The good folks at the library have been away over the past couple of weekends. Not having access to the Gospel Advocate, my work on Lewis has had to take a different direction. I’m using this time to try to get a better sense of the context of his Birmingham work. To that end, I’ve been working on a few smaller projects over the past couple of weeks. In this post, I’ll take a few minutes to describe them.
I’ve mentioned here before that there is a published biography of John T. Lewis: Ottis Castleberry’s He Looked for a City (1980). In some of my earliest conversations with people who had been close to Brother and Sister Lewis, my interviewees expressed significant disappointment with Castleberry’s book. I only began to understand why this was the case after my first read of the book. On the positive side, for sheer volume of information, the book is a gold mine. Castleberry had access to documents and letters that (presumably) don’t exist any more. He taped hours of interviews with many people (now dead) who were close to Lewis. There are so many telling insights into the man himself.
On the negative side, though, the book is an organizational train wreck. We, of course, generally expect biographies to be structured chronologically — and if they’re not, there needs to be a clear reason why. Castleberry doesn’t even come close on this count: information about JTL’s childhood and early life comes in chapter 9, his days at the Nashville Bible School are discussed in chapter 5, a description of his church planting efforts in Birmingham is given in chapter 1. You get the picture.
Perhaps more serious than any of this are a number of significant omissions. For example, Castleberry says nothing of the major debates that took place in Birmingham during Lewis’ career (see below). Moreover, he is largely silent about Lewis’ involvement with the Alabama Christian College at Berry (1912-1922) or the Montgomery Bible School (founded in 1942; now Faulkner University). Neither does he have much to say about the institutional controversy which dominated the final years of Lewis’ active ministry. Why? I don’t have any answers, and I’m certainly not meaning to suggest sinister motives on Castleberry’s part. Maybe the book was a rush job (this was suggested by someone I talked with). Who can say?
In order to process the information found in He Looked for a City I’ve been at work on two projects.The first of these is a chronology of Lewis’ life. (Here’s one by Scott Harp that is based on Castleberry’s book. For a fun exercise, scroll down the column that lists the page number in Castleberry where each event is found. As you will notice, he had to go all over the book to put together the chronology.) The one I’m putting together is drawn from a variety of sources (including Castleberry). I’ll post it here sometime soon.
The other is the construction of a prosopography of the Birmingham church members mentioned in the book and in all of the related primary sources with which I am working. What is prosopography, you ask? Here’s a good working description. The classic example — from my previous academic training — is A. H. M. Jones and J. R. Martindale’s Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire in four volumes. To put this together, I’ve gone over the book with a fine-toothed comb extracting all of the people that Castleberry mentions in the book. The list includes anyone connected with Lewis in Birmingham: preachers, elders, members. Anyone I can reasonably assume was a part of Lewis’ work in Birmingham is on the list. Having accumulated the list, the next step is to accumulate as much information about these people as possible. Some, like preachers, are easier to locate than others. The information comes from a variety of places: Preachers of Today, the 1940 Census, findagrave.com, therestorationmovement.com, the Gospel Advocate, the Gospel Guardian, and Searching the Scriptures. For many others, nothing more than a name can be recovered (and for a few I don’t even have that). The end goal is not a detailed biography of any one person (other than John T. Lewis, of course), but rather a thick description of the community around him in Birmingham and a way to discern general patterns and and characteristics (like socioeconomic status, education levels, etc.) of the group.
You can help if you are so inclined. What follows is a list of men who preached in Birmingham — from J. M. Barnes in the 1870s down to about 1970. I have reliable birth and death dates for several of them, as well as basic career information for many. Do any of you remember any of these men, especially the younger ones? What do you remember about them or about their time in Birmingham?
J. W. Shepherd (1861-1948)