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.
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.
**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.