, anyway), he should make himself known to the elders, if they are to look after his soul. But it does seem that the elders might notice that a stranger is present, talk with him, and then announce his coming to work and worship with the congregation — not that evening, for then precious few would ever know it, but next Lord’s-day morning. Or Brother Jones could come forward in “response” to the invitation.

But what I still want to know is this: Why is such a change of address of any importance to Christians in Tennessee or Texas? If Bugtussle is a better church, having a stronger group of elders than Peepcrack, is not Brother Jones worse off for the move? Too, granting that Brother Jones is an asset, has not Bugtussle lost a fellow worker? Is that good news?

But it does make good padding for the preacher’s report, and he must create the impression that things are happening like fighting fire, since he has moved to Peepcrack. Perhaps Brother Jones would have been left out in the cold, cold world if the preacher had not been there to grasp his hand when he came down the aisle in “response” to the invitation (either aisle).

May we have more modest reports? Also I suggest that we give God credit for opening the door of faith unto people, anyway. Surely it was not altogether our irresistible personalities that won the people to Christ! God must have had some part in the meeting.

– “An Interesting Report,” Gospel Advocate 88.21 (May 23, 1946): 499.

Hinton wrote several of these blistering meta-level criticisms of the self-promoting fare to be found in “News and Notes.” This isn’t even the harshest one. More amazing to me is that the Advocate printed them.

Anniversary

I’m not much for this sort of thing, but it seems appropriate now. I was just reminded that 2014 is the tenth year of this blog’s existence. Doubtless, it’s difficult to back up from your own work and look at it critically. Moreover, how does one discern a narrative arc in a blog? Bear with me for a moment, though, while I give it a try.

Ten years ago, I was teaching Latin in suburban Atlanta and finishing up an M.A. Some of you, my longsuffering readers, remember those days: my preoccupation with ephemeral news items, shallow engagements with evangelical theology, and all of that classics-related miscellanea. The flirtation with emergent stuff, the interaction with ‘progressive’ CofC bloggers, the casual flirtation with the politics of the Evangelical Left — it’s all there fossilized forever on the Internet. Regrettable? Perhaps. None of it’s terribly compelling, a lot of it is more than a little embarrassing. At the same time, though, the permanence that the Internet bestows on our digital lives has its uses. It’s probably a good exercise for every blogger to go back and cringe for a moment at some clumsily expressed opinion or ill-considered book recommendation that sounded good at the time. It helps to nurture a humble spirit, if nothing else.

A lot has happened since then. I myself have changed. My wife and I recently passed twelve years of marriage. Our two girls are growing up: they started kindergarten this past fall. I’ve been through a seminary degree program and completed another thesis. A job in publishing that started out as a way to generate income with two babies on the way has turned into something that kind of resembles a career. There have been professional successes. I’ve benefited greatly from some close friendships.

There are roses in life and there are thorns, of course. The past few years have seen dreams pursued and thwarted. I’ve had occasion to see how cruel people can be. But I’ve also been the recipient of incredible kindness. I’ve been given gifts of support and friendship that I do not deserve, gifts that I can only attribute to work of a God who cares.

But back to the blog-iversary.

The nature of this blog has changed over time. After 2010 or so, it seemed best to take this thing in a more substantive direction. I didn’t exactly know what that would look like then, but in years since then I’ve given much more space to my research, and correspondingly less to the news of the day, internet disputes, and things of that sort. I can say without hesitation that that was a good decision. One of the unanticipated ironies of that decision is that the narrower my focus has become the wider the readership here has grown. I’m still processing exactly what that means. Growing my readership has never been the highest of my priorities. I can say, though, that I’m extremely grateful for all of your insights and comments on what I’ve written and posted here.

At the center of my shift as a blogger has been my research on John T. Lewis and on the Nashville churches. A reflection of this sort wouldn’t be complete without some attempt to take stock of that. In  large part, I have Mac Ice and John Mark Hicks to thank for my focus on these two topics: Mac for countless long conversations about Nashville and the chance to hang around the Historical Society; John Mark for historical and systematic theology classes that helped me put some things in broader perspective, for Kingdom Come, and for helping me see Lewis’ life and thought as a needed area of research.

I’ve been reading and thinking and writing about Lewis in particular with some regularity since 2010. That summer, I was invited to give two lectures at the Lafayette Church of Christ in Lafayette, Tennessee, one on Daniel Sommer and the other on Lewis. It was then that I began to think there might be room for a detailed study of Lewis’ life and work. It was not until 2012 that I had read and thought enough to begin to put together a proposal for a thesis on Lewis.

I think I’ve come to see, as I’ve lived with Lewis and his writings for the past year and a half that this project has always been about more than an indulgence in my love of research. It’s personal: it’s very much about who I am, who I was raised to be, and who I, for better or worse, have become. Constant interaction with Lewis’ thought has challenged and changed me. He’s given me many an opportunity for self-reflection, for reflection on my family and my religious inheritance. He’s been the starting point of some important friendships over the past few years, and the source of some courage in the midst of conflict and uncertainty. For all of that I’m thankful: to him, in a way, and also to all of you who have been here with me to help me process it here.

To be sure, I’ve never been the world’s most consistent blogger. It would be rash of me to promise that 2014 will be any different. That said, there are several exciting things on the horizon. Look for more details here in the coming months.

“Synagogues of Satan”

Tolbert Fanning

Tolbert Fanning, 1810-1874 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading J. E. Scobey’s Franklin College and its Influences (1904) of late. Scobey’s book is part biography of Tolbert Fanning, part history of Franklin College, Fanning’s short-lived school.

Reading this morning, I came across this bit from Fanning’s pen that seemed worth sharing:

“It is an indisputable fact that even churches formed of the wealthy, speculative, and idle are little more than synagogues of Satan. I pretend not to account for the mystery; but if there be truth in existence, there is something in labor which controls and subdues man’s animal appetites–reconciles him to his Maker and renders him contented with his lot. If it be an object to have honest society, the proper plan is to form it of a working population; if we wish good morals, we must find people who live by industry; and if we wish to live with the pious, we must find an association in which the rule is adopted and carried out punctiliously that ‘he that will not work shall not eat.’ All the sermons, lectures, and papers of Christendom will fail to make an idle, luxurious, and sport-seeking community either wise, virtuous, or happy. The best and happiest beings of earth are such as ‘do their own work, laboring with their own hands,’ and love to have it so. The working classes are admitted to be the most charitable of all others.”

Christian Review (1846), quoted in Scobey, pp. 24-25.

Snippets from the pens of Fanning and David Lipscomb along these lines could easily be multiplied. Fanning’s writings frequently feature attacks on wealth in the Church and push through the lines we usually draw in contemporary American society (and American Christianity) about wealth and poverty, socioeconomic and educational status. Franklin College — and its institutional descendants, the Nashville Bible School (1891) and Alabama Christian College (1912-1922) — were characterized by a deep commitment to the value of manual labor and of education of the poor.

In Nashville, these commitments are what set NBS in its early years apart from schools like Vanderbilt University and Ward-Belmont College, schools that indeed were open, but open for those who could afford to pay. As time went on, the pedagogical vision of Fanning and Lipscomb was forgotten in the quest of college administrators to conform their institutions to the prevailing standards of American higher education in the twentieth century, a quest that was paralleled in churches in the same period as Fanning himself suggests in this excerpt.

Death on a Saturday Evening

As I said the other day, it is the human stories that one encounters in the Advocate that really have moved me in this process.

In May 1938, Cled Wallace (1892-1962) came to Birmingham to hold a meeting for the Bessemer church. We don’t know much about the outcome of the meeting as far as the usual measures. J. R. Ezell (1886-1966), elder and preacher for the Bessemer church, did not submit the normal tally of baptisms and restorations. Neither did Wallace submit a report of his own.

The August 4, 1938, issue of the Gospel Advocate gives us a possible explanation. There we find the following obituary from the pen of John T. Lewis:

John Morgan Queen was born August 14, 1899; run down and killed by an automobile May 7, 1938. He had just driven up to the church where Cled Wallace was conducting a meeting in Bessemer, Ala., got out of his car, and started across the street, when he was hit by a passing car, and never regained consciousness. He was baptized by the writer February 8, 1928, and was married to Miss Gladys Dobbs, August 11, 1933. From the time he obeyed the gospel till his untimely passing he was an interested, diligent student of the Bible, and never missed an opportunity of talking to his friends about the importance of obeying the gospel and living the Christian life. He was a good song leader, could make good talks, and would do anything he was called on to do in the work and worship of the church. In all my association with him I never heard him use a vulgar word or tell a smutty yarn. He kept the scriptural injunction: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” — JOHN T. LEWIS.

We can only speculate as to how devastating this must have been for the members of the Bessemer church. Does a church continue a meeting after an event of this sort or just call it off? It’s difficult, in our day, to understand the enthusiasm that would have surrounded a gospel meeting in Queen and Lewis’ day. Perhaps Queen’s enthusiasm is also foreign to us.

Something else strikes me here. Lewis’ obituaries in the Advocate really are models of restraint. They lend dignity to the lives of their subjects; they do not detract from them with wordiness or flowery vocabulary. Not that anyone ever receives formal training in obituary composition, but there’s probably a lesson there for us.

Lewis also never fails to pass up an opportunity to teach with an example. Queen, he tells us, was a model of what the Scripture means that says, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4.23).

Missing Persons Report

For much of its history, one of the chief features of the Gospel Advocate was its “News and Notes” section. By doing nothing more than watching how this section of the paper developed over the years one can learn a lot about the paper as a whole, as well as about the self-image of many in the Churches of Christ.

For the most part, “News and Notes” consisted of reports from preachers and congregations about gospel meetings, changes of address, and other newsworthy items. By and large, it makes for bland reading, at least for the casual reader.

Every now and again, though, a note of pathos breaks through. A few such items have appeared along the way in my Birmingham research. Here’s one from the March 6, 1930 issue of the Advocate:

Mrs. Harry L. Parker, Route 7, Box 76, Birmingham, Ala., February 20: “I am wondering if any of the readers of the Gospel Advocate could give us any information about a brother and sister in Christ, Mr. and Mrs. B. A. Austin. Brother and Sister Austin are young people about twenty-eight and twenty-four years, respectively. They labored with the congregation at North Lewisburg, Ala., for about one year. They were formerly from Southwest Missouri. They were members of the Christian Church there, but took up work with this congregation, knowing only the church to give God all glory. On December 26, 1929, they left here with household furniture on an open truck (White’s), bound for some place in Missouri, promising to even write us on their journey. But we have never had a single line from them and are anxious about them. We do not know their former home address. Any information through the Advocate or otherwise will be appreciated by the whole congregation here.”
Whatever happened to Mr. and Mrs. B. A. Austin? Did the good people of the Lewisburg church ever hear from them? We don’t know. There’s no followup, at least not in the Advocate. But the note of concern — something not heard very often in “News and Notes” –  in Sister Parker’s letter stands out. In it, we get a tiny glimpse into the lives and feelings of the people who filled the Birmingham churches in John T. Lewis’ day.
That’s been one of the real gifts to me of engaging in this research. It’s easy to get lost in chronological minutiae — Who was preaching where? When was a given church established? — or in the doctrinal conflicts that expended much of Lewis’ energy. Items like this, though, have the salutary effect of reminding me that there are flesh-and-blood human beings behind all of this. Countless people who never occupied a pulpit or wrote for the papers lived and died, married and raised children, in these churches. Our opportunities to hear their voices are rare and are a gift to be treasured.

Whither Swarming?

In a column in the January 5, 1939 issue of the Gospel Advocate, G. C. Brewer gives inadvertent testimony to the decline of the practice — so influential in the growth of the Nashville churches — of “swarming” to start new congregations.

Noting F. D. Srygley’s assertion that we are “a people decidedly argumentative in [our] theology,” Brewer makes the following observation:

“Illustration: In an elders’ meeting of a certain congregation recently the question of starting a new congregation was discussed. ‘Where will we get members to compose this new congregation?’ some one asked. ‘Take them from our congregation,’ some one else replied. ‘But no one wants to leave this church, and we cannot make members go elsewhere!’ Thus one elder argued, and all agreed in that. Then this revealing remark was made: ‘You cannot start a new church without a faction. If you will get up some strife and cause a division, you can start a really working band at some other place, and those who remain here will work ten times harder in order to keep the others from outdoing them.’” (pp. 6-7)

Several observations could be made here. Allow me just one (recognizing that it is not GCB’s main point). In 1939, it was already the case that the anti-swarming argument (i.e. that ‘no one wants to leave this church, and we cannot make members go elsewhere!’) was seen as perfectly reasonable, unarguable even. This represents a huge shift from ca. 1900 or even 1920.

Nashville 1938

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This full page ad for the published 1938 Tabernacle Meeting comes from the back page of the final issue for the year. More to come.