Tag Archives: Christian Church

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.

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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.

 

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On Individual Responsibility

James J. Irvine (1862–1898) was a native of New Zealand. He came to America at the age of 20 and, in due course, enrolled in classes at College of the Bible, from which he graduated in 1890. Like a large number of other graduates in those days, he came south to Alabama to begin his ministerial career. He served as State Evangelist in Alabama from 1890–1891, followed by a stint as minister for the church in Selma.  By 1895, he had taken a position as office editor of the Southern Christian,  edited by C. P. Williamson out of Atlanta, with close sympathies for the progressive stances of the Apostolic Guide and the Christian-Evangelist. Later, he would undertake pastorates in Jacksonville, Fla., and Norfolk, Va.—where he met an untimely death in 1898 at the age of 36.

The Gospel Advocate for June 20, 1895 reprinted a piece that Irvine wrote for the Southern Christian, titled “Individual Effort.”  It might strike us as odd that the Advocate would reprint a writer like Irvine with such ties. Two considerations are at work here: 1) the Advocate of the pre-Goodpasture period consistently fostered the open exchange of ideas and the various sides of a given issue. F. D. Srygley—front page editor at the time this piece was written—would reprint anything he thought worth reading, no matter who the author was. 2) The 1890s were a time of transition. A page-by-page survey of the decade allows the reader to clearly see the split between progressives and conservatives in real time. It was not a time when firm lines that could not be crossed had been drawn—although that was soon to happen.

Anyway, I reprint the piece here not so much to make a specific theological point, as rather for the sake of general edification.

Every work to-day, great or small, stands as a monument to personal effort. We look upon an immense building in all its beauty and massiveness; we think of the different individuals who worked with brain and muscle, and of the agencies used to bring about this grand result.

The architect, as he made the plan, as he calculated the symmetry, the blending of the parts; the contractor, as he takes what has been planned and begins to lay his foundation deep and wide and strong, and going down to the solid rock to make it the base of his operations.

The building begins to assume size and shape. Each one at his particular place, all helping and using their skill and personal effort until the whole building fitly joined together is a fit abode for man. All this was brought about by a combination of personal effort, a working together for a desired end.

Is not this the divine idea and will? Are we not co-laborers together with God in the building up of the great structure of the Church of Christ?

In the building of the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah, we find that the people had a mind to work, although surrounded within and without by enemies, and the result was the walls were completed.

So with the spiritual walls of Jerusalem, the people must have a mind to work, must have the Christ spirit dwelling in them, to be continually going about “my Father’s business.”

The walls of the spiritual Jerusalem are being strengthened in our Southland, and now the servants of our Lord are doing so much. How much could be done if every individual follower of Christ would put forth some personal effort. Now is the time. Let us go to the Divine Architect, get our plans, and work by them. Go down to the solid “Rock of Ages,” build thereon, and each one in his place, with the talent and ability given him, rear a part of the great structure to the honor and glory of God. In this God-given work let each do his part and do it well. If you can sing, sing the praises of God and the gospel of his Son. If you can pray, pray fervently for the workers in whatever part of the great building they may be found. If you can teach or preach, know nothing among men but the Christ, exalt his name, hold him up as the chief corner-stone, the one despised and rejected, but now the King of kings.

Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God, and when life’s work is done on earth we have the sweet promise of entering into that rest and that mansion prepared for the faithful, into the heavenly Jerusalem, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. May each one do his individual part in the effort to save men.

— J. J. Irvine, “Individual Effort.” Gospel Advocate 37.25 (June 20, 1895): 386.

I’ve not blogged much over the past couple years, but expect to see more of this kind of clipping. I’ve collected a lot of this sort of thing from my time in front of the microfilm reader.

 

 

 

McCaleb on Revelation

J. M. McCaleb -- student at CotB

J. M. McCaleb (1862–1953)

By 1895, J. M. McCaleb had been doing independent mission work in Japan for more than a year. During that time he was a regular contributor to the Gospel Advocate, writing columns on a range of subjects from doctrinal issues to moral exhortations to book reviews to reports of the work in Japan. In the January 3, 1895, issue of the Advocate, he contributed a piece titled “Some Good Books” which contains short reviews of J. W. Shepherd’s Handbook on Baptism, J. L. Martin’s The Voice of Seven Thundersand a new pamphlet by David Lipscomb titled “Truth-Seeking.”

I thought McCaleb’s comments on Martin’s book were interesting, and wanted to share them here:

I read this book some twelve or fifteen years ago, when a boy, but read it a second time with more interest and benefit, because better prepared to receive it. It is simply a commentary on Revelation given in the form of lectures. It is a very common idea that if one is not just a little “unbalanced,” he is at least wasting time in studying or preaching from Revelation. Hence this part of the Book is usually neglected. People take it for granted it is something not to be understood, so pass it by. In our Bible course of study at Lexington, I remember there was scarcely a hint at Revelation. Excellent as it is, I believe it could be improved by including this important part of the scriptures, if it was only to give a few leading points as to how it should be studied to be understood. While one may not agree with all the author says, there are certainly many excellent suggestions that stimulate one to study the last words of Jesus to the churches and the world with a new interest. Why call it a revelation if it is a mystery not to be understood?

(Excerpted from “Some Good Books,” Gospel Advocate 37.1 [January 3, 1895]: 6–7)

McCaleb, of course, was an 1891 graduate of the College of the Bible (in the same graduating class with O. P. Spiegel as it happens). This nugget of insight into the curriculum at Lexington helps us understand a bit more fully the disputes that broke out in the churches over premillennialism two decades later.

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.