Shipwrecks of the Faith

By David A. Padfield

When Paul charged Timothy to “wage the good warfare,” he mentioned some who had rejected “faith and a good conscience” and made “shipwreck” of the faith (1 Tim. 1:18-20). J.B. Phillips translated the verse like this: “as far as their faith is concerned, have run their ships on the rocks.” Hymenaeus and Alexander were among this pitiful group, and were “delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

Paul’s metaphor sprang from personal experience. He had physically suffered shipwreck on three different occasions (2 Cor. 11: 25). Ocean going vessels can fall upon the shoals for many reasons, i.e., equipment failure, bad maps, difficult weather, etc. Those who suffer “shipwreck of the faith” have no one to blame but themselves. Once they reject the faith their conscience will soon become seared.

Peter warns us that “there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). Even elders, those entrusted with shepherding the flock, can become “savage wolves” who “will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30).

No man, regardless of his reputation or stature, is immune from the danger of digression. Even James and Peter who “seemed to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9) stumbled and played the part of a hypocrite (Gal. 2:11-13). Unlike Peter, those who make shipwreck of the faith will not admit their error nor turn from it. History is full of men who “were once enlightened” and had “tasted the heavenly gift,” who fell away and put the Son of God to an open shame (Heb. 6:4-6). In this article, I would like to look at a few of these men.

Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) started laboring with Presbyterian churches around Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1796. The Presbyterian Church put Stone and five other preachers (Richard McNemar, John Thompson, John Dunlavy and Robert Marshall) on trial because their preaching was not consistent with the Confession of Faith of that body. On January 1, 1804, Stone and his companions formed their own organization, The Springfield Presbytery. They went “forward preaching and constituting churches” in that area.

On June 28, 1804, these men signed the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Preshytery. This historic document signified their departure from denominationalism and their desire to “take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven.” With great zeal these men went out and preached the restoration of New Testament Christianity.

In 1805 three Shaker missionaries passed through that area and caused Dunlavy and McNemar (along with Matthew Houston) to defect and follow “that miserable delusion.” Shortly thereafter, Marshall and Thompson looked back with longing eyes to the creeds of men and joined the Presbyterians again. These men had all known, believed and preached the truth. Something happened to their faith: they made shipwreck of it.

Jesse B. Ferguson (1819-1870) began preaching the gospel in 1838, and within a few years was considered one of the best preachers in Kentucky. He was a brilliant man with a high degree of self-esteem. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1846. While he worked with the brethren there, the congregation grew to over 500 members in a city of only 10,000. “During this time brother Ferguson was looked upon as the greatest pulpit orator in the South.”(1) This congregation became the place to be in Nashville. They soon built one of the most beautiful buildings in town, adorned with cushioned pews and chandeliers.

The brethren did not enjoy their exalted status for very long. “He (Ferguson) was a flatterer and was easily flattered. The church practiced open membership with many unbaptized believers taking a lead in the church. The trouble climaxed when Ferguson preached a form of spiritualism based on I Peter 3:19 concerning Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison. The church was torn apart – loyal brethren finally gained the building by going to court – only 15 to 25 members remained of the once large church in Nashville.”(2)

H. Leo Boles described Ferguson with these words: “Like a meteor which flashes across the horizon, making a trailing of glorious light behind it, and then suddenly disappearing and leaving nothing but darkness in its wake, so Jesse B. Ferguson came above the horizon and shone as a great pulpit orator in the church of Christ at Nashville, Tenn., and then as suddenly disappeared and dropped into obscurity. Perhaps no preacher of the gospel ever stood so high in the estimation of the people and received the plaudits of the populace and then dropped so low as this man.”(3)

Ferguson died on Sept. 4, 1870. David Lipscomb wrote of Ferguson’s passing: “He was the most popular preacher in the Southern country at one time. He was almost worshipped by his admirers in this city, where he ministered as preacher of the church of Christ. He had not that humility of soul and strength of character to stand flattery and adulation heaped upon him. He apostatized from the faith . . . He attempted to build up a congregation of adherents on his loose views. He failed, turned politician . . . He lost respect of all parties here.”(4)

Like Ferguson, Charles Holt, Jr., is a talented speaker and writer. For over forty years Holt has taught by means of the printed page. He started The Gospel Advertiser in May, 1950. After two and a half years it merged with The Gospel Guardian. Fanning Yater Tant named Holt as an Associate Editor, to serve with men like Roy Cogdill, W. Curtis Porter and James Adams.

When the two papers merged in December of 1950, Holt praised The Gospel Guardian as “the most needed gospel paper published.” In almost prophetic terms, he warned of the “grave danger of another great apostasy.” He said, “We live in perilous times. We need to be on guard as never before for dangerous trends and outright departures from the New Testament pattern. These trends and departures are all around us.”(5) Holt has not only departed from the “New Testament pattern,” but now even denies that such exists.

Holt is no stranger to the polemic platform either. He engaged in one of the first debates on institutionalism. In October, 1954, he participated in a discussion with W.L. Totty and Sterl Watson on the “church support of Christian colleges, institutional orphan homes, and ‘sponsoring church’ evangelism.” The debate took place in the meetinghouse of the Garfield Heights congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana.

When The Sentinel of Truth (financed by the late J.D. Hall, Jr.) was launched in 1965, Holt was its editor. The paper quickly became on avenue for Holt to express his new found views on the eldership and the church itself. In 1969 Holt agreed to debate brother J.T. Smith on “the local ecclesia (church) of Christ.” Six weeks before the debate, Holt backed out. In 1985 Holt finally met Smith in a debate in Lake Jackson, Texas and later in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In his present publishing endeavor, The Examiner, Holt has surrounded himself with men of little or no conviction. Terry Gardner was a member of the congregation where I preached in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1978. After moving to Chattanooga and associating with Holt, Gardner was “led away by the error of the wicked.” When Gardner wrote about Homer Hailey’s position on divorce and remarriage, he said, “If Homer is absolutely wrong on this issue, does it really make any difference?”(6)

For years faithful brethren have enjoyed reading the Theophilus cartoons drawn by Bob West. These cartoons were used in church bulletins all over this country. In September, 1988 West announced that he had “learned better” about the eldership.(7) Since then he has used his artistic ability to “destroy the faith he once preached.”

It is possible for any Christian to make shipwreck of the faith. Let us imitate Paul’s care for his soul. He was always on guard “lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Cor. 9:27).


1. H. Leo Boles, Biographical Sketches of Gospel Preachers, p. 188.

2. Robert Hooper, A Call to Remember, pp. 3-4.

3. Boles, p. 186.

4. David Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, Sept. 22, 1870.

5. Charles Holt, Gospel Guardian, Dec. 4, 1952.

6. Terry Gardner, The Examiner, May, 1989.

7. Bob West, The Examiner, Sept. 1988.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 19, pp. 600-601
October 4, 1990