Tag Archives: Gospel Guardian

Clippings from Recent Research

“The church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor.”

William Stringfellow (1928-1985)

William Stringfellow (1928-1985)

In the November 19, 1964 issue of the Gospel Guardian, editor Yater Tant reviewed a (then new) book by lawyer and Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow titled My People Is the Enemy. The review is a fascinating glimpse into the way that social and cultural issues of the day were addressed in the Guardian, and is (if I may be allowed to say so) worthy for our consideration today.

I give you here the review in its entirety, taken from Gospel Guardian 16.28 (November 19, 1964): 4, 9. Wording in bold is so in the original.

“My People is the Enemy”

This is the name of a most challenging book published last summer by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. The author is William Stringfellow, one of the leading Episcopal laymen of the day, and a lawyer with an international reputation in his field. He articulates a question that is coming increasingly to trouble the minds of thoughtful denominational leaders—and which has most serious implications for the churches of Christ.

Mr. Stringfellow examines the whole idea of modern religion’s involvement in the ‘social’ questions that trouble our generation. The churches of our day, he opines, are engaged in everything from playgrounds to politics, and from rental housing to racial revolutions. But have they put their eggs in the wrong basket?

He thinks maybe they have.

This book clearly warns the churches against plunging into ‘all sorts of social work and social action’ and thereby neglecting their basic reason for existence, ‘the proclamation and celebration of the gospel.’ In their efforts to alleviate man’s physical distress, and to relieve his want and hunger, Stringfellow argues that the churches have so ‘watered down’ the gospel as to make it lose its power.

He writes:

‘If the gospel is so fragile that it may not be welcomed by a man who, say, he’s hungry, unless  he first be fed, then this is no Gospel with any saving power; this is no word of God which has authority over the power of death.

‘The Gospel, if it represents the power of God unto salvation, is a word which is exactly addressed to men in this world in their destitution and hunger and sickness and travail and perishing—addressed to them in a way which may be heard and embraced in any of these, or in any other, afflictions.’

Stringfellow, who left Harvard Law School several years ago to live and practice his profession in the Harlem ghetto of New York City is particularly critical of what he calls the ‘urban church concept’ of Christianity.

‘The premise of most urban church work,’ he declares, ‘is that in order for the church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, rummage to distribute and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor.’

‘The church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the gospel.’

A church rich and affluent can hardly do that; a church poor and humble can. The gospel of Christ, as it is, is adapted to man as he is—miserable, hungry, frustrated, lonely, overburdened with grief, anxiety, and a sense of futility.

The churches of Christ have traditionally understood this. There has been very

Fanning Yater Tant (1908-1997)

Fanning Yater Tant (1908-1997)

little of the ‘social gospel’ emphasis among them. Not until lately. But now we are witnessing a significant change. A strong undercurrent of ‘social gospelism’ is becoming quite evident. A tremendous proliferation of ‘orphan homes,’ just when the denominational churches and social welfare agencies were turning from them to other and more acceptable forms of child care was but the beginning, and was but a symptom of the real trouble. Vast sums have been spent and are being spent in a wide variety of ‘social project’ efforts among the churches of Christ. They range all the way from summer camps to homes for unwed mothers to rehabilitation farms for wayward boys and hobby shops for restless housewives. There is a subtle (and probably unrecognized) loss of faith in the power of the gospel. These social projects are not the spontaneous fruit coming from the hearts of dedicated Christians; they are supervised ‘organizational projects’ of congregations. And they are frankly being promoted as ‘bait’ to intrigue the interest and soften up the resistance of the non-Christians! The ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-fed are not going to be interested in the gospel; we must first see that they are well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed!

Denominational churches have tried this approach. And now Stringfellow’s is only one thoughtful voice among many that are being raised to question the assumption. At the very time when our brethren are turning toward these social projects, the discerning ones in denominational circles are questioning the validity of this entire point of view. It is built on a false premise … or so Stringfellow contends.

We believe the conservative [i.e. non-institutional] congregations will not quickly adopt the ‘social gospel’ approach to win people to Christ. And it is quite possible that many even in the more liberal churches will question it. But for all of them, both conservative and liberal, this new book by William Stringfellow ought to be ‘required reading.’ It can be ordered from the Gospel Guardian. The price is $3.95.

****

stringfellowicon

Icon of Stringfellow, hanging in the chapel of Bates College (ME), his alma mater.

A few comments about this piece. First, if it seems confusing that FYT would be reviewing a book such as this, we should recall the very open editorial policy that he pursued for the Guardian during this period. Side-by-side comparison with the Advocate from the same period is instructive. Tant and his writing staff from time to time dealt with topics—in the form of discussions of race and other social issues, book reviews, etc.—that would never have appeared in print in B. C. Goodpasture’s Advocate. We might not always agree with their conclusions, but the fact that the discussions ran at all is significant.

A couple of observations should be made about the content of the review. First, Tant quotes Stringfellow thus: “The church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the gospel.” Tant then observes: “A church rich and affluent can hardly do that; a church poor and humble can.”

In a single sentence, Tant gets at the crux of the enduring socioeconomic divide in American Protestantism. Those of us who are well off (and well educated) may genuinely want to help the poor, but we rarely want to give up what we have (“be poor”) in order to do that. We want to be able to help while still enjoying all of the advantages that come with our class status. Tant and other non-institutional thinkers in the churches of Christ in the 1950s and ’60s saw in that truth the genesis of so many parachurch/institutional projects.

Moreover, they saw that these projects were born out of a certain awkwardness. It was the awkwardness that came when a group of people who were busy crossing the tracks socioeconomically looked back at the place and people from whom they had so recently come. Many genuinely felt bad for those they had left behind and wanted to help. In their response they ended up mimicking the behavior of members of other middle-class Protestant denominations. Institutional projects such as Childhaven and countless others allowed the affluent (or recently middle-class) church member to help, while simultaneously keeping his distance. In so doing, they completely missed the way in which they constructed a divide between themselves and the poor.

****

A final word: I would be remiss not to note the at-first-glance odd pairing of Stringfellow and Tant. These days, Stringfellow is read admiringly among certain, but not all, progressives in the churches of Christ. I dare say that he is largely unknown among conservatives. That’s interesting, though, because Tant clearly saw an affinity between Stringfellow’s argument in My People Is the Enemy and the non-institutional argument that he and his writers were making in the Guardian in the ’60s, so much so that he could call it “required reading.” I have to wonder: how might one of our editors evaluate Stringfellow’s book today?

 

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.

John T. Lewis — Web Resources

As a brief interlude, I thought I’d take a moment to survey some of the available internet resources for Lewis and his work in Birmingham. Obviously, a great deal of the source material for my research is unavailable online. But a few things have been very beneficial along the way. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. John Thomas Lewis (1876-1967). This is the page devoted to Lewis at Scott Harp’s therestorationmovement.com site. The page is rich in visual source material and includes a chronology of Lewis’ life. Because the chronology is based solely upon Ottis Castleberry’s He Looked for a City, it is seriously flawed in some places and simply incomplete in others. Proceed with caution.

2. Encyclopedia of Alabama. I’m a Tennessean who married an Alabamian. There’s a lot I don’t know about the State of Alabama that this digital encyclopedia — a joint project of Auburn University, the University of Alabama, and the Alabama Department of Education — has helped me to understand.

3. Bhamwiki. As the name suggests, it’s a Wikipedia-type site specifically for Birmingham. Because it’s a wiki, you can sign up to contribute. I’m already planning to write a short piece on Lewis for the site in the near future … so don’t go getting any ideas :-).

4. Gospel Guardian. Bennie Johns has put much of the Gospel Guardian online — and thus much of JTL’s writings in opposition to institutionalism.

5. The Voice of the Pioneers on Instrumental Music and Societies. This is a rough PDF copy of what is perhaps Lewis’ best known work, hosted at David Sims’ “Retain the Standard” website. (Other texts by Lewis, of course, are hosted on the “Texts” page of this blog.)

6. John T. Lewis on Sunday PM Lord’s Supper. This piece by John Mark Hicks provides a nice analysis of one of Lewis’ later pamphlets. I penned a short reply to that piece here.

Happy reading!

Help, If You Can

A bit of satire from the 1949 Gospel Guardian:

6674 Railroad Street
Church of Christ
Anywhere, U.S.A.

Dear Faithful Preaching Brethren:

Surely you will look into your heart and pocket-book to answer the crying need  of this place. The church in Anywhere was founded in 1918 by six loyal members. Through many trials and tribulations, splits and fusses, our membership now stands at a whopping 15. The denominations have better buildings than we do, and folks are beginning to talk about us. That is why we ask you to rush to our assistance—now!
Anywhere is a hard but promising field. Cucumbers grow so big here they look like watermelons. In fact, some say that Anywhere will someday be the cucumber Mecca of America!
We have spotted a lot in downtown Anywhere which is centrally located, and all that stuff, which we can get for a mere $11,600. On this lot we plan to erect a $64,000 meeting house which will be a tribute to the cause, and the envy of the denominations.
Through extreme sacrifice, the members have in the past five years, raised $46.32 and three buttons. Nearby churches, fifteen in all, who know how worthy this field is, have together contributed $1123. We felt that our cause was underway, and, taking courage, started our building program.
But, alas! with rising costs, little did we know what we would run into. It took all our ready cash to buy the most essential item—a mimeograph machine! We then borrowed money for envelopes, stationery, postage, and ink. If one of the members had not shrewdly suggested that we send these 17,432 letters third-class, I doubt that we could have sent them at all!
So you can see we are in quite a pickle. People are now asking, “When are you going to build?” Oh, the cause is suffering! suffering!! SUFFERING!!!
The owner of the lot has agreed to hold it for us indefinitely, unless he can find another buyer. And Brother Wackey, a local member of vision, has suggested this marvelous plan:—
We are asking each minister to contact all members who have $3.00! Ask those members to each buy a little pig, and put him up in a picket fence in the back yard. (Any kind of picket fence will do) Just feed that pig the ordinary slop left over from the wife’s cooking. Why, in no time at all that pig will taring—well, we don’t know just what; but, believe you me, pork is high these days!
When you have collected some $65 from each one, just pocket the $5 and send us the $60. You deserve this generous consideration for your efforts.
It is with extreme reluctance that we make this appeal at all. But we do promise you this: all receipts will be promptly and cheerfully acknowledged, unless we get too busy with other things.
Just mail all contributions to the treasurer of the church in Pigeon-Roost, as we do not have a member here competent to handle that much money.

Very sincerely yours,
Joe Doakes