Tag Archives: Nashville


A momentary break from historical posts for a bit of news.

1. In July, at the annual Lipscomb lectures, I will join John Mark Hicks, Jeremy Sweets, and Mac Ice for a second round of presentations and discussion about the history of the churches of Christ in Nashville. Last year’s presentations were well received (you can find mine here) and we look forward to a good session again this time around. I’ll be discussing the local and theological contexts of the 1938 Hardeman Tabernacle Meeting. Hope to see you there if you’re in town.

2. None of this means, of course, that I have abandoned John T. Lewis and Birmingham. Work continues there on several fronts. I’m currently digging more deeply into the origins of both First Christian Church and the Fox Hall congregation. Additionally, a big thanks is in order to Phillip Owens, of the Shannon church in Birmingham, for the opportunity to work with a large quantity of JTL’s personal papers and photographs in his possession.

3. Lastly, I want to mention what a privilege it has been over the past few weeks to help in the effort to preserve the congregational records of the Riverside Drive Church of Christ. As some of you know, Riverside Drive closed its doors at the end of March after 77 years of ministry in East Nashville. The congregation’s records are extensive: there is a lot of detailed information going back to the very beginning (February 1937), and a full run of bulletins starting in the early ’50s. I hope to share some of this material with you in the coming weeks as there is lots of interesting material vis-a-vis the larger history of the Nashville churches. UPDATE: I’ve posted some photos of the interior of the building over on my Tumblr.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.

“The Man and the Building”

hardeman tabernacle mtg

W. E. Brightwell (1893–1957), “News and Notes” editor for the Advocate and minister of the Waverly-Belmont church in Nashville, contributed an introduction for the published volume of the 1938 Hardeman Tabernacle Meeting. In it, he says the following about N. B. Hardeman and the Ryman Auditorium:

“The affinity between the man and the building is interesting, if not unique. Possibly no other man has used this remarkable building more; certainly none has put it to a better use. On the other hand, the building has surely received the cream of the best thoughts of his life. He has received more from the building, and the building has received more from him, than from any other man or building. His every utterance there has been published.”

I was struck by Brightwell’s rhetoric. He almost gets carried away, it seems. We can follow his words out to the point where the Ryman takes a place alongside the Cane Ridge meetinghouse and the Bethany church in the pantheon of sacred spaces for the churches of Christ. In Brightwell’s rhetorical construct, the Ryman becomes not solely (as it would become later) “The Mother Church of Country Music,” but the Mother Church of the renewed and rebuilt Jerusalem of the churches of Christ.

I base that claim on a statement made by Leonard Jackson, minister for the Franklin church, in his introduction of Hardeman on the opening night of the meeting, October 16, 1938. Consider the analogy that Jackson makes to explain the place of the meeting in the history of the churches and of the city of Nashville:

“The church … needs constant admonition to ‘contend

J. Leonard Jackson

J. Leonard Jackson

earnestly for the faith.’ Christendom, my friends, needs more Nehemiahs to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. She needs more Ezras to restore the law of God. Christendom needs more Zerubbabels to rebuild the temple of God. In your selection of a preacher to lead you in your gesture here toward these ends, you have chosen a man who has combined in himself the qualities of the afore-mentioned three. Like Nehemiah, he would rebuild Jerusalem’s fallen walls; as Ezra, he would uncover and restore the ‘law of grace'; like Zerubbabel, he would rebuild the temple of God. In this all important work, Nashville for the fourth time becomes the field of assertion.”

As with other writers among the churches, Nashville is Jerusalem. But Jerusalem has been allowed to crumble and it must be restored. Hardeman is the man—the only man—for the job. As we see here, expectations for the meeting were high and the rhetoric of the speakers rose to meet those expectations—and to stoke them even further.

“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.

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.

The marginalized Lewis

In my research, I have been fascinated by accounts of how the Gospel Advocate staff in the late 1950s handled the problem of John T. Lewis and his opposition to institutional buildup among the churches. Here are a couple of examples. These are instructive for what they say about institutional power (centered in Nashville) and its use among the Churches of Christ at midcentury.

This first excerpt is from Mississippi preacher, C. D. Crouch:

“C. E. W. Dorris is perhaps the oldest preacher of the gospel in Nashville, and is the able author of two of the Commentaries in the Advocate series of New Testament Commentaries. He stands today where Lipscomb stood on this matter when Lipscomb edited the Gospel Advocate. C. E. W. Dorris is not permitted to write for the Advocate today. He is not a crank; he is not a hobbyist. He is a safe and sane teacher, but he is not granted space in the Advocate to call attention to the Advocate’s departure from the truth!!! R. L. Whiteside, next to David Lipscomb, the greatest Bible scholar since the Apostles, was denied space in the Advocate before he went home to be with the Lord. James A. Allen, one time editor of the Advocate, can not be heard through its columns now. John T. Lewis who has been of greater service to the Advocate than any other man in Alabama, when that paper needed his service, is not permitted to have space in it to correct the misrepresentations made of him through its columns. Its present editor has the temerity to call such godly men ‘hobbyists’. And then he can declare that ‘somebody in the deep south’ told him that the young men are going to take over the Advocate!!!!!! Was he anticipating the change that ‘young men’ have taken it over already? Well, such is the case, and if Goodpasture has the intelligence that I have thought he has, he knows it has been ‘taken over’ by ‘young men’, and that it does not stand for the principles it maintained in the days of David Lipscomb. And the results are similar to the tragic results when the ‘young men’ took over Rehoboam…” (C. D. Crouch. “Reminiscing — No. 1.” Gospel Guardian 10.25 [October 23, 1958]: 1, 8).
Crouch is clearly upset (it may, for example, be an exaggeration to say that R. L. Whiteside was the greatest Bible teacher “since the Apostles”). By 1958-59, that was essentially the case everywhere these issues were in dispute. Even so, Crouch’s examples are telling.
And another. This one comes from some comments by Guardian editor, Fanning Yater Tant, regarding Guy N. Woods’ attack on Lewis during the 1957 Birmingham debate between Woods and Roy E. Cogdill. There was some disagreement, it would seem, about the transcript of the debate as it appeared in the Advocate and Guardian editions of the debate:
“Brother Woods seeks to make a play to arouse prejudice and destroy confidence by quoting from the first line of the publisher’s preface these words, ‘This book is an exact reproduction of the oral speeches delivered by the principals in a six night debate in Birmingham, Alabama.’ In the use he makes of this statement he disregards the rest of the preface which is explanatory of this introduction and then garbles another quotation made a little farther down in the preface, wresting and misapplying it entirely. This is the kind of treatment, and an example of the completely dishonorable attack he made on John T. Lewis during the debate. He introduced a chart with a quotation on it of what Brother Lewis had said concerning Carroll Kendrick, commending him for giving up the missionary society, and tried to construe it as an endorsement of what Brother Kendrick had said in a book to which Brother Lewis made no reference whatever. The debate closed with this disrespectful, dishonorable attempt to discredit and misrepresent a man whose honor and integrity has never been questioned and who has always had the respect even of those who oppose him and differ with him, uncorrected in spite of the fact that it was exposed and I begged Brother Woods to apologize for it.
“…I have not seen the Gospel Advocate version of the debate and do not intend to give Goodpasture $5 if I never see it. I do not know anything about its contents or how many “deletions” and how many changes or how much “smoothing” Guy did on his speeches in their version. But if he deleted from their edition the misrepresentation he made of a Tennessee statute which had been repealed for four years; and the mis-representation he was guilty of in falsely imputing an endorsement of an unscriptural position to John T. Lewis; the utterly dishonest denials he made of having made any change in position; and all of the other blunders he made and dishonesty he showed, it is a puny book. If Curtis Porter had not caught the deletion made by Woods from the Indianapolis debate it would have gone through. You can’t trust these brethren to treat you honorably and fairly. They have to be made do it. That is, unless you will worship at their altar and they will then feed you on sweet cream — but it curdles and turns sour before touching my lips.” (Fanning Yater Tant. “Slander — Gospel Advocate Style.” Gospel Guardian 10.34 [January 1, 1959]: 4-10.)
John T. Lewis was sitting in the audience of the Cogdill-Woods debate, which took place in the auditorium of Phillips High School in Birmingham in November, 1957. As the institutional issue was being debated in Birmingham, the legacy of Lewis loomed large. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Lewis himself became the subject of the debate on one of its last nights. Tant’s comments give us a sense of just how much was at stake.

Quizzes and Replies

Price Billingsley (1877-1959)

Price Billingsley (1877-1959)

In the early 1920s, Price Billingsley edited the Gospel Advance, a journal published out of (successively) McMinnville, Columbia, and Nashville, Tennessee. The Advance was largely sympathetic to the overall aims of its neighbor, the Gospel Advocate. But not always. In a number of issues, for example, Billingsley devoted considerable space to highlighting the inconsistencies of Advocate editor J. C. McQuiddy on the carnal warfare question. More of that, though, at a later date.

Under the above heading, Billingsley put four questions to a number of noted preachers and leaders among the churches in the January 1922 issue:

1. What single occurrence was the most significant and cheering during the year just closed in the spread of the gospel?

2. What do the churches of Christ most need today?

3. What evils in the church today, or what dangerous tendencies menace us?

4. What one most important thing will make the year just begun the banner year in extending the kingdom of Christ?

One of the people that Billingsley queried was John T. Lewis. Here are his answers:

1. I simply can’t do it. God only has that particular information.

2. Spiritual life, and the way to get that is to read the Word of God, and pray more. We are living in an almost prayerless age, an age that leaves God out of our doings.

Very few children ever heard their fathers pray, or know what family prayer is. We must change our course or the ship which carries the next generation will be wrecked on the rocks of infidelity.

3. The selfishness manifested, and the course pursued by the teachers in the church, whether preachers or elders, have always been, are now and always will be the greatest menace to the church. To illustrate, fire and water are two of the greatest blessings to humanity so long as they are under control; but when once on a rampage they become the most destructive agencies of life and property. So it is with the teachers in the church, so long as they are controlled by the spirit of Christ they are indispensable to the life and growth of the church; but when they get headed in the wrong direction they become the most deadly menace to the church. Tell me the ideas and ideals of the teachers of a church, and I will tell you what kind of a church it is. A teacher usually imparts his very being to those taught. The apparent lack of the spirit of Christ manifested by many of those “who are reputed to be somewhat” [Gal. 2:6] among us, is the darkest spot that I see in the elements of faith today.

4. According to my premise the conclusion will have to be, if preachers will rid themselves of self, putting away all “enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths and factions,” and “sanctify in their hearts Christ as Lord” — do what they can do for the cause of Christ, and rejoice in whatever good others may do — this will be a glorious year for the church.


When he writes in to the journals, we most frequently see the polemical side of Lewis. Here, though, we see a glimpse of what we might call his pastoral side. It is marked by a deep concern for the spiritual lives of his congregants — centered on prayer and on the reading of the Word, in the church and in the family — and  a deep concern for the spiritual formation (to use an admittedly anachronistic term) of leaders in the church. “Tell me,” Lewis writes, “the ideas and ideals of the teachers of a church, and I will tell you what kind of a church it is. A teacher usually imparts his very being to those taught.”

If we are willing to listen, may Lewis’ words encourage us to reflect on the role of teaching in the church and the seriousness with which we are called to approach it.


On the Limits of Digitization

I’m knee-deep in the 1920 volume of the Gospel Advocate at the moment. This seemed like a good time to pause and talk about a few things I’ve noticed.

I heard recently that the digitization of the entire GA is getting closer. That’s exciting news. It will be a real boon for anyone doing anything with the history of the Churches of Christ. For the first time, the journal will be truly searchable. The Advocate has never had even a truly useful index, so if you want to find something you have to proceed page by page looking for what it is you want to find. Undoubtedly, it will be nice to be able to plug “John T. Lewis” or “Birmingham” into a search engine and watch as the results pop up.

Even so, paging through (so far) several thousand pages of the journal — that’s about 1500 pages per year — has taught me something. You can miss a lot by relying on the results of a search engine. Now, I don’t have any insight into how exactly the people responsible for the digitization will set things up, so what I’m saying here is not meant to be a criticism of them or their work. What I mean, instead, is that one of the greatest benefits of running my finger down every single column of text looking for Lewis’ name or references to Birmingham has been that it has given me a good sense of the atmosphere of the churches in the years I’ve surveyed so far. It’s given me a good handle on a lot of contingent factors I wouldn’t have understood had I been relying solely on the results page of a search engine.

Emma Page Larimore (1855-1943)

I’ve learned what people were arguing about in those years — the most contested doctrinal issues and the conflicts with Baptist and Disciple church leaders (among others). J. M. McCaleb’s “Missionary” column has introduced me to the work of William and Clara Bishop in Japan and John Sheriff in Rhodesia. McCaleb and J. C. McQuiddy have shown me the great extent to which a place like Alabama was seen as a mission field in those years. Emma Page Larimore’s “Children’s Corner” is an unqualified delight (that I’ve had to stop myself from reading on many occasions). Lipscomb and Sewell’s “Queries and Answers” have given me a window onto the kinds of conversations being had in congregations all over the country. Careful reading has also allowed me to note the significance of the changes made to the journal’s format (not all for the better, in my opinion) by A. B. Lipscomb in the 1912-13 volumes.

And there’s more: the outbreak of the premillennial controversy in the Spring of 1915; the lead-up to World War I; the Coca-Cola ads, the patent medicine ads, and much more.

I could go on, but my point is this: I likely wouldn’t have gotten any of this through an electronic search. Being forced to submit to the slow process of research has allowed me to read Lewis’ articles and reports in context rather than in isolation. To be sure, I’m grateful that the Advocate will soon be digitized, but I’ve also come to appreciate being forced to do things the old-fashioned way.