Tag Archives: Nashville

“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.

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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.

On “the fruitfulness of co-operative endeavor”: J. A. Lord in Birmingham, 1907

James Alexander Lord (1849–1922)

James Alexander Lord (1849–1922)

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?

Housekeeping

A momentary break from historical posts for a bit of news.

1. In July, at the annual Lipscomb lectures, I will join John Mark Hicks, Jeremy Sweets, and Mac Ice for a second round of presentations and discussion about the history of the churches of Christ in Nashville. Last year’s presentations were well received (you can find mine here) and we look forward to a good session again this time around. I’ll be discussing the local and theological contexts of the 1938 Hardeman Tabernacle Meeting. Hope to see you there if you’re in town.

2. None of this means, of course, that I have abandoned John T. Lewis and Birmingham. Work continues there on several fronts. I’m currently digging more deeply into the origins of both First Christian Church and the Fox Hall congregation. Additionally, a big thanks is in order to Phillip Owens, of the Shannon church in Birmingham, for the opportunity to work with a large quantity of JTL’s personal papers and photographs in his possession.

3. Lastly, I want to mention what a privilege it has been over the past few weeks to help in the effort to preserve the congregational records of the Riverside Drive Church of Christ. As some of you know, Riverside Drive closed its doors at the end of March after 77 years of ministry in East Nashville. The congregation’s records are extensive: there is a lot of detailed information going back to the very beginning (February 1937), and a full run of bulletins starting in the early ’50s. I hope to share some of this material with you in the coming weeks as there is lots of interesting material vis-a-vis the larger history of the Nashville churches. UPDATE: I’ve posted some photos of the interior of the building over on my Tumblr.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.

“The Man and the Building”

hardeman tabernacle mtg

W. E. Brightwell (1893–1957), “News and Notes” editor for the Advocate and minister of the Waverly-Belmont church in Nashville, contributed an introduction for the published volume of the 1938 Hardeman Tabernacle Meeting. In it, he says the following about N. B. Hardeman and the Ryman Auditorium:

“The affinity between the man and the building is interesting, if not unique. Possibly no other man has used this remarkable building more; certainly none has put it to a better use. On the other hand, the building has surely received the cream of the best thoughts of his life. He has received more from the building, and the building has received more from him, than from any other man or building. His every utterance there has been published.”

I was struck by Brightwell’s rhetoric. He almost gets carried away, it seems. We can follow his words out to the point where the Ryman takes a place alongside the Cane Ridge meetinghouse and the Bethany church in the pantheon of sacred spaces for the churches of Christ. In Brightwell’s rhetorical construct, the Ryman becomes not solely (as it would become later) “The Mother Church of Country Music,” but the Mother Church of the renewed and rebuilt Jerusalem of the churches of Christ.

I base that claim on a statement made by Leonard Jackson, minister for the Franklin church, in his introduction of Hardeman on the opening night of the meeting, October 16, 1938. Consider the analogy that Jackson makes to explain the place of the meeting in the history of the churches and of the city of Nashville:

“The church … needs constant admonition to ‘contend

J. Leonard Jackson

J. Leonard Jackson

earnestly for the faith.’ Christendom, my friends, needs more Nehemiahs to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. She needs more Ezras to restore the law of God. Christendom needs more Zerubbabels to rebuild the temple of God. In your selection of a preacher to lead you in your gesture here toward these ends, you have chosen a man who has combined in himself the qualities of the afore-mentioned three. Like Nehemiah, he would rebuild Jerusalem’s fallen walls; as Ezra, he would uncover and restore the ‘law of grace'; like Zerubbabel, he would rebuild the temple of God. In this all important work, Nashville for the fourth time becomes the field of assertion.”

As with other writers among the churches, Nashville is Jerusalem. But Jerusalem has been allowed to crumble and it must be restored. Hardeman is the man—the only man—for the job. As we see here, expectations for the meeting were high and the rhetoric of the speakers rose to meet those expectations—and to stoke them even further.

“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.

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.

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.