History of the Present Digression

By H.E. Phillips

The characteristics of the digression among the churches of Christ go back to the days of the apostles when “the mystery of iniquity doth already work. . .” (2 Thess. 2:7) and predictions were made of departures from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Through the centuries that followed the completion of the New Testament one “issue” followed another, stemming from attitudes toward divine authority, the nature and work of the church, and the matter of fellowship, and resulted in one division after another.

In preparation of this article I have read from a number of sources which give a rather vivid description of the developing storm clouds and the cyclonic destruction among churches of Christ of the middle nineteenth century. I shall try to briefly state some of these historical facts in their proper relationship to the breach in fellowship among the disciples of Christ. The reader will please understand that this article does not purport to be a detailed and complete accounting of the history from 1830 to 1978. We are only interested in giving a sketch of the historical divisions resulting from the issues of the past.

Cooperation and the Missionary Society

During the 1840’s an element among the churches of Christ demanded greater missionary zeal, and some of the foremost leaders in this movement set about to create some “cooperation ” machinery for pooling the resources of many churches into one fund to preach the gospel. From 1840 to 1850 benevolent activity began by women who arranged themselves into “sewing societies” for the purpose of making and providing garments and food for needy people. This was highly commended by influential men who were striving to affect and organize such an arrangement for preaching the gospel.

In 1847, Walter Scott and W.K. Pendleton campaigned for funds to be sent to the needy disciples in the United Kingdom (Quest For A Christian American, Edwin Harrell, Jr., p. 75). The collection was made under the sponsorship of the church in Bethany, Virginia. This was the first brotherhood benevolent campaign and the beginning of the church-supported institutional benevolent societies which were to flourish later as a “Social Gospel” function.

But Barton W. Stone said of benevolent societies; “These benevolent schemes are Bible societies, Tract societies, Rag societies, Cent societies, Theological societies, Sunday School societies, Educational societies. . . I would simply ask, What have the divine writers of the New Testament said respecting these societies? They are all silent as the grave . . .”(Quest For A Christian America, p. 76).

The organization of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849 produced the division between Disciples of Christ and churches of Christ and they were first listed separately in the U.S. Census in 1906. This divisive, unscriptural organization was the result of the constant demand for cooperation of churches on local, state and national levels. As this organization developed two opposing philosophies became predominately active: Liberal and Conservative. Unique from 1840 to 1906 was the fact that leaders who advocated or opposed the innovations abhorred division and tried hard to avoid a fracture in fellowship but the demand for the unscriptural organization was more important than the fellowship of the disciples of the Lord. They slowly drifted toward a complete cleavage.

Cooperation among churches was the most important issue of the 1830-1850 period. The convention of the American Christian Missionary Society met in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 24-28, 1849. In his absence because of illness, Alexander Campbell was elected the first president and D.S. Burnett was elected first vice-president. John T. Johnson of Kentucky made a resolution which passed “That the ‘Missionary Society,’ as a means to concentrate and dispense the wealth and benevolence of the brethren of this restoration in an effort to convert the world, is both scriptural and expedient.” A committee of seven was to be appointed to prepare a constitution for the society. Nothing in the constitution resembled anything authorized in the New Testament (Attitudes and Consequences, Homer Hailey, p. 152).

Benjamin Franklin, who first favored the Missionary Society, but later became an opponent, together with J.W. McGarvey said the Missionary Society ought to die. W.K. Pendleton, Moses E. Lard, and Isaac Errett held the opposite view of the usefulness of the Missionary Society. The Gospel Advocate began publication again in January, 1866 after four years of silence during the Civil War. David Lipscomb and Tolbert Fanning were editors and they strongly opposed the Missionary Society and the instrument of music in worship.

Instrumental Music Controversy

The controversy over the use of Instrumental Music in worship to God became acute about 1860. Prior to this time there had been some efforts to introduce it but with no real success. Most historians give the credit to L.L. Pinkerton of Lexington, Kentucky for introducing the first instrument of music in the church at Midway, Kentucky in 1859. A melodeon was used with the worship on this occasion.

Homer Hailey in Attitudes and Consequences, p. 197, quotes Errett Gates regarding the music controversy: “The organ controversy was the missionary controversy in a new form, for both grew out of the opposition to human innovations in the work and worship of the church.”

From 1863 to 1875 the controversy over the use of the instrument of music in worship was very heated and bitter and the division was complete. There was a three-way split, two carried the instrument; the Christian Church and the more liberal Disciples of Christ, and the other was the churches of Christ who did not use the instrument.

The general attitude of those who used the instrument as opposed to those who did not use it was described by the terms “progressives” (Christian Church) and the “nonprogressives” (churches of Christ). The “progressives” continued from the Missionary Society and instrumental music in worhsip to open membership and other radical departures.

Various Controversial Issues

There were numerous other issues that arose as a result of the attitudes earlier mentioned. During and after the Civil War years the manufacture and use of “spirits” became a heated question. There was the controversy about the war after the Civil War. Slavery also became an issue which separated many brethren. Some contended that the immersed into Christ could have fellowship with “other denominations” in meetings and general activities.

Among the issues of the 1850’s to 1900’s was that of the divorce and remarriage problem. “Although divorce was uncommon, such sins as ‘adultery,’ ‘desertion,’ and common law marriages, caused frontier church leaders considerable concern” (Quest for A Christian America, Edwin Harrell, Jr., p. 196).

There were problems of Christians marrying nonChristians, and in some cases they were compelled to confess their sin.

“If most Disciple leaders believed that compliance with the ‘laws of the land’ was all that was demanded for a scriptural marriage, they were not so liberal on the question of divorce. The generally accepted standard was: ‘There is no release then to husband or wife from the marriage contract unless the other party has been guilty of fornication.’ A few church leaders were liberal enough to concede that ‘desertion,’ a practice not uncommon on the frontier, was a just cause for divorce and remarriage, but they were exceptions” (Ibid., p. 197).

The Sunday School question, the no-women teachers, and the no-literature classes became issues which still remain. The College and Orphan Home controversy which Daniel Sommer strongly opposed in the American Christian Review as being unscriptural agents through which the church was trying to function became a heated issue. The “pastor system” was said to have developed through the college system.

Premillennialism was promoted by R.H. Boll. At one time he was the front page writer for the Gospel Advocate but started his own paper called Word and Work to promote his theories. In the 1930’s the Gospel Advocate under the editorship of Foy E. Wallace, Jr. made a strong attack against premillennialism. This led to his debates with Charles M. Neal which broke the back of premillennialism in the church.

The College Issue

There is no question but that the role of the colleges owned and operated by Christians played a predominate role in the controversies that brought about divisions since the days of Alexander Campbell at Bethany College. Those colleges that are now owned and operated by “Churches of Christ” have denied from the beginning their solicitation of funds from churches, but most of them have admitted taking contributions from churches when sent to them. At the present time most of them are openly soliciting and accepting funds from churches for various purposes.

From W. W. Otey, Contender for the Faith, pp. 287-291, the following information was obtained which I believe to be pertinent to my purpose in this article.

On Wednesday night in February, 1938, during the lectureship at Abilene Christian College, G.C. Brewer was asked to make a few remarks to encourage the audience to contribute to the college. Brewer suggested that if all churches in Texas would contribute to the support of the school, such requests from individuals would be unnecessary. Some who were present understood Brewer to say that churches who did not have Abilene Christian College in their budget had the wrong preacher.

Brewer took the position that it was scriptural for churches to support the college. W.W. Otey wrote Brewer a letter about his statement and received a reply dated March 2, 1938 in which he said, “As to my statement at the college, you did not misunderstand me, but you left off a part of the statement that I think should be included. I said that I had argued for the practice of putting the colleges and orphan homes in the congregational budgets, and I would be willing to argue for it again, if argument were necessary . . . ” Brewer said he had understood this to have been the practice since Bethany College was founded in 1840.

Brother Otey wrote the presidents of several of the colleges asking for their convictions and comments on G.C. Brewer’s statement.

On June 7, 1938 George S. Benson, president of Harding College, wrote W.W. Otey that Harding College did not solicit funds from the church treasury but “that it would not be wrong for a congregation to make a gift to a Bible school from the regular treasury of the church.”

On March 4, 1938, James F. Cox, president of Abilene Christian College, wrote to Brother Otey that he had never raised money through churches, nor had he authorized any one else to do so. He stated that he had received some contributions from churches who wanted to do it that way and that he had not sent it back. He also stated that G.C. Brewer had not been authorized to make the statement he made and he regretted it had been done.

In June 20, 1938, E.H. Ijams, president of David Lipscomb College wrote Otey that during his connection with the college, and as far as he knew, no solicitation from churches had ever been made, although a few donations from church had been received for needy and deserving students. He stated his convictions that church and school were separate institutions, with school a supplement to the home and not an adjunct to the church.

N.B. Hardeman, president of Freed-Hardeman College wrote to Otey: “I am truly sorry that we can not get settled on matters relating to our schools and the churches. I certainly do not endorse brother Brewer’s statements and would oppose any congregation’s putting Freed-Hardeman College in their budget.”

Sponsoring Church and Herald of Truth

It was a short distance from the Missionary Society of the Christian Church to the “Sponsoring Church” and Diocesan Elders” in foreign fields after World War II and the Korean War. It became so popular among foreign missionaries that it was utilized at home.

The Herald of Truth Radio and TV programs of the Highland Church in Abilene, Texas was the “brainchild” of James W. Nichols and James Willeford, according to one of the elders at Highland when those elders “assumed” the oversight of the Herald of Truth in February, 1952.

Bible colleges became the spring board from which the institutional, sponsoring church, centralized control and oversight, orphan home, socialized gospel, and “fellowship everything,” issues have developed. Adding to these are the normal fallout results of immorality and further departures from the truth (Searching the Scriptures, Aug. 1978, pp.149-152).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV; 13, pp. 405-407
July 5, 1990