Gardner Hall, Foy Short: A Life in Southern Africa (Port Murray, NJ: Mount Bethel Publishing, 2012).
Without a doubt, there has been a sea change in the historiography of the Churches of Christ in recent decades. The hagiography (and, in some cases, posturing) of the early 20th century has largely been left behind. What has replaced it is a much more sophisticated kind of historical and theological analysis.
But there is still some room for improvement. Some writers, for example, have continued to view the first half of the 20th century as something of a theological wasteland or as an embarrassing chapter in the family history to be hastily passed over, a regrettable period marked by debates, sectarianism, and fractiousness. To some extent, this is an understandable reaction. Many people in mainline Churches of Christ have had trouble owning this history (assuming that they are even aware of it) because of those traits. They have preferred, instead, to jettison what they understand to be an unsavory past in favor of the perceived promise that a (de facto) merger into American evangelicalism might bring with it.
But I digress.
Fortunately, this state of neglect has begun to abate. The past few years have witnessed renewed interest and a number of fruitful projects. Among these, we should certainly mention the publication of John Mark Hicks’ and Bobby Valentine’s Kingdom Come (2006), a book to be noted for the fact that it takes David Lipscomb and James A. Harding’s ideas seriously. (I should also call attention to Hicks and Valentine’s continuing work on K. C. Moser and R. L. Whiteside.) Interest is blossoming in other quarters as well. The folks at the Alabama Restoration Journal have been doing good work directing attention to significant figures in that state (including a very helpful issue devoted to John T. Lewis). At this year’s CSC, one presenter made two very nice presentations on noted missionary and Foy Wallace bugaboo Don Carlos Janes, and another entire panel was devoted to the Lipscomb-McGary rebaptism controversy.
But even with this renewed interest, other problems remain. The general histories, for as thorough as some of them are, have tended to (with the exception of Hughes and Harrell) overlook and have otherwise failed to take seriously the various “wings” of the Churches of Christ — premillennial, non-institutional, one cup, mutual edification, etc. — that arose during that period. In this regard, there is still much work to be done if the history of these smaller fellowships is ever to be seen as more than a footnote to the history of mainline Churches of Christ.
That brings me to the present work, Gardner Hall’s Foy Short: A Life in Southern Africa (2012). The book, of course, is a biography of Harold Foy Short (1921-2012), longtime missionary among the Churches of Christ in what is now Zimbabwe.
In 1921, Will and Delia Short, along with their infant son Foy, left Harper, Kansas, and Cordell Christian College, for Rhodesia, a British colony in southern Africa. Once there, they joined the ongoing mission work of John Sherriff, a New Zealand native who came to Rhodesia to preach in 1896. Once in Africa, Sherriff underwent a change in his convictions regarding instrumental music in worship and gradually came into affiliation with the Churches of Christ in the United States.
The book proceeds briskly through Will Short’s early mission work in the
northern part of the country, the hardships of raising a family in the bush, and the complexities of navigating changing affiliations among stateside churches. Turning to the childhood of young Foy, we pick up with his departure for the United States in December 1940 to enter college. Gardner Hall does a fine job of describing key influences on Foy’s thought in the six years he was stateside: his professors at Abilene Christian College — R. C. Bell, Homer Hailey, and others; his developing friendship with Bennie Lee Fudge; and his work alongside Fudge on the faculty of the newly created North Alabama Bible School in Athens, Alabama. After narrating Short’s return to Africa in 1947, the book enters a rhythm in which his work at various mission points in Rhodesia alternates with accounts of periodic return trips to the States. Interspersed are discussions of various controversies that Short had to deal with in his work (both those specific to Africa and those imported from the United States), profiles of his native coworkers, discussions of his continuing educational work both in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and in the States, and some notice of how his work was affected by deteriorating political conditions in Zimbabwe after the nation gained independence in 1980.
The book concludes with two helpful appendices: one which gives the reader an orientation to the history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and another which provides short biographical sketches of a number of American evangelists who have worked in the country since the time of John Sherriff.
As I thought about this book and this review, I was reminded of some words of Iain Provan I read recently:
“All testimony about the past is also interpretation of the past. It has its ideology or theology; it has its presuppositions and its point of view; it has its narrative structure; and (if at all interesting to read or listen to) it has its narrative art, its rhetoric. It is intrinsically embroiled in advocacy, even if it may go out of its way to try to disguise this fact and appear neutral. There is no true neutrality, however; no dispassionate, unbiased, and presuppositionless presentation of the facts is possible. People always write about the past because they wish to communicate some kind of truth to their readers or to advocate some kind of virtue. It has always been so; it will always remain so.”
This might strike some as a controversial statement. Consider this, though. “Objective” histories of the Stone-Campbell Movement written by Disciple scholars in the early 20th century often failed to even mention the existence of a cappella Churches of Christ. The Church of Christ was a small splinter group in their eyes, the redneck cousins they were embarrassed to claim. (A more contemporary version of the same phenomenon can be seen in the attitude of many mainline outlets among Churches of Christ toward their separated brethren in one cup, non-institutional, and non-class churches.) What’s the lesson to be learned from reading DeGroot and other Disciple historians from that period? They teach us, quite inadvertently, that sweeping claims to objectivity rarely ensure that no agenda in fact exists. Often, such claims simply mean that the agenda is masked – masked, often enough, to the eyes of the author himself. Better, then, to be honest about one’s presuppositions up front.
It seems to me that much of the value of the newer historiography among Churches of Christ comes from how it embodies that point. It holds in tension two seemingly contradictory impulses.
First, it is no longer a priori beholden to maintaining walls between groups. It’s our historians — not our churches or news outlets — that are in the forefront of this development. The Alabama Restoration Journal, for example, brings together historians from non-institutional and mainline conservative backgrounds — two groups that have less in common than might appear at first blush. ACU Press’ series of histories of the three major streams of the Movement is a cooperative project across traditional lines. The World History Project (set to be released soon) does the same thing on a much larger — and international — scale.
At the same time, most of this work — and this is key — respects the real differences that exist among the various wings of the Movement. The cooperative projects just described make no attempt to carry the banners of their respective parties or to fall back on the kind of lazy ecumenism that has descended on so many quarters, the ecumenism that attempts to bypass our differences by pretending that they don’t really matter or by claiming that they are merely matters of preference. (This is not, by the way, a swipe at serious ecumenical dialogue.) That’s true of the ACU Press and World History projects and of the Alabama Restoration Journal. Because of this, they have the freedom to tell the story in all of its messiness and humanity.
This gives me hope for more of the kind of historical work done by Gardner Hall in Foy Short. Hall forgoes any kind of programmatic claim to objectivity — and that’s a good thing. This is a personal story for him. He knows (or knew, in the case of the late Foy Short) many of the people about whom he writes. He was raised and educated in the North Alabama non-institutional milieu about which he writes. But that’s not to say that Hall has no concern for the ‘facts.’ He has clearly done due diligence in his research, digging up archival documents and interviewing participants spread out over two continents. Moreover, he doesn’t feel the need to hide facts that might be inconvenient in some quarters (e. g., Will Short’s close association with Don Carlos Janes and the Word and Work).
At the same time, he is up front about his assumptions. He understands that Foy Short’s life tells a story, makes a point, that he believes needs sharing. He is concerned to position the nature of Short’s work in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe independently of mainline parachurch mission efforts in the same region. Yet, at the same time, his work is not harsh or argumentative in tone.
For my own purposes, I was especially interested in how Hall’s book would interact with John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine’s thesis in Kingdom Come. As I’ve indicated here before — even though this was not their primary purpose — Hicks and Valentine’s Tennessee-Texas paradigm has been beneficial for many in non-institutional circles in coming to terms with a number of questions. One of the most important of those questions is this: was the non-institutional movement of the 1950s entirely de novo or did it have a clear lineage in the history of Churches of Christ and in the history of the 19th century Stone-Campbell Movement? The work of Hicks and Valentine (along with the earlier work of Richard Hughes) has shown that the non-institutional protest did not arise out of the blue. It had a clear and demonstrable lineage.
That said, it was a lineage that drew on many different theological threads in the Movement’s history. It was not, in other words, an uncomplicated lineage coming out of one source (e. g., the writings of Daniel Sommer), as some hostile observers have suggested. The discussion arising out of the work of Hicks and Valentine has helped to show that we can point to at least two (but probably three) varieties of non-institutional thought. Hall’s primary interest in his discussion of Hicks and Valentine is in the demonstrable continuities in the thought of NI leaders like Short and Bennie Lee Fudge with the “Tennessee” thought of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding. These continuities are readily seen in his parents (who were themselves educated at J. N. Armstrong’s school in Harper, Kansas) and in his time at ACC and in North Alabama. Hall’s own take on the Tennessee tradition is worth quoting at length:
“[Harding and Lipscomb’s] approach to the scriptures emphasized God’s grace, separation from the world, trust in God’s providence, and strict construction in the interpretation of the scriptures. Some who today claim the Lipscomb-Harding heritage as their own do not emphasize that latter characteristic. Historian Richard Hughes believes that Barton W. Stone’s teachings had a strong influence on Lipscomb and Harding. Lipscomb and Harding’s grace-plus-convictions approach heavily influenced churches in North Alabama in the early part of the twentieth century … Bennie Lee Fudge would pass on these values to his protégé, Foy Short, although Foy had probably already received a good dose from his parents who in turn had received them from J. N. Armstrong, a student of Lipscomb’s.” (pp. 50-51)
Hall’s four-point interpretation of Hicks and Valentine’s Tennessee Tradition gets a lot of things right. It emphasizes something critical to Lipscomb’s thought – “strict construction” in the interpretation of the Bible – that Hicks and Valentine largely pass over. Worth adding, in this reviewer’s opinion, would be some discussion of how Short exemplified (especially in some of his editorial decisions discussed on pp. 135-138) the value placed on open discussion in the Tennessee tradition and the more expansive views of fellowship that also characterized that tradition. (This last point is also exemplified in the life of John T. Lewis. That’s another blog post, though.) Overall, though, Foy Short is a real and valuable contribution to an ongoing discussion about the validity of Hicks and Valentine’s categories.
Going forward, I think there are several points that bear further discussion.
- This book, to my knowledge, constitutes the first serious historical work on mission work among non-institutional churches and the significant ways in which those missions differ from mainline mission efforts. (Indeed, the book is worth every penny for showing that the phrase “non-institutional missionary” is not an oxymoron.) There are other mission efforts that, it occurs to me, might bear out a similarly detailed investigation. What about the now three-decades-old effort by NI missionaries (and native preachers) in the Philippines?
- This book does much to (helpfully) complicate the neat and tidy taxonomies that dominate mainline discussions of all of the “wings” of Churches of Christ: premillennial, non-institutional, etc. It steadfastly disallows the tendency to see the wings as the province of fringe radicals who have nothing to say to — and are totally disconnected from — the “mainstream.” To cite one example, I was intrigued to read about Will Short’s connections with Don Carlos Janes and the Word and Work. Foy, as we learn in the book, did not share his father’s “Bollite” (to borrow a phrase) sympathies. But it is still interesting to think about how fluid the theological spectrum in the churches was in the early 20th century, especially on the mission field.
- This book, as we have said, carries the Tennessee-Texas-Indiana paradigm forward, recognizing some important ways how the Tennessee-Texas dispute played out in non-institutional circles in the middle of the 20th century. But how does that paradigm hold up as an interpretation of the later history of the non-institutional communion? I especially have in mind here the disputes of the 1980s and 1990s. If, in other words, we grant the existence of a Tennessee stream of thought in NI circles (concentrated primarily in North Alabama), then — to creatively paraphrase Tertullian — what does Athens have to do with Bowling Green (or Tampa or Nashville)?