August 18, 2017

J.W. McGarvey: Author and Scholar of the Restoration Movement (III)

By Ferrell Jenkins

McGarvey the Writer

We have only been able to give the highlights of his work as a teacher. Next we shall pass to the writings of McGarvey. So far as this generation is concerned his writings are the most important thing that he accomplished.

One of his most important works and his first was the Commentary on Acts, which was completed in 1863. He had worked about three and a half years on this commentary. He regarded the book of Acts as a book of conversions. There were several prominent Protestant doctrines prevalent in his time that he felt had to be refuted. One of these was that the Holy Spirit operated directly in conversion. Another was that faith alone in Jesus Christ was sufficient to save. These two questions are ever before McGarvey as he writes his commentary. He takes up the conversions in Acts one by one in their proper order and shows what directly constitutes a conversion. This book is still to be considered a great piece of work. On the whole the leaders of the Restoration Movement have written few commentaries. This volume was the earliest. It "held the field so successfully through many editions that no other work on this subject was published until . . . 1897."12 Even now the Commentary is published by at least three publishers in two different editions.

Moses E. Lard planned an entire set of commentaries on the New Testament. It was to include the Commentary on Acts and a Commentary on Matthew and Mark, also by McGarvey. There were to be nine other volumes, but only two of them were ever written, being J. S. Lamar's Luke and Robert Milligan's Hebrews. These men approached the Bible as a Divine revelation. They sought to give the world a commentary that would at once be popular, and employ the best learning available.

Joined by his son-in-law, Philip Y. Pendleton, McGarvey produced The Fourfold Gospel, being a harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This was an effort to weave the four gospels together in such a way as to constitute a single narrative. The work has often been used in classes on the "Life of Christ."

Visits Palestine

One of the important events in the life of McGarvey was his trip to Palestine and other Biblical lands, in 1879. The trip was paid for by a group of his former students who asked him to write a book on return. They were to be reimbursed from the sale of this book. The book was called Lands of the Bible. He made great preparation before his trip by reading all available books on Biblical geography, thus storing his mind with all knowable facts. He listed in a blank book all the places he proposed to visit, mentioning the facts concerning it, which he felt needed verifying and also left a space for the enumeration of new discoveries. There are three parts to the book. Part one is used in discussing the geography of Palestine, Part two is used to discuss the topography of the land, the third part was more personal, consisting of letters written by McGarvey while on the trip. The book contained more than 600 pages and had an immediate sale of 15,000 copies. It was pronounced, "by competent judges, the most valuable work yet (to 1905-6, FJ) published on Palestine."13 This book was later used in one of McGarvey's classes in the College of the Bible as well as a text in several theological seminaries. It is still a very good book although somewhat outdated by recent archaeological findings.


McGarvey spent his longest period of preparation on Evidences of Christianity. The book is divided into four parts. The first two were published in 1886 and the last two parts five years later. Each "Part presents an inquiry complete in itself and is not dependent on any other part for its intelligibility or its value."'4

Still the arrangement of the parts is such that the argument is cumulative; a part receives strength from the preceding part. The parts are:

I. Integrity of the New Testament text.

II. Genuineness of the New Testament books.

III. Credibility of the New Testament books.

IV. Inspiration of the New Testament books.

This approach and organization still often serves as an outline for dealing with the evidences of the New Testament.

For his ability to argue with the higher critics McGarvey was noted. The book that cost him the severest and maturest effort of his life was The Authorship of Deuteronomy. This book may well be considered his magnum opus. He considered the book of Deuteronomy to be the main critical point in the Old Testament. The critics dated Deuteronomy about 621 B. C. and the rest of the Pentateuch earlier. The reasoning of McGarvey was that if he could show that Deuteronomy was written by Moses and belonged to that period of time, then according to the critics the other books would necessarily fall in place. Reviews in both this country and Great Britain pronounced this a work that must be dealt with by the class of critics whose writings it assailed. Several well known critical scholars knew of McGarvey's book. Among them, Professor George Foote Moore of Harvard, declined to review the book.

"While it exhibits a thorough acquaintance with the literature of the higher criticism, that which has excited admiration of its readers is the author's unsurpassed familiarity with the Sacred Scriptures and his skill in detecting and exposing perversions of their teachings. This work, together with the author's critical articles in the Christian Standard, has gained for him his highest reputation for learning and dialectical skill."15

McGarvey accepted the fixed, static philosophy of the ancient world whereas the higher critics adhered to the fluid, progressive philosophy of change, growth and development. In short: McGarvey accepted the book of Deuteronomy, as well as the entire Bible, as the Word of God; the critics accepted it as a human production. His work on Deuteronomy is almost as valuable now as when it was written, but is now out of print and difficult to secure.

McGarvey had another book that deals with one of the smallest books in the Old Testament. The work is a simple and short defense of the conservative view of Jonah. The four articles in it first appeared in the Christian Standard, but in 1896 were published under the title Jesus and Jonah. Professor William Henry Green, eminent Hebraist of Princeton, accepted McGarvey's dedication of the book to him and wrote the introduction.

McGarvey had very little use for printed sermons and said that he had derived little benefit from them, but agreed to have twenty-four of his sermons published so that "They might prove useful to someone after my voice is no longer being heard."16 This book of sermons is one of the finest I have read. As was characteristic of McGarvey, most of these sermons dealt with cases of conversion from the book of Acts, and historical lessons.

A few years ago the Librarian of the Bosworth Memorial Library of the College of the Bible discovered some manuscripts of 19 chapel talks that were delivered to the students of the College of the Bible in the school year 1910-1911. These have some very rich thoughts from this octogenarian "and are spiced with that delightful touch of humor which was a McGarvey trademark."17

McGarvey Attacks Higher Critics

McGarvey conducted a department in the Christian Standard of Cincinnati, beginning in 1893, which bore the title of "Biblical Criticism." This was not written for the scholars but rather was written on a level where the masses could understand it, and would enjoy it. McGarvey wrote in a way that seemed very different from his kind manner otherwise. Many times he seemed very bitter and harsh. As one has expressed it, he would "dip his pen in gall and vitriol."18 His friends and especially his family were concerned about this, but almost always the person who, had been so severely ridiculed by the writings would learn upon meeting him to esteem him highly, McGarvey was hailed as a champion of orthodoxy. He carried on many controversies in this department and criticized college presidents, critical scholars and their theories in general. These articles over a 19-year period did a great deal of good, at least for the common man, in assuring him of the truthfulness of the Bible.

In 1909, McGarvey selected enough of the essays on the higher critical theories to make a book and published them under the title of Short Essays in Biblical Criticism. These covered the years 1893 to 1904. Some of the essays written between 1905 and 1911 are now being reprinted in Evidence Quarterly. "For the most part, the articles are unrelated to each other, but all deal with the subject of higher criticism. Nowhere is the famous humor and wit of McGarvey more obvious. His sarcasm in this book is stinging. Two of the better-loved articles are ripe in irony. One is about the cock that crew when Peter denied the Lord and the other is a rich satire on Mother Goose."'9

Four volumes of McGarvey's Class Noteson Sacred History, as Sacred Didactics are now in print. A Treatise on the Eldership, a series of editorial articles originally published in the Apostolic Times was printed in 1870, and was reprinted in 1956.

McGarvey also wrote in other periodicals such as The Apostolic Guide, The American Christian Review and the Millennial Harbinger. Other minor works were published. One of these was A Guide to Bible Study, in 1897, and Commentary on Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galations and Romans, which work was mostly the result of the labors of Phillip Y. Pendleton.

The attitude of the scholarly world toward the writings of McGarvey has already been discussed. Within the Restoration Movement no man, with the exception of Alexander Campbell, is held in higher regard for his writings. Professor L. L. Brigance, of Freed-Hardeman College, Henderson, Tenn., said shortly before his death, "In my judgment, his commentaries have few, if any, equals, and no superiors. It is probably that McGarvey's greatest contribution to Christianity was the books that he wrote."20 One publisher said, "Anything which McGarvey wrote is worthy of careful consideration."21 Another writer said, "McGarvey is generally conceded to be the greatest scholar produced by any Restoration group in the last hundred years."22

J. W. McGarvey was the leading scholar of the Restoration Movement in his day and was respected by friend and antagonist alike. His writings have outlived him and we believe that they shall continue to be of great value, especially to those who are heirs of that for which McGarvey stood.


12 W. E. Garrison and A. T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ - A History, (St. Louis, The Bethany Press, 1958 (revised edition). p. 543.

13 J. W. McGarvey, Autobiography, op. cit., p. 35.

14 J. W. McGarvey, Evidences of Christianity, (Nashville, Gospel Advocate Co., 1956, reprint) p. iv.

15 McGarvey, Autobiography, op. cit., p. 35.

16 J. W. McGarvey, Sermons, (Cincinnati, The Standard Publishing Co.) preface.

17 McGarvey, Chapel Talks, op, cit., preface.

18 Morro, op. cit., p. 187.

19 Lawson Wallace, "Four Books by J. W. McGarvey," Evidence Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4, p. 135.

20 McGarvey, The Eldership, op. cit., preface.

21 Ibid. foreword.

22 Wallace, op. cit.

Truth Magazine VIII: 4, pp. 16-18
January 1964