A Man for His Season
Jefferson David Tant
Fanning Yater Tant went to his final home on March 3, 1997. Words fail me to adequately describe this man — my father. Journalist, preacher, debater, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, counselor, friend, Christian. Many words could be written on each subject.
Marc Antony said at Caesar's funeral that the good that men do is oft interred with their bones. This has not been true of my father, for the cards, letters, phone calls, and personal conversations have literally been in the hundreds, and all have been most encouraging, telling of his saving marriages, showing hospitality, performing acts of kindness, helping people understand the Bible, and countless other things that were a part of his life. There was one negative comment that I saw on the Internet. Some institutional brother wrote that my father was the Darth Vader of the church of Christ. My father would have laughed about that.
Yater Tant was born December 30, 1908 in Macon, Tennessee. The son of the well-known frontier preacher, J. D. Tant, he moved a lot in his younger years, as my grandfather's preaching and farming took the family into Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and New Mexico in an effort to sup-port his family while preaching the gospel.
As a teen, my father wanted to farm, and went to Texas Tech to enroll, but before school started, he decided to preach. He was well educated, having attended several schools and receiving advanced degrees, but he never thought it necessary to parade his learning. His writings reflected his educational background. He began preaching for the Bardstown Road church in Louisville, Kentucky while in school there, after having graduated from David Lipscomb College. He married Helen Gotto in September of 1931.
They moved to the Park Hill church in Ft. Smith, Arkansas in 1934. Foy E. Wallace, Jr. called Dr. C.B. Billingsley (an elder at Park Hill), and recommended my father. They took him sight unseen, on brother Wallace's recommendation. Denver was his next work in 1937. From there to Chicago during WWII, where he preached for two congregations for a time, as he helped start a new church in Evanston. Oklahoma City was his next work, with the Tenth and Francis church, again on brother Wallace's recommendation. At that time, it was probably the second largest church of Christ in the U.S. with an attendance of 1,000 or more. Next to Norman, Oklahoma for one year — 1946-47. Then back to Oklahoma City and full-time meeting work.
About that time he was asked by Foy Wallace and Roy Cogdill to edit the Gospel Guardian, as Wallace was closing down the Bible Banner. (My grandfather wrote for the old Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation, serving in various editorial capacities at times.) My understanding is that during this period my father was asked to teach Bible at Abilene Christian College, but he declined. We did move to Abilene in 1950, where I finished high school.
Storm clouds were now coming over various missionary efforts in Europe following the war. Much of the mission work was being centralized through a few churches, known as sponsoring churches. These churches asked for other churches to send funds to them, which would then be disbursed to the preachers. This raised concern in brethren who knew of the division that took place in the last century over Missionary Societies that brought about the Christian Church denomination. The Guardian and its writers stood opposed to this method, preferring to support missionaries in the manner they found in the Scriptures — sending funds directly to the men involved, rather than through another organization or a sponsoring church. Also involved in the controversy was the Herald of Truth radio and (later) television program put on by the 5th and Highland church in Abilene, Texas. This national program also involved the sponsoring church concept. Earlier some were advocating the inclusion of secular schools in the budget of the churches. As proponents of these departures were unable to make convincing arguments from Scripture, they turned the argument to emotion, claiming that church support of colleges was justified on the same basis as the support of orphan asylums. So the charge was made that those who opposed such innovations were orphan-haters or worse. They were stigmatized as antis, and since my father was rather well-known, some wag invented the term Tantis, as the ignorant and unlearned had used the term Campbellites in the last century to deride those who, like Alexander Campbell, sought a return to biblical Christianity.
In 1953 we moved to Lufkin, Texas. The church had divided there, and since my father knew people on both sides, he was asked to move there and work to heal the wounds. He put off his meetings, and labored with the Timberland Drive church. He was able to bring about a reconciliation and then resumed his meeting schedule. He sometimes held 25 meetings a year, taking his little portable typewriter with him everywhere, as the demands of a weekly religious paper were great. He was tireless in preaching all over the country and Canada in order to stem the tide of digression. An example of this was his participation in the lectures at Florida Christian College in the early 50s. After the last lecture on Thursday night, he was engaged in a lengthy discussion with some brethren, and then left that night to drive straight through to home in Abilene, Texas. Some 200 miles was driven on ice. He arrived home at 3:00 a.m., and then left by plane at 5:00 a.m. for a meeting in California.
The institutional controversy grew intense through the late 50s and 60s and my father suffered much abuse, with meetings canceled, false rumors, etc. He was among the first to debate the issues in discussions in Lufkin and Abilene, Texas with E.R. Harper, a chief proponent of the sponsoring church concept. Through all this, my father was always fair to his opponents, and let them write what they wanted. He never used his position as editor to take advantage of others, and on occasion took responsibility, as editor, for articles that were inserted by the publisher without my father's knowledge or approval. Meanwhile, the pages of the Gospel Advocate and other such papers were closed to those who opposed the departures. This paper called for a quarantine of all preachers who were opposed to the new schemes, seeking to get them fired and their meetings canceled. Such high-handed policies squelched honest discussion, and furthered the division.
Of all the compliments ever paid to my father's character, one of the most often heard had to do with his absolute fairness, even to his enemies. I never remember seeing my father lose his temper or seek to retaliate, even when he was lied about or dealt with in a underhanded manner. One outstanding example of this occurred after his debates with Harper. In the Lufkin debate, my father prepared a booklet to pass out to the audience with his charts in it. (These were BOP days — before overhead projectors.) After the debate, and in preparation for the Abilene debate, he revised and refined his charts, adding some and deleting others. After the Abilene debate (on the same propositions), Harper and James Walter Nichols insisted that they publish the debate. A contract was drawn up. But much to my father's surprise, they printed his Lufkin charts along with his Abilene speeches. Therefore, those who would read the debate could make no sense out of the references my father made to his charts. Harper and Nichols clearly understood this, for my father talked with them, wrote to them, and consulted with attorneys who said this was a clear breach of contract. There was nothing he could do about it. Well, so much for ethical treatment from brethren. But my father showed no bitterness, and in later years as E.R. Harper's fortunes and health declined, he would call Harper on occasion to encourage him.
I cannot count the people who have remarked that they thought Yater Tant was the best writer among us. And similarly, many have remarked that they believed he was the best man for the job as editor of the Guardian through turbulent times. His even temperament, his absolute fairness, and his lack of a retaliatory spirit truly made him a man for his season.
In 1956 my parents moved back to Abilene, anticipating worshiping with the congregation where they had been accepted and used before. The elders let them know they would not be welcome. But the good brethren at the North Park church welcomed us. By now I had finished my work at Florida College and was enrolling in Abilene Christian College. Those were interesting years, as some faculty and fellow students took it upon themselves to spread rumors about both me and my father. One would suppose that we wore red union suits with tails, had sprouted horns and carded pitchforks. There were some very underhanded things done against both of us, but the Lord will take care of it in his own way and time.
In 1957 my father took several months from his meetings to write his father's biography, J.D. Tant, Texas Preacher. Of all such books published about gospel preachers, this continues to be a best seller. In 1958 my parents moved back to Oklahoma City.
1960 saw my father back at Park Hill in Ft. Smith working with Cecil Douthitt in a teaching program. This led to his moving to Nacogdoches, Texas to work with the Mound and Starr church and Stephen E Austin University in a Bible Chair program. In a work supported by the church, my father taught Bible classes which university students could take for credit. He enjoyed his work, and as I recall, several students were converted to Christ through the years. James Adams was one of the preachers there during the five years my father taught. And all the while he continued writing and preaching, although the Bible classes cut back on his meeting work some.
Five years later, it was back to Lufkin, where he continued the Gospel Guardian and meeting work. The final long move was to Birmingham about 1969. There my parents were to live for the next 28 years. At age 60, my father evidently thought it was time to do less traveling, and he settled to do local work with the Cahaba Heights congregation.
In 1971 he turned the Gospel Guardian over to William Wallace, the son of Foy E. Wallace, Jr. My father had grown weary of keeping the paper afloat through the years. It was always a struggle, as few, if any, of our brethren's journals pay for themselves. There has to be a book business or something similar to provide support. After Cahaba Heights, my parents were with the Vestavia church for a time before beginning work with the North Birmingham church.
With writing in his blood, he began publishing Vanguard in 1975 and continued for ten years. The list of writers included Franklin Puckett, who died in January 1975, the month of the first issue. Vanguard continued for ten years.
The work at North Birmingham continued several years, even into the move to Fultondale. He retired from full-time work several years ago, but continued to teach and preach as needed. In the last few years, he preached for the Ensley congregation in Birmingham one Sunday a month. His last sermon was on November 17, 1996, just a month before he turned 88.
Through the years my father and mother served many people. At times people lived with them who needed a home, including pregnant girls. They helped in arranging adoptions for several, following the practice of his father, J.D. Tant. And the third generation has taken up the practice, as my wife and I have been involved in this for the past 30 years.
My father fell on the driveway at his home in Gardendale, Alabama on January 3. After Flora and I went to bring my parents home with us to care for him, it was discovered that he had broken his pelvis in two places. Recovery looked promising, though it would be long and painful. Then he had emergency surgery on February 8 to repair a perforated stomach ulcer. The doctor then discovered an advanced form of liver disease, whose symptoms had not been evident. He remained in the hospital until March 1, when we brought him home. He took his last breath Mon-day morning, March 3, as Flora and I sat by his side holding his hands. I will be forever grateful that we were able to care for him during his last months, and that we were honored to be with him as he made the transition to eternity. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, his son and daughter-in-law, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He also leaves his sister, Mozelle Priestley, of Germantown, Tennessee. She is the last remaining child of J.D. and Nannie Tant. He often said that what meant most to him was the fact that his son was a gospel preacher, his daughter-in-law a wonderful Christian, and that all his grandchildren were faithful Christians, and the four that are married are married to faithful Christians.
Two funerals were held. Tom Beeler and Sewell Hall spoke at Roswell, and Steve Murrell, Lloyd Barker, and Ed Harrell spoke in Gardendale. I was able to add a few words at each place. He was buried in Gardendale. He insisted on my taking him back there for burial, as he had bought some lots from my wife's brother, Huey Hartsell, a few years ago. My father reminded me just a few days before his death that he wanted to be sure that he would see someone he knew when he was raised, for he knew that Huey would be close by. He kept his sense of humor right to the end. My mother is living with us. She is 89, and enjoys good health, although her Alzheimer’s limits her short term memory.
Were there mistakes? Yes, and others will probably cover them. But all in all, it was a life well lived. I miss him, and look forward to a grand reunion one day.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 12 p. 25-27