Fred E. Dennis
(Note: This is an article I wrote nearly twenty years ago. It has never been published. I still feel it is worth publication. "We ARE drifting." F E. D.)
This article is inspired by an article appeared in the Gospel Advocate, December 20, -1945, by George W. DeHoff, under the caption, "A Kentucky Debate." I have thought a lot about that article. For more than forty-five years I have been preaching the gospel of Christ. Most of this preaching has been done in Ohio I and West Virginia, and most of it within one hundred miles of my home in Marietta, Ohio. In the early days of my ministry in this hard section it was common to baptize fifteen to twenty-five in a meeting lasting over three Lord's days, the usual length of my meetings. Now it is uncommon. If this were just my experience I would think that I was "slipping," but it is the common experience of the other preachers throughout this section, and I believe that it is the common experience throughout our beloved country.
It used to be comparatively easy to get the sectarians to attend a gospel meeting. About all we had to do was to make the announcement throughout the community and we were assured of an audience. But for years it has become harder and harder to get the ears of the denominationalist and others. This has caused thinking brethren a lot of concern. We are not reaching the people with the gospel. Brethren will have a meeting, spend a lot on advertising, get a good preacher, have the meeting, but when the meeting is over not many alien sinners have heard the gospel. There is something wrong. How can we get the gospel before the folk of a given community?
Maybe the answer lies in more debates with the sectarians. In the account of the debate given by brother DeHoff this seems to be the way to do it. However, in this northern section it will be hard to get the sectarians to debate. They are smug in their complacency. It will be harder still to convince some half-converted brethren that a good debate would be a good thing. Maybe the reason for this lassitude is that "we have grown respectable; our children have married sectarians; we have 'cooperated' until in some places we have become another denomination."
Some brethren are prejudiced against debates because of the way some have been carried on. A debate is not just another "dog fight." I am convinced that too many are spoiling for a debate that are not fitted by natural or by acquired ability for such a work. (I am inclined to believe that F. E. D. comes under this head!) We need men who are adept at this thing. From Bro. Dehoff's account men like James P. Miller are the men for this great work. They have the ability to do it. They know how to do it.
Brethren, let us try to work up some good debates in every town in America. The truth won't suffer by an honest investigation. Get reputable brethren to wait upon sectarian preachers (and this includes the preachers of the Christian Church), trying to get them to go before the public and defend the things that they teach and practice. If they seem reluctant to take hold maybe a little newspaper advertising might bring them out of this lethargy. "Christian people have gained only by aggression. The apostles carried the fight into the buildings of the opposition. Our 'pioneers' (who incidentally were afflicted with the same petty jealousies and faults as preachers to-day) gained ground by debating. We have fought for every inch of ground we hold today. Many who now live in luxury from the sweat and toil of these pioneers oppose debating. Such men are unworthy of the fellowship of Christians." So say I.
Pulpit after pulpit throughout this section is being "occupied" by a preacher who is living in the luxury from the sweat and toil of pioneer preachers. Many of these "pioneers" could not now preach in these very "respectable" congregations that w e r e brought into existence by the sweat and toil of these "pioneers." No, it would be too humiliating for the little "pastor" to have these old giants in the pulpit. He might offend some of the half-converted "members" and our sectarian friends. "Brethren, don't forget we are drifting."
Right now I am in a meeting in a little West Virginia city of about three thousand souls. The congregation in this town is not many years old. We are bitterly opposed by the sectarians, especially by the Christian Church. If we have a dozen sectarians at any one service we think we are doing right well. I am sure that if a good debate could be arranged with some of these cowardly sectarian preachers that dozens of their members would hear the truth of the gospel for the first time. Didn't Jesus say to preach the gospel to "every creature?" Wouldn't this be one way of doing what he said to do? Brethren, why not try to have your next "protracted meeting" a protracted debate? Give it some publicity and the public will be there. The able gospel preacher will be happy to preach the gospel to these unsaved and deluded folks.
In the account of this Kentucky debate we have this: "The building of the church in Central City was filled to capacity, with all standing room and some unable to get in." Brother, isn't that what you would like to see in your town? Get busy. Call James P. Miller or some other able debater and get the truth before more people than you have for ten years.
Here is something really worth remembering: "Miller pitched his speech on a high plane on apostasy, then took the last five minutes to describe the baptism of Jesus and his holy commandment to us. I saw people moved to tears by this thrilling and eloquent description of baptism; I saw them look with pity at Bingham as Miller said: 'And this is the holy commandment which Baptist preachers ridicule by calling it a hole of water."' Bro. Miller, God knows I would have loved to have heard that thrilling and eloquent description of baptism. Bro. DeHoff, God knows I appreciate your eloquent and thrilling account of this debate. May it help hundreds of brethren to see the possibilities for good that lie in this field of endeavor.
"The church in Central City asked that the debate be repeated in its building next year." I don't know the brethren in Central City, Ky., but it does sound to me like they are just about "on center."
I have quoted freely from Bro. DeHoff's article, but I am not done yet! I want my readers to get this: "The day of debates is not over. Special busses ran from Evansville, Ind., Owensboro, Ky.; and some other places, bringing hundreds of interested brethren. Outsiders attended in droves. Hundreds heard more gospel than they would have heard in a lifetime if the debate had not been held. Members of the church were strengthened. Any church of Christ anywhere would benefit by inviting such a debate, whether its local Baptist friends 'endorsed' it or not. The result on hundreds of outsiders who would attend would be the same. Indeed, usually such a forsaking of their man is a boomerang to sectarians. This debate proved again that a debate is not necessarily a wrangle. Both speakers behaved."
Truth Magazine IX, 3: pp. 6-7