An Early History of the Lord’s Church in the Nashville Area (II)

By Steve Wolfgang

The Civil War

The dispute with Ferguson, the missionary society question, the controversy with Richardson and Campbell, and the burning of the church’s building were not the end of the church’s troubles, however. With the coming of the Civil War, the activities of the church were even more adversely affected. From the beginning, “most young Disciples North and South carefully packed their Bibles into saddlebags and rode off to war:”(1) Enrollments at Southern colleges, particularly, were adversely affected,(2) and this included Franklin College which suspended its activities.(3) Later, as Nashville “became the leading supply depot. in the West for the supplies of the Federal armies,”(4) especially during Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, the College grounds were used as barracks.(5) While the war had many adverse effects on the church directly during the time of the military hostilities, it also, indirectly, had a much more deleterious effect on the Churches of Christ generally and Nashville in particular. The pre-war doctrinal controversies alluded to above combined with sectional animosities to sunder the body of Christ during the next half-century: “. . .sectional hatreds, added to the already emerging arguments over the society question, created strife which has lasted over a hundred years;”(6) “the scars of these wounds are yet visible in the movement.”(7)

The main representations of this division were the sectionally-representative periodicals which emerged following the war, notably the Christian Standard in the North and the Gospel Advocate in the South. We have already alluded to the influence that Fanning had, even after his death, on a host of emerging younger preachers. The most obvious illustration of this phenomenon, is, of course, the Gospel Advocate. Fanning had begun the Advocate in 1855 with William Lipscomb. This was by no means his first (or last) attempt to religious journalism. Beginning in 1844, Fanning had published the Christian Review, which later, in 1849 became the Christian Magazine, under the auspices of Jesse B. Ferguson, who later used it to further his false doctrine. Fanning had also edited the secular periodicals, the, Agriculturalist and the Naturalist, during the 1840’s.(8) Later, he would publish the Religious Historian from 1872 until his death two years later. After the Gospel Advocate resumed publication in 1866, it was largely the paper of David Lipscomb. Lipscomb had been a student of Fanning’s at Franklin College, with (among others) Elisha G. Sewell and T. B. Larimore.(9)

The years of Reconstruction and those following were difficult years for the South, and the church in the South. They saw the church grow, but halve its growth due to doctrinal division. They saw the formation of the Tennessee State Missionary Society,(10) and the evolution of the church in Nashville to become Vine Street Christian Church, replete with organ and such “progressive” preachers as R. C. Cave and R. Lin Cave.(11) While we do not have the space to go into the details of the division, it was much like the division all over the nation, involving much acrimony, recrimination, and trials over church property.(12)

By the time the division had been completed, the churches in the Nashville area emerged as strong as those anywhere in the country.

At the turn of the century, the majority of the membership of the Church of Christ centered in Tennessee, with some 41,411 members in the Volunteer State-more than three times that of Kentucky and Alabama. Of the eight, adjacent states Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi-the total membership of all combined did not exceed that of Tennessee.(13)

Post War Developments

One significant development which would have many later implications for the churches of Christ was the founding of Nashville Bible School in 1891. The school was operated for many years under the auspices of David Lipscomb (for whom it was later renamed) and, until the early twentieth century, by James Alexander Harding.(14) In 1901, Harding left, with his son-in-law, John Nelson Armstrong, to go to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and establish Potter Bible College, and later several other colleges at various places in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas (the one in Arkansas eventually culminated in Harding College).(15)

One cannot close a discussion of the earlier history of the church in the Nashville area without reference to the debates and large assemblies at the Ryman Auditorium. It had been built in 1892 by Captain Thomas G. Ryman, prominent Nashville citizen and affluent steamship magnate, who had been “converted” by the famous revivalist, Sam Jones. Originally named the Union Gospel Tabernacle, it was changed to honor Ryman after his death on December 24, 1904.(16) In the twentieth century, it became famous with the advent of radio as the “home of the Grand Ole Opry.” But it was also the scene of some significant religious gatherings. In the fall of 1921, plans were made which culminated in the first of the Hardeman Tabernacle meetings the following year, from March 26 to April 18, 1922.(17) Shortly thereafter, F. B. Srygley, one of the editors of the Gospel Advocate, received a letter which ultimately led to the discussion between N. B. Hardeman and Ira M. Boswell from May 31 to June 5, 1923.(18) The Christian Churches’ “Commission on Unity” had distributed a book by O. E. Payne on the Instrumental Music question, and was responded to with a challenge for public discussion with its chairman, John B. Cowden.(19) The outcome was not only the Hardeman-Boswell oral discussion in the Ryman Auditorium, but a written discussion between H. Leo Boles, President of David Lipscomb College and editor for the Gospel Advocate,(20) and M.D. Clubb, Christian Church preacher who had succeeded Cowden as editor of the Tennessee Christian.(21) Boles also carried on a written discussion on the premillennial controversy with R. H. Boll.(22) The premillennial controversy had plagued the churches of Christ since Boll first introduced the teaching on the front pages of the Advocate while he was on the editorial staff in 1915.(23) By the early 1930’s when Foy E. Wallace, Jr. had moved to Nashville to assume the editorship of the Gospel Advocate, the battle was at its peak and involved a number of public discussions.(24) The Hardeman Tabernacle Meetings of 1938 were also affected by the controversy,(25) which eventually involved a number of prominent Tennessee preachers, including G. C. Brewer,(26) as well as Boles, Hardeman, Wallace, and others.

While this is admittedly a brief sketch, hopefully it will shed some light on the early history of how the Lord’s church came to e1jist in this area,(27) and can provide background information for another article on the more current history of the Cause in the Nashville area.


1. David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Quest For a Christian America: Disciples of Christ and American Society to 1865 (A Social History of the Disciples of Christ, Volume I; Nashville: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966), p. 153.

2. Ibid., p. 155.

3. Wilburn, pp. 210-211; Norton, Tennessee Christians, p. 70.

4. Jesse C. Burt, Nashville: Its Life and Times (Nashville: Tennessee Book Company, 1959), p. 55.

5. Wilburn, p. 221.

6. Edward G. Holley, review of Wilburn, Discipliana, XXIX:4 (Fall, 1969), p. 78.

7. Harrell, op. cit., p. 170. See also chapters 4 (“Slavery and Sectionalism: An Entering Wedge”), and 5 (“Pacifism and Patriotism: The Cleavage Deepens”) especially pp. 170-174. See also idem., “The Sectional Origins of the Churches of Christ,” Journal of Southern History, XJCX (August, 1964), pp. 261-277; and The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900 (A, Social History of the Disciples of Christ, Volume II; Atlanta: Publishing Systems, Inc., 1973), especially chapters 1 and 13.

8. Wilburn, pp. 42-43, 58-60.

9. Ibid., p. 100.

10. Norton, Tennessee Christians, p. 189. See also chapter 05, “Reconstruction, Resentment, and Retaliation:” There were also numerous debates with sectarian preachers during this period. For example, David Lipscomb debated a Baptist named G. W. Griffin at Gallatin in January,’1872; in December of 1873, T. W. Brents of Lewisburg debated Jacob Ditzler, a Methodist debater, at Franklin (Wilburn, pp. 255-256). Brents, author of the widely known book, The Gospel Plan of Salvation, also debated an Indiana Baptist, E. D. Herod, at Franklin in March and April of 1887 (Gospel Advocate, XXIX:14 (April 6, 1887). There were many more such debates throughout the area; these are merely examples.

11. Alfred Leland Crabb, Nashville: Portrait of a City (Indianapolis: Boobs-Merrill, 1960), p. 158.

12. See Norton, Tennessee Christians, pp. 208-225.

13. Corlew, et. al., p. 421.

14. Norton, Tennessee Christians, pp. 183-185.

15. See Lloyd Cline Sears, The Eyes of Jehovah: The Life and Faith of James Alexander Handing (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1970), and For Freedom: The Biography of John Nelson Armstrong (Austin, Texas: R. B. Sweet Publishing Company, 1969). After Harding left, Lipscomb deeded the current site of the school to the college, which now stands just off Granny White Pike in Nashville. Norton, Tennessee Christians, p. 185; William Waller, editor, Nashville: 1900 to 1910 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1972), p. 288. For biographical information on David Lipscomb, see Earl I. West, The Life and Times of David Lipscomb, (Henderson, Tennessee: Religious Book Service, 1954).

16. William Waller, editor, Nashville in the 1890’s (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1970), pp. 120, 278.

17. See “History and Description of the Meeting,” by N. B. Hardeman, Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1922), pp. 9-14; and James Marvin Powell and Mary Nelle Hardeman Powers, NBH: A Biography of Nicholas Brodie Hardeman (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1964), chapter 15, “The Tabernacle Meetings,” pp. 169-183. The Ryman Auditorium was said to seat 6,000 to 8,000 persons, and, reportedly, it was filled to capacity and an estimated 2,000 more persons were turned away on the opening day of the series, March 28, 1922. Other similar series were held at Ryman in 1923, 1928, 1938, and 1942 (Powell and Powers, pp. 176, 179, 180, 182).

18. “Introduction” in Boswell-Hardeman Discussion on Instrumental Music (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1957 reprint), pp. 5-24.

19. Ibid. See also Norton, Tennessee Christians, p. 251. F. B. Srygley estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 people heard this discussion, (in Powell and Powers, p. 194).

20. Leo Lipscomb Boles and J. E. Choate, I’ll Stand on the Rock: A Biography of H. Leo Boles (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1965, pp. 160-165.

21. The exchange was carried simultaneously in the Christian. Evangelist and the Gospel Advocate (Norton, Tennessee Christians, pp.249-252).

22. H. Leo Boles and R. H. Boll, Unfulfilled Prophecy: A Discussion on Prophetic Themes (Nashville: Gospel Advocate’ Company, 1954 reprint). This written discussion was first published in the Gospel Advocate between and including the issues of May 19 and November 3, 1927. See Choate and Boles, p. 167; Edward Fudge, “Millennialism in the Restoration Movement,” Gospel Guardian, XXI: 12-14 (July 24-August 7, 1969), pp. 181-185.

23. See the issues of the Gospel Advocate from March 11, 1915 to February 24,1916.

24. Probably the best known of these was the Neal-Wallace discussion in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1933.

25. See Powell and Powers, pp. 180-182.

26. See The Anchor That Holds: A Biography of Benton Cordell Goodpasture (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1971), pp. 140-146. For the biographical information on Brewer, see A Story of Toil and Tears of Love and Laughter (Being the Autobiography of G. C. Brewer, 1884-I956), Murfreesboro, Tennessee: DeHoff Publications, 1957).

27. In 1958, the religion editor of the Nashville Tennesseean estimated that there were over 110 Churches of Christ in Davidson County (metropolitan Nashville). See James W. Carty, Jr., Nashville as a World Religious Center (Nashville: Cullom & Ghertner, 1958), p. 11.

Truth Magazine XIX: 29, pp. 460-462
May 29, 1975