Tag Archives: Nashville

Housekeeping

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.

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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.

Commencement Chaos: DLC, 1920

Or, “A. B. Lipscomb Pulls a Kanye.”

The semester is over and I have returned to Lewis-related matters. Some reading the other day reminded me of the following story. Since it’s May, it seemed like a good time to share.

The final chapter of Ottis Castleberry’s He Looked for a City contains transcripts of Castleberry’s interviews with a number of people who knew John T. Lewis very closely. Leonard Johnson, co-founder (along with Rex Turner and Joe Greer) of Montgomery Bible College (now Faulkner University), recounts the following story:

“Brother Lewis went back to David Lipscomb College to give the commencement address [in 1920]. His subject was ‘Compromise,’ and in his lesson, he went back, as I recall, and took Biblical examples of men and women who compromised. He addressed the students and said, ‘Young men and women, I want to give you some modern examples of compromise. (Well, there had been a Christian Church preacher, who was well known in his day and he had been holding a meeting in one of the Christian Churches in Nashville; and several of the brethren including Brother Pittman, A. B. Lipscomb, F. B. Srygley, and a host of others — I don’t know how many more had gone out to hear this man, and each one of them had been invited to lead in prayer and had done so.) All of these men were present for the commencement address. Brother Lewis began to tell the young people about the Christian Church preacher having been in town not long ago. He said, ‘S. P. Pittman, A. B. Lipscomb, F. B. Srygley,’ and he named several others, ‘were present and they participated in this worship and led the prayer — now that’s a modern example of compromise.’

“Well, when he said that, Brother A. B. Lipscomb stopped him, and for the next several minutes, with the exception of Brother Pittman — Brother Pittman never did defend himself — all the rest of these men jumped up right there in public, and they had it over and under. A. B. said, ‘Uncle Dave would have done so and so.’

“Well, Brother Lewis pretty well whipped them down to the point that they were willing for him to go on and finish his address.

F. B. Srygley (1859-1940)

Brother Srygley said to him after it was over, ‘Won’t you eat dinner with me?’ Brother Lewis said, ‘Naw, F. B., I’ve already got an appointment.’ So F. B. said, ‘ Well then, come up to the Gospel Advocate office this afternoon,’ and Brother Lewis said, ‘I’ll be right there.’

“A whole host of these men gathered because they knew Brother Srygley would be on him. Brother Srygley and Brother Lewis were good friends — dear friends — but Brother Srygley was quite a bulldog. He wasn’t used to anyone skinning him in public, and he wasn’t about to take it. So they got down there, and Brother Lewis walked in. Brother Srygley started, ‘Now John–‘ and he jumped him immediately. He said, ‘I want to tell you something, John T., I never allow any man to stand between me and my God.’ Brother Lewis said, ‘You don’t?’ Brother Srygley answered, ‘No sir.’ Brother Lewis said, ‘Now F. B., wasn’t R. H. Boll in town a few weeks ago? Didn’t you go out to hear him, and didn’t they ask you to lead in prayer?’ Brother Srygley said, ‘Yessir.’ Brother Lewis asked, ‘Didja?’ Brother Srygley began to stammer, ‘um, ah, um, well, I just couldn’t get down on my knees.’

“Brother Lewis looked straight at him, ‘Srygley, that’s too thin. I thought you never let any man get between you and your God.’

“Well, that broke that thing up. Brother Srygley had refused to lead the prayer in an R. H. Boll meeting, and then had gone out and led the prayer in this Christian Church.

“The thing about Brother Lewis was that he was fearless when he believed a thing. He wasn’t angry at anybody, but he thought they ought to be exposed. He didn’t wait until he was behind their backs. He just got them there in a crowd and let them have it. The interesting thing is that he did it — he just told them — its rather an unusual situation for you don’t commonly think of a man’s commencement address being broken up because he exposed someone.” (Castleberry, He Looked for a City, 245-246.)

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Castleberry also publishes, at a different point in the book, a letter written to Lewis by H. Leo Boles. (Boles, in 1920, was on his way out of his first stint as president of DLC.) Here it is:

May 25, 1920

Dear Brother:

I have been wanting to write you ever since you were up here, but have just now found time. In addition to the other work that I have had to do, I have been moving.

I wanted to say that after calm deliberation I am more confirmed in the opinion that your speech was scriptural and timely. I have heard a number of thoughtful people who were present express themselves and they all think as I do. Some of the other side have expressed themselves as making a mistake that day in trying to answer or discredit some of the statements that you made.

May the Lord bless you for your faith, zeal and courage. I appreciated very much your speech and the courage that you manifested in giving it.

Yours fraternally,

H. Leo Boles

A Postscript on “The Nashville Establishment”

I’ve been surprised over the past couple of days at the level of interest a recent post (“On the Nashville Establishment“) has generated, both here on this blog and in other settings as well. Most of this has been positive, and for that I’m very grateful.

The best scholarship pushes discussion forward and helps us to think about the evidence in new ways. I for one have been challenged by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine and the Tennessee-Texas-Indiana paradigm that they have set out for understanding Churches of Christ in the early 20th century. What I’ve tried to do in describing the “Nashville Establishment” is to provide a framework for understanding the history of Churches of Christ in this city. If what I have done here helps to advance someone’s thinking, then I will be satisfied.

That said, I’d like to address one theme that has shown up in a few of the responses. It’s really easy, I think, when dealing with the history of whatever period or group of people, to fall into the trap of sitting in judgment upon people who are not around to defend themselves, to hold those people to a standard that we ourselves have set. Avoiding this trap — the trap of overtly polemical historiography — does not release us from a certain tension. As a historian, I want to be fair to the Comers and to the good motives that undoubtedly drove them to set up the Church of Christ Foundation. I also want to tell their story accurately.

But I also want to be honest. I’m not telling this story in a vacuum. I’m not telling it for its own sake. I believe it has something to say to us about the role of money and power in the history of Churches of Christ in Nashville. Whatever one might think of Don Haymes’ analysis of the “Church of Christ Establishment” — whether he got all of the particulars right or not — he put his finger on something very important. Even as we loudly protest that we are not a denomination, we often act like one. To say this, of course, is to touch a sensitive nerve. A lot of us still believe that we are nothing more than a loose network of autonomous congregations.  That’s what we want to be, of course, but is that what we actually are? Is that how we actually behave?

Our observable history in places like Nashville suggests otherwise. The story of R. W. Comer and his trust fund is by no means an isolated incident. To be sure, the role of the Comer and Burton families in Nashville exemplifies how the power structure functioned at its height.  But examples of the establishment’s treatment of (and concerted action against) those who got in its way can be found in many other places. Among those, we might mention the churches and leaders involved in the non-institutional protest of the 1950s and the African-American church leaders who fought the closure of the Nashville Christian Institute in 1967.

We could go further, of course. Let me close for now by saying this. If anything, I hope these stories can help us to reflect unflinchingly on who we have been, who we are, and where we might be going. I also hope they help us to pay attention to how easily, in our efforts to spread the good news of the kingdom, we can be seduced by the world’s methods and standards of success.

Thanks again for your participation.

On the “Nashville Establishment”

As most of you know, over the past few years I’ve given a fair amount of time to researching the history of the Churches of Christ in Nashville. (I’m not the only one. He’s a lot farther along than I am.) In that process, there have been challenges. This includes, of course, the conventional challenges that every researcher faces like the availability of source material or the availability of interviewees. (Some of the most useful source material for me — church bulletins, for example — is also the stuff that people are the most likely to throw out.)

But there are other, more substantive challenges, as well. One of these might be described as a lack of a compelling way to organize all of the information I’ve accumulated. In my East Nashville research, I found what I still think is a reasonably effective way to organize the story. But something has become clearer to me since then. It’s this: the history of the Churches of Christ in Nashville is not simply the aggregate of all of the congregational histories that one might care to research and write. It’s not simply the biography of this or that important figure. Dig around in the history of our churches in Nashville long enough and you will encounter a reality that is much larger than any of these. You will come to see that the history of these churches (in the 20th century, at least) is wrapped up in the history of an idea, a dream, a vision.

So, what’s the idea (or dream, or vision)? I’ve come to refer to it in a shorthand way as the “Nashville Establishment.” Like all such dreams or visions, this particular idea has its positives and its negatives, its best face and its dark side, its heroes and its villains. What it hasn’t had heretofore is someone to write the history of it. I won’t be doing that in the short span of a single blog post, but I do think it needs pointing out that we stand at a unique vantage  point for doing just that. The enterprising historian, from the perspective of 2012, is in a position to see the entire arc of this idea’s history: its inception in the early 20th century, its moment in the sun in the period from (roughly) 1940-1980, and its eventual collapse at century’s end.

What I want to do in this post is much more modest. I will examine here the story of one man (one family, really) who played an enormously influential role at a critical time in the development of this idea. Unfortunately, few people in Nashville today have ever heard of him. (But, perhaps that’s one of the ironies of all of this.)

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But first: what is the “Nashville Establishment”? What is this idea? In 1966, Don Haymes published a map of what he called the “Church of Christ Establishment.” It’s a “tragicomic” (Hans Rollmann’s phrase) attempt to map the major figures and institutions of the day on something of a left-right spectrum. Near the top of the chart are the designations “Vatican East” and “Vatican West,” for Nashville and Abilene respectively. At the head of “Vatican East,” Haymes places three men: Athens Clay Pullias, Willard Collins, and B. C. Goodpasture. It isn’t necessary for our purposes to ponder the significance of who is included on this list.  What matters is that Haymes recognizes the special character, the special place, of Nashville in the thought-world of Churches of Christ. But Haymes was not himself a Nashvillian and nowhere was the mythos of Nashville’s special place stronger and more clearly expressed than right here in the Athens of the South.

As early as 1915, one can find evidence of this. With some justification, James A. Allen, in a special issue of the Gospel Advocate in that year that highlighted Nashville churches, could exult in referring to Nashville as “Jerusalem” before proceeding to describe the congregations that dotted all areas of the city by that point.  Even at this early date, an impressive record of evangelism, beginning in the years after the Civil War, as well as the presence of the Gospel Advocate and the growing Nashville Bible School provided ample evidence for the claim. This is our city: this was the message delivered repeatedly over the years in special issues of the Gospel Advocate.

This mentality manifested itself in very concrete ways as the century wore on. On the ground, you find it expressed in a rapidly developing nexus of congregations, institutions, and wealthy corporate donors. It should also be noted that it developed rather quickly: it had largely solidified by 1950 if not earlier. To speak a bit more of those three elements, we should include:

1. Pacesetting congregations like Russell Street, Charlotte Avenue, Hillsboro, College Church (Granny White), and (later) Madison. These churches were held up very prominently in the pages of the Gospel Advocate as models for other churches to emulate and, for the most part, smaller congregations in the city followed in step with the attitudes and actions of these larger churches.

2. Institutions like David Lipscomb College, the Gospel Advocate (the Bible faculty at DLC and the writing staff at the GA often overlapped during these years), McQuiddy Printing, 20th Century Christian, and (a bit later) a number of secondary schools (Goodpasture, Ezell-Harding, and the Nashville Christian Institute) and charitable institutions (e.g. Chapel Avenue Home for the Aged and the “Lakeshore” group of homes for the aged). Where to begin? These were the things that gave Nashville Churches of Christ a collective identity in the 20th century. After World War II, a number of additional local parachurch organizations emerged: Agape, Churches of Christ Disaster Relief, etc. All of them were important rallying points, pointed to with pride and (during the institutional controversy of the 1950s) vociferously defended against the charges of critics. Haymes’ sense of the leaders of “Vatican East” (see above) is certainly correct. At midcentury, leadership of this institutional nexus lay with B. C. Goodpasture (editor of the Gospel Advocate from 1939-1977) and Collins and Pullias, presidents of David Lipscomb College.

3. The money, of course, had to come from somewhere. Corporate donors like A.M. Burton, founder and owner of the Life & Casualty Insurance Company (1903), H.G. Hill, owner of the (now quickly vanishing) local grocery chain (1895), and R.W. Comer, founder of the Washington Manufacturing Company, made up a critical third part of this arrangement. These and a handful of other folks bankrolled most of the major projects undertaken in the city. Burton alone almost singlehandedly funded DLC’s postwar building boom, as well as NCI and (his particular pet project) Central Church of Christ. (Sorry, I know “corporate donor” sounds really contemporary. It’s the best I could come up with for now and there’s really no better way to describe their precise role.)

Stir it all together and you have a thick goulash of money, power, and influence that functioned ecclesiologically in very real (yet often unnoticed) ways by midcentury. Lots more could be said here. I’ll leave it there for now, though.

****

Now to the story of one of the establishment’s early architects. Robert Wickliffe

R. W. Comer

Comer (1860-1944) was born in Gamaliel, Monroe County, Kentucky, and educated at Burritt College. Comer came to Nashville in 1909 from Glasgow, Kentucky, where he had been involved in a wholesale and retail dry goods business.  In this regard, he was very much like almost all of his better-known peers. The leaders of the emerging establishment — Boles, Burton, Goodpasture, Collins, Pullias, Baxter, North — shared similar backgrounds: most all of them were the sons of Middle Tennessee (or, in a few cases, southern Kentucky and North Alabama) farmers who came to the city looking for education and opportunity. Like them, Comer was among the lucky few who “made good” in the city, not either getting stuck in the city’s growing underclass of rural migrants or being forced to return home.

Russell Street Church of Christ

Comer appears to have already been someone of means and influence when he arrived in Nashville. He quickly became an elder in the Tenth Street Church of Christ (later Russell Street) in East Nashville and in 1911 he was responsible for the establishment of the Chapel Avenue church where he served as an elder for most of the rest of his life. (In these early years, we can probably also see his hand at work in Tenth Street’s decision to enter into an agreement with a Cumberland Presbyterian congregation to swap their building for a large, ornate building on Russell Street that they [i.e. the Presbyterians] had constructed in 1905.) In 1918, he founded the Washington Manufacturing Company in Nashville. Washington Mfg. was, at its height, one of the largest apparel manufacturers in the South.

In this role, he became more important than many (most?) elders and

N. B. Hardeman (1874-1965)

preachers in the city. He had a hand (financial and otherwise) in the establishment of a number of congregations. (One of these, Eastland Avenue, which was conceived by Comer, Harris Dark, Dorris Billingsley, and J. Clyde Shacklett, was established in 1948 toward the end of Dark’s ministry at Chapel Avenue.) Additionally, Comer served as a board member at David Lipscomb College and provided a significant amount of money for Freed-Hardeman College at a critical juncture in that school’s history. Speaking of Comer’s relationship with N. B. Hardeman and FHC, Hardeman’s biographer notes,

“The love and appreciation between N. B. Hardeman and the outstanding businessman, R. W. Comer, of Nashville, was one of the richest treasures of his life. It was Comer who was largely responsible for the Fourth and Fifth Tabernacle Meetings. It was Comer who gave a good dairy farm to the College in Henderson; and who, because of his love for Hardeman, made the donation of $200,000 to Freed-Hardeman College, which endowment made it possible for the school to fulfill the recognition requirements of the Southern Association of Colleges.”

Comer died in August 1944. Hardeman preached his funeral before an overflow crowd at the Chapel Avenue meetinghouse, with James A. Allen delivering the benediction. Obituaries appeared in the Gospel Advocate (by H. Leo Boles), the Bible Banner (by J. Clyde Shacklett), the Apostolic Times (by T. Q. Martin), as well as the Nashville Banner.

Sometime later, under circumstances that are not quite clear, McQuiddy Printing published a volume titled Memoirs of Robert Wickliffe Comer. It’s an interesting document: it contains a brief, unattributed preface, a transcript of the funeral service, several articles written by Comer for Allen’s Apostolic Times and local newspapers, and tributes and poetry written by Comer’s employees. Taken together, it amounts to an interesting comment on the self-image of Nashville Churches of Christ at that point. More of that another time, though.

In his will, Comer established a trust fund for benevolent purposes. By 1946, this fund had grown into something his sons, Guy and Mont, called the “Church of Christ Foundation.” They organized the foundation “for the purpose of providing financial aid to small churches of Christ throughout the world.” It was a sort of proto-SuperPAC. In the coming years, the Foundation supported hundreds of congregations. (Here’s the story of one Sumner County preacher who benefited. The publication of Foy E. Wallace, Jr.’s Number One Sermons was also funded with Foundation money.) Enthusiasm for this course of action ran high in its early years. Note N. B. Hardeman’s glowing remarks, made in the course of his funeral sermon for Comer (Memoirs, pg. 10):

“I doubt if any man among us has ever died leaving both his spiritual and business affairs in better shape…There is a great trust fund set up that is to continue on down the line and it is to be used for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind…Brother Comer has given away multiplied thousands of dollars. I doubt if he ever refused anyone or anything that even looked worthy. I am glad to say to you that, under the directors of that trust fund, the same consideration will be given to calls that come and that Brother Comer’s passing will in no way stop the help so generously given. I think that is most unusual, most marvelous.”

Guy L. Comer (1891-1969)

Upon his death, Comer handed Washington Manufacturing over to his son, Guy (who had already become president in 1932).   When he died in 1969, Guy Comer then handed the company over to his son, T.W. (“Wick”). At that point the company was in good shape, boasting around 10,000 employees and some $250 million in revenues. Years later, Wick Comer would recall that his father had run the company “with an iron hand.” (See here for how Guy violently broke up efforts to unionize Washington’s Cookeville factory in 1937.)

Problems arose soon, though. By means of a curious arrangement, Wick was not really in charge of what was by then called Washington Industries. Why? Because Guy Comer had set up the Church of Christ Foundation in such a way that it owned a majority of the stock in Washington. As one account observes, “The arrangement made it inevitable that a power struggle would result upon [Guy's] death.”

And, indeed, it did. The feud between Wick Comer and the Foundation’s board began only months after he took the helm of the company and dragged on in the courts through the 1970s. (It should be noted that the company, during Guy Comer’s tenure, was no stranger to the courts. Details can be found here and here concerning the contentious circumstances surrounding his acquisition of Phillips & Buttorff and First National, Inc.) The Foundation came to be an embarrassment to local denominational leaders who repeatedly and publicly attempted to distance themselves from the situation. Wick Comer himself was forced out by the late 1970s.

In time, a combination of circumstances conspired to bring the company down. Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the company’s height, changes in the apparel industry were occurring that would eventually shut out Washington Industries entirely. In particular, the rise of Walmart and K-Mart took away most of its business in the small towns where it had flourished in years past. Washington did not last long once that happened, being forced into bankruptcy in 1988 and taking, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the Church of Christ Foundation down with it.

Sic transit gloria mundi.