“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.

****

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.

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2 responses to ““May We Have More Modest Reports?”

  1. Interesting observations, especially about changes in the 1940′s. It’s fascinating to me to see how some preachers use Facebook, perhaps the “News and Notes” for the early 21st Century. Some request prayers, report on meetings and baptisms. Others like to exchange ideas on various issues of the day. Some, I’m afraid, seem obsessed with pictures of themselves. At any rate, I think many of brother Hinton’s points are still useful.

  2. The Facebook/social media analogy is apt. Our self-promoting tendencies, as humans, will always find a way to assert themselves.

    Glad to hear that your Dad’s surgery went well. Praying for a successful recovery.

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