Tag Archives: Churches of Christ

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.

Whither Swarming?

In a column in the January 5, 1939 issue of the Gospel Advocate, G. C. Brewer gives inadvertent testimony to the decline of the practice — so influential in the growth of the Nashville churches — of “swarming” to start new congregations.

Noting F. D. Srygley’s assertion that we are “a people decidedly argumentative in [our] theology,” Brewer makes the following observation:

“Illustration: In an elders’ meeting of a certain congregation recently the question of starting a new congregation was discussed. ‘Where will we get members to compose this new congregation?’ some one asked. ‘Take them from our congregation,’ some one else replied. ‘But no one wants to leave this church, and we cannot make members go elsewhere!’ Thus one elder argued, and all agreed in that. Then this revealing remark was made: ‘You cannot start a new church without a faction. If you will get up some strife and cause a division, you can start a really working band at some other place, and those who remain here will work ten times harder in order to keep the others from outdoing them.'” (pp. 6-7)

Several observations could be made here. Allow me just one (recognizing that it is not GCB’s main point). In 1939, it was already the case that the anti-swarming argument (i.e. that ‘no one wants to leave this church, and we cannot make members go elsewhere!’) was seen as perfectly reasonable, unarguable even. This represents a huge shift from ca. 1900 or even 1920.

Nashville 1938

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This full page ad for the published 1938 Tabernacle Meeting comes from the back page of the final issue for the year. More to come.

The marginalized Lewis

In my research, I have been fascinated by accounts of how the Gospel Advocate staff in the late 1950s handled the problem of John T. Lewis and his opposition to institutional buildup among the churches. Here are a couple of examples. These are instructive for what they say about institutional power (centered in Nashville) and its use among the Churches of Christ at midcentury.

This first excerpt is from Mississippi preacher, C. D. Crouch:

“C. E. W. Dorris is perhaps the oldest preacher of the gospel in Nashville, and is the able author of two of the Commentaries in the Advocate series of New Testament Commentaries. He stands today where Lipscomb stood on this matter when Lipscomb edited the Gospel Advocate. C. E. W. Dorris is not permitted to write for the Advocate today. He is not a crank; he is not a hobbyist. He is a safe and sane teacher, but he is not granted space in the Advocate to call attention to the Advocate’s departure from the truth!!! R. L. Whiteside, next to David Lipscomb, the greatest Bible scholar since the Apostles, was denied space in the Advocate before he went home to be with the Lord. James A. Allen, one time editor of the Advocate, can not be heard through its columns now. John T. Lewis who has been of greater service to the Advocate than any other man in Alabama, when that paper needed his service, is not permitted to have space in it to correct the misrepresentations made of him through its columns. Its present editor has the temerity to call such godly men ‘hobbyists’. And then he can declare that ‘somebody in the deep south’ told him that the young men are going to take over the Advocate!!!!!! Was he anticipating the change that ‘young men’ have taken it over already? Well, such is the case, and if Goodpasture has the intelligence that I have thought he has, he knows it has been ‘taken over’ by ‘young men’, and that it does not stand for the principles it maintained in the days of David Lipscomb. And the results are similar to the tragic results when the ‘young men’ took over Rehoboam…” (C. D. Crouch. “Reminiscing — No. 1.” Gospel Guardian 10.25 [October 23, 1958]: 1, 8).
Crouch is clearly upset (it may, for example, be an exaggeration to say that R. L. Whiteside was the greatest Bible teacher “since the Apostles”). By 1958-59, that was essentially the case everywhere these issues were in dispute. Even so, Crouch’s examples are telling.
And another. This one comes from some comments by Guardian editor, Fanning Yater Tant, regarding Guy N. Woods’ attack on Lewis during the 1957 Birmingham debate between Woods and Roy E. Cogdill. There was some disagreement, it would seem, about the transcript of the debate as it appeared in the Advocate and Guardian editions of the debate:
“Brother Woods seeks to make a play to arouse prejudice and destroy confidence by quoting from the first line of the publisher’s preface these words, ‘This book is an exact reproduction of the oral speeches delivered by the principals in a six night debate in Birmingham, Alabama.’ In the use he makes of this statement he disregards the rest of the preface which is explanatory of this introduction and then garbles another quotation made a little farther down in the preface, wresting and misapplying it entirely. This is the kind of treatment, and an example of the completely dishonorable attack he made on John T. Lewis during the debate. He introduced a chart with a quotation on it of what Brother Lewis had said concerning Carroll Kendrick, commending him for giving up the missionary society, and tried to construe it as an endorsement of what Brother Kendrick had said in a book to which Brother Lewis made no reference whatever. The debate closed with this disrespectful, dishonorable attempt to discredit and misrepresent a man whose honor and integrity has never been questioned and who has always had the respect even of those who oppose him and differ with him, uncorrected in spite of the fact that it was exposed and I begged Brother Woods to apologize for it.
 
“…I have not seen the Gospel Advocate version of the debate and do not intend to give Goodpasture $5 if I never see it. I do not know anything about its contents or how many “deletions” and how many changes or how much “smoothing” Guy did on his speeches in their version. But if he deleted from their edition the misrepresentation he made of a Tennessee statute which had been repealed for four years; and the mis-representation he was guilty of in falsely imputing an endorsement of an unscriptural position to John T. Lewis; the utterly dishonest denials he made of having made any change in position; and all of the other blunders he made and dishonesty he showed, it is a puny book. If Curtis Porter had not caught the deletion made by Woods from the Indianapolis debate it would have gone through. You can’t trust these brethren to treat you honorably and fairly. They have to be made do it. That is, unless you will worship at their altar and they will then feed you on sweet cream — but it curdles and turns sour before touching my lips.” (Fanning Yater Tant. “Slander — Gospel Advocate Style.” Gospel Guardian 10.34 [January 1, 1959]: 4-10.)
John T. Lewis was sitting in the audience of the Cogdill-Woods debate, which took place in the auditorium of Phillips High School in Birmingham in November, 1957. As the institutional issue was being debated in Birmingham, the legacy of Lewis loomed large. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Lewis himself became the subject of the debate on one of its last nights. Tant’s comments give us a sense of just how much was at stake.

Two Notes on the Nature of the Church

John T. Lewis (1876-1967)

John T. Lewis (1876-1967)

In the middle of the 1940s, John T. Lewis was in the midst of a dispute with Foy and Cled Wallace over the proper relation of the Christian to civil government and the propriety of Christians participating in carnal warfare. In the midst of all this, I have been struck by some of his comments about the nature of the Church. Here are a couple of excerpts from Lewis’ The Christian and the Government (1946) (In both of these, I have attempted to reproduce Lewis’ punctuation and syntax exactly. This may be confusing at points, but not overly so):

“The mission of the kingdom of Christ is one thing, and the mission of all temporal kingdoms, or governments is another thing. All temporal governments are restricted by geographical boundaries, and for a civil government to go beyond those boundaries means war; but the kingdom of Christ is a spiritual institution, and knows no geographical bounds, race, color, nor human creed, therefore it has nothing of earthly possessions to fight for, and therefore its weapons of warfare are not carnal. The universality of the church, its fellowship, its worship, its brotherly love, and the spirit that dwells in it, is an argument, not against carnal warfare; but against Christians engaging in carnal warfare. To say that Christians should kill each other, or even destroy the life and property of those who are not Christians, at the behest of any king or potentate on earth, is to say something that no New Testament writers ever said. And all such teaching is a gross perversion of the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, and a miserable misrepresentation of the life and teaching of Christ” (pp. 139-140).

And again:

“If the New Testament does not teach that the church, the spiritual kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, is a non-resistant institution, it teaches nothing. It is ‘also’ the only non-resistant institution, or kingdom on earth. All earthly or temporal governments are founded by the sword, and stand upon the sword. The church or spiritual kingdom was founded by the love of God, upon the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. It is made up of people from all nations, and is antagonistic to no earthly or temporal government. If it were otherwise Christians would frequently find themselves fighting and killing each other. The very thought is repugnant to the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ. This was demonstrated in the ‘civil war’ when brothers in the flesh, and brethren in the church, fought and killed each other, and there is no absolute guarantee that the same things may not happen again in the United States, and even in a more violent form than the ‘civil war.’ If the church of Jesus Christ had always been kept separate and distinct from the state, and free from, and un-contaminated by political broils it would be the greatest moral force, and stabilizing influence in the world today. As it is, it is a nonentity, so far as the government of the United States, the greatest government on earth today, is concerned. For a young man to tell the government that he is a member of ‘the church’ means nothing so far as military service is concerned; but if a young man can prove to the government that he is a member of the ‘Society of Friends’ (Quakers), or ‘Mennonites’ he is exempted from military service, and his convictions are never questioned — the government recognizes those organizations as non-resistant institutions. Why? Because their leaders know what they stand for, and they stand for it, whereas many gospel preachers, and church leaders stand for nothing when it comes to the greatest living issues of today — The Christian’s relationship to the governments of the world, and his obligation to the government under which he lives” (pp. 179-180).

Quizzes and Replies

Price Billingsley (1877-1959)

Price Billingsley (1877-1959)

In the early 1920s, Price Billingsley edited the Gospel Advance, a journal published out of (successively) McMinnville, Columbia, and Nashville, Tennessee. The Advance was largely sympathetic to the overall aims of its neighbor, the Gospel Advocate. But not always. In a number of issues, for example, Billingsley devoted considerable space to highlighting the inconsistencies of Advocate editor J. C. McQuiddy on the carnal warfare question. More of that, though, at a later date.

Under the above heading, Billingsley put four questions to a number of noted preachers and leaders among the churches in the January 1922 issue:

1. What single occurrence was the most significant and cheering during the year just closed in the spread of the gospel?

2. What do the churches of Christ most need today?

3. What evils in the church today, or what dangerous tendencies menace us?

4. What one most important thing will make the year just begun the banner year in extending the kingdom of Christ?

One of the people that Billingsley queried was John T. Lewis. Here are his answers:

1. I simply can’t do it. God only has that particular information.

2. Spiritual life, and the way to get that is to read the Word of God, and pray more. We are living in an almost prayerless age, an age that leaves God out of our doings.

Very few children ever heard their fathers pray, or know what family prayer is. We must change our course or the ship which carries the next generation will be wrecked on the rocks of infidelity.

3. The selfishness manifested, and the course pursued by the teachers in the church, whether preachers or elders, have always been, are now and always will be the greatest menace to the church. To illustrate, fire and water are two of the greatest blessings to humanity so long as they are under control; but when once on a rampage they become the most destructive agencies of life and property. So it is with the teachers in the church, so long as they are controlled by the spirit of Christ they are indispensable to the life and growth of the church; but when they get headed in the wrong direction they become the most deadly menace to the church. Tell me the ideas and ideals of the teachers of a church, and I will tell you what kind of a church it is. A teacher usually imparts his very being to those taught. The apparent lack of the spirit of Christ manifested by many of those “who are reputed to be somewhat” [Gal. 2:6] among us, is the darkest spot that I see in the elements of faith today.

4. According to my premise the conclusion will have to be, if preachers will rid themselves of self, putting away all “enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths and factions,” and “sanctify in their hearts Christ as Lord” — do what they can do for the cause of Christ, and rejoice in whatever good others may do — this will be a glorious year for the church.

****

When he writes in to the journals, we most frequently see the polemical side of Lewis. Here, though, we see a glimpse of what we might call his pastoral side. It is marked by a deep concern for the spiritual lives of his congregants — centered on prayer and on the reading of the Word, in the church and in the family — and  a deep concern for the spiritual formation (to use an admittedly anachronistic term) of leaders in the church. “Tell me,” Lewis writes, “the ideas and ideals of the teachers of a church, and I will tell you what kind of a church it is. A teacher usually imparts his very being to those taught.”

If we are willing to listen, may Lewis’ words encourage us to reflect on the role of teaching in the church and the seriousness with which we are called to approach it.

 

An Observation

In preparation for some recent writing, I worked through the Cogdill-Woods Debate (1957). (Actually, I used the Gospel Advocate edition of the debate, so it would be more accurate, I suppose, to say that I worked through the Woods-Cogdill Debate.)

What good, you might ask, can come out of such an exercise? You would be in good company were you to ask that question. In our day, there are few topics in the history of the Churches of Christ that get people more exercised than debates. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that debates are one of those things best left in the past, a rebarbative pursuit of our forefathers that we have rightly left behind.

So, if that’s the case, why waste my time on this stuff? Better yet, why treat a debate as a serious piece of theology? Maybe I can answer those questions later.

For now, something that caught my eye. I’ve read through a few debates during all of this writing and one seemingly negligible feature of the debates has consistently stood out to me. Many of the major debates — e.g. the Neal-Wallace Discussion (Winchester, Ky., 1933) and the Porter-Tingley Debate (Birmingham, 1947) — invariably include a notation at the beginning of each night’s speeches listing who led prayer and who led singing. In other words, the speeches for each night have a kind of “liturgical frame.” Usually the assignments — song leader and pray-er — were split between supporters of each debater. (I don’t know if this is universally true or not; I haven’t yet looked at every single debate book in my own library, much less others that I don’t own.) The event of the debate, in other words, was thought of, at least to some extent, as a worship service.

Curiously, by the time we get to Cogdill-Woods, neither the Advocate or Guardian editions list these pieces of information separately. That said, the debaters occasionally make reference to the prayers in their speeches, so at least each night’s speeches were preceded by prayer, if not by singing. Why does Cogdill-Woods no longer list this these details?

Moreover, with Cogdill-Woods we are no longer in a church building. (Not that every earlier debate was held in a meetinghouse.) Wallace-Neal began in the sanctuary of First Christian Church in Winchester (before it was moved); Porter-Tingley split the time between Central Church of Christ and Tingley’s Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle. With Cogdill-Woods, we are now convening in a public high school. How does that affect how the debate is viewed? Does it? Does it affect the decision about listing the prayer and singing information? Am I reading too much into this?

Your thoughts are welcome.