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.)
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
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.
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
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.”
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.