The ” Gospel Guardian: ” Past, Present, and Future

By Steve Wolfgang

On January 7, 1875, James H. Garrison, editor of The Christian, proposed a new direction for his publication, stating as its goals:

“In short, to aid in family and church culture, to promote greater love and piety among the brethren, in order to encourage individual growth and church cooperation, to keep before the world our great plea of the restoration of primitive Christianity and the union of Christians, and to insist upon a practical demonstration, in our own history, of the unifying power of the ancient gospel-this shall be our line of work.@1

Ninety-nine years later, William E. Wallace, editor of the Gospel Guardian, announced similar plans for that periodical, stating the desire to re-make it into a “family paper,” seeking “to do more for Christians and families than most of our papers are known to do.@2

At the time Brother Wallace made his announcement, I was being privileged to read about the causes of the division of the Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ as reported in David Edwin Harrell, Jr.’s superb volume, The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900. In reading this definitive work, I could not help but be made. aware of a number of historical parallels between the situation then and circumstances today.

The best interpretations of J. H. Garrison’s life3 have pictured him as a “moderate,” that is, while not a religious “liberal,” certainly tolerant of them. Garrison, perhaps more than any other one man in the late nineteenth century, served as a “bridge” between the conservatism of the early restoration leaders and the unabashed liberalism of its “second- or “third-generation” spokesmen. He thus promoted and harbored from criticism his younger contemporaries who would later lead a large portion of the “Restoration Movement” straight into the mainstream of American denominationalism.

It is not pleasant to contemplate the possibility that a similar progression (or should we say, “digression?”) may be occurring today even among the so-called “conservatives” in the Churches of Christ; nor is it pleasant to observe formerly respected “first-generation preachers” either encourage, or at least harbor and protect from criticism those who seem bent on broadening the “horizons of fellowship” and perhaps eventually even leading to denominationalism as well. But, in the words of the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is not to say that all of the parallels between this and an earlier age are exact parallels, or that the issues are identical, or that the liberalism of one generation is precisely the same as that of another-but there are some striking and disturbing likenesses.

Some have sought to reduce the issue to personalitiesboth then and now. Brother Harrell quotes a critic of Austin McGary, rough-hewn and caustic Texas conservative and founder of the Firm Foundation, as protesting that, although he agreed with the editor’s position, “your manner of speaking to and of your opponents gives me trouble@4 -a statement which has a ring of familiarity! Garrison himself had these observations about the methods and manners of controversy:

“I presume to say that it has not escaped the notice of the careful reader of our religious periodicals, that there is, among our brethren, an increasing tendency to mercilessly criticize each other for any supposed error that they may harbor . . . . Our religious papers are full of such controversies. One brother sets forth his views upon a certain subject, in all good conscience. Another objects to the reasoning and proof, and severely flogs him for advocating an absurd position. The first brother, finding his logic assailed, and even his motives sometimes impugned, is incensed and replies accordingly. ‘Like begets like,’ and so the controversy continues, increasing in virulence, abounding in sarcastic thrusts and personal allusions, until the ‘brother’ is lost sight of in the ‘antagonist.’ But little attention is paid now to the original matter of difference, but the greater portion of the replies are occupied in discussing ‘false issues,’ ‘exposing fallacies,’ ‘exposing non sequiturs,’ correcting ‘false impressions,’ etc.”5

Certainly it has become characteristic of the present discussion of vital issues among “conservative brethren” (I use the term advisedly) that some refuse to discuss issues and have attempted to make the discussion appear as merely one set of politically-motivated, prideful preachers out to massacre a few other unfortunate preachers who are incapable not only of defending themselves but of even making themselves understood clearly. Whether or not it has always been wise to reply to personal charges in the manner that this has been done may vary according to each individual’s judgment and perspective. But as Brother Willis used to say during the several years that I was associated with him in local work, “If you agree with the substance of what is said but don’t care for the manner of expression, you say it your way!” The problem is, I suspect, that some brethren not only don’t like how something is said, they don’t like what has been said, and likely would not accept it regardless of how it could be said.

The fact of the matter is that problems have arisen (and will continue to arise, for the end is not yet), not merely because of personal disagreements, matters of judgment, bad attitudes, etc., but for the same reason that problems came in the first or second centuries, or the nineteenth and twentieth: because some apparently are not content with the message of the New Testament and seek to alter it. With the coming of a “second generation,” there has arisen (as with digressions past) a different kind of person, with a different outlook, different basic principles, even a different conception of what it means to be a Christian.

There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of some to become “the evangelical scholars” among the Churches of Christ, accompanied by a sort of “hobnobbing” with the “Christianity Today crowd” amid professions of “scholarship” which, after so long, become nauseous and even laughable to anyone with even a minimum exposure to a scholastic atmosphere. Some seem to be bent on re-casting the nature and make-up of the New Testament church into something resembling ” neo-evangelicalism “-with its inherent roots in re-worked and re-warmed Reformation doctrines (thus an affinity for Calvinistic and Lutheran spokesmen and even a paper spouting the slogan “dedicated to upholding the great Reformation principle of justification by faith”).6 This apparently is to be done by reducing “the common salvation” (or “the faith” for which Jude instructs us to “contend earnestly”) to a series of lowest-commondenominator doctrines which can serve as a broad platform from which to extend fellowship to any halfway “conservative” writer who meets the new “evangelical” creed. And, as in past digressions, there will be those older men, who, though perhaps not in complete agreement with their younger proteges, are wil ‘ ling to push them into prominence and protect them-passing off any criticism with a wave of the label of “persecution,” “jealousy,” “preacher pride,” etc.

But what has this to do with the Gospel Guardian? And why should one even be concerned with the past, present, and future of a publication? Certainly, the destiny of the church does not depend on this, or any other, human publication. But in view of the battles fought by those associated with the staff of the Guardian in the past, and because of its residual (although perhaps declining) influence among brethren, the future of the Guardian perhaps merits some concern among brethren. When one recalls the steadfastness and firm candor of the early years of the Gospel Guardian, he cannot help but be thankful for it and the good accomplished through it.

About a year ago, I paid $7.95 for a reprint edition of Volume I of the Guardian. As I have had occasion to peruse the various issues it contains, I have seen articles that, by themselves, would be well worth the price paid-Frank Puckett on Calvinism, pungent articles by various Wallaces, historical lessons by Earl West, articles on evidences by Pat Hardeman, miscellaneous articles by Roy Cogdill, Homer Hailey, Robert Farish, R.L. Whiteside, J. Early Arceneaux, Robert Turner, Harry Pickup, James Adams, Luther Blackmon, and others, and, of course, Yater Tant’s editorials. Consider this excerpt from the opening editorial, which sets the tone for the entire volume:

“For many months . . . thoughtful brethren from every part of the nation and from far corners of the world have raised their plea for a weekly paper in the tradition of the original Gospel Guardian. As the threatening clouds of an approaching apostacy have grown blacker and blacker, the alarm of Christians has grown apace. Their alarm has been justified. Unless valiant endeavor and resolute action are forthcoming, the church almost certainly faces another tragic descent into the depths of digression and discord.

“This journal is dedicated to a clean, militant, aggressive, and uncompromising fight ‘in defense of the church against all errors and innovations’ . . . we shall be vigilant and careful in our ‘guarding’ against what many consider small and insignificant departures from the truth. And once an error, or tendency toward error, is detected, we shall oppose it with all the strength we can muster. The best defense against error always is to wage an all-out offensive against it before it gains a foot-hold. Let those who will call this ‘heresy-hunting’; we call it guarding the gospel of Christ.

“Our unswerving policy is ‘let the truth be taught on every issue, every where, all the time.’ That is the only safe course. When any church or group of people becomes squeamish about teaching the truth on controversial issues ‘because they aren’t an issue here,’we know with certainty that the dragon’s-teeth seeds of future trouble are being sown. The best way under heaven to prevent error ‘being taught here’ is to teach the truth so firmly and so fully in advance that the errorist never has a chance to gain acceptance with his false doctrine.@7

About the time I purchased the bound volume, I let my subscription to the current Gospel Guardian lapse-not because I particularly disagreed with what was being said (I subscribe to about thirty “liberal,” Christian Church, Disciples, and even other denominational periodicals with which I am often in disagreement), but simply due to the fact that there was by and large, and quite frankly, nothing in it which I considered worthy of the expenditure of $6.00 a year and meriting the time necessary to read it. Although I have since re-subscribed, I must admit my taste in religious literature does not run to a combination of spiritual “mush, 11 false doctrine, and thinly disguised lectures on “ethics” palmed off as “family reading.”

But recently, those who have been apprehensive about the future of the Guardian have been heartened by rumors that it may soon change ownership, and be edited and produced by a staff of capable men, including some former editors and writers. One’s initial reaction to this information is, “May God hasten the day!”

But the mere changing of the editorial masthead, signifying not only a change of ownership but of purpose as well, will not in itself solve problems and controversies that have recently been brought to the attention of brethren. Issues have been raised, concepts have been taught, doctrines have been promulgated among brethren which need to be given attention! The mere fact that those teaching them have been “silenced” in the sense of no longer having a mouthpiece of the past prestige of the Guardian is not the remedy for the situation-the only real cure is a thorough and open “airing-out” among brethren of issues which confront us. Those who will blindly follow the editorial leadership of one paper or another, or, for that matter, those who read no paper but are willing to accept what an individual teaches because of who the individual is, do the cause of truth no justice.

May we all have the candor, fairness, and openness of mind and heart to consider things which confront us, owing allegiance to no paper or group of men-but to the One who died that we might truly live!


1 J. H. Garrison, “The New Year,” The Christian, XII (January 7, 1875), p. 4 (quoted in David Edwin Hart ell, Jr., The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900 (A Social History of the Disciples of Christ, Volume II; Atlanta: Publishing Systems, Incorporated, 1973), pp. 9, 10, 353).

2 William E. Wallace, “Truth and Pure Life,” Gospel Guardian, XXV: 34 (January 3, 1974), 516. See also “New Year’s Resolution and Politics,” Gospel Guardian, XXV: 33 (December 20,1973), p. 500.

3 See, for example, Harrell, op. cit., pp. 10, 15, 20, 87, 104, 115, 353 (n. 26), and 354 (n. 59); William E. Tucker, James H. Garrison and Disciples of Christ (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1964; originally a Yale University Ph.D dissertation), pp. 11, 109, 252, and throughout; and Harrell’s review of Tucker, Journal of Southern History, XXXI:2 (May, 1965), pp. 218219.

4 A>Speak the Truth in Love,’ but ‘Lie Not,'” Firm Foundation, III (April 1, 1887, p. 4 (quoted in Harrell, op. cit., p. 21).

5 James H. Garrison, “Another Sin,” Gospel Echo, June, 1869, pp. 228-229 (quoted in Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., “Rhetorical Strategies Analyzed by Social Movement Theories as Applied to Conflict Within the Restoration Movement” (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Houston, 1972, p. 41). Yeakley’s thesis presents a number of intriguing ideas concerning religious division, especially in the “Restoration Movement,” which we propose to discuss in an article in the near future).

6 Present Truth, III: I (February, 1974), p. 2 (Sent free upon request from P. 0. Box 1311, Fallbrook, California, 92028).

7 Yater Tant, AConcerning Our Policy,@ Gospel Guardian, I:1 (May 5, 1949), 2.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:40, p. 8-10
August 15, 1974