Tag Archives: Pratt City

Update

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.]

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?

Birmingham, 1924

S. H. Hall

Samuel Henry Hall (1877-1961)

In the spring of 1924, S. H. Hall held a meeting for the young North Birmingham church. He was there for about two weeks (April 20 to May 2) and when he returned to Nashville he wrote an extended piece for the Advocate describing the condition of the work in Birmingham. Hall was the consummate publicist, as can be seen in the regular column he wrote for the GA during his time in Atlanta (1906-1920) and Los Angeles (1920-21). He has an eye for the details, which proves to be a real boon for the historian. That really comes through in this piece.

Here it is:

Beginning on April 20 and continuing till May 2, I had a most delightful time with the Birmingham saints. The twelve-days’ meeting was conducted at what they call the North Birmingham congregation, where Brother Hugh A. Price, Jr., labors. The meeting resulted in seventeen baptisms and one from the Christian Church. We had a packed house at every night service, with the exception of one or two evenings.

I found the work in Birmingham in a most excellent condition. Brother John T. Lewis graduated in the same class with me at the Nashville Bible School in 1906. He soon began work at Birmingham, and my lot was cast in Atlanta. We have been together but little since then. He was in a meeting at Selma, Ala., the most of the time I was in Birmingham, but got back in time to help add much to the pleasure of my stay. Finding in a room on the third floor of one of their up town buildings a mere handful of members, and some of these with cranky ideas that hinder instead of helping the cause, John T. Lewis put his hands to the plow with the determination of not looking back, and a great work has been done. Here is what we have there to-day: The West End congregation, with around three hundred and fifty members and property worth $8,000; the Woodlawn congregation, with about two hundred members and property worth $5,000; the North Birmingham congregation, with one hundred members and property worth $5,000, and about $1,000 cash in bank for a better and larger building; North Lewisburg, with about seventy-five members and property worth $2,500. This congregation is just out of the city. And at Ensley we have a colored congregation, with one hundred and twenty-five members and property worth $2,000. They have a mission in Pratt City, with property worth $3,000. They also have a mission in Tarrant City, with some money in bank toward a building. At Ensley they have in lots around $5,000, and are preparing to build there. They also run a mission at Bessemer, and are helping many other weak places out of Birmingham. This all looked good to me, and it shows what can be done by those who love the cause of Christ enough to work at it seven days in the week. Lewis knows no other way to work.

Just a word about others who have helped in the work. Brother Hugh A. Price is a most excellent church worker. He went there and worked with his own hands to help procure his support until the work could use him for full time. He is now giving his whole time to North Birmingham, which has every indication of becoming one of the strongest churches there. Brother W. C. Graves, whom I baptized at East Point, Ga., in 1912, also went to Birmingham with the Telephone Company and has been supporting himself and preaching all the time. It is due to his efforts that the North Lewisburg work has been developed, and he has helped much with the colored congregation and fills in at West End and other places when needed. These three men — Lewis, Price, and Graves — love and esteem each other most highly and pull together. While at times they differ in their judgment about some features of the work, they submit their ideas as a matter of mutual helpfulness to each other and push the good work onward and upward. Brother Lewis studied under Brother D. Lipscomb. Perhaps there is not a man among us who went through the whole Bible under Brother Lipscomb so often as did Lewis. He makes me think more of Brother Lipscomb in his ideas of things than any one I know. He has a headful of plain, old-fashioned common sense, and there is no greater blessing that can come our way. I would so much love to tell of problems he has solved and difficulties he has overcome, but time forbids this.

Brother Pullias has helped as local preacher at West End. Brother I. B. Bradley has also helped, but has been compelled to be away from the work for a number of weeks, due to the condition of his wife. These two brethren are held in the highest esteem. Brethren F. W. Smith and E. A. Elam have conducted revivals there and contributed to the success of the work, and maybe others, but these are all that I know of just now. Lewis, Price, and Graves are exceedingly fortunate in marriage, and their wives would hardly live with them if they did not make good, so they must have their share of the honors. The Lord bless them and multiply their number is my prayer.

— S. H. Hall. “A Delightful Stay in Birmingham, Ala.” GA 66.20 (May 15, 1924): 463.

We can glean a number of interesting things from this. First, we get membership numbers and property values for each of the Birmingham congregations. The building values give us a small window into the relative social status of the Christians who made up Lewis’ churches. For example, when First Christian Church in Birmingham built its downtown meetinghouse in 1904 (a structure that O. P. Spiegel would call “one of the completest and most beautiful in the country”) it did so at a cost of between $21,000 and $25,000 dollars. When West End, by contrast, left Fox Hall in downtown in 1910 to construct its own building, it did so at a cost of $8,000.

Second, note Hall’s comments about the relationship between Lewis and David Lipscomb. He writes, “Brother Lewis studied under Brother D. Lipscomb. Perhaps there is not a man among us who went through the whole Bible under Brother Lipscomb so often as did Lewis. He makes me think more of Brother Lipscomb in his ideas of things than any one I know.” Hall is not alone in his estimate of the theological similarities between Lipscomb and Lewis. This is a point that will be repeated by others in the pages of the Advocate, at least through the 1930s and 40s. When, in the 1950s, Lewis’ Lipscombite views on cooperation and institutional buildup became inconvenient for the Nashville establishment such expressions disappeared from the pages of the Advocate.

Along those lines, Hall’s report inadvertently attests to Lewis’ insistence that congregations become self-supporting as soon as possible. We see that in North Birmingham, which constructed a meetinghouse and secured the services of Hugh Price only as they were financially able to do so. Hall clearly sees value in this approach and writes approvingly of it in other places in the Advocate in the early to mid-1920s.