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