Tag Archives: non-institutional Churches of Christ

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.



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?


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

New Book

Foy Short coverGardner Hall, Foy Short: A Life in Southern Africa  (Port Murray, NJ: Mount Bethel Publishing, 2012).

Without a doubt, there has been a sea change in the historiography of the Churches of Christ in recent decades. The hagiography (and, in some cases, posturing) of the early 20th century has largely been left behind. What has replaced it is a much more sophisticated kind of historical and theological analysis.

But there is still some room for improvement. Some writers, for example, have continued to view the first half of the 20th century as something of a theological wasteland or as an embarrassing chapter in the family history to be hastily passed over, a regrettable period marked by debates, sectarianism, and fractiousness. To some extent, this is an understandable reaction. Many people in mainline Churches of Christ have had trouble owning this history (assuming that they are even aware of it) because of those traits. They have preferred, instead, to jettison what they understand to be an unsavory past in favor of the perceived promise that a (de facto) merger into American evangelicalism might bring with it.

But I digress.

Fortunately, this state of neglect has begun to abate. The past few years have witnessed renewed interest and a number of fruitful projects. Among these, we should certainly mention the publication of John Mark Hicks’ and Bobby Valentine’s Kingdom Come (2006), a book to be noted for the fact that it takes David Lipscomb and James A. Harding’s ideas seriously. (I should also call attention to Hicks and Valentine’s continuing work on K. C. Moser and R. L. Whiteside.) Interest is blossoming in other quarters as well. The folks at the Alabama Restoration Journal have been doing good work directing attention to significant figures in that state (including a very helpful issue devoted to John T. Lewis). At this year’s CSC, one presenter made two very nice presentations on noted missionary and Foy Wallace bugaboo Don Carlos Janes, and another entire panel was devoted to the Lipscomb-McGary rebaptism controversy.

But even with this renewed interest, other problems remain. The general histories, for as thorough as some of them are, have tended to (with the exception of Hughes and Harrell) overlook and have otherwise failed to take seriously the various “wings” of the Churches of Christ — premillennial, non-institutional, one cup, mutual edification, etc. — that arose during that period. In this regard, there is still much work to be done if the history of these smaller fellowships is ever to be seen as more than a footnote to the history of mainline Churches of Christ.

That brings me to the present work, Gardner Hall’s Foy Short: A Life in Southern Africa (2012). The book, of course, is a biography of Harold Foy Short (1921-2012), longtime missionary among the Churches of Christ in what is now Zimbabwe.

In 1921, Will and Delia Short, along with their infant son Foy, left Harper, Kansas, and Cordell Christian College, for Rhodesia, a British colony in southern Africa. Once there, they joined the ongoing mission work of John Sherriff, a New Zealand native who came to Rhodesia to preach in 1896. Once in Africa, Sherriff underwent a change in his convictions regarding instrumental music in worship and gradually came into affiliation with the Churches of Christ in the United States.

The book proceeds briskly through Will Short’s early mission work in the

Bennie Lee Fudge (1914-1972)

northern part of the country, the hardships of raising a family in the bush, and the complexities of navigating changing affiliations among stateside churches. Turning to the childhood of young Foy, we pick up with his departure for the United States in December 1940 to enter college. Gardner Hall does a fine job of describing key influences on Foy’s thought in the six years he was stateside: his professors at Abilene Christian College — R. C. Bell, Homer Hailey, and others; his developing friendship with Bennie Lee Fudge; and his work alongside Fudge on the faculty of the newly created North Alabama Bible School in Athens, Alabama. After narrating Short’s return to Africa in 1947, the book enters a rhythm in which his work at various mission points in Rhodesia alternates with accounts of periodic return trips to the States. Interspersed are discussions of various controversies that Short had to deal with in his work (both those specific to Africa and those imported from the United States), profiles of his native coworkers, discussions of his continuing educational work both in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and in the States, and some notice of how his work was affected by deteriorating political conditions in Zimbabwe after the nation gained independence in 1980.

The book concludes with two helpful appendices: one which gives the reader an orientation to the history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and another which provides short biographical sketches of a number of American evangelists who have worked in the country since the time of John Sherriff.


As I thought about this book and this review, I was reminded of some words of Iain Provan I read recently:

“All testimony about the past is also interpretation of the past. It has its ideology or theology; it has its presuppositions and its point of view; it has its narrative structure; and (if at all interesting to read or listen to) it has its narrative art, its rhetoric. It is intrinsically embroiled in advocacy, even if it may go out of its way to try to disguise this fact and appear neutral. There is no true neutrality, however; no dispassionate, unbiased, and presuppositionless presentation of the facts is possible. People always write about the past because they wish to communicate some kind of truth to their readers or to advocate some kind of virtue. It has always been so; it will always remain so.”

This might strike some as a controversial statement. Consider this, though. “Objective” histories of the Stone-Campbell Movement written by Disciple scholars in the early 20th century often failed to even mention the existence of a cappella Churches of Christ. The Church of Christ was a small splinter group in their eyes, the redneck cousins they were embarrassed to claim. (A more contemporary version of the same phenomenon can be seen in the attitude of many mainline outlets among Churches of Christ toward their separated brethren in one cup, non-institutional, and non-class churches.) What’s the lesson to be learned from reading DeGroot and other Disciple historians from that period? They teach us, quite inadvertently, that sweeping claims to objectivity rarely ensure that no agenda in fact exists. Often, such claims simply mean that the agenda is masked – masked, often enough, to the eyes of the author himself. Better, then, to be honest about one’s presuppositions up front.

It seems to me that much of the value of the newer historiography among Churches of Christ comes from how it embodies that point. It holds in tension two seemingly contradictory impulses.

First, it is no longer a priori beholden to maintaining walls between groups. It’s our historians — not our churches or news outlets — that are in the forefront of this development. The Alabama Restoration Journal, for example, brings together historians from non-institutional and mainline conservative backgrounds — two groups that have less in common than might appear at first blush. ACU Press’ series of histories of the three major streams of the Movement is a cooperative project across traditional lines. The World History Project (set to be released soon) does the same thing on a much larger — and international — scale.

At the same time, most of this work — and this is key — respects the real differences that exist among the various wings of the Movement. The cooperative projects just described make no attempt to carry the banners of their respective parties or to fall back on the kind of lazy ecumenism that has descended on so many quarters, the ecumenism that attempts to bypass our differences by pretending that they don’t really matter or by claiming that they are merely matters of preference. (This is not, by the way, a swipe at serious ecumenical dialogue.) That’s true of the ACU Press and World History projects and of the Alabama Restoration Journal. Because of this, they have the freedom to tell the story in all of its messiness and humanity.

This gives me hope for more of the kind of historical work done by Gardner Hall in Foy Short. Hall forgoes any kind of programmatic claim to objectivity — and that’s a good thing. This is a personal story for him. He knows (or knew, in the case of the late Foy Short) many of the people about whom he writes. He was raised and educated in the North Alabama non-institutional milieu about which he writes. But that’s not to say that Hall has no concern for the ‘facts.’ He has clearly done due diligence in his research, digging up archival documents and interviewing participants spread out over two continents. Moreover, he doesn’t feel the need to hide facts that might be inconvenient in some quarters (e. g., Will Short’s close association with Don Carlos Janes and the Word and Work).

At the same time, he is up front about his assumptions. He understands that Foy Short’s life tells a story, makes a point, that he believes needs sharing. He is concerned to position the nature of Short’s work in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe independently of mainline parachurch mission efforts in the same region. Yet, at the same time, his work is not harsh or argumentative in tone.

For my own purposes, I was especially interested in how Hall’s book would interact with John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine’s thesis in Kingdom Come. As I’ve indicated here before — even though this was not their primary purpose — Hicks and Valentine’s Tennessee-Texas paradigm has been beneficial for many in non-institutional circles in coming to terms with a number of questions. One of the most important of those questions is this: was the non-institutional movement of the 1950s entirely de novo or did it have a clear lineage in the history of Churches of Christ and in the history of the 19th century Stone-Campbell Movement? The work of Hicks and Valentine (along with the earlier work of Richard Hughes) has shown that the non-institutional protest did not arise out of the blue. It had a clear and demonstrable lineage.

That said, it was a lineage that drew on many different theological threads in the Movement’s history. It was not, in other words, an uncomplicated lineage coming out of one source (e. g., the writings of Daniel Sommer), as some hostile observers have suggested. The discussion arising out of the work of Hicks and Valentine has helped to show that we can point to at least two (but probably three) varieties of non-institutional thought. Hall’s primary interest in his discussion of Hicks and Valentine is in the demonstrable continuities in the thought of NI leaders like Short and Bennie Lee Fudge with the “Tennessee” thought of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding. These continuities are readily seen in his parents (who were themselves educated at J. N. Armstrong’s school in Harper, Kansas) and in his time at ACC and in North Alabama. Hall’s own take on the Tennessee tradition is worth quoting at length:

“[Harding and Lipscomb’s] approach to the scriptures emphasized God’s grace, separation from the world, trust in God’s providence, and strict construction in the interpretation of the scriptures. Some who today claim the Lipscomb-Harding heritage as their own do not emphasize that latter characteristic. Historian Richard Hughes believes that Barton W. Stone’s teachings had a strong influence on Lipscomb and Harding. Lipscomb and Harding’s grace-plus-convictions approach heavily influenced churches in North Alabama in the early part of the twentieth century … Bennie Lee Fudge would pass on these values to his protégé, Foy Short, although Foy had probably already received a good dose from his parents who in turn had received them from J. N. Armstrong, a student of Lipscomb’s.” (pp. 50-51)

Hall’s four-point interpretation of Hicks and Valentine’s Tennessee Tradition gets a lot of things right. It emphasizes something critical to Lipscomb’s thought – “strict construction” in the interpretation of the Bible – that Hicks and Valentine largely pass over. Worth adding, in this reviewer’s opinion, would be some discussion of how Short exemplified (especially in some of his editorial decisions discussed on pp. 135-138) the value placed on open discussion in the Tennessee tradition and the more expansive views of fellowship that also characterized that tradition. (This last point is also exemplified in the life of John T. Lewis. That’s another blog post, though.) Overall, though, Foy Short is a real and valuable contribution to an ongoing discussion about the validity of Hicks and Valentine’s categories.


Going forward, I think there are several points that bear further discussion.

  • This book, to my knowledge, constitutes the first serious historical work on mission work among non-institutional churches and the significant ways in which those missions differ from mainline mission efforts. (Indeed, the book is worth every penny for showing that the phrase “non-institutional missionary” is not an oxymoron.) There are other mission efforts that, it occurs to me, might bear out a similarly detailed investigation. What about the now three-decades-old effort by NI missionaries (and native preachers) in the Philippines?
  • This book does much to (helpfully) complicate the neat and tidy taxonomies that dominate mainline discussions of all of the “wings” of Churches of Christ: premillennial, non-institutional, etc. It steadfastly disallows the tendency to see the wings as the province of fringe radicals who have nothing to say to — and are totally disconnected from — the “mainstream.” To cite one example, I was intrigued to read about Will Short’s connections with Don Carlos Janes and the Word and Work. Foy, as we learn in the book, did not share his father’s “Bollite” (to borrow a phrase) sympathies. But it is still interesting to think about how fluid the theological spectrum in the churches was in the early 20th century, especially on the mission field.
  • This book, as we have said, carries the Tennessee-Texas-Indiana paradigm forward, recognizing some important ways how the Tennessee-Texas dispute played out in non-institutional circles in the middle of the 20th century. But how does that paradigm hold up as an interpretation of the later history of the non-institutional communion? I especially have in mind here the disputes of the 1980s and 1990s. If, in other words, we grant the existence of a Tennessee stream of thought in NI circles (concentrated primarily in North Alabama), then — to creatively paraphrase Tertullian — what does Athens have to do with Bowling Green (or Tampa or Nashville)?

Help Wanted

The good folks at the library have been away over the past couple of weekends. Not having access to the Gospel Advocate, my work on Lewis has had to take a different direction. I’m using this time to try to get a better sense of the context of his Birmingham work. To that end, I’ve been working on a few smaller projects over the past couple of weeks. In this post, I’ll take a few minutes to describe them.

I’ve mentioned here before that there is a published biography of John T. Lewis: Ottis Castleberry’s He Looked for a City (1980). In some of my earliest conversations with people who had been close to Brother and Sister Lewis, my interviewees expressed significant disappointment with Castleberry’s book. I only began to understand why this was the case after my first read of the book. On the positive side, for sheer volume of information, the book is a gold mine. Castleberry had access to documents and letters that (presumably) don’t exist any more. He taped hours of interviews with many people (now dead) who were close to Lewis. There are so many telling insights into the man himself.

On the negative side, though, the book is an organizational train wreck. We, of course, generally expect biographies to be structured chronologically — and if they’re not, there needs to be a clear reason why. Castleberry doesn’t even come close on this count: information about JTL’s childhood and early life comes in chapter 9, his days at the Nashville Bible School are discussed in chapter 5, a description of his church planting efforts in Birmingham is given in chapter 1. You get the picture.

Perhaps more serious than any of this are a number of significant omissions. For example, Castleberry says nothing of the major debates that took place in Birmingham during Lewis’ career (see below). Moreover, he is largely silent about Lewis’ involvement with the Alabama Christian College at Berry (1912-1922) or the Montgomery Bible School (founded in 1942; now Faulkner University). Neither does he have much to say about the institutional controversy which dominated the final years of Lewis’ active ministry. Why? I don’t have any answers, and I’m certainly not meaning to suggest sinister motives on Castleberry’s part. Maybe the book was a rush job (this was suggested by someone I talked with). Who can say?

In order to process the information found in He Looked for a City I’ve been at work on two projects.The first of these is a chronology of Lewis’ life. (Here’s one by Scott Harp that is based on Castleberry’s book. For a fun exercise, scroll down the column that lists the page number in Castleberry where each event is found. As you will notice, he had to go all over the book to put together the chronology.) The one I’m putting together is drawn from a variety of sources (including Castleberry). I’ll post it here sometime soon.

The other is the construction of a prosopography of the Birmingham church members mentioned in the book and in all of the related primary sources with which I am working. What is prosopography, you ask? Here’s a good working description. The classic example — from my previous academic training — is A. H. M. Jones and J. R. Martindale’s Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire in four volumes. To put this together, I’ve gone over the book with a fine-toothed comb extracting all of the people that Castleberry mentions in the book. The list includes anyone connected with Lewis in Birmingham: preachers, elders, members. Anyone I can reasonably assume was a part of Lewis’ work in Birmingham is on the list. Having accumulated the list, the next step is to accumulate as much information about these people as possible. Some, like preachers, are easier to locate than others. The information comes from a variety of places: Preachers of Today, the 1940 Census, findagrave.com, therestorationmovement.com, the Gospel Advocate, the Gospel Guardian, and Searching the Scriptures. For many others, nothing more than a name can be recovered (and for a few I don’t even have that). The end goal is not a detailed biography of any one person (other than John T. Lewis, of course), but rather a thick description of the community around him in Birmingham and a way to discern general patterns and and characteristics (like socioeconomic status, education levels, etc.) of the group.

You can help if you are so inclined. What follows is a list of men who preached in Birmingham — from J. M. Barnes in the 1870s down to about 1970.  I have reliable birth and death dates for several of them, as well as basic career information for many. Do any of you remember any of these men, especially the younger ones? What do you remember about them or about their time in Birmingham?

J. M. Barnes (1836-1913)

J. W. Shepherd (1861-1948)

I. B. Bradley (1868-1952)

C. M. Pullias (1872-1962)
John T. Lewis (1876-1967)
William C. Graves (ca. 1887-1946)
C. A. Norred (1888-1969)
Leslie G. Thomas (1895-1988)
H. F. Pendergrass (1896-1960)
Cecil B. Douthitt (1896-1971)
Robert W. Turner (1896-1973)
Jack Meyer, Sr. (1902-1963)
Emerson J. Estes (1903-2000)
Gardner S. Hall, Sr. (1906-1978)
John D. Cox (1907-1964)
Franklin Puckett (1908-1975)
Granville Tyler (1908-1996)
Eugene A. Pitts (1910-1981)
David Henry Bobo (1910-1985)
Raymond H. Crumbliss (1910-2000)
R. Ervin Driskill (1911-2001)
Farris J. Smith (1913-1974)
A. E. Emmons, Jr. (1913-1980)
Maurice M. Howell (1913-1999)
Marshall E. Patton (1916-2001)
C. Roy Crocker (1917-1987)
Herschel E. Patton (1917-2010)
Cecil Abercrombie (1918-1976)
A. C. Moore (1918-1979)
Hugh Davis (b. 1918)
Hiram Hutto (1923-2006)
James Edsel Burleson (1927-1992)
Howard See (1928-2006)
Ernest A. Clevenger, Jr. (1929-)
John D. Barnes (d. 2006/7)
A. Bruce Crawley
L. S. Ellis
J. R. Ezell
Elliott Hill
Floyd H. Horton (d. 1953)
Clarence Hurst
Howard Parker
Hugh A. Price
Gene Robinson
Sewell St. John
E. H. Vines, Sr.
Walter Bumgardner
Paul Shoulders
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. I come across new names regularly.
If you have anything, let me know in the comments or via email. Thanks.

Irven Lee, Part 2: The “Friendly Letter”

This is the second of two posts dealing with Irven Lee and his “A Friendly Letter on Benevolence” (1958). The first post provided a sketch of Lee’s life; this post will make some observations about the “Friendly Letter.”
Open division was a reality in Churches of Christ across the country in 1958. The controversy over institutions that had erupted in the years during and after WWII mushroomed by the middle of the 1950s into a heated and often very personal dispute. This is not the place for a complete timeline of the controversy, but it might be worth pointing out a few of the things that contributed to the atmosphere in which Lee wrote in 1958.

B. C. Goodpasture (1895-1977)

In December 1954, B. C. Goodpasture published with approval a letter written by an anonymous elder calling for a “quarantine of the ‘antis.'” This opened the door to, and gave sanction to, the kind of pressure tactics Lee references in the letter. A series of debates, each perhaps more acrimonious than the last, also began around this time: the Holt-Totty Indianapolis debate (October 1954); the Tant-Harper debates in Lufkin and Abilene, Texas (April and November 1955); and the Cogdill-Woods debate in Birmingham (November 1957). Perhaps more than anything else these helped solidify the identities of the two groups. None of this, of course, fully captures the mood in the churches in these years. Lots more could be said, specific incidents recounted, and so forth. It will have to suffice for the purposes of this piece, though.

At any rate, most contemporaries of these events would later point to the Cogdill-Woods debate (1957) as the final breaking point. For all practical purposes, there was no going back after this. Division was an accomplished fact. Knowing all of this, the tone and timing of Lee’s letter are surprising. That such a letter could be written in 1958 says something important. At one level, there was nothing in it for anyone on either side to try again, one more time, carefully and patiently, to reach across the ever-widening gulf between the two sides. But Lee tries, and that’s really significant.

Irven Lee

The way in which he argues is also of great interest. Each of the debates listed above (and many others at the time) centered on the proper application of the traditional command-example-necessary inference hermeneutic.  While it is clear that Lee accepts that hermeneutic and its assumptions, his arguments in this letter rely very little upon the hermeneutic. They proceed from other concerns. Several of those concerns, seen in the “Friendly Letter,” later recur in articles written for Searching the Scriptures as well as in his autobiography, Preaching in a Changing World (1975). I’ll briefly discuss the major ones here, drawing on citations from a variety of sources.

N.B. These arguments are closely interwoven in the texts themselves. My attempt to separate them out for analysis here is necessarily somewhat artificial. In other words, proceed with caution: go read the texts themselves. 
1. First, there is the argument from history. For Lee, and many other non-institutional writers in the 1950s, there was a simple analogy to be made between the 19th century missionary society and the various cooperative schemes under discussion in their day. Lee focuses his attention first on the missionary society, before turning to issue of the orphan’s home. For Lee, “a study of [the missionary society’s] history is easy, and it illustrates every phase of the problem.”
The results of missionary society were not what its founders had intended: “The missionary society did not cause men to do more ‘mission’ work. It is evident as can be that the Christian church with its society has not grown as fast as the church has without it. The cooperative idea relieved the individual and the local church of much of their feeling of responsibility. They need not start new congregations since that would be done by headquarters. The society absorbed much of the money in costs of operation, and they cut the link between the congregation and the preacher on the field, so there was less personal interest in his work and less joy of accomplishment on the part of the congregation sending funds.”
Worst of all, for Lee, dogged support of the missionary society on the part of its staunchest advocates led to division. Conflict over support of colleges and Sunday schools also led to division. As Lee states, “These ‘good ideas’ were not good if they wounded the spiritual body of Christ. No more modern offering will be good if it divides the body of Christ.”
All of this, we should note, comes from a man who had been heavily involved with institutions for much of his career, in particular the schools for which he taught. Lee reflects on this at some length in his autobiography:

I could not today [1975] get a job with three of the four schools where I have taught. I have made the point back through the years that I do not believe the church should give money into the school treasuries. During the thirties and forties I was generally commended for this stand. Today it is sometimes reported that I am against the schools when I say the same things. It has been heartbreaking to me to see these schools fall into the hands of those who cater to the liberal brethren among us” (Preaching, 20).

2. Second, Lee spends a great deal of time looking at the orphan’s home from (for lack of a better term) a human standpoint. It’s an argument from the heart, rather than from hermeneutics. Lee writes, “The most expensive and least desirable way to care for children is in the orphan’s home setup.” He then goes on to show the manifold ways in which, for all of the good intentions of those who work in them, orphan’s homes cannot provide the kind of care a child needs.
For example:
“One of the things a child needs is tender loving care. If one hundred children live in one big house, a given child may almost starve for affection and attention. He may make himself a nuisance in trying to get attention. If you will go to a so-called orphan home and sit down and put your arm around one child, another will come at once. There may soon be more than you can reach around. Some have had this experience and have gone away speaking of the good work of the institution in training the children to be so affectionate. It is more a matter of starvation. They are starved for this sort of attention…. In short, the child needs love. The very best matron cannot give this special attention to each of the children in her department” (Preaching, 76).
Of interest on this point is the fact that policy regarding the care of orphans in the United States has largely borne out his arguments (both in his day and since). He notes that states were already moving away from institutionalized care in the 1950s — as were the mainline Protestant denominations who had gotten heavily involved at the turn of the century. Sociologists and government officials had already begun to show preference for foster care or adoption in all but the most extreme cases of mental illness or physical disability. By the time members of Churches of Christ jumped on board after WWII, institutionalized care was already falling out of favor.
3. Third, there is a critique of the tendency toward centralization in so many of the projects under discussion. Lee, and other non-institutional writers in the 1950s, feared the power that was accruing to the managers and boards of directors of the orphanages, schools, and other institutions: “The big church supported institutions dominate the churches that support them. They become a super government to ‘request’ and ‘advise’ by very effective means in many local affairs.” (One might think here of A. C. Pullias’ boast that no one could preach in a church in Middle Tennessee without his approval.)
And again: “Schools, publishing houses, and many other things have a right to exist as servants of mankind but not as a super government for the church or as a parasite on the church. The administrators of most of the colleges operated by our brethren have taken the very ‘liberal’ view of this crisis. I am embarrassed and ashamed of this. The constant need for funds brings them close to men of wealth. Those who are among the rich find it hard to have a child-like faith in the Lord’s plan. The temptation to trust in riches is evidently great. They made money by their own plans and they see the need of business (human) plans in the work of the church” (italics mine).
(For a succinct contemporary discussion of these developments in American Christianity as a whole, see Chapter 4 of Craig Van Gelder’s The Ministry of the Missional Church.)

4. Finally, perhaps the key idea in the whole argument, is Lee’s assertion that, in his words, “the Christian religion is a ‘Do It Yourself’ religion.” In other words, every Christian has a responsibility to minister to the needy. That responsibility cannot simply be outsourced (to use a contemporary term) to an outside agency. On the contrary, Lee and other North Alabama non-institutional writers insist on the importance of personal investment and sacrifice for the needy to the growth of faith. They advocate for a kind of “lived religion,” a religion that does not separate doctrine and ethics, that recognizes the responsibility of the church to take care of its own. (All of these emphases can be found at an earlier date in the writings of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding.)
In the end, Lee urges his correspondent to continue to study, to love, to extend grace to those with whom he might disagree: “Love will do much to hold us together while the line between right and wrong comes into clearer view from more careful study of the scripture.”
It would be hard to say whether anyone on the pro-institutional side of the argument was swayed by this letter (we don’t even know what became of Lee’s friend, the addressee of the letter). Discussion had largely shut down on both sides by this point. That said, the letter was circulated so widely (in tract form) for so many years, I think, because it resonated deeply with many on the non-institutional side. It was patient and gracious, but full of conviction as well. It contradicted, without being hateful, the assertions of mainline editors and preachers that “antis” were “orphan haters” and “cranks.”

Irven Lee (1914-1991), Part I: Biography

At the conclusion of this semester’s classes, I’ll be turning my attention more fully to the Lewis research that you’ve been seeing in fragmentary form here. One of the things that fascinates me about Lewis is the degree to which one can understand him as a continuator/tradent of the Lipscomb-Harding theological synthesis among NI churches in the 1950s/60s.

But Lewis was not alone. Several other figures from a younger generation (relative to Lewis), to a greater or lesser degree, also fit this description. Interestingly, several of them can also (like Lewis) be found in North Alabama. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll be looking at one of these figures, Irven Lee (1914-1991). At the request of John Mark Hicks, I’ll offer here a few thoughts, historical and theological, on Lee and his “Friendly Letter on Benevolence” (1958).

I’ll do this in two parts: this post will provide a (somewhat discursive) biographical sketch of Lee.* The next one will be a kind of historical-theological analysis of the “Friendly Letter.”


Cleve and Zula Lee were married in Calloway County, Kentucky, in 1910. Soon after their marriage, the couple headed to southwestern Arkansas with a large group of friends and relatives to homestead an allotment of federally owned land. Their time there, their son would later recall, was one in which they “were well acquainted with poverty and hard work” (Preaching, 11). Their only child, Irven Powell Lee, was born near Wilton, Arkansas on 26 July 1914.  About a year after his birth, they returned to Kentucky and settled in Calloway County to work a farm between Murray and Hazel.

Much of Irven’s early life was spent on that farm, splitting his time between farm work and schooling. Even though his parents had not had the benefit of a lengthy formal education, they wanted this for their son. After he completed the eighth grade, his parents sold their farm and moved into town so that Irven could attend Murray High School. They were not, during Irven’s childhood, religiously observant (although he recalls that they were “members of the church”). In Murray, however, Irven started to attend the Water Street Church of Christ with a friend. He was baptized there by noted itinerant evangelist Horace W. Busby in 1928.

He came of age as the Depression set in. Given his family’s socioeconomic status it is perhaps surprising that a college education was so readily available to him. Yet, the State of Kentucky, in the early 1930s, responded to the Depression by offering free tuition in its state colleges, in an effort to keep young men out of the labor market. Taking advantage of this, Irven was educated at Murray State Teachers’ College and David Lipscomb College (1930-34). In his autobiography, he recalls that he took almost every Bible class offered at DLC and no academic courses (completing those at Murray). He writes, “H. Leo Boles and S. P. Pittman taught those Bible classes and were a great help to me” (Preaching, 18). Upon graduation in 1934, he undertook studies in the School of Religion at Vanderbilt University (this was the predecessor of the current Divinity School), focusing on church history.


While a student at Vanderbilt, Lee had started teaching part-time at the David Lipscomb High School. Then, after graduating from Vanderbilt in the fall of 1936, he moved to Valdosta, Georgia, to accept a job as the principal of the Dasher Bible School. He spent five years there overseeing the school and preaching for the Dasher church, five years that inaugurated a period of nearly twenty years of teaching and school administration alongside his preaching commitments.

First Athens Bible School faculty, 1943 (Lee, first row right)

Following his departure from Dasher, Lee became, in 1943, the first president of the newly formed Athens Bible School (Athens, AL). He served in that role for five years before accepting the presidency of the newly formed Mars Hill Bible School (Florence, AL) in 1947. His stint at Mars Hill was his last as the president of a “church-affiliated” institution. His relationship with these schools was complicated as time went on — on two counts. As Churches of Christ came through World War II and into the 1950s, two issues occupied the churches above all others: 1) the question of Christian participation in government and in military service, and 2) the question of congregational support of parachurch organizations like colleges, benevolent societies, and orphans’ homes. More of that in my next post.

Alongside all this, there was regular work as a preacher. After his arrival in North Alabama in 1942, where he lived for the remainder of his life, Lee preached for congregations in Russellville, Jasper, Hartselle, Athens, Arab, and Toney. Lee writes,

“During the years of teaching and since, I have spent much time in working with more than thirty congregations in their beginning days….Good health allowed me to be about my work every Sunday from my first preaching in 1931 until May 1974, except in 1949 when mumps kept me out of the pulpit one Sunday” (Preaching, 21).

Irven Lee, around 1970

As it did for many others in Churches of Christ, Lee’s life changed drastically in the 1950s. He does not give us a narrative account of his own experiences (something a historian might want). In his own reflections on that decade, Lee instead speaks in general terms. At the outset, he describes the wrenching social changes of the 1940s that paved the way for the changes of the  1950s in both American society and in the Churches of Christ. From there, he describes the rise of an aggressive class of promoters and organization men in the churches during and after World War II. In Lee’s view, in their positions as editors of papers, school administrators, elders of influential congregations, and board members of various charitable institutions, these men were able to influence large swathes of the churches. Charisma, enthusiasm, and “good ideas” were the Pied Pipers that led away from the “simple way.”

His reports to the papers in this period — especially Searching the Scriptures and the Gospel Guardian — are good for documenting the “ground war” taking place between ‘mainline’ and non-institutional churches in North Alabama throughout the 1960s, waged (on the mainline side) in large part by Gus Nichols (1892-1975). Nichols’ Words of Truth applied the tactics of Goodpasture’s Gospel Advocate (e.g. quarantine and the “confessional booth”) to non-institutional churches and preachers in North Alabama in an effort to keep the pressure on them and to keep them internally unsettled.  One can readily hear Lee’s frustration in this report from 1968:

“There are a few little firmly established churches in the Jasper area that are dedicated to the safe way. Good men preach in these communities. I do not know how Gus Nichols could have done more with the tongue against these churches than he has done, but he has not been able to prevent their starting and growing. The future will be brighter” (“The News Letter Reports,” Searching the Scriptures 9.2 [February 1968]).

Lee notes that this had largely abated by the 1970s (as it had in other parts of the country) as mainline conservatives like Nichols turned their attention to the rise of “liberalism” in their own fellowship and as non-institutional leaders turned to deal with internal conflicts and with the process of rebuilding in the wake of the split of the late 1950s.

Following a heart attack in 1974 that halted his regular preaching  work, Lee turned to writing. Out of this period came the publication of Preaching in a Changing World (1975) and Good Homes in a Wicked World (1975). Other books followed: God Hath Spoken (1979) and Things that Make for Peace (1987). He died in 1991.

*Sources are comparatively fulsome. First and foremost, there is Lee’s autobiography, Preaching in a Changing World (Cogdill Foundation [?], 1975), referred to in this article as “Preaching.” Additionally, there are numerous articles from Guardian of Truth/Truth Magazine and Searching the Scriptures, as well as a biographical entry in Preachers of Today, Vol. 1 (1952).