Tag Archives: Birmingham

On the Larimore-Spiegel Exchange — Part 2

1897 was a watershed year. While it has become canonical, following the national religious census, to assign 1906 as the official date of a split between progressive and conservative Disciples, a page-by-page examination of the Advocate and other papers suggests otherwise. If we want to assign a date, we could do worse than setting it at least a decade earlier.  1897 witnesses a sharp uptick in hostility between progressives and conservatives. We get defections on the missionary field in Japan; J. M. Barnes asserting that he wouldn’t be seen walking down the street beside progressive leaders in his state; Vine Street in Nashville introducing the organ into its worship assemblies.

We could go on, but for the purposes of this discussion, 1897 is significant because it is the year when O. P. Spiegel was radicalized.

In this post, I will examine this critical year in more detail in order to understand the immediate context of the Larimore-Spiegel open letter exchange. Whatever else we might say about it, their exchange did not occur out of the blue. In this post, I will argue that Spiegel’s open letter to Larimore in the Christian Standard was part of a larger effort on his part to neutralize the influence of both Larimore and J. M. Barnes, the two most prominent conservative leaders in Alabama.

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Through the first years of his time as State Evangelist—up through 1896, let’s say—O. P. Spiegel pursued a more or less moderate course toward the emerging divide between conservative and progressive Disciples in Alabama. In this, he was far from unusual. As we’ve already said, this was a time of transition for Disciples across the nation. Ties between conservatives and progressives were frayed, but far from severed. Spiegel, along with most other leaders of any standing, still felt it to be in their interest to maintain ties and communication across the Disciple theological spectrum. There was conflict from time to time, to be sure. (For example, Spiegel and Lipscomb clashed in the pages of the Advocate again in 1895.) But there was also constant interaction, often positive, that counterbalanced such episodes of conflict.

Like other progressive leaders during this phase of the conflict, Spiegel believed that patience and gentle persuasion would bring conservative Disciples around to supporting the work of the Alabama Christian Missionary Cooperation. His evangelistic work during the years from 1894 to 1896 reflects this belief. Many years later, he would write, “Up to after I was state evangelist in 1894–97 I could preach in ANY church of our conservative brethren and they could preach in ours.” He was right. But Spiegel’s task as State Evangelist in Alabama was far more daunting than that of a State Evangelist in, say, Ohio or Illinois. In those places, the state society might face only small pockets of opposition to cooperative work or the use of the instrument, a congregation or two here and there. The situation was completely reversed in Alabama. Only a very small number of the Christian Churches in Alabama actively supported the work of the ACMC. The overwhelming majority of the churches did not. Spiegel held evangelistic meetings for churches across the state. In most places he was well received as a preacher. In a few places (Athens, for example) he established a Christian Church where one had not previously existed. But almost none of these churches changed their stance toward the state society as the result of a Spiegel meeting.

But something changed in 1897. Suddenly we see a man who is much more aggressive, more combative, toward his conservative opponents. Why? I think in large part it grows out of his frustration in the face of the sheer scale of his job, at not being able to convince more conservatives to come over to his side of the question. This frustration begat a change in Spiegel’s overall stance toward his conservative brethren.

It also begat a change in strategy. By 1897, Spiegel had come to believe that these churches did not support the society because they were in thrall to a handful of influential conservative leaders—”block-headed, would-be bosses,” he called them on one occasion—who had blinded them to the benefits of the society. As we will see, Spiegel really has two specific men in mind: J. M. Barnes and T. B. Larimore. His tactical approach to each man was quite different.

We might simplify it this way:

With Barnes, Spiegel used the stick. With Larimore, he used the carrot. 

Let’s consider a few episodes from 1897 to see this new stance in action.

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First, a note about the geography of the progressive/conservative divide in Alabama around 1897. Alabama as a whole was politically and economically divided between its northern and southern regions. The divisions in the church reflect that same geography.

  • There was strong progressive representation in the churches of the Black Belt, a swath of territory in the southern part of the state, extending from Tuscaloosa through Selma to Montgomery.
  • Walker County, northwest of Birmingham, was the epicenter of a radical conservatism founded upon the doctrinal emphases of the Firm Foundation.
  • The conservatism that held sway in much of the state’s remaining congregations had about it more of the flavor of the Gospel Advocate: staunchly opposed to societies, instrumental music, and the located minister, but also opposed to the Firm Foundation’s hardline stance on rebaptism.

By the 1890s there were influential urban congregations:

  • Herron Street in Montgomery and Poplar Street in Florence were among the larger congregations in the state. Herron Street, established by J. M. Barnes in 1879, reported a membership of some two hundred, but it was not of one mind on the issues of the day. Poplar Street, established by G. A. Reynolds and T. B. Larimore in 1886, was a fairly young church. After the departure of Reynolds in December 1896, the congregation moved in a more purposefully conservative direction.
  • The Birmingham church, (re)established in 1885, reported 350 members in 1896, making it the largest congregation in the state. It was firmly in the progressive camp. J. M. Watson, a co-editor of the Gospel Messenger and close personal friend of Spiegel, was the minister at this point. Larimore, we mentioned in a previous post, held a meeting for the Birmingham church in January 1896 that was very well received. However, I. B. Bradley, preacher for the church in Russellville (and a recent graduate of the Nashville Bible School) held an independent meeting in Birmingham in November of 1896 that led to the establishment of a small, but feisty, conservative congregation in the city (eventually known as Fox’s Hall). There was great antagonism in those early years between First Christian and Fox’s Hall.
  • The Selma church, one of the the few surviving antebellum churches in the state (est. 1852), was also a progressive stronghold. It had hosted the November 1886 organizational meeting of the Alabama Christian Missionary Cooperation. By the mid to late 1890s it was arguably more progressive than the Birmingham church. During the ministerial tenures of E. V. Spicer and Jesse Caldwell, Selma took on many of the classic characteristics of late 19th century Disciples liberalism. (Incidentally, J. E. Spiegel, one of O. P.’s younger brothers, was a member of the Selma church at this time.)

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At any rate, Spiegel opened his work for the year 1897 in Montgomery.

There were, at this point, three churches in the capital of Alabama. The Herron Street church, alluded to above; the West End church, a mission point that was begun through Barnes’s preaching efforts in the early 1890s; and a small African-American mission point begun by S. W. Womack, with the help of the Herron Street elders, in 1896.

As alluded to above, in 1897 Herron Street was, to a significant degree, still straddling the fence regarding the issues dividing conservative and progressive Disciples.

N. B.: Much of the chronology that follows comes from Barnes. It must be acknowledged that, when it comes to O. P. Spiegel, Barnes is a hostile source, to say the least. We’ll see that clearly in the extracts I’ve given below. Spiegel’s own self-reflection in both words and actions, however, often bear out Barnes’s estimate of him.

In March 1896, Spiegel had held a meeting for the Herron Street church that was very well received. Barnes himself later wrote that he “found him very, very nice.” But he was suspicious, nonetheless. He confided in another of the Herron Street elders, C. A. Allen:

“Charley, I do not feel right to be seen walking the streets with Spiegel.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I am just encouraging a man who would destroy the work I have done  here for years.”
“O pshaw!” he replied, “he cannot do anything here. I’m not afraid of him. Let him go on.”
“Charley Allen,” I continued, “Spiegel could vote you out of your house right now, and the only thing that will save your house will be the mortgage that is on it.”
This and the following excerpts come from J. M. Barnes, “The State Evangelist at Montgomery, Ala.” Gospel Advocate 39.49 (December 9, 1897): 770.

Spiegel’s youth (he was 30 years old at this time) and charisma, in addition to his preaching style, resonated with a significant portion of the Herron Street congregation. Barnes understood this and expressed his concerns. Spiegel understood it as well, and sought to exploit the opening that a successful meeting had given him.

A few months later, Larimore came to the city for the first time. He was assisted by Barnes and W. J. Haynes in a meeting that lasted nearly a month. According to Barnes,

“The brethren at Montgomery determined to get Brother Larimore to hold their meeting. Spiegel began fishing to get into that meeting as helper to Brother Larimore. He worked all whom he had cajoled while he was in the city [in March]. At last the brethren wrote him without reserve that they did not wish him, and that they were not going to have him. He replied tartly.”

No further detail on this incident is available, but we can read between the lines a bit. There seems to have been real jealousy of Larimore on Spiegel’s part. (Larimore, as we will see, seems to have been oblivious to all of this.)

Spiegel was undeterred, though. Barnes continues,

In the spring of this year [1897] he returned to Montgomery, and brought with him Patton, a singer. A hall was hired, or the Recorder’s court room was secured, and Spiegel and Patton opened up with organ, a young lady educated at Highland Home, at that time a member in Montgomery, organist. By the time this meeting closed all who were unflinchingly on the Lord’s side were known, and those who went with the tide were full sectarians. Spiegel was approached on the subject of the organ. He claimed not to favor the organ at one time; at another he told a sister that he intended to have a fine church down town, and an organ in it. He studiously and wilily left with the women of the church a burlesque on a church difficulty, in which the elders, unlearned men, tried to put the organ out of a church, could not do it, separated from the church, tried to establish another church, failed, and showed themselves ridiculous creatures in everything. The stoop-low pamphlet was a fair index to the heart of the stoop-low man who circulated it.

Spiegel at Montgomery 1897

Montgomery Advertiser January 26, 1897, pg. 7

This was Spiegel’s first openly hostile action toward the Herron Street church. Notice Barnes’s strong language in the passage just quoted: “By the time this meeting closed all who were unflinchingly on the Lord’s side were known, and those who went with the tide were full sectarians.” (The clear choice that Barnes sets forth between those “on the Lord’s side” and “full sectarians” shows us just how tenuous progressive-conservative relations were by 1897.) The “burlesque” that Barnes refers to may well be the widely reprinted “Troubles of the Beanville Church.” (The series originally ran in six installments in the Christian-Evangelist and the Gospel Messenger in early 1894. It was reprinted in pamphlet form several times over at least a decade by Christian Publishing Company of St. Louis. The book editor of the Evangelist enthusiastically called it “the funniest thing in all our literature,” noting that it “has done a great deal to laugh ‘anti-ism’ out of existence.”)

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The spring of 1897 also saw activity in North Alabama. Spiegel, it appears, had been in

Patton music school

Marion County News (Hamilton, Ala.), October 11, 1900, pg. 8

talks with the elders of the Huntsville church to hold a meeting for them. Spiegel, as seen in the excerpts quoted above, frequently travelled with J. D. Patton (1868–1936), “singing evangelist” (songleader, in other words). Patton is interesting in his own right, but that’s a subject for another post. At any rate, Spiegel set certain conditions for the proposed Huntsville meeting, conditions that he seems to have insisted upon in other places. He writes,

I have a very fine singer who usually goes with me. We have some great meetings. Of course some at first do not like our methods, not understanding us; but no one who hears us through fails to indorse us. Our only contract for a meeting is that we be allowed to run it as seems best to us, with the co-operation and advice of the church, that entertainment be furnished us, and then for our support we take voluntary contributions of members and friends of the church of Christ …. If we want one, two, three, or a dozen songs before the sermon, we have them; if I want Professor [Patton] to sing a fine solo to impress a truth, I have it; if I want to have one stanza in the middle of my sermon to impress in song what I am teaching, I have it. Professor [Patton] uses an organ to fill up weak places and hold all voices steady….

Quoted in F. D. Srygley. “From the Papers.” Gospel Advocate 39.43 (October 28, 1897): 673.

The meeting did not come to fruition. Indeed, we might know nothing of the proposed meeting today had copies of the correspondence between Spiegel and the Huntsville elders not been anonymously sent to the offices of the Gospel Advocate in Nashville. In the Market Street offices of the Advocate, F. D. Srygley was carrying on a journalistic dispute with J. W. McGarvey. The issue was this: Srygley asserted that the state societies were actively pushing the organ onto local congregations. McGarvey denied this. (McGarvey, you will recall, supported the work of the societies, but opposed the use of the instrument in worship.) Srygley promptly published the correspondence. With Spiegel’s Huntsville correspondence in hand, Srygley had all the proof he needed that State Evangelists like O. P. Spiegel were actively trying to introduce the organ into local churches.

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Larimore is, of course, conspicuously absent in all of this public back-and-forth in the papers. We do have one suggestive piece of evidence, though. In a letter of recommendation that Larimore wrote scarcely three months prior to the publication of Spiegel’s open letter in the Standard, Larimore gushed about his former student:

“Oscar P. Spiegel was my pupil during the three years he spent at Mars Hill College. . . . Oscar Spiegel was ONE of the PUREST, BRIGHTEST and BEST boys ever matriculated at Mars Hill . . . . I knew him and the family of which he was a member before he became my pupil. I have never heard it intimated, and have no reason to believe, that there has ever been blot, blur or blemish on the Spiegel family’s name or record. The Spiegels are, I believe—and we have long lived in the same section of the same state—above suspicion and without reproach. Oscar is scarcely more than a brilliant, well educated boy yet; but—pure, energetic, well balanced, healthy, prudent, free from all bad habits, possessing great power of both head, heart and hand—he is destined, as surely as he lives, to wield a wonderful influence in this wonderful world.”

Quoted in George and Mildred Watson, History of the Christian Churches in the Alabama Area (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1965), 71–72.

In light of this letter, Spiegel’s open letter to Larimore in the Christian Standard comes as something of a surprise. Larimore still thinks fondly of Spiegel, but Spiegel has clearly moved on. He is no longer willing to give his former teacher a pass.

Again, Spiegel is trying to neutralize the influence of Barnes and Larimore in the churches of Alabama. With Barnes, he undertook a frontal assault on the Herron Street church, apparently believing that would suffice.

Larimore, however, was a man with a national platform. Spiegel had to use a national platform, the Standard, in order to call Larimore out. He believed he could do it, though, because he had the institutional weight of the church (“the great bulk of the disciples”) behind him: the state and national societies, the major colleges (specifically, College of the Bible), and the major journals (the Christian Standard and the Christian-Evangelist).

Did it work? No. At least not in the way that Spiegel likely intended.

Accolades for Larimore’s statement poured in from conservatives all across the South. Indeed, nearly every issue of the Gospel Advocate for a couple months following the open letter exchange was filled with praise for Larimore.

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As the new year of 1898 dawned, O. P. Spiegel had taken a new job, leaving behind the office of State Evangelist to become the new minister of First Christian Church in Birmingham. Once there, he continued the fight he had begun as State Evangelist, in short succession starting new progressive congregations in Woodlawn and Bessemer. He continued to seek a national platform for his mission. In October 1898, at the annual meeting of the American Christian Missionary Society held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Spiegel delivered a keynote address, “The South as a Mission Field.” The text of the speech doesn’t survive, but the title alone gives us some insight into Spiegel’s mind. The South, indeed, was a mission field–but a specific kind of mission field. It was filled with churches that were not cooperating with the work of the ACMS. Because of that, it was ripe for attention from society-supported missionaries.

M. F. Harmon

Atlanta Constitution February 5, 1899, pg. 18

1898 also saw a new, but equally aggressive, approach to the problem of J. M. Barnes and the Herron Street church. At the beginning of year, M. F. Harmon, prominent Mississippi progressive and co-editor with Spiegel of the Gospel Messenger, came to Montgomery to establish the “Central Christian Church.” Harmon explicitly avowed that he had not come to town to sow division: “I want any work in this city to be characterized by love, zeal, intelligence, devotion to the cause of Christ, and a patient persistency. I am not here to ‘sow seeds of discord,’ nor any other kind of seeds, except the seed of the Kingdom.” It was clear, though, that instead of flipping Herron Street to the pro-society column, Spiegel had decided to establish a rival congregation in the city. Church leaders in Montgomery understood this. In the summer of 1898, James A. Harding came to Montgomery. On this occasion, Barnes and Harding co-signed the following piece that appeared in the pages of the Montgomery Advertiser:

There is something in God’s book called “the Church of God,” “the Church of Christ.” There is nothing named “Christian Church.” Those who “speak as the oracles of God speak,” can call nothing on earth “the Christian Church.” The people that worship at the corner of Hanrick and Herron Streets, and that are now carrying on the tent meeting at Wilson’s Grove, conscientiously believe that it is the duty of Christians to “speak as the oracles of God speak.” They are not “the Christian Church,” they are “the Church of God, the Church of Christ,” or they are nothing. The public are hereby notified that they are not “the Christian Church,” or any part or parcel of it. We invite all who love a pure speech to help us to hold fast the form of sacred words, and make a complete return to the language of the spirit of God.

“The Church of God, The Church of Christ, Not the Christian.” Montgomery Advertiser, July 3, 1898, pg. 2

Harmon’s Central Christian Church began its work with 14 members drawn away from Herron Street by Spiegel and Harmon. It only lasted a few months, however. Harmon left for Atlanta in September 1898, and the church withered.

In our final post, we will turn back to today.

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Update

Here’s an update:

First, Birmingham and John T. Lewis. I’ve been hard at work as time allows over the past few months reconstructing the early history of the Birmingham churches, prior to the arrival of John T. Lewis in the fall of 1907. Recent excursions in the journals (Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation) have brought me much closer to the origins of the Fox Hall church and the (still mysterious) North Birmingham church. I have also uncovered considerably more context for the Pratt City meeting that Lewis and J. M. Barnes held late in the summer of 1907, all of which has pointed to a stronger conservative presence in Birmingham than previously thought. I’ve also had some good conversations recently that have turned up more information about JTL’s work in Canada while he was a student at the Nashville Bible School. Slowly but surely, things are coming together. It is my hope to be able to publish a narrative of these years (1885–1907) by the end of the year.

Second, an announcement. As we’ve done for the past two years, I will again be joining John Mark Hicks, Mac Ice, and Jeremy Sweets for a series of talks about the history of the Nashville churches at this year’s Summer Celebration on the campus of Lipscomb University, July 1–3. I will be discussing the division that took place in the Woodland Street Christian Church, located in East Nashville, in the fall of 1890, resulting in the establishment of the Tenth Street Church of Christ. Woodland Street, some of you will recall, became embroiled in the larger dispute over the missionary society in the 1880s and the division occurred over that issue. I’ll be back here with more specific information about the date and time of those talks.

[UPDATE: For those of you who are in town for Summer Celebration, our sessions will be held on Thursday and Friday, July 2 and 3, at 3 p.m. Both sessions will again be held at the Avalon house on the Lipscomb campus. Hope to see you there.]

On “the fruitfulness of co-operative endeavor”: J. A. Lord in Birmingham, 1907

James Alexander Lord (1849–1922)

James Alexander Lord (1849–1922)

In November 1907, J. A. Lord, editor of the Christian Standard, traveled south to attend the annual meeting of the Alabama Christian Missionary Cooperation, which was held in Jasper that year. He came away excited and very optimistic about the prospects of the progressive churches in Alabama, especially those in Birmingham and Jasper (where a new, pro-society church had just been established).

I’ve been doing a lot of research of late focused on establishing the context for John T. Lewis’ arrival in Birmingham in the fall of 1907, a point at which Castleberry’s He Looked for a City disappoints. For Castleberry, the Fox Hall church simply exists. He is not interested in describing its origins or the larger religious context of Birmingham. In his telling, Lewis stepped into a vacuum when he held that first meeting in Pratt City in August-September of 1907.

But this was simply not the case. Consider what Lord has to say about Birmingham:

This whole Birmingham story, so full of inspiring details, that pages might well be devoted to it, is a demonstration of the most striking character of the fruitfulness of co-operative endeavor in the great industrial and commercial centers of America. These churches and their preachers are devoted to the preaching of the simple gospel and to planting churches of Christ at every vantage-point in this whole growing congeries of manufacturing and commercial communities, which will be fused into a city of half a million people in less than twenty-five years. From the present rate of growth, and with the present outlook, some fifty churches of Christ will be planted here in the next quarter of a century. And let it not be forgotten by brethren who have been slow to fall in with co-operative methods of evangelism, that none of these churches would have been in existence if their fears had possessed the Birmingham workers, or their inadequate theory of church expansion had been carried out. One thousand people of Birmingham and vicinity are now enlisted in and are committed to the spirit of the Restoration plea, who would be out in the world, or scattered among the denominations, if the anti-co-operative views of those who opposed missionary societies had prevailed. In no important center of population except Nashville, Tenn., have the anti-co-operative ideas resulted in churches of Christ of any strength of membership or influence, and a full understanding of the facts will show that even Nashville is no exception to the rule.”

(Excerpted from “Southern Convention Notes,” Christian Standard 43.50 [December 14, 1907]: 2071.)

This was Lord’s third trip to Birmingham as editor of the Standard. In this excerpt, he is talking about the five progressive (i.e., pro-society, pro-instrument) churches that existed in Birmingham, four of which had been established in the seven years prior to Lewis’ arrival.

Ironies abound here, of course. At the very moment Lord wrote these words, the young John T. Lewis had just arrived in Birmingham to begin his work with the Fox Hall church. (Counting Fox Hall, of course, would bring the total number of Stone-Campbell churches in the city to six.) While Lord’s “fifty churches of Christ” never materialized, Lewis—beginning with that single, tiny church—was ultimately responsible for more than thirty churches in the Birmingham District based, albeit, on an “inadequate theory of church expansion” that Lord thought would never work.

Moreover—and not to put too fine a point on it—while the first decade of the twentieth century was a flush time for the pro-society churches, never again would the expansive spirit of A. R. Moore, O. P. Spiegel, J. A. Lord, and other progressive leaders in Birmingham be fully recaptured by them.

Finally, regarding Lord’s comments about Nashville. What does he know about the situation in Nashville that he’s not saying here?

Housekeeping

A momentary break from historical posts for a bit of news.

1. In July, at the annual Lipscomb lectures, I will join John Mark Hicks, Jeremy Sweets, and Mac Ice for a second round of presentations and discussion about the history of the churches of Christ in Nashville. Last year’s presentations were well received (you can find mine here) and we look forward to a good session again this time around. I’ll be discussing the local and theological contexts of the 1938 Hardeman Tabernacle Meeting. Hope to see you there if you’re in town.

2. None of this means, of course, that I have abandoned John T. Lewis and Birmingham. Work continues there on several fronts. I’m currently digging more deeply into the origins of both First Christian Church and the Fox Hall congregation. Additionally, a big thanks is in order to Phillip Owens, of the Shannon church in Birmingham, for the opportunity to work with a large quantity of JTL’s personal papers and photographs in his possession.

3. Lastly, I want to mention what a privilege it has been over the past few weeks to help in the effort to preserve the congregational records of the Riverside Drive Church of Christ. As some of you know, Riverside Drive closed its doors at the end of March after 77 years of ministry in East Nashville. The congregation’s records are extensive: there is a lot of detailed information going back to the very beginning (February 1937), and a full run of bulletins starting in the early ’50s. I hope to share some of this material with you in the coming weeks as there is lots of interesting material vis-a-vis the larger history of the Nashville churches. UPDATE: I’ve posted some photos of the interior of the building over on my Tumblr.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.

“May We Have More Modest Reports?”

I’ve written here in recent months about some of the more moving stories to be encountered through a careful reading of the “News and Notes” column in the Gospel Advocate. It’s an unlikely source, to be sure, but I’ve been edified by my encounter with such stories.

By the 1940s, one can detect an unmistakeable shift of atmosphere in “News and Notes.” What had once been the place where a small, committed band of evangelists shared news and prayer concerns, marriage announcements and jokes, pleas for help and so on, gradually became a bloated vehicle for self-promotion and career-building.

This shift can be seen in at least a couple of ways. First, there is the fact that “News and Notes” ballooned in size during this period. By the 1940s, “News and Notes” typically took up a third or more of the total weekly page count. Most everyone wanted to appear on the page. (Incidentally, John T. Lewis was a notable exception; you’ll only find him there if he’s being mentioned by someone else.) In part, this was because such appearances, especially regular ones, were the currency of a career in preaching. It was a way to get your name out there, to break into the brotherhood of preachers, especially if you were young.

A. E. Emmons, Jr. (1913-1980)

A. E. Emmons, Jr. (1911-1980)

Consider the example of Birmingham preacher A. E. Emmons, Jr., preacher for the new Central Church of Christ from 1942 to 1948. During his time in Birmingham, Emmons became a regular contributor to “News and Notes.” Whether the news was significant or not, Emmons kept the statistical reports coming. These reports, whatever their intrinsic value, served to keep Central — and, just as importantly, Emmons himself — before the brotherhood as an active and growing congregation. Thus it could be seen as a kind of resume-padding.

But that is to be perhaps a bit too cynical. These sorts of reports served another, equally important function. They allowed Emmons to extend the favor of good publicity to young preachers with whom he was acquainted. As was common in those days, Emmons would leave Birmingham during gospel meeting season (i.e., the summer) to hold meetings across the country. While he was gone a young man, usually from one of the colleges affiliated with the Churches of Christ, would fill in for him. For example, Jack Duncan filled in at Central during the summers of 1943 and 1944; Joe F. Watson, a student at Freed-Hardeman College, filled in for the summer of 1945; Bob Crawley, then a student at David Lipscomb College, filled in during the summer of 1946. (Some of you will recall that Crawley later preached at Belview Heights in Birmingham.)

In each case, Emmons repeatedly mentions the young man’s name and compliments him on the work he did for the Central church. Such mentions in “News and Notes” functioned as a brief letter of recommendation for young preachers and songleaders from all over the country who were looking for meeting work or for a position with an established congregation.

A second way in which we can see how “News and Notes” was changing is that the content of entries became more formulaic, more laconic. Individual entries came to consist largely of a tally of meeting locations, numbers baptized, numbers restored. Such information has its uses for the historian, of course. But even the detail-obsessed among us (like myself) can see that something important was lost. Gone is the personal feel of earlier reports: the request for prayers for a dying church member, the wedding and birth announcements, the family news, jokes — in short all of the little gems that one might have found there thirty years earlier.

The Advocate itself, it should be noted, encouraged this change: “News and Notes” editor W. E. Brightwell (1893-1957) frequently exhorted those who sent in reports to strip out all “extraneous” details from their reports. To make clear what it was he was looking for in a good “News and Notes” entry, Brightwell ran a feature called “The Sum Total,” a context-free tally of the number of baptisms and restorations reported in a given issue. At various times, similar tallies were given for the Nashville churches. Brightwell wanted the stats; the personal stories were, it would seem, nice but unnecessary.

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These changes had their critics, none more pointed than Birmingham preacher

Pryde E. Hinton (1897-1978)

Pryde E. Hinton (1897-1978)

Pryde Hinton. Hinton, after spending time in Atlanta and Selma in the ’20s and ’30s, settled for the bulk of his preaching career in northern Jefferson County, Alabama, around Warrior and Oneonta. He was a frequent contributor of articles to the Advocate and a close associate of the Birmingham churches and of John T. Lewis, even though they had their differences from time to time. As was true of Lewis, Hinton was hardly one to shy away from speaking his mind.

A characteristic example of Hinton’s criticism of “News and Notes” can be found in the May 23, 1946 issue of the Advocate, which I transcribe here unedited:

“And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And there they abode long time with the disciples.” (Acts 14: 26-28.)

Some things in the above are more obvious than the identity of a colored parson.

1. God’s grace was considered a major factor.

2. They were responsible to the church which sent them. (Acts 13.)

3. They reported to the church which sent them–not to the “brotherhood.”

4. They did not tell what they had done, but “all that God had done with them.” They seemed only humble tools in God’s hand.

5. They gave God the credit for their success. He opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. In the words of one of these preachers: “Neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” How time changes things–sometimes!

If a Christian moves from Bugtussle to Peepcrack (there are such names in Alabama — well, nicknames, anyway), he should make himself known to the elders, if they are to look after his soul. But it does seem that the elders might notice that a stranger is present, talk with him, and then announce his coming to work and worship with the congregation — not that evening, for then precious few would ever know it, but next Lord’s-day morning. Or Brother Jones could come forward in “response” to the invitation.

But what I still want to know is this: Why is such a change of address of any importance to Christians in Tennessee or Texas? If Bugtussle is a better church, having a stronger group of elders than Peepcrack, is not Brother Jones worse off for the move? Too, granting that Brother Jones is an asset, has not Bugtussle lost a fellow worker? Is that good news?

But it does make good padding for the preacher’s report, and he must create the impression that things are happening like fighting fire, since he has moved to Peepcrack. Perhaps Brother Jones would have been left out in the cold, cold world if the preacher had not been there to grasp his hand when he came down the aisle in “response” to the invitation (either aisle).

May we have more modest reports? Also I suggest that we give God credit for opening the door of faith unto people, anyway. Surely it was not altogether our irresistible personalities that won the people to Christ! God must have had some part in the meeting.

— “An Interesting Report,” Gospel Advocate 88.21 (May 23, 1946): 499.

Hinton wrote several of these blistering meta-level criticisms of the self-promoting fare to be found in “News and Notes.” This isn’t even the harshest one. More amazing to me is that the Advocate printed them.

Death on a Saturday Evening

As I said the other day, it is the human stories that one encounters in the Advocate that really have moved me in this process.

In May 1938, Cled Wallace (1892-1962) came to Birmingham to hold a meeting for the Bessemer church. We don’t know much about the outcome of the meeting as far as the usual measures. J. R. Ezell (1886-1966), elder and preacher for the Bessemer church, did not submit the normal tally of baptisms and restorations. Neither did Wallace submit a report of his own.

The August 4, 1938, issue of the Gospel Advocate gives us a possible explanation. There we find the following obituary from the pen of John T. Lewis:

John Morgan Queen was born August 14, 1899; run down and killed by an automobile May 7, 1938. He had just driven up to the church where Cled Wallace was conducting a meeting in Bessemer, Ala., got out of his car, and started across the street, when he was hit by a passing car, and never regained consciousness. He was baptized by the writer February 8, 1928, and was married to Miss Gladys Dobbs, August 11, 1933. From the time he obeyed the gospel till his untimely passing he was an interested, diligent student of the Bible, and never missed an opportunity of talking to his friends about the importance of obeying the gospel and living the Christian life. He was a good song leader, could make good talks, and would do anything he was called on to do in the work and worship of the church. In all my association with him I never heard him use a vulgar word or tell a smutty yarn. He kept the scriptural injunction: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” — JOHN T. LEWIS.

We can only speculate as to how devastating this must have been for the members of the Bessemer church. Does a church continue a meeting after an event of this sort or just call it off? It’s difficult, in our day, to understand the enthusiasm that would have surrounded a gospel meeting in Queen and Lewis’ day. Perhaps Queen’s enthusiasm is also foreign to us.

Something else strikes me here. Lewis’ obituaries in the Advocate really are models of restraint. They lend dignity to the lives of their subjects; they do not detract from them with wordiness or flowery vocabulary. Not that anyone ever receives formal training in obituary composition, but there’s probably a lesson there for us.

Lewis also never fails to pass up an opportunity to teach with an example. Queen, he tells us, was a model of what the Scripture means that says, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4.23).

Missing Persons Report

For much of its history, one of the chief features of the Gospel Advocate was its “News and Notes” section. By doing nothing more than watching how this section of the paper developed over the years one can learn a lot about the paper as a whole, as well as about the self-image of many in the Churches of Christ.

For the most part, “News and Notes” consisted of reports from preachers and congregations about gospel meetings, changes of address, and other newsworthy items. By and large, it makes for bland reading, at least for the casual reader.

Every now and again, though, a note of pathos breaks through. A few such items have appeared along the way in my Birmingham research. Here’s one from the March 6, 1930 issue of the Advocate:

Mrs. Harry L. Parker, Route 7, Box 76, Birmingham, Ala., February 20: “I am wondering if any of the readers of the Gospel Advocate could give us any information about a brother and sister in Christ, Mr. and Mrs. B. A. Austin. Brother and Sister Austin are young people about twenty-eight and twenty-four years, respectively. They labored with the congregation at North Lewisburg, Ala., for about one year. They were formerly from Southwest Missouri. They were members of the Christian Church there, but took up work with this congregation, knowing only the church to give God all glory. On December 26, 1929, they left here with household furniture on an open truck (White’s), bound for some place in Missouri, promising to even write us on their journey. But we have never had a single line from them and are anxious about them. We do not know their former home address. Any information through the Advocate or otherwise will be appreciated by the whole congregation here.”
Whatever happened to Mr. and Mrs. B. A. Austin? Did the good people of the Lewisburg church ever hear from them? We don’t know. There’s no followup, at least not in the Advocate. But the note of concern — something not heard very often in “News and Notes” —  in Sister Parker’s letter stands out. In it, we get a tiny glimpse into the lives and feelings of the people who filled the Birmingham churches in John T. Lewis’ day.
That’s been one of the real gifts to me of engaging in this research. It’s easy to get lost in chronological minutiae — Who was preaching where? When was a given church established? — or in the doctrinal conflicts that expended much of Lewis’ energy. Items like this, though, have the salutary effect of reminding me that there are flesh-and-blood human beings behind all of this. Countless people who never occupied a pulpit or wrote for the papers lived and died, married and raised children, in these churches. Our opportunities to hear their voices are rare and are a gift to be treasured.