Speech Delivered at the Nashville Meeting: History and Background of the Institutional Controversy (1)

By Steve Wolfgang

“While there are a few places where ‘anti-ism’ is still a real threat to the true faith, it is generally of no consequence. Isolated little groups of ‘antis’ still meet; but they are withering away and are having no appreciable effect on the brotherhood at large.” This analysis of the dreaded “antis” written by a young preacher at the end of the 1960s, probably summarized the “majority view” in Churches of Christ toward “non-cooperation” churches. This “false doctrine” was not only considered “antagonistic to clear Bible teaching” but the typical gand’ usually cut his own throat by his arrogant and malicious acts and statements” and was “quick to draw a line of fellowship and exclude himself from the larger portion of our brotherhood.”(1)

A decade later, the editor of the Gospel Advocate reiterated the “dying-on-the-vine” theme in an editorial in which he estimated that the “antis” composed 5 percent of churches of Christ and pleaded with them to “come back home . . . to the old paths . . . and preach again in the great churches,” alleging that “anti doctrine cannot build great churches, inspire missionaries, and encourage pure and undefiled religion.”(2) A well-known church-supported-college professor argued not long afterward that those who teach that Christians could “visit fatherless and widows by taking them in your home” have “taken the narrow, crooked pig-path of radicalism.”(3)

As one might expect, such florid rhetoric was often answered in like manner. One young preacher on the other side of the controversy, describing a college lectureship which included at least four sessions of “anti bashing,” accused those who made a hobby of being anti-anti of having a “denominational concept of Christianity” and “a blind spot with regard to establishing authority regarding matters which divide us.” Other assessments of the “liberals” have included descriptions ranging from “ignorant” to “deluded” to “malicious.”(4)

How did it come to this? What produced such rhetoric, and the divisive actions which often accompanied it? In this speech, I propose to do several things: (1) I wish to attempt a brief historical chronicle of the events which elicited the comments just quoted. Some may know that I am preparing a biography of Roy Cogdill, and much of my insight into this issue comes from that preparation. I intend for this section to be history, fairly told, rather than propaganda. To that end, I bring whatever historical training and ability I may possess. Most historians long ago abandoned any illusions of being totally “objective,” but like most, I want to be fair. Like everyone else, I have a viewpoint which despite my best efforts will occasionally bob to the surface, and fairness and honesty as a historian impel me to recognize it rather than hiding behind the fictional mask of “objectivity.”

I believe that the record will demonstrate that this division was not “one-sided,” as it so often has been portrayed, blamed on a bunch of cantankerous nuts who couldn’t think straight, wanted to be big fish in a small pond, or were just plain mean. One surely might find examples of all of the above, but such generalizations simply will not float as historical explanation. Should I fail in my attempt to be fair and even-handed, I am sure brother Lynn and brother Ramsey will call it to my attention.

(2) In addition to playing historian, I want to wear the hat of a reporter of more current concepts for a moment. Within the last two months, in preparation for this meeting, I circulated more than 100 questionnaires to various preachers, elders, and members of “conservative” or “non-institutional” churches of Christ. I make no claims for it as a “scientific” polling device, but I did try to circulate it among what I perceive to be a typical, or “representative,” sampling of those opposed to centralization of churches and church support of human institutions. More than fifty completed questionnaires were returned, and I will draw on the comments of several of them where they are germane to the discussion. In so doing, I seek to answer at least part of the question, “How do we view each other?” The answers provided in these questionnaires are candid (in exchange for which I promised anonymity), and they are perhaps not always objective, but they express feelings honestly held. Some might question the accuracy of the perceptions they reveal, but the expressions of their views may help us as we seek to understand each other.

(3) I sometimes tire of the attempt to be “objective,” and thus the third thing I wish to attempt is some sort of “analysis” of all this information in an attempt to answer not only “what happened” or “how,” but “why.” Some may not like what I say, and one is surely free to reject it if he wishes. All I ask is a fair hearing, without being dismissed out of hand.

The Last Fifty Years

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear – the prime time of N.B. Hardeman, G.C. Brewer, and Foy E. Wallace, Jr.; of Daniel Sommer, J.D. Tant and Joe Warlick; of H. Leo Boles, James A. Allen, and a cast of thousands. By all accounts, both the economic prosperity of the 1920s and the Depression of the Thirties were years of solid growth and development among churches of Christ. Although it is impossible to gather precise numerical data, the Census of Religious Bodies for 1926 reported more than 433,000 members for churches of Christ; several reliable sources estimated their numerical strength at upwards of half a million.(5) Not only were they growing numerically, but the gospel was spreading geographically, across what a later generation would dub the “Sunbelt,” and into the “Rustbelt” of the industrial North, into places like Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the West Coast.(6)

Institutionally and educationally, various para-church organizations were also growing and prospering. Nashville Bible School had become David Lipscomb College, and Harding College settled in Searcy, Arkansas in 1934 after sojourning awhile in Bowling Green, KY, Odessa, MO, Cordell, OK, Harper, KS, and Morrillton, AR.(7) When George Pepperdine college joined the ranks of these and other schools such as Abilene Christian and Freed-Hardeman College a band of colleges stretching from Tennessee through Texas to the West Coast was completed.(8) Orphanages, beginning with Tennessee Orphan Home in 1909, included other institutional orphan care facilities such as Potter Orphanage (Bowling Green, KY, 1914), Boles Home (Quinlan, TX, 1927), and Tipton (Tipton, OK, 1928).(9)

New technologies such as radio, the automobile and the infant airline industry allowed rapid and widespread dissemination of the gospel. So frequently was the gospel heard on WLAC in Nashville that the station was dubbed, “We Love All Campbellites.” Wide-area broadcasts such as the one on KRLD in Dallas shared by two young preachers and law-school students, W.L. Oliphant and Roy E. Cogdill, were commonplace.(10)

It was also, arguably, a period marked generally by doctrinal harmony and unity. Although it would be difficult to get the entire cast of preachers named above to agree on every issue, and while it is true that strong egos resulted in various frictions, by and large the period since the division of Churches of Christ and Christian Churches until World War II was primarily one of significant doctrinal harmony. Even the few instances of disagreement prove the rule: those who deviated could be expected to be, and were, roasted as heretics.

Even the most vocal and visible divisive issue, premillennialism, serves as an illustration of the relative doctrinal unanimity among the churches. Although the issue created quite a disturbance (seemingly as much because some did not criticize it extensively enough to satisfy its most vocal opponents as for the specific issue itself), the number. of churches actually espousing the doctrine was quite limited. By and large, it was effectively contained in a small number of churches localized in Kentucky, Indiana, and Louisiana – churches which a generation later numbered only about 100 with perhaps 10,000 members. The quickest and most effective way to tar a church or college in the 1930s was to label them “premillennial sympathizers.”(11)

Perhaps a portion of this relative internal harmony can be seen in the numerous widely-publicized and well attended debates during the period. N.B. Hardeman’s debates on instrumental music with Ira Boswell of the Christian church and with the well-known Baptist Ben Bogard; G.C. Brewer’s discussion with “companionate marriage” advocate Judge Ben Lindsey; Foy E. Wallace’s skirmish with Texas Fundamentalist J. Frank Norris, and a host of others literally too numerous to mention revealed a remarkable unanimity in the church on fundamental issues, as well as a manifest militance against all perceived threats to the faith. Certainly, to their religious neighbors, the church surely looked like a coherent, united, militant and growing religious body.(12)

“Unity efforts” of a sort were underway as well. When Daniel Sommer, estranged for thirty years from his co-belligerents in the instrument/missionary society controversy, embarked in 1933 on an extended tour of the South, his visits to Nashville, Henderson, Memphis, Dallas, and other places resulted in significantly decreased tensions over the right of colleges to exist and of churches to employ local evangelists and use Bible class literature. The failure of his alliance with F.D. Kershner of the Christian Church to promote harmony between the two groups may have given impetus to the Witty-Murch “unity meetings” of the next decade, but also reminds us that churches of Christ were largely united in rejecting such overtures.(13)

In summary, when one looks at churches of Christ a half-century ago, one can easily make a case, at least on the surface, for a high level of doctrinal unity and harmony; an agreement on the spiritual nature and work of the church, and the kind of distinctive, no-nonsense preaching which was common knowledge both among members of the church and their religious neighbors.

One need not be an “anti” to have such perceptions; a recent book by several historians among institutional churches states the obvious: “There was a time when Churches of Christ were widely known as a people of the Book. All who knew us knew that we hungered above all for the word of God. They knew that we immersed ourselves in its truths and sacrificed dearly to share the gospel with those who had never heard. These were our most fundamental commitments. We knew it, and others knew it.” Although these authors disdainfully reject “the hard and ugly sectarian spirit which did incalculable damage to our movement for so many years,” they make a strong case for the invasion of secularism as “American members of Churches of Christ have spiraled upward to a much higher socio-economic plane.” While I reject the solution they propose, and their pejorative use of terms such as “rigid, dogmatic, sectarian spirit” which produced a “posture of aloofness,” I believe they are substantially correct in their analysis of the present, if not their representation of the past or their proposals for the future.(14)

Two recollections by well-known older preachers who began preaching in those days well summarize the case. When asked to compare the church and its members in the 1980s to those of the 1930s, a recent president of David Lipscomb College responded, “I don’t think they see the glory of the church, unencumbered by denominationalism, as I did . . . when I was growing up.” Furthermore, he opined, “I don’t think members of the church think the church, is different from Protestantism. When I started preaching members of the church believed Protestants needed to be saved. We’ve lost a lot of that. It goes back to an understanding of the distinctiveness of the church. At an earlier time they really felt the gospel was a lot better than Protestantism.”(15)

These sentiments are echoed succinctly by G.K. Wallace, recently deceased, as he described his earliest preaching days in the 1920s and 1930s: “Most of the baptisms were from the denominations. In those days denominational people would come to our meetings. . . . Denominational people do not come these days to our meetings and if they did they would not, in most places, hear anything that would lead them out of false doctrine.”(16)

But other forces and factors were at work, as well, as the following summary by Bill Humble well illustrates: “larger and more expensive buildings, the more affluent middle-class membership, the number of full-time ministers, the increasing emphasis on Bible schools and Christian education, and missionary outreach all reflect a gradual but impressive growth. . . . After World War II the church enjoyed a remarkable growth in urban areas. As its members climbed the economic and educational ladder, the church moved ‘across the tracks.”‘(17)

While I concur that World War II was a watershed in the history of churches of Christ, even before Pearl Harbor there were harbingers of what was to come. Although several colleges unobtrusively had been accepting contributions from church treasuries for years, G.C. Brewer created quite a stir at the 1938 ACC lectures when “many who were present understood Brewer to say that the church that did not have Abilene Christian College in its budget had the wrong preacher.”(18) A decade later, N.B. Hardeman and others would revive this controversy in a public attempt to attract financial support for colleges directly from church treasuries.(19)


1. Rubel Shelley, “Some Basic Errors of Liberalism,” in The Church Faces Liberalism: Freed-Hardeman College Lectures, 1970 (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1970), pp. 33-34.

2. Ira North, “Our Anti-Cooperation Brethren Should Come Back Home,” Gospel Advocate, 121:19 (May 10, 1979), pp. 290,294.

3. Tom Holland, Challenge of the Commission: Sermon Outlines from Acts (Brentwood, TN: Penman Press, 1980), p. 20. See also Gayle Oler, “No Soup,” Boles Home News, March 25, 1954, p. 1: “Infidelity, agnosticism, and ‘anti-ism’ have much in common. None ever brought a helping hand or healing ministry to the unfortunate of earth living in want and misery. Nor have they ever built a home for homeless children or a hospital in which to minister to the sick.”

4. Steve Wolfgang, “Do You Have Time?” Weekly Reminder 15:21 (February 9, 1977), pp. 1-2 (Expressway Church of Christ, Louisville, KY). See also exchange of letters with William Woodson, ibid., 15:39 (June 15, 1977) pp. 2-3. Other comments from questionnaires returned to the author in October-November, 1988.

5. U.S. Bureau of Census . . . Religious Bodies, 1926. Washington, D.C., 1930,11, 394, 396; see H. Leo Boles, “Query Department,” Gospel Advocate 69 (January 20, 1927), 62; G.A. Dunn, “Brother Batsell Baxter’s School,” Firm Foundation 42:30 (July 28, 1925), p. 3; John Allen Hudson, “New Census Incomplete,” Gospel Advocate 82:50 (December 12, 1940), 1180.

6. For a general history of this period see Earl West, Search For the Ancient Order, IV, 1987. Themes in this paragraph are developed more specifically in Steve Wolfgang, “Myths and Realities: Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century” (paper read at the Restoration History Conference, Bethany College, July 1977); and Wolfgang, “From Dissent to Consent: Twentieth Century Churches of Christ” (paper read at the American Society Church History Meeting, Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, March 1979).

7. For an account of the Harding/Armstrong cluster of colleges, see Lloyd Cline Sears, For Freedom. The Biography of John Nelson Armstrong (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1969).

8. See M. Norvel Young, A History of Christian Colleges Established and Controlled by Members of the Churches of Christ (Kansas City, MO: Old Paths Book Club, 1949) for a history of the growth and development of various schools and colleges.

9. On Potter Orphanage, see Ben F. Taylor, History of Potter Orphan Home (Bowling Green, KY: Potter Orphan Home and School, n.d.). For related developments see “Christian Colleges” and “Education and Benevolence” (Chapter 9 and 10) in Earl West, Search for the Ancient Order, III, pp. 234-304. An example of a typical appeal on behalf of an orphanage can be found in Childhaven News 1:6 (October 1949), pp. 1,4. Abuses at this particular home have been featured prominently in the secular press as well as various papers reflecting the non-institutional position. See Birmingham News, Sunday April 22,1984, pp. IA, 10A; Ken Green, “The Childhaven Affair, Searching the Scriptures 25:9 (September 1984), pp. 197-201, which featured an interview with a preacher who lived at Childhaven from 19631972 while a child. See also Jack Holt Jr., “Victims of Institutionalism,” Gospel Anchor 10:2 (October 1983), pp. 28-31.

10. “Our Messages” (from E. A. Timmons, M.D., Columbia, TN), Gospel Advocate 69:1 (January 6, 1927), p. 8; see William S. Banowsky, The Min-or of a Movement: Churches of Christ as Seen Through the Abilene Christian College Lectureship (Dallas: Christian Publishing Company, 1965), p. 319.

11. Steve Wolfgang, “The Impact of Premillennialism on the Church,” Guardian of Truth 30:1 (January 2, 1986), pp. 1315, 29; Cecil Willis, W. W. Otey. Contender for the Faith (Akron, OH: by the author, 1964), pp. 264-267, 304, 310312; William Woodson, Standing for Their Faith: A History of churches of Christ in Tennessee, 1900-1950 (Henderson, TN: J&W Publications, 1979), chapter 11; and Banowsky, pp. 196-199, 223-224.

12. The relationship between churches of Christ and other religious bodies is explored in Wolfgang, “Churches of Christ and the Fundamentalist Controversy” (paper read at the American Academy of Religion meeting, Atlanta, GA, 1981).

13. See Steve Wolfgang, “Controversy Concerning Unity Movements Among Churches of Christ” in Their Works Do Follow Them: Florida College Annual Lectures, 1982 (Tampa, FL: Florida College, 1982), pp. 213-239; Wolfgang, “Consequences of Factionalism, ” in Factionalism: A Threat to the Church (Fairmount, IN: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1983), pp. 90-96. Both are based on James Stephen Wolfgang, “A Life of Humble Fear: The Biography of Daniel Sommer, 1850-1940” (M.A. thesis, Butler University, 1975).

14. C . Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call For Biblical. Renewal (Abilene, TX:ACU Press, 1988). Quotations are from pp. 1-2, 6-7.

15. Robert E. Hooper and Jim Turner, Willard Collins. The People Person (Nashville- 20th Century Christian, 1986), pp. 116, 118.

16. G.K. Wallace, Autobiography and Retirement Sermons (High Springs, FL: Mary Lois Forrester, 1983), p. 17.

17. Bill Humble, The Story of the Restoration (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation, 1969), p. 70.

18. Willis, W. W. Otey, 287. See also Athens Clay Pullias. Information Concerning Financial Gifts to David Lipscomb College by Congregations of the Church of Christ, 1891-1968 (Nashville, privately published [DLC?], n.d. [1968?]).

19. N.B. Hardeman, “Spending the Lord’s Money,” Gospel Advocate 92 (May 29, 1947), p. 372, and “The Banner Boys Become Enraged,” Firm Foundation 64:43 (October 28, 1947), p. 1; Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Bible Banner, September, 1947, p. 16; Wolfgang, “Unity Movements,” pp. 220-21, 234; Willis, W. W. Otey, pp. 321 ff.; on Hardeman, see J.M. Powell and Mary Nelle Hardernan Powers, N8H., A Biography of Nicholas Brodie Hardeman (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1964); and James R. Cope, “N.B. Hardeman: Orator, Evangelist, Educator, and Debater,” in They Being Dead Yet Speak: Florida College Annual Lectures, 1981 (Temple Terrace, FL: Florida College, 1981), pp. 133ff.

The argument advanced by Hardeman that the orphanage and the college “stand or fall together” would be championed more successfully fifteen years later (to a more receptive audience) by Batsell Barrett Baxter, Questions and Issues of the Day in the Light of the Scriptures (Nashville, 1963), and reviewed by James R. Cope, Where Is The Scipture? (Temple Terrace, FL: by the author), 1964; and James P. Needham, A Review of Batsell Barrett Baxter’s Tract: “May the Church Scripturally Support a College?” (Orlando, FL: Truth Magazine Bookstore [reprint], 1970). Another advocate of church support of colleges, and a discussion of other related issues, is J.D. Thomas, We Be Brethren: A Study in Biblical Interpretation (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press, 1958). pp. 186-194.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 7, pp. 208-211
April 6, 1989