The T. B. Larimore house near Florence, Alabama, was destroyed by fire a couple weeks ago. It’s a devastating loss, and a lot of people are feeling it right now. My FB feed has been full of articles and photos.
John Mark Hicks posted this remembrance:
Larimore’s plea to be “just simply and solely a Christian in this intensely partisan age” resonates with so many of us who have been witness to harsh (and often pointless) disputes both at the congregational level and at the “brotherhood” level. Indeed, his words seem timeless.
But context matters, and cannot be ignored even in this case. Questions arise immediately. Who was this “former student”? What motivated him to write to Larimore? What did he want? I want to talk for a moment about the context of Larimore’s words and how an entirely different light can be cast upon them when we allow that context to shape our reading and understanding.
This is important at the moment because of the way that Larimore’s words have been pressed into service in the context of doctrinal disputes between “progressives” and “conservatives” in mainline Churches of Christ over the past few decades. In order to keep this post tight, I will split it into two parts.
In this and the next post, we will look at Larimore and his correspondent in more detail. In a third and final post, I will offer some reflections on what all this might say about our current-day situation.
Most of the details of T. B. Larimore’s life are well-established, and we need not linger on them here. But a bit of context will be helpful. Recall that he had established and managed the Mars’ Hill school for almost two decades (1871–1887). In that setting, some of the most influential leaders of the Churches of Christ in the early twentieth century were trained and began their ministries: E. A. Elam, J. C. McQuiddy, F. B. Srygley. Also among the graduates of Mars’ Hill was young Oscar Pendleton Spiegel (1866–1947). Remember that name: he’s the “former student” alluded to in John Mark’s post and we’ll return to him in a moment.
By the middle of the 1890s, Larimore was in the sixth decade of his life and was an in-
demand evangelist all across the South. Along with David Lipscomb and J. M. Barnes, we might count him among the elder statesmen of the Southern churches at that time. He was easily one of the most popular evangelists in the Christian Church–and one of the few with a solid reputation among other Protestant bodies.
Like most other evangelists in the church–especially those who traveled extensively to hold protracted meetings–Larimore preached to an increasingly divided brotherhood in the 1890s. As the decade wore on, congregations on both sides of the divide were actively specifying that the preachers who held their meetings line up with their views on the marquee issues of the day (i.e. the missionary society and instrumental music in worship).
Larimore, perhaps more than most, sought to thread a needle that was increasingly difficult to thread. He attempted to preach wherever he found an audience, regardless of the congregation’s leanings on those issues. Among his most well-known efforts:
- the 1887 Nashville meeting that put the South College Street church on a solid footing. (This was the congregation that David Lipscomb served as an elder for nearly three decades.)
- the 1894 Sherman, Texas meeting, which lasted some 22 weeks and resulted in 254 “additions” to the church there.
- Not as well known—but noteworthy for the subject of this post—was the January 1896 meeting he held for the Christian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a congregation with decidedly progressive leanings.
As the reader might imagine, such an approach invited criticism from all sides. Larimore’s actions in Sherman, Texas filled the pages of the Gospel Advocate for the rest of 1894 and into the following year. Lots of armchair quarterbacking can be found in those articles. J. D. Tant, closely associated with the Firm Foundation, was especially vocal in his attacks on Larimore. But criticism came from the other side of the divide, as well. Following the Sherman meeting, the Christian Courier, a progressive Texas paper edited by W. K. Homan, attacked Larimore for dividing the church in Sherman.
It’s worth noting that, even amid all of this, David Lipscomb never dropped his support for Larimore. Aside from some mild criticism—he thought that Larimore could be a bit more clear about his convictions—Lipscomb remained in Larimore’s corner. From this, I think we readily gather that Larimore’s own doctrinal leanings were with Lipscomb and other Southern conservatives.
The most surprising criticism of Larimore, however, came a few years later, in the summer of 1897, when an open letter to Larimore, penned by that “former student,” Oscar Pendleton Spiegel, ran in an issue of the Christian Standard, perhaps the leading progressive paper in the nation. How did it come to this? How did Larimore and one of his students find themselves in this position? To answer those questions, we have to understand something of Spiegel’s own development.
(At the outset, we should note that the details of Spiegel’s career are no mystery. Sources are plentiful: Spiegel was a major player among Southern Disciples in the 1890s.)
O. P. Spiegel was a native of Morgan County, Alabama, and part of a prominent family of Disciples there. (Two of his brothers, J. E. and S. P., would go on to play prominent roles among the progressive churches of Alabama in the early 20th century.) He enrolled in Larimore’s Mars Hill school as an adolescent boy, and was a member of that final graduating class of 1887. When F. D. Srygley interviewed Larimore about his former students two years later for a book he was writing, Larimore spoke very highly of Spiegel, referring to him as “one of the very best and most promising of the Mars’ Hill boys—young, fine looking and destined to make his mark in the world” (Larimore and His Boys, pg. 175). At the time of this interview, Spiegel had left Alabama and was enrolled as a student at College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky. Later on, he would undertake studies at the recently formed Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago. But it was in Lexington, among his fellow classmates, in classes and conversations with faculty members such as J. W. McGarvey, that Spiegel’s mind began to change.
When he graduated in the summer of 1891, Spiegel accepted an invitation from A. R. Moore to take his place as minister with the church in Anniston, Alabama. He wrote later that he hesitated at first:
At first I would not think of going. I had heard that there were societies of many kinds in that church; that they had a separate choir, and that the members had very little pure religion any way. After the church had urged me to come, I at last came to this conclusion: ‘If there is a church on earth where the members are doing sinful things, and will come to hear me preach, I want to go to that church, for may be I can benefit them; hence, I will try my hand on Anniston.’ So I wrote them that I would come that first of September, last. I went; but, to my great surprise, they had no society there, except the church; no separate choir, and as to religion, ‘pure and undefiled,’ I have never seen a church with more than this one…. The brethren and sisters are ever ready to co-operate with the Lord in every good word and work.
Quoted in O. P. Spiegel, “Anniston, Ala.” Gospel Advocate 34.26 (June 30, 1892): 405.
This was a position he would hold for about ten months. During his stay in Anniston, we see all the marks of a man whose mind is changing and whose loyalties are clearly divided. While in Anniston, he writes articles supportive of the state missionary society for the Apostolic Guide (and, our sources report, took a salary for his work from the General Christian Missionary Society). Moreover, he served as president of the 1892 annual meeting of the Alabama Christian Missionary Cooperation (the state society). All the while, he sent in regular reports to the Gospel Advocate, and participated in a meeting that Advocate front-page editor F. D. Srygley held in nearby Gadsden.
While fellowship between conservatives and progressives had not decisively ruptured in the early 1890s, the kind of tension that Spiegel courted at this point in his own life was not sustainable. Open conflict with David Lipscomb erupted on the pages of the Advocate after Spiegel wrote the following in the Apostolic Guide:
Not long since I went to hold a little meeting at one of our little cities. One of the elders took me out and said: “Now, we would like to know how you stand on the ‘organ,’ ‘missionary society’ and ‘salaried preacher’ questions?” Said I: “Now, brother ———–, I have my opinion as to whether those things are right under certain circumstances, and you have yours. So I propose that we each and all keep our opinions to ourselves and preach the gospel this week, and do all the good we can to save souls.” “No,” said he, “if you believe these things are right under any circumstances, you are not a fit subject to preach the gospel.” I preached it all the same. But I wonder how long it will be before the confession of our opinions will be taken instead of a confession of our faith in Christ as to whether we shall be entitled to membership in the body of Christ?
Quoted in David Lipscomb, “Opinions a Test of Fellowship.” Gospel Advocate 34.20 (May 19, 1892): 309.
“If a Methodist were to say to Bro. Speegle [sic], that you have your opinion about who should be baptized and how it should be done, and I have mine; let us keep our opinions to ourselves and preach the gospel this week, he would object, mine is faith, not opinions.
“I as firmly believe that it is a sin to set aside the divine order of work and worship, with the interferences and opinions of men, as he possibly can believe it a sin to substitute affusion for baptism, or to baptize the infant instead of the believer in Christ Jesus. He wonders how long it will be before a confession of opinion will be taken instead of a confession of our faith in Christ, as to whether we should be entitled to membership in a church of Christ. If he will study the exclusion of J. T. Frazier in Louisville, he can see that when those who substitute opinion and inference for the order of God feel they are strong enough they will exclude all who refuse to conform to the opinion of the elders. If he will note that as smooth and gentle a man as Larimore can hold a series of successful meetings in Texas, one in the home-town of one of the editorial writers of the [Christian] Courier, and never be noticed in the Courier. This means he is ostracised. How long before you will feel able to do this in Alabama, deponent saith not, but some years ago a few young men went from college down to Alabama, with a number of visitors, held a state meeting for Alabama, and refused to let J. M. Barnes, who was raised in the state and labored long to build up the churches of Christ, speak at it. And it seems from the above, a young man just out of school set at defiance the wish of an elder of a church, and preached against his wishes. That, at least, is implied by the language. I cannot tell how long it will be, but now as ever, those who depart from the word of God will ostracise, condemn, and cast out, those who refuse to depart from the order of God.
“The trouble with Bro. Speegle is, he does not keep his opinion to himself. He may have done it on that occasion as a matter of policy, but he is head of a society in Alabama to propagate his opinion, and he presses that opinion on the brethren wherever and whenever he can, without defeating his own aims to establish it. No one will object to Brother Speegle’s opinion if he will keep it to himself.”
There’s a lot going on in this exchange—did you notice Lipscomb’s use of Larimore in his response to Spiegel?—but we should note two things that come through with great clarity, especially when the Lipscomb-Spiegel conversation is placed alongside the later Larimore-Spiegel exchange:
- By 1897, in his open letter to Larimore, Spiegel has reversed himself, essentially taking the line of argument made by the elder in the story above.
- In the five years from 1892 to 1897, Spiegel’s transition was complete. His was not an uncommon story in the 1890s. It was a time of transition and ferment. All sorts of people in the Christian Church were transitioning from conservative to progressive and from progressive to conservative during these years. Likewise, congregations were making the transition from one side of the fence to the other. By the end of the decade, it was much, much more difficult not to take a side (as Larimore was trying to do) than it had been at the beginning of it.
After his time at Anniston, Spiegel’s trajectory was set. He accepted the position of State Evangelist in July 1894.
Because even most who have heard of the missionary societies are unfamiliar with the office of State Evangelist, a word of explanation is in order. The State Evangelist was the public face of the state missionary society. As the name of the office suggests, he traveled the state holding meetings and raising funds for the state society. He also helped connect churches with preachers who could hold meetings for them. In some cases, he would help to resolve congregational disputes or to vet preachers for doctrinal suitability. Moreover, it was common for the State Evangelist to act as a subscription agent for the pro-society papers, like the Standard, the Apostolic Guide, and the Christian-Evangelist. In all of this, the State Evangelist was a key player in building the denominational scaffolding that would result, by the 1960s, in the formation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
During his time as State Evangelist (July 1894 to December 1897), Spiegel did the job he was commissioned to do. He sent in reports of his work to the Advocate as well as to the more progressive papers. Year by year, Spiegel’s loyalties to the progressive cause became clearer. More than that, though, he became increasingly more aggressive in pushing his newly formed conclusions on the churches of Alabama.
We’ll turn to that story in the next post.