Hartselle, Alabama: The Cycles of Apostasy

By Ron Halbrook

The book of Judges records the cycles of apostasy which afflicted the people of God in the Old Testament. The New Testament is full of warnings about the working; of the leaven of error and the coming of a great spirit of apostasy, all of which has come to pass in the history of the church of our Lord. During the week of 6-12 March 1989 it was my privilege to labor in a gospel meeting with the fine Westview church of Christ in Hartselle, Alabama. Jeff Archer is a younger man devoted to preaching the gospel who is doing a steady and sound work with these good Christians. I stayed in the home of long-time friends, Kenny and Linda Mitchell, who gave me a book entitled A Light On a Hill. History of the Church of Christ, Hartselle, Alabama, 1920-1983 (privately published by Lista D. Martin, May 1984). This book contains much interesting historical information, including a section on the division over institutionalism from the viewpoint of the book’s liberal author. The book is reasonably objective for the most part, and reflects the cycles of apostasy which have afflicted the church of our Lord in America.

Planting the Church: Hard Work and Hard Times

In the 1920s there was an apostate group known as the Christian Church meeting in Hartselle. For four weeks during part of June and July 1920, J. Petty Ezell, John T. Lewis, and C.M. Pullias preached in a “protracted meeting” under a tent in Hartselle (p. 1). As a result the church of Christ began to meet on 17 July. After meeting in a house for several months, the church completed its own small building and met in it from October of 1920 through November of 1947. The author states concerning this simple structure:

The location was inconvenient, with little, if any parking space – even for wagons. The only heat in winter months came from a coal-burning stove. The lighting was provided by one ceiling light. There were no separate classrooms, no carpet, no water fountain, no modern bathrooms, and no PA system. They had no air-conditioning – the members had to bring their own hand fans! (p. 5)

During one difficult period in the early days of the church, the “two Pewter cups” were prepared for the Lord’s Supper but only one or two men were attending the services. “They were not members or would not serve the Lord’s table. The men would leave the building and Mrs. Shaw would serve the Lord’s Supper to the ladies” (p. 10). During the 1920s some men who worked as local evangelists with the church include J.C. Dixon, W.O. Norton, and B.F. Moody. Brother Robert Farrish held a gospel meeting in 1931. “5 added by confession and baptism” (p. 14; cf. p. 18).

The 1930s were overshadowed by the economic depression. When the bank failed in March 1933, each depositor received 5 percent of its account. “The church received $2.85” (p. 20). Many people walked from state to state searching for work from house to house begging food. The author recalls a beggar at her parents’ door being asked to cut wood for the cookstove in return for food. “He was asked to fill the box while Mother prepared his food. Hours following his departure, we discovered he cut only enough pieces to cover the top of the bin making it appear full. Mother said he would reap a just reward! ” (p. 16) Funerals were often held in the homes. “Friends would sit all night with the deceased” (p. 23). Lindsey Allen performed a wedding ceremony 16 December 1938 for Homer Sherrill and Bernice Walling. Curtains were hung to divide the meetinghouse into four classrooms. “They were hung by a cord that could be drawn open for worship services and closed for Sunday School” (p. 24).

Emphasis on the Bible Pattern

In July 1944, the church was charged one dollar to use the baptistry of the First Christian Church! Frank Andrews came to preach for the church in December of 1944. A new building was completed while brother Andrews was there in November of 1947. An excerpt from the deed for the land on Sparkman Street included the following statement.

That the congregation on worshiping in the house erected on said property tracts, or parcels of land herein described, shall in all work and worship adhere and conform strictly to New Testament pattern, rejecting and opposing all inventions, doctrines, and commandments of men, such as societies, conventions, associations, etc., fairs, shows, suppers, etc., for the purpose of raising money, or games or instruments of music (neither used or housed) in the worship, visionary, speculative, and division teaching or things not clearly revealed and that none of these things or other things like unto them shall be used or taught on or about said premises (p. 30).

On 16 November 1947 a gospel meeting began as the brethren moved into the new building. The following speakers and subjects were announced.

A Glorious Church, by O.S. Lanham

Christ and the Church, by R.L. Andrews

The Mission of the Church, by J. Hollis Robinson

Church Membership and its Responsibility, by E. Patton

The Purity of the Church, by Charles Chumley

Church Government, by T.A. Thompson

Topic to be Announced, by R.D. Underwood (p. 32).

These subjects speak for themselves as to the emphasis given to the importance of the New Testament pattern of teaching on the true church. The records of the church show that Frank Andrews was paid $225 for the month of November. The church treasury was $63.24 in the hole for that month. Times were still very hard.

Among the preachers who labored with this church in the 1950s was Roy Fudge (June 1957-August 1958). A new building was erected in August 1960 and a larger auditorium added in August 1972.

Apostasy, Division and Starting Over

On pages 63-69 the author includes a section entitled “Division in the Church.”

For years the harmony in congregations across the nation was disturbed by various controversial matters to include the support of orphan homes, fellowship suppers, support of the Herald of Truth Radio Program, Christian Colleges and various other picayune subjects. Those against this type support were called “antis”; those for were known as “liberals” (p. 63).

In April of 1963 the elders had a series of lessons presented for a week promoting and defending the liberal practices. The speakers were George Marshall, Charles Stidham, Winford Clark, Steril Watson, and most importantly Gus Nichols, who spoke on “The Work of Benevolence and Cooperation by the Church.”

When the elders refused a request to have speakers from the opposing viewpoint, three families submitted letters withdrawing their fellowship and began to conduct their worship as a new church. “As days passed, other families left to unite with the original three. The church lost a total of eight families” (p. 64). The elders wrote and read a letter to the church withdrawing from the original three on the charge of disturbing the peace of the church.

The author includes the texts of the three letters, omitting the names of the writers (whose names I learned while at Westview). The first letter was written by brother and sister Kenneth Swafford and included the following statements.

This congregation has allowed error to creep in so gradually (which has always been true of digression) that we are in a state of lethargy, where we can soothe our consciences into thinking that almost anything is alright if done in the right spirit. Such thinking for years past has produced good religious people in denominations.

History is repeating itself. About 100 years ago, and even fewer years here in the South, the Church was split asunder because people lost sight of the simple Word of God and wanted to build up for themselves institutions bigger and stronger than the local congregation. Please read church history and see that the same arguments put forth for digression in that day are used today by the liberal element to teach their digression. Brethren it is a fearful thing for which each one of us will have to give an accounting before God. None of these institutions is found in the Bible (pp. 65-66).

The other two letters were from brother Marlin Chapman and from brother and sister Jimmy Roberts.

Just as the church had begun in Hartselle in 1920, on 24 April 1963 twenty-two persons met in the home of brother and sister M.H. Chapman and formed the Westview church of Christ. They moved into their new building in December of 1963. A picture of the new building along with a brief article about the new church appeared in the Decatur Daily of 29 August 1964. These good brethren are continuing to contend earnestly for the faith and to spread the gospel in Hartselle.

Within forty years of the time the church first began in Hartselle, a new cycle of apostasy had occurred. It is striking that the innovations promoted in the late 50s and early 60s are explicitly condemned in the property deed of 1947. Within fifteen years of that statement, brethren had drifted to the point that they could not see they were violating the principles which they had stated so firmly and plainly a generation earlier. As the result of a lack of teaching or else a lack of hearing, “there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:10). The experience of Hartselle was repeated all across America. Have we learned anything?

What Does the Future Hold?

If we do not teach the whole counsel of God in our time or if brethren fail to take heed to it, another cycle of compromise and apostasy will appear to afflict the people of God again. Congregations which began in the 1950s and 1960s in an effort to purify the church from false doctrine are approaching thirty and forty years of age. Not too long ago, a young couple admitted to the elders of the Lord’s church that they did not understand the real principles involved in the division over liberalism and asked if some sermons could be presented on the matter. The elders answered, “We had plenty of preaching on that subject twenty years ago and do not need to hear about it again now.” A faithful Christian in another large congregation recently said that nearly all of the younger couples wear shorts in public and go mixed swimming.

There is some healthy growth taking place in many churches but in others there is too much swelling and bloating in the name of growth. When preachers spout people pleasing platitudes rather than to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine,” the church is soon filled with people who have “itching ears” and who “turn away their ears from the truth . . . unto fables” (2 Tim, 4:1-5). False, dangerous, and divisive theories are being taught on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Some are saying in effect, “I don’t believe such error but surely we can work out a formula of fellowship which will accommodate it.”

Brethren, if we are to avoid and avert apostasy, we must renew within us the spirit of the ancient prophets and apostles. “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet” (Isa. 58:1). “His word was in thine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (Jer. 20:9). May our fearless presentation of the gospel and our pressing the demands of truth without fear or favor for even our best friends cause those who hear to remember “that it was written, the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (Jn. 2:17). This must ever be our resolve, “I am set for the defense of the gospel” (Phil. 2:17). We must never forget the charge, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).

Let us pray that God will help us to resist indifference and apathy. May we feed upon his Word and fill our hearts with it until we despise every form of sin and error (Psa. 119:104). When politicians and policy formulators try to intimidate us with lectures about our lack of love, may God help us to respond, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:2). Trusting in God’s grace and in the power of his Word in the face of every trial and crisis, may we so labor that we can say with the apostle at the end of the way,

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 2, pp. 42-44
January 18, 1990