Tag Archives: Vine Street Christian Church

“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.