a review

I am undertaking in this brief essay to review John Mark Hicks’ “The Struggle for the Soul of Churches of Christ (1897-1907): Hoosiers, Volunteers and Longhorns,” published in the new memorial volume for Michael Casey titled And the WORD Became Flesh: Studies in History, Communication, and Scripture in Memory of Michael W. Casey (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009).  (The essay can be found here).  It is a well-done collection and I look forward to reading and profiting from a number of the essays included.

At the outset of this review I acknowledge that a typical review would address the book in its entirety.  I simply don’t have the time or the expertise in communications and rhetoric (the focus of almost half of the essays) to pull that off in an interesting or useful way.  Thus, I’ll limit myself to what I know.  After a discussion of the contents of “The Struggle,” I will turn to an assessment.

Contents of the Essay

Obviously, don’t rely on this summary.  Go read the essay in its entirety!  Anyway…

The group of conservative Disciples that gradually separated from the mainstream of the Stone-Campbell Movement in the late 19th century to become the Churches of Christ was never a monolithic group.  Hicks describes three camps within Churches of Christ at the turn of the twentieth century, arguing that they can be (somewhat loosely) identified by geography and (more definitely) identified by their differing theological emphases.

First, there is the Tennessee Tradition, represented editorially by the Gospel Advocate, edited during these years by David Lipscomb and E.G. Sewell.  Theologically, “Tennessee embraced dynamic divine action in the world as the in-breaking kingdom of God…[and] as the Tennessee Tradition stressed ‘divine dynamics’ rather than ‘human mechanics,’ in the language of the Nashville Bible School graduate R. C. Bell, this central ‘apocalyptic’ vision shaped how almost every theological concept was appropriated” (Hicks, 9).**

Second is the Texas Tradition, represented editorially by the Firm Foundation, edited during these years by Austin McGary, George Savage and N.L. Clark.  In contrast to the Tennessee Tradition, Texas “rejected any semblance of dynamic divine action other than a cognitive understanding of the Bible” (Hicks, 9).  Put another way, it “embraced human cognition and ability as the critical factor in humanity’s relationship with God” (ibid.).

Third is the Sommer Tradition (which might also be referred to, I suppose, as the Indiana Tradition, in keeping with the geographical descriptors given to the other traditions), represented editorially by the Octographic Review, edited during these years by Daniel Sommer and L.F. Bittle.  The Indiana tradition, according to Hicks, “stressed the non-institutional and anti-worldly character of [the] kingdom [of God]…[and it] stressed non-institutional ecclesiology and opposition to worldly wisdom, wealth and power as the centerpiece of its agenda” (Hicks, 9).  While Hicks sees some important differences between Indiana and Tennessee, he also sees some overlap, noting that on a number of issues Tennessee and Indiana are aligned against Texas.  One might quibble here with Hicks’ slightly anachronistic (and potentially misleading, see below) use of “non-institutional,” but his point is taken.

He begins by describing what these groups had in common, namely their agreement on the need to separate from the Christian Church and their shared hermeneutic (succinctly summarized by L.F. Bittle in 1904  as “an immediate return to New Testament faith and practice in which nothing shall be taught that has not the apostolic sanction, and no expedient allowed that is not necessary to carry out the Lord’s commands,” Hicks 4).

Then, noting a host of issues on which the traditions disagreed among themselves, he more closely examines four of those points of disagreement: rebaptism, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, “institutionalism,” and the Sunday School.  In brief, Tennessee and Indiana were allies against Texas in the debates over rebaptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Hicks, 9-14).  Indiana stood against Tennessee (and apparently Texas) in opposition to “institutionalism” (Hicks, 14-16).  The argument over the propriety and Scripturalness of the Sunday School arose within the Texas Tradition.  Indiana also opposed it, but on different grounds.  Tennessee, on the other hand, was not opposed to the Sunday School (Hicks, 16-18).

Hicks concludes by arguing that the Tennessee Tradition “was the most dominant influence among Churches of Christ” during the period that the essay discusses (Hicks, 18).  He then briefly sketches how, by mid-century, Texas had emerged victorious, with Tennessee relegated to heretical outer darkness and Indiana “lost in the expanse of the Stone-Campbell Movement and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and influence of southern Churches of Christ” (Hicks, 19).  The essay ends somewhat discursively with a discussion of the transition from Texas to Tennessee made by Oklahoma preacher and writer K.C. Moser.


I agree with Michael Casey, who is cited at the outset of the essay, as saying that the notion of multiple traditions in the development of 20th century Churches of Christ is “compelling.”  It explains alot, even if it — like any other hypothesis — is not perfect.  Hicks has been refining this paradigm for a number of years now, beginning with published essays on the life and work of K.C. Moser, whom he describes at the close of “The Struggle” as one of the few leaders in Churches of Christ to make a transition from a Texas perspective to a Tennessee one.  It was given further elucidation in Kingdom Come, written with Bobby Valentine, and in a number of blog posts.

All in all, the return on Hicks’ part to a doctrinal/theological understanding of the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ division is a good thing, I think.  It restores balance to the discussion.  While Hicks probably goes too far in saying that the sectional and sociological aspects of the division are “obvious” (Hicks, 4) — they certainly weren’t obvious before Ed Harrell pointed them out in the early 1960s; CofC historians were stuck in a relentlessly doctrinal, and hagiographical, approach to the question prior to that point — Harrell probably went too far in suggesting at one point that the doctrinal issues were interchangeable and ultimately didn’t matter.  Again, balance seems to be the best approach.

Still, though, there are kinks that need to be worked out in Hicks’ approach.  I’ll discuss one minor issue first and a more significant one following that.

At the close of his discussion of “institutionalism,” Hicks makes the following statement: “Though Sommer’s non-institutionalism was eventually shared by some within the [Firm Foundation] orbit such as Tant, it would be another forty years before many would take up Sommer’s aggressive stance toward institutionalism among Churches of Christ” (Hicks, 67, in the print edition of the essay; the online edition diverges at this point).   While it is certainly accurate to say that both Sommer and the first generation NI leaders recognized dangers in the institutional mindset, it must be pointed out that “Sommer’s aggressive stance” toward institutionalism was much more thoroughgoing than that of Cogdill, Tant, Hailey, Lewis or any of the other NI leaders of the late 1940s and 50s.  Put another way: The classic Sommer position on institutionalism is not the NI position of the 1950s. Sommer opposed the concept of church-affiliated colleges; NIs merely opposed congregational support of the colleges, not their very existence or the right of individuals to contribute to them.  For a discussion of this point, see William Wallace, “Bible Teaching in Schools vs. Institutionalism,” Truth Magazine 8.3 (December 1963): 13-16, and the citations from Sommer in Mike Willis, “J.T. Smith and the Re-Birth of Sommerism,” available online here.  It is true to say, and should be pointed out, that the compromise position that Sommer adopts in the 1930s is essentially that of the NI movement in the 1950s, but it is certainly not the position of Sommer ca. 1900.  (Full disclosure: my understanding of Sommer is based upon a close reading of his autobiography — I have read considerably less from the Octographic/American Christian Review.)

My second point has to do with the larger issue of how the NI movement — and all of the other subgroups  that lie outside the bounds of ‘mainstream’ Churches of Christ — is interpreted by ‘mainstream’ historians.  By this point, anyone familiar with the Tennessee-Texas paradigm articulated in this essay will understand the equation involved: Tennessee=good; Texas=bad.  Less certain is the position of Indiana in Hicks’ schema.  On many of the points discussed by Hicks (rebaptism, the Holy Spirit, the apocalyptic worldview), I find myself in agreement with him.  All of this makes the discussion of the NI movement in Hicks’ conclusion somewhat problematic.  In a comment on this blog, he issued the caveat that he was focused on the period 1897-1907.  Fair enough.  Even so, the entire NI movement of the 1950s (in what, then, must be a digression) is placed in the Texas column (it is a “Texas ‘Sommerism'” [Hicks, 19] to be precise), a value judgment that cries out for nuance and further explanation.

I would agree with his statement that the “anti-worldly stance [of the NI churches] was overshadowed by the mechanical nature [of] hermeneutical debates over legal technicalities.”  Simply put, the loudest voices in the NI movement and in the ‘mainstream’ (Roy Cogdill and Guy N. Woods) got the most attention and framed the debate during that period in terms of hermeneutics.  I would even go so far as to say that this was a tactical mistake on the part of the fathers of the NI movement in the 1950s to press the hermeneutical issues in the debate over the other issues.  To the degree that these loud voices won out in the battle to frame the issue, the NI movement could be described as a “Texas ‘Sommerism.'”  But this oversimplification ignores (or unfairly downplays) other signficant layers of the NI argument: the sociological argument, the apocalyptic/countercultural one — in short, the “Tennessee” elements of the NI position.  Granted, these arguments were being articulated by people who were not on the debating circuit in the way that Roy Cogdill was, but that shouldn’t negate the importance of their position.

Hicks, though, isn’t the first mainstream historian to do this.  Ed Harrell, in a review of Richard Hughes’ Reviving the Ancient Faith in Restoration Quarterly 38.1 (1996), points out that Hughes’ analysis of the NI movement likewise lacks this important nuance.  (I’m not necessarily blaming Hicks or Hughes for this — arguably, Hughes does a better job than any previous mainstream historian in his analysis of the NI movement.)  More nuance is generally needed in the work of every mainstream CofC historian and journalist who attempts to discuss the various Church of Christ subgroups or wings — whether NI, premillennial, mutual edification, one cup, non-class, or African-American.  Generations  of ingrown and often unrecognized prejudices show themselves repeatedly in their work.  One might even say that there is a kind of paternalism at work as well (even if unconsciously, which I think is the case most often).  To investigate NI churches or one cup churches is to go into the depths of darkest Africa, a primitive world where the people speak a different language and are concerned with matters that are alien to the ‘mainstream’ mind.  It can be a scary place for a stranger.

But having said that, I’ll get down from my soapbox now 🙂

One final observation and I’ll close.  The concept of separate traditions has wide application, I think.  It seems to me that in none of the major splits in the Stone-Campbell Movement have the dissenting minorities been monolithic.  This recognition alone on Hicks’ part makes this essay worthwhile reading.  I’m going to go a step further here and say that the truth that not everyone disagreed with the missionary society, organ and located minister for the same reasons works just as well in the NI controversy of the 1950s.  Not everyone disagreed with the marquee issues of the institutional split (e.g. the sponsoring church, congregational support of colleges and orphan homes, etc.) for the same reasons.  This is a truth that has been making itself felt in NI circles over the past twenty years — we’re learning that our mutual opposition to the collectivist practices and boosterism of the 1950s doesn’t mean that we are in agreement on every other issue, whether that be MDR, fellowship, even the nature of institutionalism.  This is still at the level of working hypothesis for me, but I think that the Tennessee-Texas paradigm can be applied to the theological history of the NI movement.


In sum, there is much of value in this piece and it serves very nicely as a concise introduction to Hicks’ Tennessee-Texas (and now also Indiana) paradigm, an interpretive device that must be reckoned with by every scholar of the history of Churches of Christ and of the Stone-Campbell Movement generally.

Happy reading!


**Wherever possible, page numbers refer to the online version of the paper,which is available here, not to the page numbers in the book itself.  Any divergences from this will be noted.


15 responses to “a review

  1. Thanks for the careful and well-done review, Chris. I accept your point and recognize it as valid. While I think non-institutionalism as a whole might be categorized (as much as categories work) as “Texas Sommerism,” I do recognize that there is a stream of non-institutionalism in the 1950s that arises more out of the variety of non-institutionalism (ecclesial-centered the0logy) that characterized the Tennessee Tradition. It appears to me, as an outsider to NI, that it was a minority voice, but I am quite willing to listen to those who know the tradition much better than I. The analysis of the 1950s within the frame of my typology has not yet been done…and perhaps you are the one to do it, my friend. Blessings, John Mark

  2. “I would even go so far as to say that this was a tactical mistake on the part of the fathers of the NI movement in the 1950s to press the hermeneutical issues in the debate over the other issues. ”

    How so, Chris? On what other grounds do you believe the NI argument could have been more successfully appealled?

    • Well, first off, I don’t mean to imply any sort of impiety or disrespect to Cogdill, Tant and the writing staff at the Gospel Guardian during those years.

      What I meant to say is really just what Ed Harrell says in the review I cited above. Here’s the quotation from Harrell that I have in mind:

      “Hughes interprets the anti-institutional movement as a protest against modernization and the denominational tendencies in the post-World War II Churches of Christ. Most people know that I would concur. Hughes presents the anti-institutional critique pretty much from the vantage point of Roy Cogdill and Yater Tant, highlighting their conviction that the mainstream had abandoned its commitment to legalistic sectarianism. Had Hughes focused on my anti-institutional writings, or those of Robert Turner or Sewell Hall, he would have discovered that the basic issue at stake was a desire to retain an apocalyptic vision. Like the Churches of Christ in general, the noninstitutional movement was driven by sectarian legalism and by cultural separatism or, more often, by people who accepted some mix of both assumptions.”

      What I am arguing is that the cultural separatism/apocalyptic worldview/Tennessee Tradition (pick whichever terminology you like) aspect of NI thought is usually underrepresented in narratives of the group’s history. That story needs to be told.

      Granted, I am taking Harrell a step further by asserting that those kinds of approaches to the issue have more lasting value than the hermeneutical one (not that I’m saying that the hermeneutical argument is completely worthless). But that’s my opinion and is, of course, debatable. I do bring some personal experience to this, namely years now of attempting to explain the institutional split to outsiders in a way that made sense.

      Hope this helps.


      • No problem. The loudest NI proponents made a number of tactical and strategic errors, IMO; I just don’t see the choice of hermenuetics as one, or at least not a major one. By the time of the Cogdill-Woods debate, it was probably the least bad tactic left to them and the one Cogdill was probably best equipped to offer. Granted, he probably made it more dull and technical than was likely to be persuasive.

        Wallace had begun with the mixed hermeneutic/personal battle he’d had with GC Brewer before WWII. However, while he’d largely achieved his objectives against Brewer, he misinterpreted what that “victory” meant and the changes that had occurred. The largest of these, IMO, was that in the 1930s, the colleges had largely sat on the sidelines; in the 1950s, the colleges led the campaign for congregational cash. With the colleges pushing, many of the “trusted gatekeepers of the brotherhood” (editors) fell in line. The two then began converting or destroying the influence of preachers who stood in their way.

        To make an (admittedly awful) metaphor, Wallace had attempted a frontal assault against an entrenched and more powerful foe. By the time the Wallaces departed the scene, the political battle was largely lost. Once your army’s mostly been decimated or has deserted, you’re going to have a hard time winning.

        An appeal to a return to primitivism might sound good to us today, but the 1950s was the era of the modern. New was better than old. Bigger was better. There was nothing American ingenuity couldn’t do. It was also the era of McCarthyism, as the tactics showed; lacking a “have you no decency” moment in front of a massive audience and lacking a sympathetic gatekeeper to allow (let alone press) their case, the NIs’ task of winning a similar scenario was all but impossible by 1957.

        (Realize this is all the opinion of a guy who will never know as much as Harrell has forgotten about church history, who didn’t live through the events of the split, and whose viewpoint is probably skewed by growing up in the aftermath of Freed-Hardeman’s assault on NIs in West Tennessee.)

  3. rich constant

    i’ve been a memcer of the lords church all my life mostly n.i..
    and of corse i had some issues.
    now i am at this point resolved,for the most part.the church missed the point of gods word,there is more in gods word that teaches what god considers good than in new cov. isrial
    gods good never changes we are still a monotheocrracy run by gods loveing kindness and mercy through the spirit of god working on men through the word. but that word is just not the goverment set up in the new cov.
    if god says something is good and it is practiced in what we call the old test..w mess with gods word to make our cultural hermanudic a fluid flowing legal system that is deviceviseve…
    faith operating and instuting an organazation suted and likened to reading last part of a trilgy and dissmising the first two books of the words of god as un necessary because of our inability
    to free ourselves from our reformed roots.
    and take into consideration that god’s intire word sets up a new order for the world.
    we of the chirch limit god and the body of our lord we in the new cov are a continuation of a people and a kingdom established by god to work in the world and for the world through the loveing chactoristics established as rightous faithfulness by our lord.
    n.i. ba hum bug…i.m. ba humbug
    dis fellowship over these issues shame ful and all will be judged as deviceses if i could right well
    i would say just how ashamed i am of what i used to say …. and you all would know exactly if you are a mean spirited n.i. as i was … god for give me and thanks to DR. JOHN MARK HICKS.

  4. It’s amazing the importance of “big names” in these discussions. How much relative importance is the personal charisma of the teacher as opposed to the teaching?

    Do we sometimes mislead ourselves into believing that WE look at a teaching with disinterested logic while THEY are motivated by some other factor?

    I remember reading in Touchstone Magazine about a Catholic priest in Ireland that lead the temperance movement in that country. It was the force of his personality and passion that motivated people to change.

    How much of that type of power led people to choose “mainstream” over NI or vice versa?

    • I think our polity, probably from the outset, has given undue importance to big names that operate on a ‘meta’-level beyond the local congregation. It started with the sheer power of the journals and their writers to influence opinion and continued with the widespread acceptance of the located minister in the 1930s and 40s and the gospel meeting circuit that went along with that.

      As to the institutional split, I’m pretty sure that personalities affected people’s decisions on both sides of the fence.

      There’s probably more to be said…

  5. This was a very interesting article and review. Before I read it I wondered how Pennsylvania (read Franklin and Rowe) would be factored in. If I remember my reading of West, it was Franklin and Rowe who led the opposition to missionary societies and instruments north of the Mason-Dixon immediately after the war.

    I would add a couple of other points. It seems to me that one of the constant themes of the scholarship coming out of Hicks and others like him is that, as you mentioned, Texas=bad and Tennessee=good. It is usually capped with some of the very same hagiographical approach you mentioned before of some hero of those considered progressive, usually Moser. What I have not seen explained is why Texas beat out Tennessee and why the cross pollination of ideas mentioned seemed to to favor Texas more than Tennessee.

    Second, I do believe personality and geography do play a large role in these things. Why are NI congregations concentrated in KY, FL and AL? Why in Texas are NI churches more likely to be found in eastern pinelands, which is culturally more similar to Alabama than it is to the rest of the state? Why does the location of most non-Sunday school congregations in California match the migration patterns of people fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s? Geography.

    • As to Franklin and Rowe, I think it would be fair to say that Sommer is the primary continuator of their theological legacy. Franklin died in the 1870s, well before the final DofC/CofC split (not sure about Rowe’s dates off the top of my head); Sommer took over the American Christian/Octographic Review after (but not immediately after, as I recall) his death.

      On your second point, Owen, I think you’re right that there is a value judgment (and a theological agenda) inherent in Hicks’ schema, just like there was one inherent in Hughes’ and Harrell’s work. All history at some level is informed by such agendas: they’re not necessarily good or bad, they just are. I’m in at least partial agreement with Hicks’ theological agenda (esp. on the apocalyptic worldview aspect), so I’m more disposed to be friendly to his historical analysis. Likewise with Harrell. Less so with someone like Leroy Garrett. I just probably wouldn’t choose someone like K.C. Moser as my avatar; for me it would be more along the lines of Lewis or Hailey. (I’m skeptical, really, that any of these men [Moser or whoever], were you to set them down in the middle of an early 21st century progressive CofC congregation, would be comfortable with everything they saw.)

      Third, I feel reasonably certain that there’s a reason why NI congregations are clustered in Kentucky, Alabama and Florida, I’m just not sure what the reason is. One might speculate that the presence of GoT in Bowling Green and the presence of FC in Florida has something to do with it, but that can’t be the whole answer. Thoughts?

      • Bowling Green probably originally became a mecca because of FC, not GOT. Essentially all course credits transfer from FC to WKU.

        A similar argument could be raised for UNA, though that strikes me as more of a chicken/egg question. The large number of NI congregations in northern Alabama has been explained to me as the result of institutionalism not getting the inroads there that it did in other areas, thus leaving the NI churches in the majority; couldn’t say for sure, though.

    • Rowe and Sommer–both “disciples” of Franklin–move in relatively different directions. After Sommer took over the American Christian Review, Rowe began the Christian Leader. Rowe would be the more irenic of the two and moved much more slowly toward division. Rowe also remained more connected to Tennessee (GA) than did Sommer.

      Texas=bad, but Tennessee=good is generally true, especially on the issues covered in this article. But that is a theological judgment, not a historical one. In an article coming out in Discipliana, I will suggest that Sommer and his associates were “good” concerning women whereas Tennessee was “bad” (and Texas was mixed). So, I would suggest that it is not wholesale but, generally, a dynamic apocalyptic tradition is more biblical than what appears in the Texas tradition.

      I suppose hagiography is often in the eye of the beholder. I don’t think my treatment of Moser is hagiographical but rather a reference to a trajectory present within Churches of Christ that had been overwhelmed by the move from Texas.

      As to why Texas rather than Tennessee triumphed, it certainly includes cultural issues (e.g., nationalism, anti-pacifism, two World Wars) but it also has to do with identity issues (separation from Christian Church, distancing from baptisms and a sectarianism that isolated itself).

      And, Owen, I would agree that any of these men would feel uncomfortable in progressive churches of Christ, but I’m not sure they would feel comfortable in any churches of Christ (of any stripe). The cultural dislocation is simply too much and there has been too much “change” in all churches of Christ since the early 20th century (the last 100 years).

      Thanks for the continued discussion…I am enjoying it.

  6. Please excuse the late night reply.


    I’m afraid the comment about Moser not being comfortable in progressive congregations belongs to our host. TBH, I wouldn’t know myself either way. Thank you for the brief synopsis as to why Texas eventually won out.


    In answer to your question, I would think that it had to do with influential people, limited by geography. Birmingham is filled with NI congregations because John T. Lewis, who took that position, helped plant a lot of churches. I’m sure the same situation played out elsewhere. The only other explanation that I can think of with my limited imagination is that somehow Southerners are more open to the truth than the rest of us. As a born and bred Yankee, I have to say that explanation just won’t do. 😉

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