J. M. Barnes on singing and unity

Justus McDuffie Barnes (1836–1913)

Justus McDuffie Barnes (1836–1913)

In July 1896, J. M. Barnes embarked on a month-long preaching tour through the State of Texas, documenting his travels in a series of articles in the Firm Foundation. Barnes was, without question, the leading conservative in Alabama during the years between the close of the Civil War and his own death in the spring of 1913. But he also travelled extensively, and was a regular writer for, among others, the Gospel Advocate and Benjamin Franklin’s American Christian Review.

This is an illuminating series for, among other things, its insights into congregational life in the 1890s. Beginning on the first Sunday in August, Barnes recounts that he preached a ten-days’ meeting at the Pearl and Bryan Streets church in Dallas, “in some respects the most remarkable body in my whole knowledge.”

Barnes is blunt over the course of several articles as he describes the state of Pearl and Bryan’s eldership. These men, he says, are elders, but not bishops in the New Testament sense of the word—and he goes on to say why. Then he comes to the singing. Here is what he says:

After the first discourse I asked, as a special favor, to allow me to lead the singing during my stay. This was granted. I insisted that no people should offer to God a sorry thing. God had shown that he was choice in His sacrifices by refusing to accept of those with blemishes or those deficient in any way. Man had to take trouble in the days of the Aaronic priesthood to find an offering to please God; so they do now. He requires the fruits of our lips. Heb. 13:15. He demands singing, or what is the same, commands it. 1 Cor. 14:26, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16. He wants the very best you can give. I told the brethren at Dallas I would not have their singing, and I was satisfied God would not. I am satisfied that the devil laughs heartily at most of the singing offered to the Lord. God is not going to take your old singing unless it is the best that you can give and the best that you can prepare to give. Theatre people may sing to the devil, but they do it so as to like it themselves and make others do so, too. Not many churches sing, so they like it themselves. It is upon a failure here that organ lovers find their first excuse for the instrument. Dallas had a woman leader. This is common. Why? Because the men are too lazy or too indifferent to study music and learn to lead. This is not always the reason. Sometimes the women just will lead. God has distributed singing talent nearly as promiscuously among the human family as He has the eating talent.

(Excerpted from “In Texas,” Firm Foundation 12.44 [November 3, 1896]: 1.)

Barnes continues in the following week’s issue:

The essentials to good singing in God’s ekklesia are, first, all sing; second, all sit or stand as closely together as possible; third, that there be not the least contrariness among any of the members; fourth, a leader whom all can hear; fifth, a leader who will keep first rate tune; sixth, a leader who will stand where all can see him and the movements of his time hand; seventh, distinct articulation of every word, so they can heard as if read, and well understood … I wish every one could understand that contrariness comes from the devil, and that this old fellow has about as much influence among so-called members of the church as Jesus Christ has. “I can sing here as well as anywhere else.” I have heard this from the “saints” in all times and metres. The user of this expression thinks it original, but he is quoting from many, many forerunners in contrariness and stubbornness. “I can sing here as well as anywhere else,” and he or she fastens self to the back seat in the house. Such a one would rebel against a choir and justly do it, but choirs, like organs, are the fungus growth that springs luxuriantly from sorry congregational singing … Why do the members of a choir sit or stand closely together? Why do concert, theatre, or minstrel singers sit and stand closely together? In order to have good music. Why do members of the church sit or stand as far apart as each can get from the other? In order to show that each individual is an integral whole entirely independent of every other whole, and dependent upon nothing upon the face of the green earth except on ungodly contrariness that is generated in the bad place.

(Excerpted from “In Texas,” Firm Foundation 12.45 [November 10, 1896]: 1.)

We might smile at some of this; Barnes was nothing if not colorful in his writing and speaking. But in his sarcasm in that final line, Barnes makes a very serious point, one that anticipates the insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio and hearkens back over fifteen centuries to similar ideas found in the writings of the Fathers. Calvin Stapert, in A New Song for an Old World, argues that we can see this point as far back as Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Toward the end of his letter, the apostle pronounces this blessing upon the Christians in the imperial capital:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Jesus Christ, that together with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15:5-6)

It is impossible to say whether we have a direct reference to singing in this text. Nevertheless, Stapert observes, “no one can doubt that [Paul’s statement] articulates a principle that the church took very seriously for her singing. The importance of singing ‘with one voice’ was a constant refrain among the early Christian writers” (pg. 25). Here’s St Ambrose, fourth-century bishop of Milan, from his Commentary on Psalm 1:

[A psalm is] a pledge of peace and harmony, which

St Ambrose (ca. 337–397)

St Ambrose (ca. 337–397)

produces one song from various and sundry voices in the manner of a cithara….

A psalm joins those with differences, unites those at odds and reconciles those who have been offended, for who will not concede to him with whom one sings to God in one voice? It is after all a great bond of unity for the full number of people to join in one chorus. The strings of the cithara differ, but create one harmony.

There is nothing in our worship assemblies, apart from the Lord’s Supper, that so effectively demonstrates our unity one with another as the act of singing. Already, though, in the late nineteenth century, the tendency to individualism showed itself in congregational life, as indicated by Barnes’ words.

“Money given to build houses is not given to the Lord”

In the summer of 1891, a plea for help appeared in one of the papers. Bearing the heading “Left to Die,” the letter writer stated that the cause would die in a particular location if the brethren there did not receive sufficient contributions for a new church building. Reflecting on this assertion, David Lipscomb demurs:

There is not an intimation in the New Testament that the success of the word of God anywhere depended upon a house of worship. A house of worship is not mentioned as being needful or even helpful to the establishment or upbuilding of churches of God. This would seem strange seeing they were entirely without houses and not many great or rich or noble came into the church, but the humble and poor. Yet it seems never to have occurred to them that a house of worship was needful. Now the general plea is that without a comfortable house of worship in a place even before there are members to worship, men can not be made Christians.

I am constrained to believe there is more sinful waste in the building and use of houses in which to worship than in any other thing connected with religion. There are in Nashville one million of dollars invested in meeting houses that stand locked up six days out of seven, 144 hours out of 168. Where is capital invested to lay inactive like this save in religion? And what is true of Nashville is true of all the cities in the land. In the country it is even worse. In the country immense sums of money are put in meeting-houses that are opened one hour per week sometimes one hour in a month. Where save in religion, is there such a piling up of dead capital? What would be said of people that would put money into buildings to so lay idle in any other field than that of religion? There is a superstitious idea that these houses are God’s houses, are sacred, and the superstition is so gross that it would actually exclude God himself from the house save on the set occasions. Were you to ask the owners and guardians of one of these houses the privilege of teaching the Bible in it, in the sensible heaven-approved way in which other things are taught, they would refuse it.

I am not opposing these houses, but the superstitious use or rather disuse of them, and the making the success of the cause of God depend upon having a meeting-house. They are not God’s houses. They are built for the comfort, and to gratify the pride of men and women. And any use of them for teaching the word of God that interferes with the gratification of that pride is refused. God is locked out of them except about three hours a week. Now the point I wish to make, is, why were houses of worship as a factor in the building up the church, wholly ignored in the primitive churches, yet regarded as so necessary now? How would a heading from Paul, “Left to Die” —sound, making the existence and success of the cause of God depend upon raising money to build a meeting-house, to be opened three hours in a week, kept locked against all admission, against God and others at all other time? It would be a discordant note in his writings.

But says one, “It is impossible to build up the church of God without a house in this age and country. Experience shows it.” Why is this? We think there can be but one reason given. The article of religion we are trying to spread at this time is a very inferior one. In the days of the apostles it was of a character that it was spread not only without houses of worship, but frequently the preacher preached from behind prison bars and wearing a chain. They worshiped in upper rooms, in caves of the earth, and at times in the catacombs of the dead. The religion of Christ, as he gave it, could overcome and survive all these difficulties, and run and prosper in spite of them. It must be a degenerate specimen of his religion that dies for the lack of a meeting-house kept locked up seven hours out of eight. And it seems to me a sinful waste of means, when whole states and territories are without the preached gospel, to bury three or four thousand dollars in one house, to be opened three hours in a week. The religion that requires that to keep it alive, is not worth keeping alive. As a comfort to the people needing the house, unable to build it, I have encouraged and helped, usually in building houses. Have spent money against the protest of my conscience, feeling that it had better be spent in preaching, but when it is presented that the cause will die without the house, I feel like saying, let it die, it is not worth preserving.

Money given to build houses is not given to the Lord. He has not asked money for such purposes. He may give us credit for what we thus do as kindness to our brethren.

Excerpted from “What Is Needed to Keep Alive and Spread the Church of God” (Gospel Advocate 33.26 [July 1, 1891]: 404–405).


Here’s an update:

First, Birmingham and John T. Lewis. I’ve been hard at work as time allows over the past few months reconstructing the early history of the Birmingham churches, prior to the arrival of John T. Lewis in the fall of 1907. Recent excursions in the journals (Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation) have brought me much closer to the origins of the Fox Hall church and the (still mysterious) North Birmingham church. I have also uncovered considerably more context for the Pratt City meeting that Lewis and J. M. Barnes held late in the summer of 1907, all of which has pointed to a stronger conservative presence in Birmingham than previously thought. I’ve also had some good conversations recently that have turned up more information about JTL’s work in Canada while he was a student at the Nashville Bible School. Slowly but surely, things are coming together. It is my hope to be able to publish a narrative of these years (1885–1907) by the end of the year.

Second, an announcement. As we’ve done for the past two years, I will again be joining John Mark Hicks, Mac Ice, and Jeremy Sweets for a series of talks about the history of the Nashville churches at this year’s Summer Celebration on the campus of Lipscomb University, July 1–3. I will be discussing the division that took place in the Woodland Street Christian Church, located in East Nashville, in the fall of 1890, resulting in the establishment of the Tenth Street Church of Christ. Woodland Street, some of you will recall, became embroiled in the larger dispute over the missionary society in the 1880s and the division occurred over that issue. I’ll be back here with more specific information about the date and time of those talks.

[UPDATE: For those of you who are in town for Summer Celebration, our sessions will be held on Thursday and Friday, July 2 and 3, at 3 p.m. Both sessions will again be held at the Avalon house on the Lipscomb campus. Hope to see you there.]

“Write Him Up”

Write Him Up

If thy brother does thee wrong,
Write him up.

If he’s weak, ’twill make him strong;
Write him up.

If you know his faults are many,
Write him up.

For, of course, YOU haven’t any;
Write him up.

If some one says aught of YOU,
Write him up.

To let it pass would NEVER do;
Write him up.

If you have an enemy on earth,
Write him up.

Tell his faults from day of birth;
Write him up.

If a preacher makes slight error,
Write him up.

That he may henceforth quake with terror,
Write him up.

If a church is having trouble,
Write it up.

For, of course, ’twill make it double;
Write it up.

If you’re called there for a meeting,
Write it up.

Give their trouble widespread greeting;
Write it up.

— A poem by A. W. Young, of Sunset, Texas (Firm Foundation 21.25 [June 20, 1905], pg. 6).

“The most distinctly southern city I ever saw”: Nashville, 1897

Morrison Meade Davis (1850–1926)

Morrison Meade Davis (1850–1926)

To follow up on J. A. Lord’s comments about Nashville in my last post, here’s an excerpt from an account of a visit that M. M. Davis, then pastor of the Central Christian Church in Dallas, paid to Nashville in the summer of 1897:

Nashville is a splendid city of 100,000 people, and is the most distinctly southern city I ever saw; much more so than Dallas. It is strange but true that I traveled 400 miles north and found myself in the midst of a typical southern people; incomparably more so than those I left. That it is full of thrift and enterprise is evidenced by the Centennial Exposition, the best state show ever seen in this country. So good is it that in the estimation of competent judges it compares favorably in many respects with the Columbian Exposition at Chicago. The grounds are spacious and beautiful, the buildings are massive and artistic, and the exhibits are one perpetual and pleasing surprise, and I feel it my duty to urge every one to visit it.

We have about 3,500 people here, with fourteen organizations and twelve places of worship. I had the honor and pleasure of preaching at the Vine St. church, the oldest and largest of them all. They have a $40,000 house in the very heart of the city, and 600 members. R. Lin Cave has been pastor for more than sixteen years, and I never knew a man more universally loved. His recent resignation and call to the presidency of Kentucky University have cast a gloom over the whole church and city, for he is popular with everybody. He has a son, R. Lord Cave, who bids fair to become as great a preacher as his father. And why not? If there is anything in heredity, and we all believe there is, then the grandson of the peerless Dr. Hopson, and the son of R. Lin Cave, two of our strongest men, ought to be a man of power. The Woodland St. Church on the east side of the river, under the pastoral care of T. A. Reynolds, has a good house, with 300 members, and is doing a great work. This church boasts the proud honor of being the mother of the state mission work. A. I. Myhr, the leader of the missionary hosts, has his membership here. C. A. Moore, late of Missouri, is pastor of the South Nashville Church, with David Lipscomb as one of his elders. The other churches have preaching, but no regular pastors.

The Gospel Messenger, late of Mississippi, is now in this city. M. F. Harmon, filled with energy and aglow with hope, a young man of much promise, is its founder, proprietor, and editor. For some time, however, O. P. Spiegel has shared with him his editorial honors and labors, and just recently J. M. Watson has been added to the editorial staff. Bro. Watson will have charge of the office, thus giving Harmon time for outside work when necessary and Spiegel will continue to push its claims in Mississippi. This is the place for the Messenger, and I will be surprised if these three young men do not make it a success. They have wisely inaugurated a publishing house in connection with the paper.

Here also is the Gospel Advocate, edited by David Lipscomb, E. G. Sewell, and F. D. Srygley. This is one of our oldest papers, and is regarded as the representative of the anti-organ and anti-society sentiment. It has a publishing house, and supplies its constituency with much of their literature.

Nashville is pre-eminently a city of schools. Vanderbilt University, Peabody Normal, Belmont, Ward’s and Price’s are well-known institutions. Fisk University and Roger Williams Institute are large schools for the colored people. H. L. Surber is just beginning the second year of Southern Christian College, and he is hopeful for the future. Fanning Academy, founded by Tolbert Fanning, another one of our church schools for girls, is near the city. J. A. Harding’s Bible School for the training of young preachers, is here also. The very atmosphere of the place is charged with the educational idea, making it a most desirable place to live. This is not strange when it is remembered that there are not less than 3,50o students here every year…

(Excerpted from “Texas Letter,” Christian-Evangelist 34.38 [September 23, 1897]: 600.)

So here we have a progressive’s view of events on the ground in Nashville at the turn of the century. Harmon’s Gospel Messenger ran strong for a few years in the mid 1890s, but never approached the circulation of the Advocate. It would close up shop in Nashville about a year after Davis wrote these words. O. P. Spiegel briefly tried to revive it in Birmingham as a periodical voice for the Alabama Christian Missionary Cooperation, but he too had abandoned it by the end of 1902.

In 1897, division between progressives and conservatives was becoming clearer. Even so, Davis can still say that “we have about 3,500 people here, with fourteen organizations and twelve places of worship” and refer to the Gospel Advocate as “one of our oldest papers.” Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

Conservatives in Nashville would certainly have disagreed with Davis’

Vine Street Christian Church

Vine Street Christian Church

assessment of R. Lin Cave and the Vine Street church. Twelve of those fourteen churches to which Davis alludes were conservative in sympathy. That said, none of them could claim the social standing, the respect, or the wealth that Vine Street and Woodland Street held. This comes through in some of David Lipscomb’s most scathing comments about Vine Street: “The Vine Street church, in Nashville, is a strong church numerically, pecuniarily, socially. It is surpassed by no such church in Nashville of any denomination in social and intellectual and pecuniary ability. It is the weakest church claiming to be Christian in the city. I have known its work for fifty years past. During that time it has not planted a church or sent out a preacher” (Gospel Advocate 1907, pg. 681, emphasis added).

It would be difficult to miss the point: Vine Street’s pride in its social standing—and its apparent lack of interest in evangelization—tarnished its faithfulness.

Still, though, I wonder what Lord was getting at in his comments about Nashville? Is social standing all he sees? Did he expect Vine Street and Woodland Street to start planting churches in numbers that would stem the conservative tide? Did he expect the conservatives to shoot themselves in the foot with their own dogmatism or their own “inadequate theory of church expansion”? We will never know.


I’ll be back to the Birmingham materials soon. My trek through the Firm Foundation has yielded some interesting results that I intend to share here.

On “the fruitfulness of co-operative endeavor”: J. A. Lord in Birmingham, 1907

James Alexander Lord (1849–1922)

James Alexander Lord (1849–1922)

In November 1907, J. A. Lord, editor of the Christian Standard, traveled south to attend the annual meeting of the Alabama Christian Missionary Cooperation, which was held in Jasper that year. He came away excited and very optimistic about the prospects of the progressive churches in Alabama, especially those in Birmingham and Jasper (where a new, pro-society church had just been established).

I’ve been doing a lot of research of late focused on establishing the context for John T. Lewis’ arrival in Birmingham in the fall of 1907, a point at which Castleberry’s He Looked for a City disappoints. For Castleberry, the Fox Hall church simply exists. He is not interested in describing its origins or the larger religious context of Birmingham. In his telling, Lewis stepped into a vacuum when he held that first meeting in Pratt City in August-September of 1907.

But this was simply not the case. Consider what Lord has to say about Birmingham:

This whole Birmingham story, so full of inspiring details, that pages might well be devoted to it, is a demonstration of the most striking character of the fruitfulness of co-operative endeavor in the great industrial and commercial centers of America. These churches and their preachers are devoted to the preaching of the simple gospel and to planting churches of Christ at every vantage-point in this whole growing congeries of manufacturing and commercial communities, which will be fused into a city of half a million people in less than twenty-five years. From the present rate of growth, and with the present outlook, some fifty churches of Christ will be planted here in the next quarter of a century. And let it not be forgotten by brethren who have been slow to fall in with co-operative methods of evangelism, that none of these churches would have been in existence if their fears had possessed the Birmingham workers, or their inadequate theory of church expansion had been carried out. One thousand people of Birmingham and vicinity are now enlisted in and are committed to the spirit of the Restoration plea, who would be out in the world, or scattered among the denominations, if the anti-co-operative views of those who opposed missionary societies had prevailed. In no important center of population except Nashville, Tenn., have the anti-co-operative ideas resulted in churches of Christ of any strength of membership or influence, and a full understanding of the facts will show that even Nashville is no exception to the rule.”

(Excerpted from “Southern Convention Notes,” Christian Standard 43.50 [December 14, 1907]: 2071.)

This was Lord’s third trip to Birmingham as editor of the Standard. In this excerpt, he is talking about the five progressive (i.e., pro-society, pro-instrument) churches that existed in Birmingham, four of which had been established in the seven years prior to Lewis’ arrival.

Ironies abound here, of course. At the very moment Lord wrote these words, the young John T. Lewis had just arrived in Birmingham to begin his work with the Fox Hall church. (Counting Fox Hall, of course, would bring the total number of Stone-Campbell churches in the city to six.) While Lord’s “fifty churches of Christ” never materialized, Lewis—beginning with that single, tiny church—was ultimately responsible for more than thirty churches in the Birmingham District based, albeit, on an “inadequate theory of church expansion” that Lord thought would never work.

Moreover—and not to put too fine a point on it—while the first decade of the twentieth century was a flush time for the pro-society churches, never again would the expansive spirit of A. R. Moore, O. P. Spiegel, J. A. Lord, and other progressive leaders in Birmingham be fully recaptured by them.

Finally, regarding Lord’s comments about Nashville. What does he know about the situation in Nashville that he’s not saying here?

The Character of a Schismatic

John William McGarvey (1829–1911)

John William McGarvey (1829–1911)

In the late 1850s, the defections of Jesse B. Ferguson (1819–1870) and Walter Scott Russell generated a good deal of discussion in the papers. I found this piece from J. W. McGarvey to be particularly insightful on the subject of the character of the false teacher.

Character of a Schismatic.

“A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” — Titus 3:10, 11.

It is often urged in extenuation of the conduct of a schismatic, that he is a good man, and most likely prompted by good motives. It is a fact that the majority of factions are headed by men in good repute for correct moral and religious deportment, and it is accounted for by the fact that only such men can attach to themselves any considerable number of adherents. This circumstance renders the exercise of proper discipline in such cases quite difficult. Apart from the mere act of schism, there is nothing that can be urged against the offender, and for this act he urges the controlling authority of his conscience. I have never known a mover of faction, however depraved he might finally prove to be, who did not stoutly and loudly protest that he was impelled to his course by a stern sense of duty. What to do with so conscientious a disturber of the peace, is a question that puzzles the minds of brethren.

The text quoted above was written in anticipation of this difficulty, and to relieve us from it. The word here rendered heretic, means a schismatic, a factionist, one who causes division. The Apostle enjoins it upon Titus to ‘reject’ every such character, after the first and second admonition, ‘knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.’ According to this injunction, the fact of schism being ascertained, we need look no further for evidence of the wickedness of the schismatic. Whatever may be his conduct in other particulars, or whatever the degree of his apparent piety, if he is a schismatic, you may ‘know,’ all doubt being removed, that he is ‘subverted’ from the path of rectitude, ‘and sinneth,’ and even bears in his conscience a sense of guilt, ‘being condemned of himself.’ In such cases, then, all empty professions of conscientiousness, and all appeals to past good conduct, are to be treated as the idle breath of a hypocrite, and the stern penalty of rejection is to be unhesitatingly inflicted.

The justice and strict propriety of this apostolic teaching will appear to the mind of every reader, if he will but ask himself this question: ‘What feeling must it be that could prompt me to cause a division among those whom I still recognize as my Christian brethren?’ Evidently nothing short of an indomitable pride, an intensely selfish ambition, or some passion more malignant than either of these, could prompt to such a course. It is a matter of necessity, therefore, the ‘he that is such,’ from the very fact that he is a schismatic, may be known to be subverted and a sinner, and self-condemned. Let no man say that this is a harsh sentence pronounced by me. It is the solemn sentence passed upon all such characters by the authority of an inspired Apostle. ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.’

J. W. McGarvey.

(American Christian Review 3.38 [September 20, 1859]: 150. H/T: Jim McMillan, via the Stone-Campbell email list.)