Category Archives: Stone-Campbell Movement

On the Larimore-Spiegel Exchange

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:

JMH on Larimore

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-

t. b. larimore

T. B. Larimore (ca.1900)

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.

O. P. Spiegel -- Shreveport Times April 10 1904 pg. 2

O. P. Spiegel (1904)

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.

Lipscomb responded:

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


“Concerning Military Training”

In the July 16, 1896, issue of the Gospel Advocate, F. D. Srygley reprinted, with approval, the following query that had been directed to the editor of the Christian-Evangelist. As with so many other things one encounters in the Gospel Advocate from the 1890s, it’s noteworthy as an index of how much things have changed.

“Do you think that our institutions, like Drake, Kentucky University, Bethany, Eureka, Add-Ran, etc., should have regular military companies in them? Do they not cultivate the military or war spirit? Are the benefits equal to the evils? (An Observer.)

We do not see any sufficient reasons for military companies in such institutions as are named. It is urged in their favor that they train boys to walk erect, but this should be done before the boy goes to the university or the college. Besides, some system of calisthenics would answer that purpose as well. It seems hardly consonant with institutions founded in the interest of the King of Peace to foster the military spirit. Rather let the students of our colleges be taught to put on the whole armor of God and to fight their battles with spiritual weapons.—Christian-Evangelist.

Excerpted from “Spirit of the Press.” Gospel Advocate 38.29 (July 16, 1896): 450.

A few explanatory notes:

  1. The querist is asking after the propriety of what are now commonly known as ROTC programs. In our day, these are largely uncontroversial. Colleges and universities of all stripes—including at least some of those affiliated with the Churches of Christ—host these programs. But such programs—along with intercollegiate football programs—were regularly criticized by writers for the Advocate as late as the 1930s.
  2. Some of the colleges named—Drake, Bethany, and Eureka—are still in operation. Kentucky University, through a complicated institutional history, fed into the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. Add-Ran is now known as Texas Christian University.
  3. It’s also worth noting that, a mere two years later, J. H. Garrison (1842–1931), editor of the Christian-Evangelist, would throw his full weight behind the American war against Spain. Garrison’s response on this occasion is frankly surprising: consistent pacifism of the kind found in the Advocate during the 90s was in very short supply in most other brotherhood papers from that same period.

A Postscript on “The Nashville Establishment”

I’ve been surprised over the past couple of days at the level of interest a recent post (“On the Nashville Establishment“) has generated, both here on this blog and in other settings as well. Most of this has been positive, and for that I’m very grateful.

The best scholarship pushes discussion forward and helps us to think about the evidence in new ways. I for one have been challenged by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine and the Tennessee-Texas-Indiana paradigm that they have set out for understanding Churches of Christ in the early 20th century. What I’ve tried to do in describing the “Nashville Establishment” is to provide a framework for understanding the history of Churches of Christ in this city. If what I have done here helps to advance someone’s thinking, then I will be satisfied.

That said, I’d like to address one theme that has shown up in a few of the responses. It’s really easy, I think, when dealing with the history of whatever period or group of people, to fall into the trap of sitting in judgment upon people who are not around to defend themselves, to hold those people to a standard that we ourselves have set. Avoiding this trap — the trap of overtly polemical historiography — does not release us from a certain tension. As a historian, I want to be fair to the Comers and to the good motives that undoubtedly drove them to set up the Church of Christ Foundation. I also want to tell their story accurately.

But I also want to be honest. I’m not telling this story in a vacuum. I’m not telling it for its own sake. I believe it has something to say to us about the role of money and power in the history of Churches of Christ in Nashville. Whatever one might think of Don Haymes’ analysis of the “Church of Christ Establishment” — whether he got all of the particulars right or not — he put his finger on something very important. Even as we loudly protest that we are not a denomination, we often act like one. To say this, of course, is to touch a sensitive nerve. A lot of us still believe that we are nothing more than a loose network of autonomous congregations.  That’s what we want to be, of course, but is that what we actually are? Is that how we actually behave?

Our observable history in places like Nashville suggests otherwise. The story of R. W. Comer and his trust fund is by no means an isolated incident. To be sure, the role of the Comer and Burton families in Nashville exemplifies how the power structure functioned at its height.  But examples of the establishment’s treatment of (and concerted action against) those who got in its way can be found in many other places. Among those, we might mention the churches and leaders involved in the non-institutional protest of the 1950s and the African-American church leaders who fought the closure of the Nashville Christian Institute in 1967.

We could go further, of course. Let me close for now by saying this. If anything, I hope these stories can help us to reflect unflinchingly on who we have been, who we are, and where we might be going. I also hope they help us to pay attention to how easily, in our efforts to spread the good news of the kingdom, we can be seduced by the world’s methods and standards of success.

Thanks again for your participation.

To Birmingham

This is later than I anticipated. But I still wanted to put this out there for those of you who might be interested. Back in October, on a weekend when my wife and girls were visiting with my in-laws, I and a friend hopped into the car and headed to Birmingham to do a bit of Lewis-related research.

We left out early on a beautiful Saturday morning, stopping off briefly for breakfast. We had two interviews on our agenda. Our first stop was with a wonderful lady, twice a widow, whose first husband succeeded Lewis in the pulpit at the Ensley church. Dick Moore (that was his name) has an interesting story of his own that I may recount in a future post. Our second stop, over supper at Cracker Barrel, was with a delightful church historian living in Trussville, northeast of the city.

Ensley Steel Plant 1908 postcard front

Ensley Steel Plant 1908 postcard front (Photo credit: Dystopos)

In between these stops, we did some sightseeing. That’s what I want to focus on in this post. The Ensley section of Birmingham is on the western side of the city. In its heyday, it was a large and thriving independent city at the center of Birmingham’s iron and steel making industries. It had a large immigrant population (including an Italian quarter) and was the home of the Tuxedo Junction club, made famous in a tune recorded by Glenn Miller.

Driving through it this past fall reminded me of nothing quite so much as some of the photographs that one can see of Detroit. Most structures exhibit an advanced state of decay. Much of the population has fled. Everything in the downtown is boarded up, surrounded with chainlink fence. Housing stock shows the same traits: maybe every other house is occupied; many are caved in or otherwise severely run down.

An industrial scene in Ensley, Alabama (Februa...

Ensley Works and worker housing, ca. 1937 (via Wikipedia)

Our goal in visiting a really unprepossessing area of town was twofold. First, I wanted to see the old Ensley Church of Christ building. This congregation was one of Lewis’ numerous plants. He established it in 1926 and much of his regular preaching after that date was done at Ensley.

Yours truly, in front of the Ensley building

Cornerstone, obscured by PVC piping

As the pictures indicate, the building dates from 1949. The Disciples of Christ Historical Society has a file on Ensley that contains a pamphlet by Lewis in which he provides an exact accounting of the money that was collected and spent on the building. As far as I’ve been able to determine, it was in use until around the mid-1980s, when the last remaining members disbanded and went to other congregations. On this trip, while at worship on Sunday morning, I met the widow of one of the Ensley elders (who knew John and Della Lewis intimately) who filled me in on some of these details.

It’s hard to tell if the building is currently occupied. It seems to have changed hands recently.

Sign, propped up behind the building

Current sign

Presumably, the Westside Church of Christ is responsible for the addition of a handicapped ramp to the front of the building. We weren’t able to contact anyone affiliated with the congregation, however. All told, however, the building is in great shape. The same cannot be said for the neighborhood.

Adjacent house

The house pictured above sits immediately behind the church building and is typical of much of the housing stock in Ensley.

After a drive through downtown Ensley — filled with boarded up structures — our next stop was the Lewis home. (The highrise in the picture below is surrounded by chain link fencing. Numerous attempts at revitalization of downtown Ensley — which has good ‘bones’ from an urban planning perspective — have floundered over the years.)

Downtown Ensley

Some artwork, seen driving through downtown Ensley

The Lewis house, which sits at 1604 30th Street in Ensley, is currently unoccupied and sits in a neighborhood of similarly run-down housing stock. The construction of I-59 split Ensley in half; we had to take a somewhat circuitous route to get from church building to house, a journey that would have been simple (and close) in Lewis’ day.

Lewis house

That afternoon, we had a bit of time before our next interview. So we headed into downtown Birmingham. Destination: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Not directly related to Lewis, of course, but we wanted to at least see the Museum and 16th Street Baptist Church. It was late in the afternoon, and close to appointment time, so we limited ourselves to the gift shop and some photos taken out of doors.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Memorial to the four girls killed on the morning of 15 September 1963

Lewis’ own comments on race are somewhat enigmatic. Some of his remarks seem to be in the vein of David Lipscomb’s views. There are some interesting stories to be told, but he never remarked directly (as far as I’ve been able to discover) on the marches, the church bombing, or any other part of what was occurring in the city in those days.

That’s all for now.

On the “Nashville Establishment”

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

R. W. Comer

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.

Russell Street Church of Christ

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

N. B. Hardeman (1874-1965)

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.”

Guy L. Comer (1891-1969)

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.

A few caveats

[Sorry about the spacing on this post. I typed it in another program, and pasted it over into WordPress. WordPress’ text editor won’t let me put spacing between the paragraphs.]
In my first post, I suggested that the received hermeneutic (CENI) may not be the problem, or at least not the primary problem. Before I turn to the real problems in the next post, I want to step back and make a few observations.
First, when I delve into these issues, I want it to be clear (and I hope that it comes through in my writing) that I write out of love, rather than out of any desire to tear down or needlessly criticize. I say that because, at least in part, the claim I’m making is polemical in intent. I think the usual discussion about hermeneutics in Churches of Christ needs to be shaken up. We’re at an impasse and no one is making real progress these days, it seems to me.
Partly, I’m floating a hypothesis, testing an idea, that I’m admittedly not totally sure about myself. I hope that, as you read, you will think along with me, noting where the argument makes sense and where it might need to be sharpened.
Those are necessary caveats, because what I write here may be hard to hear for some. “Conservatives” and “progressives” have invested so much in defending or attacking the received hermeneutic in recent decades that it may be hard to hear anything other than — depending on your persuasion — derision of it or assertions of its infallibility.
In the coming post(s) I will be defending the received hermeneutic….sort of. But my point is not so much to mount a defense as it is to say that the hermeneutic shouldn’t be blamed for things it didn’t do (or for eventualities it was not equipped to prevent).
On the other hand, I also realize that what amounts to a defense of the hermeneutic on the basis of tradition will probably not sit well with some of its staunchest advocates. It is, after all, a hermeneutic built upon a total rejection of tradition (going all the way back to A. Campbell in the preface to the 2nd edition of The Christian System, 1839) as even a modest source of theological truth or authority. In what follows, I openly assume such a (modest) role for our tradition. But it’s a limited role: tradition is not on par with Scripture. Rather, I will assume here something along the lines of the Reformed distinction between the “normed norm” (whether tradition, experience, human reason, or whatever else) and the “norming norm” (Scripture). Go here, and scroll down a bit, for a good definition of what I mean when I say that Scripture is our “norm.” Someone might object, of course, that they appeal to the Bible alone and draw upon no other source of authority. That’s a noble ideal but one that does not exist in practice. The best we can do is to submit all of our other sources of reasoning to the judgment of Scripture. Put another way, Scripture ultimately stands in judgment over all of our traditions (and all of our hermeneutical methods!), even as we allow our tradition a voice in our theological reasoning.
Finally, in undertaking this discussion, I assuming that the received hermeneutic is at the center of our identity as a theological tradition and cannot be wholesale removed without seriously compromising the tradition. I am also assuming that this is not a bad thing: allegorical exegesis was at the center of the early Church’s identity and allegorical and typological readings lay at the foundations of orthodox understandings of Scripture to this day (see, among others, the work of John O’Keefe, Frances Young, R.R. Reno, and Rowan Greer). Some have argued that there is no orthodoxy as we have it apart from that particular way of reading the Scriptures. That’s a discussion for another post, though. I raise this example just to say that hermeneutics and identity are very often closely linked, and that — again — that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

On the limits of method

I’m registered this semester for a course titled “The Theology of the Stone-Campbell Movement.” As you might expect, it focuses on Churches of Christ, beginning with Stone and the Campbells coming down to the end of the 20th century.

The course is arranged thematically: after a brief introduction to the facts of the Movement’s history (names, dates, etc.), the bulk of the course deals with major theological themes that emerge from that history: unity, restoration, democracy, millennialism, and so on. I’m charged, as part of this course, with contributing to a group presentation on the Movement’s hermeneutics. On my end of things, I’ll be looking at Alexander Campbell’s “Sermon on the Law” (1816) and how the approach taken in that sermon led, later on, to a comparative neglect of the Old Testament.


I enjoy reading David Bentley Hart. (I think I’ve professed my love on here before. If you’ve never heard of him, here’s enough to keep you busy for a while.) In one of his latest pieces for First Things, Hart writes:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).

This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): The lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural”).

It’s no accident that Hart should focus in on the methodological arrogance of some scientists. Naturalism has come to dominate thinking in many quarters: biology, neurology, etc. are believed to have the ability to explain just about any human characteristic. Diehard adherents of naturalism are also the ones writing the most dogmatically atheist volumes in our day — Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, among others. Often, it is the case that these writers have little interest in dialogue or conversation with Christians, and even less interest in how the Christian faith is actually practiced (Dawkins’ theological ignorance, for example, is the stuff of legend by now). Hart points out the obvious in this piece: every method, every explanatory model, scientific or otherwise, has its limits. This is so because all of these methods are human. The best methods recognize their limits, their humanity.

It’s also no accident, or so it seems to me, that a similar methodological arrogance has flowered in some quarters among Churches of Christ. A great deal of time has been spent in our circles over the past three decades or so — all across the spectrum from “progressive” to “conservative” — examining our received hermeneutic (i.e. the “common sense” hermeneutic that looks to direct divine commands, apostolic examples, and “necessary” inferences in order to establish authority).

Progressives attack this received hermeneutic, laying at its feet the blame for all of our present ills. It has, they say, been responsible for all of our major (and minor) divisions; it has sapped us of our spiritual vitality; it has left us stuck riding around in a modernist jalopy on superhighways made for sleeker postmodern hermeneutical models. All of this has led most (if not all of) them to advocate, directly or indirectly, for jettisoning it in favor of a “new hermeneutic.”*

It’s easy to see why they do this. A five-minute search of the Internet would turn up numerous, flagrantly bad applications of the “common sense” (ironic quote marks intended) hermeneutic. Not only that. Many of those advocating these bad applications have also broken fellowship with those who disagree with them. This is to be regretted lamented.

Conservatives, not surprisingly, loudly protest these criticisms. This way of reading Scripture, they argue, has given us a great many treasures: weekly communion, the leadership of elders in the local congregation, and so forth. But there is also a note of fear in their argumentation: if we were to jettison the received hermeneutic, what would be our source of authority? This is a legitimate question, one that progressives have thus far failed to answer satisfactorily. But for many conservatives, fear has taken over, leading them to retreat into an extreme dogmatism.

To some extent this is forgivable. Undoubtedly, it is motivated by love of the tradition (even if they wouldn’t use that term). But it’s unnecessary. The conservative critique is accurate to the extent that it gets at the issue of identity in a way that many progressives have blithely ignored. Conservatives rightly recognize (even if they can’t put it into words) that the received hermeneutic is at the heart of our identity as a theological tradition and cannot simply be jettisoned without extensive and painful surgery that might just take the life of the patient. But ignoring or downplaying the questions and problems raised by progressives is not the right approach.

In my next couple of posts, I want to do three things. First, I will suggest that maybe the common sense hermeneutic is not the problem…at least not the major problem. Second, I will point to what I see as the real problems, which are not the ones commonly identified by progressives.  Finally, I will suggest that the real problems dog “progressive” thinking just as much they do “conservative” thinking.

Every method, every hermeneutic, is of human origin and therefore fallible. “Progressives” are right to point this out. “Conservatives” would do well to heed the warning against methodological arrogance. But, on the other hand, our salvation does not come by hermeneutics. All too often, progressive projects to replace the received hermeneutic give off the same whiff of Enlightenment confidence (and, indeed, methodological arrogance) that attends their 19th century predecessors.

*I don’t, by the way, mean anything pejorative by using the phrase “new hermeneutic.” I simply use it because there is no commonly agreed upon descriptor currently in use for the various proposals to replace the “old” one.