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?