I’m knee-deep in the 1920 volume of the Gospel Advocate at the moment. This seemed like a good time to pause and talk about a few things I’ve noticed.
I heard recently that the digitization of the entire GA is getting closer. That’s exciting news. It will be a real boon for anyone doing anything with the history of the Churches of Christ. For the first time, the journal will be truly searchable. The Advocate has never had even a truly useful index, so if you want to find something you have to proceed page by page looking for what it is you want to find. Undoubtedly, it will be nice to be able to plug “John T. Lewis” or “Birmingham” into a search engine and watch as the results pop up.
Even so, paging through (so far) several thousand pages of the journal — that’s about 1500 pages per year — has taught me something. You can miss a lot by relying on the results of a search engine. Now, I don’t have any insight into how exactly the people responsible for the digitization will set things up, so what I’m saying here is not meant to be a criticism of them or their work. What I mean, instead, is that one of the greatest benefits of running my finger down every single column of text looking for Lewis’ name or references to Birmingham has been that it has given me a good sense of the atmosphere of the churches in the years I’ve surveyed so far. It’s given me a good handle on a lot of contingent factors I wouldn’t have understood had I been relying solely on the results page of a search engine.
I’ve learned what people were arguing about in those years — the most contested doctrinal issues and the conflicts with Baptist and Disciple church leaders (among others). J. M. McCaleb’s “Missionary” column has introduced me to the work of William and Clara Bishop in Japan and John Sheriff in Rhodesia. McCaleb and J. C. McQuiddy have shown me the great extent to which a place like Alabama was seen as a mission field in those years. Emma Page Larimore’s “Children’s Corner” is an unqualified delight (that I’ve had to stop myself from reading on many occasions). Lipscomb and Sewell’s “Queries and Answers” have given me a window onto the kinds of conversations being had in congregations all over the country. Careful reading has also allowed me to note the significance of the changes made to the journal’s format (not all for the better, in my opinion) by A. B. Lipscomb in the 1912-13 volumes.
And there’s more: the outbreak of the premillennial controversy in the Spring of 1915; the lead-up to World War I; the Coca-Cola ads, the patent medicine ads, and much more.
I could go on, but my point is this: I likely wouldn’t have gotten any of this through an electronic search. Being forced to submit to the slow process of research has allowed me to read Lewis’ articles and reports in context rather than in isolation. To be sure, I’m grateful that the Advocate will soon be digitized, but I’ve also come to appreciate being forced to do things the old-fashioned way.