Tag Archives: Nashville Bible School


Here’s an update:

First, Birmingham and John T. Lewis. I’ve been hard at work as time allows over the past few months reconstructing the early history of the Birmingham churches, prior to the arrival of John T. Lewis in the fall of 1907. Recent excursions in the journals (Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation) have brought me much closer to the origins of the Fox Hall church and the (still mysterious) North Birmingham church. I have also uncovered considerably more context for the Pratt City meeting that Lewis and J. M. Barnes held late in the summer of 1907, all of which has pointed to a stronger conservative presence in Birmingham than previously thought. I’ve also had some good conversations recently that have turned up more information about JTL’s work in Canada while he was a student at the Nashville Bible School. Slowly but surely, things are coming together. It is my hope to be able to publish a narrative of these years (1885–1907) by the end of the year.

Second, an announcement. As we’ve done for the past two years, I will again be joining John Mark Hicks, Mac Ice, and Jeremy Sweets for a series of talks about the history of the Nashville churches at this year’s Summer Celebration on the campus of Lipscomb University, July 1–3. I will be discussing the division that took place in the Woodland Street Christian Church, located in East Nashville, in the fall of 1890, resulting in the establishment of the Tenth Street Church of Christ. Woodland Street, some of you will recall, became embroiled in the larger dispute over the missionary society in the 1880s and the division occurred over that issue. I’ll be back here with more specific information about the date and time of those talks.

[UPDATE: For those of you who are in town for Summer Celebration, our sessions will be held on Thursday and Friday, July 2 and 3, at 3 p.m. Both sessions will again be held at the Avalon house on the Lipscomb campus. Hope to see you there.]


“The most distinctly southern city I ever saw”: Nashville, 1897

Morrison Meade Davis (1850–1926)

Morrison Meade Davis (1850–1926)

To follow up on J. A. Lord’s comments about Nashville in my last post, here’s an excerpt from an account of a visit that M. M. Davis, then pastor of the Central Christian Church in Dallas, paid to Nashville in the summer of 1897:

Nashville is a splendid city of 100,000 people, and is the most distinctly southern city I ever saw; much more so than Dallas. It is strange but true that I traveled 400 miles north and found myself in the midst of a typical southern people; incomparably more so than those I left. That it is full of thrift and enterprise is evidenced by the Centennial Exposition, the best state show ever seen in this country. So good is it that in the estimation of competent judges it compares favorably in many respects with the Columbian Exposition at Chicago. The grounds are spacious and beautiful, the buildings are massive and artistic, and the exhibits are one perpetual and pleasing surprise, and I feel it my duty to urge every one to visit it.

We have about 3,500 people here, with fourteen organizations and twelve places of worship. I had the honor and pleasure of preaching at the Vine St. church, the oldest and largest of them all. They have a $40,000 house in the very heart of the city, and 600 members. R. Lin Cave has been pastor for more than sixteen years, and I never knew a man more universally loved. His recent resignation and call to the presidency of Kentucky University have cast a gloom over the whole church and city, for he is popular with everybody. He has a son, R. Lord Cave, who bids fair to become as great a preacher as his father. And why not? If there is anything in heredity, and we all believe there is, then the grandson of the peerless Dr. Hopson, and the son of R. Lin Cave, two of our strongest men, ought to be a man of power. The Woodland St. Church on the east side of the river, under the pastoral care of T. A. Reynolds, has a good house, with 300 members, and is doing a great work. This church boasts the proud honor of being the mother of the state mission work. A. I. Myhr, the leader of the missionary hosts, has his membership here. C. A. Moore, late of Missouri, is pastor of the South Nashville Church, with David Lipscomb as one of his elders. The other churches have preaching, but no regular pastors.

The Gospel Messenger, late of Mississippi, is now in this city. M. F. Harmon, filled with energy and aglow with hope, a young man of much promise, is its founder, proprietor, and editor. For some time, however, O. P. Spiegel has shared with him his editorial honors and labors, and just recently J. M. Watson has been added to the editorial staff. Bro. Watson will have charge of the office, thus giving Harmon time for outside work when necessary and Spiegel will continue to push its claims in Mississippi. This is the place for the Messenger, and I will be surprised if these three young men do not make it a success. They have wisely inaugurated a publishing house in connection with the paper.

Here also is the Gospel Advocate, edited by David Lipscomb, E. G. Sewell, and F. D. Srygley. This is one of our oldest papers, and is regarded as the representative of the anti-organ and anti-society sentiment. It has a publishing house, and supplies its constituency with much of their literature.

Nashville is pre-eminently a city of schools. Vanderbilt University, Peabody Normal, Belmont, Ward’s and Price’s are well-known institutions. Fisk University and Roger Williams Institute are large schools for the colored people. H. L. Surber is just beginning the second year of Southern Christian College, and he is hopeful for the future. Fanning Academy, founded by Tolbert Fanning, another one of our church schools for girls, is near the city. J. A. Harding’s Bible School for the training of young preachers, is here also. The very atmosphere of the place is charged with the educational idea, making it a most desirable place to live. This is not strange when it is remembered that there are not less than 3,50o students here every year…

(Excerpted from “Texas Letter,” Christian-Evangelist 34.38 [September 23, 1897]: 600.)

So here we have a progressive’s view of events on the ground in Nashville at the turn of the century. Harmon’s Gospel Messenger ran strong for a few years in the mid 1890s, but never approached the circulation of the Advocate. It would close up shop in Nashville about a year after Davis wrote these words. O. P. Spiegel briefly tried to revive it in Birmingham as a periodical voice for the Alabama Christian Missionary Cooperation, but he too had abandoned it by the end of 1902.

In 1897, division between progressives and conservatives was becoming clearer. Even so, Davis can still say that “we have about 3,500 people here, with fourteen organizations and twelve places of worship” and refer to the Gospel Advocate as “one of our oldest papers.” Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

Conservatives in Nashville would certainly have disagreed with Davis’

Vine Street Christian Church

Vine Street Christian Church

assessment of R. Lin Cave and the Vine Street church. Twelve of those fourteen churches to which Davis alludes were conservative in sympathy. That said, none of them could claim the social standing, the respect, or the wealth that Vine Street and Woodland Street held. This comes through in some of David Lipscomb’s most scathing comments about Vine Street: “The Vine Street church, in Nashville, is a strong church numerically, pecuniarily, socially. It is surpassed by no such church in Nashville of any denomination in social and intellectual and pecuniary ability. It is the weakest church claiming to be Christian in the city. I have known its work for fifty years past. During that time it has not planted a church or sent out a preacher” (Gospel Advocate 1907, pg. 681, emphasis added).

It would be difficult to miss the point: Vine Street’s pride in its social standing—and its apparent lack of interest in evangelization—tarnished its faithfulness.

Still, though, I wonder what Lord was getting at in his comments about Nashville? Is social standing all he sees? Did he expect Vine Street and Woodland Street to start planting churches in numbers that would stem the conservative tide? Did he expect the conservatives to shoot themselves in the foot with their own dogmatism or their own “inadequate theory of church expansion”? We will never know.


I’ll be back to the Birmingham materials soon. My trek through the Firm Foundation has yielded some interesting results that I intend to share here.

“Synagogues of Satan”

Tolbert Fanning

Tolbert Fanning, 1810-1874 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading J. E. Scobey’s Franklin College and its Influences (1904) of late. Scobey’s book is part biography of Tolbert Fanning, part history of Franklin College, Fanning’s short-lived school.

Reading this morning, I came across this bit from Fanning’s pen that seemed worth sharing:

“It is an indisputable fact that even churches formed of the wealthy, speculative, and idle are little more than synagogues of Satan. I pretend not to account for the mystery; but if there be truth in existence, there is something in labor which controls and subdues man’s animal appetites–reconciles him to his Maker and renders him contented with his lot. If it be an object to have honest society, the proper plan is to form it of a working population; if we wish good morals, we must find people who live by industry; and if we wish to live with the pious, we must find an association in which the rule is adopted and carried out punctiliously that ‘he that will not work shall not eat.’ All the sermons, lectures, and papers of Christendom will fail to make an idle, luxurious, and sport-seeking community either wise, virtuous, or happy. The best and happiest beings of earth are such as ‘do their own work, laboring with their own hands,’ and love to have it so. The working classes are admitted to be the most charitable of all others.”

Christian Review (1846), quoted in Scobey, pp. 24-25.

Snippets from the pens of Fanning and David Lipscomb along these lines could easily be multiplied. Fanning’s writings frequently feature attacks on wealth in the Church and push through the lines we usually draw in contemporary American society (and American Christianity) about wealth and poverty, socioeconomic and educational status. Franklin College — and its institutional descendants, the Nashville Bible School (1891) and Alabama Christian College (1912-1922) — were characterized by a deep commitment to the value of manual labor and of education of the poor.

In Nashville, these commitments are what set NBS in its early years apart from schools like Vanderbilt University and Ward-Belmont College, schools that indeed were open, but open for those who could afford to pay. As time went on, the pedagogical vision of Fanning and Lipscomb was forgotten in the quest of college administrators to conform their institutions to the prevailing standards of American higher education in the twentieth century, a quest that was paralleled in churches in the same period as Fanning himself suggests in this excerpt.

W. C. Graves (1886-1946)

In the materials that I’m working with in my research the name of John T. Lewis is inseparable from the churches in Birmingham. That is as it should be. Lewis spent sixty years in the Magic City and deserves every bit of the credit he gets for the number and strength of the churches in that city.

But he was not without help. One of the most fascinating aspects of this research has been uncovering the stories of Lewis’ helpers in the work in Birmingham. I say uncovering because the story I’d like to tell here is largely absent from He Looked for a City and I’ve had to piece it together from several other sources.

That said, what appears below is more of a dossier than a biography proper. I’ve tried to make it as readable as possible, though.


William C. Graves (1886-1946) was born in Alabama. In his own narrative of his early life, included in S. H. Hall’s Sixty Years in the Pulpit (1955),  Graves recounts that he was raised in Methodist and Presbyterian settings. By the time he had entered his 20s, he had gone to Atlanta. There he was baptized by S. H. Hall in East Point (an Atlanta suburb) in May 1912. Presumably at the encouragement of Hall, he entered the Nashville Bible School in the fall of 1914. He graduated in the spring of 1917. After graduation, he was off to Dalton, Ga., for a brief time before returning to Atlanta.

The date isn’t exactly clear, but Hall  indicates that Graves had left Atlanta for Birmingham by the summer of 1920 (“Georgia and the Far Southern Field.” GA 62.33 [August 12, 1920]: 791). In the Advocate, Hall reports that R. L. Harwell, one of the West End (Atlanta) elders, had been in Birmingham over a recent weekend and had worshipped at West End (Birmingham) while in town. Graves happened to be preaching that day and Harwell took a glowing report of the day back to Atlanta with him. It’s clear that it gave Hall great pleasure to relate this: Graves was clearly a student of whom he was very proud.

So, Graves was preaching at least occasionally at West End very soon after his arrival in Birmingham, perhaps on Sundays when C. M. Pullias was away. The pace of his work only increases thereafter. In 1921, we find a report in the Gospel Advance (Price Billingsley’s monthly out of McMinnville, Tenn.) indicating that Graves is going to be working full-time with the church in Gadsden, northeast of Birmingham. It’s unclear what happened there; I’ve found no other references to it.

Marshall Keeble (1878-1968)

Castleberry’s first reference (of two) to Graves comes from this early period: “The work among the black people in the area was started in Ensley by W. C. Graves. [He] supported himself as a representative of the Southern Bell Telephone Company” (He Looked for a City, pg. 6). The relationships are never made explicit, but it is reasonable to suppose that Graves became familiar with Marshall Keeble’s work through S. H. Hall and through his time in Nashville. At any rate, when Keeble first came to Birmingham in 1921, Graves played a prominent role in that work (Hall, Sixty Years in the Pulpit, pg. 38). In his first Birmingham meeting that summer, Keeble baptized 45 people, who became the nucleus of the “New” Church of Christ in Ensley. Keeble returned numerous times over the next few years to hold protracted meetings and to work with this congregation, sometimes staying in Birmingham for over a month at a time. Between visits by Keeble, Graves and James H. Davis (who later served as a deacon and elder at West End) preached and taught for the fledgling congregation.

Graves’ racial attitudes are hard to speak to definitively. He enthusiastically believed in evangelizing Birmingham’s African-American population, which was quite a bit more than could be said for some of his brethren. Moreover, he clearly cared for the members of Keeble’s fledgling Birmingham church. That said, some of his comments will undoubtedly sound backhanded or patronizing to our contemporary ears. Consider these remarks from Graves’ pen in 1923: “Let me say a word about Brother Keeble. He preaches the gospel of Christ and knows how to behave himself. That’s enough” (W. C. Graves. “The Work in Birmingham Among the Colored Folks.” GA 65.41 [October 11, 1923]: 994-95). In this, I think we could fairly say that he is a product of his time and place. Birmingham in this period has been called “the most segregated city in America.”  In some ways it is surprising that Graves crossed as many lines as he did.

Whatever we make of Graves’ stint in Gadsden, he is definitely back in Birmingham to stay by 1923. In the fall of that year, he established a mission congregation in Bessemer. Several members of West End, including O. B. Anthony, came along to help support this work. By 1924, Graves had started Truth in Love, a small four-page weekly publication. Truth in Love was part evangelism/teaching tool and part newsletter for the churches in the Birmingham district. JTL wrote extensively for it throughout the 1920s. It ultimately went through two iterations before Graves fell ill and sold it to Marion Davis and Gus Nichols in 1942, at which time the paper left Birmingham and ceased to be locally focused.

As the decade progresses, Graves’ fingerprints can be found on a number of Birmingham-area congregations. Truth in Love (quoted by Castleberry) indicates that he preached at North Lewisburg (later Fultondale) in 1926. During that same year — in the uncertain interim between H. F. Pendergrass and J. W. Shepherd at West End — he did fill-in preaching. The first issue of the Gospel Advocate for 1928 finds him preaching at Parkview (the forerunner of the Berney Points church).

We lose the trail for a bit in the early 1930s. But by 1936, Graves was preaching for the Tarrant City church. Castleberry’s other reference to Graves comes here:  While in Tarrant, he debated a Primitive Baptist minister with JTL serving as his moderator. Reportedly, Graves got so flustered in the course of the debate that Lewis had to finish the debate (He Looked for a City, pp. 203-204).

In late 1936, Graves introduced a “reboot” of Truth in Love. It’s unclear how long the first version had been out of print by this point. Nevertheless, the new TIL was larger (8 pp.) and featured a mix of Birmingham and national names among the writers and editorial staff. (In 1937, the editors were Gardner Hall, Jack Meyer, and Gus Nichols.) Graves was the publisher of this version of the journal, only writing infrequently. JTL, likewise, only rarely appears.

After he sold TIL, Graves was still involved in other ventures. He ran a religious bookstore out of his house at 817 7th Street in Birmingham. (Ads can be found in several issues of TIL.) He’s listed as a staff writer for A. E. Emmons’ and Emerson Estes’ The Way of Life (published out of Birmingham from 1943-48) and also wrote extensively for Sound Doctrine, a journal published out of Montgomery in the early 1940s.

Around 1942, Graves published what I believe to have been his only full-length book, Lessons on the Church of Christ. S. H. Hall had written a book of the same title (published by McQuiddy in 1916 when Graves was a student at NBS). Jack Meyer, in the intro to Graves’ book says: “The author, W. C. Graves, has been a resident and gospel preacher of Birmingham, Ala., for 22 years. He has assisted in establishing several congregations, has been the editor of a local gospel paper, is building a substantial business as a dealer in new and used religious books, has materially contributed to the growth of the gospel of Christ in this area, and is correspondingly well known” (pg. 4).

Near the end of his life, Graves served as an elder at Fairview. His appointment

Foy E. Wallace, Jr.

was the occasion of a short tribute by Foy E. Wallace, Jr., in the Bible Banner for October 1945:

The latest addition to the eldership of this congregation was made in the appointment of W. C. Graves a year or so ago. He has been a definite strength to the official force of the congregation. Brother Graves has been active in the growth of the church in the district for over thirty years, as a preacher, a leader, and an elder. Several churches have been “planted and watered” by him. No man in Birmingham exerts a wider and stronger influence, and though he has worked quietly, without sounding a trumpet before him, no one man has accomplished more good in that locality. For years Brother Graves has been an executive in the Southern Bell Telephone Company and has exerted a salutary influence as a respected citizen and business man as well as a Christian and a preacher. He possesses a fine knowledge of the Bible, is unblemished in character, amiable in disposition, and has always backed any preacher who will stand for the truth. I regard him as among the great men in the church and I esteem him as a personal friend.

This was written, of course, after the fallout between Wallace and JTL. Is Wallace’s assertion that “no man in Birmingham exerts a wider and stronger influence, and though he has worked quietly, without sounding a trumpet before him, no one man has accomplished more good in that locality” a slap at Lewis? Who can say?

At the time of his death, Graves was the editor and publisher of Grace and Truth, a monthly evangelistic magazine. After an extended period of illness, he died September 24, 1946.

Graves’ obituary — Oct 1946 issue of Way of Life

As I said, stories like Graves’ are really interesting to me. Here we have a man every bit as involved in the Birmingham work as JTL. If we knew nothing about him beyond what Castleberry recorded our picture of events in Birmingham would be greatly diminished.

Does anyone out there have paper related to Graves and his work in Birmingham? Leave me a comment or send me an email.