The Biography of J. N. Armstrong
L. C. Sears, the son-in-law of J. N. Armstrong, has written Brother Armstrong' biography. Brother Scars served as Dean of Harding College from 1924-1965.
Biography is one of the finest ways to study history. The biography of J. N. Armstrong covers a period of history that has not as thoroughly been covered elsewhere.
Brother Armstrong taught in six colleges operated by members of the church, and was the President of four of these colleges. He taught in Nashville Bible School (later named David Lipscomb College), and Potter Bible College (which was established by his father-in-law James A. Harding, but which closed in 1913).
He was the President of Western Bible and Literary College at Odessa, Missouri; Cordell Christian College at Cordell, Oklahoma; Harper College at Harper, Kansas; and of the college at Morrilton, Arkansas, which later moved to Searcy, Arkansas and is now known as Harding College. He taught in schools operated by brethren for 39 years, and was President of a college for 29 years.
Thus the biography of J. N. Armstrong is considerably the history of colleges operated by members of the church from about 1900 until his death in 1944.
In addition to serving as teacher and president of several schools, Brother Armstrong also edited a weekly paper for 22 years. He edited GOSPEL HERALD and LIVING MESSAGE.
Some interesting stories are related regarding Brother Armstrong's relationship to the various schools. In an effort to raise money to start the Western Bible and Literary College (which began in 1905), Brother Armstrong made the rash statement, "The starting of this work does not depend on your gift, for God's hand is not shortened. Your salvation may depend on it, but the school does not" (p. 74). He was severely criticized for this remark. As a result of this fund raising campaign, both B. F. Rhodes and Armstrong debated Daniel Sommer. L. C. Sears says, "The debates marked the decline of the opposition to Christian schools."
It seems that Armstrong was in favor of church support of the schools from the beginning. However, in the Rhodes-Sommer debate, Rhodes said to Sommer that the school would "never accept a penny from any church contribution if that would satisfy him" (p. 79). Sommer believed it was sinful to spend the "Lord's money" on such schools, but he said the Lord's money was any money left after a man paid his taxes and supplied the needs of his family (p. 79). Consequently, at this time, private support of a "Bible school" would not have satisfied Sommer.
But Armstrong did not retreat to solicitation of private support only for the schools he ran. When some brethren in Texas proposed establishment of a University, Armstrong spoke against it and said, according to Sears, "that the churches should rally to the support of the schools now running" (p, 148). Sears observed, "The churches in general had never really supported the Christian schools in spite of the great service they were giving" (p. 236). This shows that Sears felt "the churches" should support the schools. When George Benson became President of Harding College shortly before Armstrong's death, Sears reported: "Benson's first efforts to raise money among the churches were unexpectedly blocked by the opposition of B. G. Hope of Paragould and E. R. Harper of Little Rock" (p. 260).
The War Question
Armstrong came to hold virtually the same position as David Lipscomb and James Harding regarding a Christian participating in civil government, and particularly concerning a Christian participating in carnal warfare.
Armstrong's pacifistic position, during World War I, was the deciding factor in closing the college at Cordell. When he resigned under pressure, the school was closed immediately.
Brother Sears relates in detail some of the financial difficulties at Morrilton, and the move to Searcy. Both the Peoples Bank and Trust Company of Morrilton and Home Life Insurance Company held large mortgages on the Morrilton college property. Judge Strait "believed that the full indebtedness could not have been less than $175,000 to $200,000"
(p. 220). Sears added, "Considering all the data one computer figured the indebtedness the equivalent of a debt of $20,000,000 to $30,000,000 on the college today." Finally, in 1929 the insurance company foreclosed, and sold the property of the college at Morrilton to the orphan home now there for a very small percentage of the indebtedness against it.
The hottest controversy in which Armstrong was a participant was over premillennialism. Sears says that Armstrong was "the foremost champion of Christian liberty" (p. 183). However, many in the brotherhood thought he was just plain soft on premillennialism. It will surprise many young men today to learn that some modern-day liberals were thirty years ago Armstrong's ardent opposers.
Brother Sears seems to have felt strongest toward E. R. Harper, who then preached at Little Rock. Sears reports that 30 years after Armstrong lived at Cordell, "E. R. Harper, during his fight to oust Armstrong from the faculty of Harding College, visited Cordell in vain to see what he could find against him" (p. 110). Sears says that Harper, in December, 1936, called an elaborate "preacher's meeting" in an effort to put pressure on Harding College to take a strong stand against premillennialism and its sympathizers. (p. 282). At this meeting L. R. Wilson (recently deceased) "read a list of twelve charges" against Armstrong (p. 283)
Armstrong would not admit that he was a premillennialist. He said his position on the millennium was "about the same as that held by James A. Harding and Dr. T. W. Brents." John T. Lewis had said that the difference between J. N. Armstrong and R. H. Boll (an avowed premillennialist) was the difference "between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee" (p. 292).
However, Armstrong said "in my forty-five years of active preaching I have never spoken on the subject" (p. 292). Sears states that Ted McElroy had said that "Croom resigned from the college at Morrilton because Armstrong was a premillennialist" (p. 208) in a BIBLE BANNER article. Sears attempts to exonerate Armstrong from the premillennialism charge. "He did not agree with Boll, he was not interested in the millennium" (p. 292). Again Sears said, "In all the long struggle beginning in 1924 and ending only with his death in 1944, Armstrong was not interested in a defense of Boll or of any millennial doctrine--pre-, post-, or non-." (p. 297).
But throughout the controversy Armstrong maintained close contact with R. H. Boll and Don Carlos Janes, both prominent premillennialists. It also was observed that for some reason most of the premillennialists sent their children to Harding College, rather than to any other schools then operated by members of the church.
Armstrong believed the men who taught premillennialism were wrong, but he thought it was an innocent opinion. Of Don Carlos Janes and his notorious will, Armstrong said, "I am sorry Janes thought the doctrine (premillennialism) was so important, but he did, and again it was his right" (p. 304).
Those who opposed Armstrong for a compromising spirit toward premillennialism were referred to as having a "self-righteous, dogmatic intolerant spirit" (p. 185}. The author spoke of "certain cliques" who had started "radical new papers" (p. 281 ). These were called "a small group of determined extremists." The biography of Armstrong is entitled FOR FREEDOM, which indicated he thought the premillennialists should be permitted to teach their doctrine unchecked.
Sears rejoiced that the opposition of the GOSPEL ADVOCATE ceased. He said, "A change also came in the GOSPEL ADVOCATE with the appointment of B. C. Goodpasture as editor" (p. 299). The FIRM FOUNDATION and the GOSPEL ADVOCATE, as well as the BIBLE BANNER and the GOSPEL GUARDIAN, were for a while firing away at premillennialism. But Sears said in closing, "With the passing of years the great guns that once thundered in the long and bitter war are now silent, and their echoes have grown fainter and far away" (p. 299). And this is pretty much true concerning many of Armstrong's protagonists.
The intensity of the premillennial controversy led J. N. Armstrong, G. C. Brewer, S. H. Hall, E. H. Ijams, E. W. McMillan, Jesse P. Sewell, James F. Cox, and Clinton Davidson to purchase the floundering CHRISTIAN LEADER in order to exemplify the proper spirit in their writing. Their action indicted all the other papers. McMillan was the first editor, with A. B. Lipscomb, James LoveIl, and Jesse P. Sewell as contributing editors. They proposed to "set a new high standard in religious journalism," but their effort floundered and finally failed entirely.
Most biographies have a slanted view. It is difficult to study the life of an individual without becoming wrapped up in his activities. Brother L. C. Sears has not said all that might need to be said about J. N. Armstrong's role, particularly in some of the controversies. But the book is well written and is quite interesting. Anyone interested in a history of colleges run by the brethren, or in the premillennialism controversy would profit by reading this book.
FOR FREEDOM: the Biography of John Nelson Armstrong by L. C. Sears can be ordered from Truth Magazine Bookstore.
TRUTH MAGAZINE XIV; 21, pp. 3-6
April 2, 1970