By Steve Wolfgang
Though it is not possible to measure or quantify precisely the impact of premillennialism on the Lord’s church, the influence of this doctrine might appear, at first glance, to be slight.(1) Many people assume that because the doctrine is not actively taught among most churches of Christ it is therefore not worthy of much attention. After all, some reason, most of those actively teaching this doctrine were identified and exposed in the 1930s, weren’t they? Consequently, one does not often hear the doctrine preached about at all, pro or con, in many pulpits today.
One of the points we wish to emphasize in this article is that this sort of mentality helped create the climate in which the premillennial conflicts in the Lord’s church earlier this century were fought. Because the doctrine involves some subtle (and some not-so-subtle, to be sure) points of doctrinal discussion, some may be slow to see the significance of a thorough-going system of premillennial thought. Several generations of Christians, unschooled in the teaching and implications of this doctrine, now compose probably a majority of the membership of many congregations of the Lord’s people. Additionally, many have been converted from denominations which are steeped in one form or another of premillennial thought. It is needful for us not only to recall past battles over this doctrine, but to arm ourselves and do some preventative teaching on this subject before the climate becomes too inviting for history to repeat itself. A look at that history may prove to be profitable.
Much of pre-Civil War millennial hope took the form of a glorious post-millennialism, which anticipated the reform of society through religious conversion on a scale so grand that the return of Christ would inevitably follow.(2) Like other Americans of their time, many of the early “Restorationists” (Alexander Campbell and his Millennial Harbinger in particular)(3) shared the enthusiastic postmillennial optimism of their contemporaries; like their counterparts they saw their dream of an American millennium dashed by the war which sundered the nation. The aftermath of that conflict lead many who had anticipated the “marriage supper of the Lamb” instead to what has been called “the Great Barbecue.”
Post-Civil War Americans witnessed an ever-increasing series of “prophecy conferences” which became an identifying feature of much of conservative Protestantism, later styled “Fundamentalism.”(4) According to one church historian, “dispensationalism became standard for large numbers of Fundamentalists,”(5) and still another recent work identified The Roots of Fundamentalism as “British and American Millennarianism.”(6)
Meanwhile, the remnants of whatever socio-religious optimism had survived the nineteenth century normally found expression in “the social gospel.” By the First World War some of these religious liberals found in the Fundamentalists enough of a threat to their own modernism to launch an attack (or counterattack, depending upon one’s viewpoint). It was a frontal assault across the board, not only against the conservatives’ view of miracles and verbal inspiration, rejection of higher criticism and comparative religions, but on the Fundamentalists’ millennial views as well. Shailer Matthews’ journal The Biblical World carried articles on “The Premillennial Menace,” and the Christian Century carried at least 21 anti-premillennial articles during World War I.(7)
Naturally, the Fundamentalist response was to return fire, resulting in the full-scale warfare now known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy” of the 1920s.(8) Though evidently retreating in disarray following the death of William Jennings Bryan immediately after the Scopes Trial, this conservative-premillennial impulse was only shallowly submerged. It remained close enough to the surface of American religion to be seen by anyone who cared to look (which few did – particularly those in the political, social, and religious “mainstream”). Though perhaps finding limited expression in the early Billy Graham campaigns, this undercurrent of extreme premillennial (“dispensational”)(9) religious conservatism found even Graham too “ecumenical” for their taste.(10)
As is often the case, conditions in the denominational world had an effect upon some within churches of Christ. In 1908, several gospel preachers helped to arrange a public discussion between Charles T. Russell, leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and champion of their brand of millennial theology, and L. S. White, gospel preacher.(11) Among who, according to one source, became enamored of Russell’s style during the debate, and afterward concocted his own brand of premillennial theology.(12)
When Boll became the front-page editor of the Gospel Advocate in 1909, he began to use his column as a forum for the introduction and exposition of premillennial concepts. This led to friction with the management and editorial staff of the paper, and Boll was eventually dropped from the staff after a period of editorial skirmishes.(13)
A fuller account of these episodes has been related in some detail elsewhere,(14) and the format of this article will not permit us to explore them here. Suffice it to say that through debates and other exchanges occurring over the next twenty years, premillennialists became isolated from other brethren, at least in many places.(15)
In truth, since premillennial congregations, preachers, and Christians were a distinct minority among churches of Christ, premillennialism might be seen as having minimal impact on churches of Christ – numerically, at least.(16) Still, they were a visible minority, circulating a paper (Word and Work) and establishing a college at Winchester, KY, and a private school at Portland Avenue in Louisville. Generally, many Christians recognized that a division existed, whatever its size, between the two sides of this issue.
However, there was a larger group of Christians “on the fringes” of this movement, who were often referred to as “premillennial sympathizers” and were accused by many of being “soft on premillennialism.” While not publicly advocating the doctrine (indeed, usually publicly disavowing the doctrine iteself), they were seen by the more vocal premillennial opponents as lending moral support, if not aid and comfort, to premillennial advocates.(17) Charges and counter-charges were exchanged regularly from the 1920s to the 1940s and there were several dismissals and/or resignations from the faculties of various “Christian colleges.”(18)
Again, the story of these incidents has been recorded elsewhere; to recount them would require more space than we have available. However, an incident not previously published may serve to give some insight into the true impact of the premillennial controversy on the church. Perhaps the single factor most evident during this period was the unwillingness of many brethren, whether openly premillennial or not, to engage in any sort of controversy over the issue. Those who were involved with churches which eventually divided over the issue (for example, M.C. Kurfees and others in the Louisville area where R.H. Boll lived), or those whose disposition was to meet head-on any hint of deviation from sound biblical teaching (Foy E. Wallace, Jr., for instance), could see clearly the actual effects and future implications of the doctrine and would argue the case against premillennialism and its proponents. But others were not inclined to get too excited about the issue, urging “caution,” “love,” and insisting that “God’s grace” would cover deviations about doctrinal matters such as questions about God’s kingdom and the earthly reign of His Son. preached in various places throughout the state of Kentucky and elsewhere. Though dead many years, Jorgenson’s influence is still evident in the area of the country where I now live. He was perhaps best known as the compiler of the hymnal, Great Songs of the Church.
When Roy Cogdill came to Louisville for a meeting at the Bardstown Road church in April, 1942, he preached on premillennialism. during the week, and recorded some radio sermons on the subject to be broadcast after he left town. His preaching drew the ire of E.L. Jorgenson, who attempted to get Cogdill banned from the airwaves by surreptitiously writing to the management of radio station WGRC. Like other premillennial teachers, Jorgenson attempted to portray in public the very image of a sweet, loving, “non-controversialist” who wanted no breach of fellowship over the issue. What he (and others like him) apparently meant by insisting on the right to “disagree peacefully” was in reality their “right” to teach as they pleased, while expecting others to hold their peace about the subject. The incident over Cogdill’s radio sermons in Louisville demonstrated a more realistic portrait of premillennial. advocates than they intended.
Brother Cogdill had been involved in the fight against premillennial doctrines and teachers in the church from an early age. His first writing was done in 1923 in the Herald of Truth, published by E.M. Borden. It was Borden who made some of the original charges about Harding College’s sympathies toward premillennial teachers. Brother Cogdill had also formed a close friendship with Foy E. Wallace, Jr. – in whose paper Cogdill continued to write about premillennialism and which friendship continued through Wallace’s battles against premillennialists in the 1930s and 40s.(19) Brother Cogdill was preaching at the Norhill church in Houston when that congregation organized the Houston Music Hall meetings in 1946, inviting brother Wallace to preach on the subject of premillennialism – which sermons were later published by brother Cogdill’s printing company as God’s Prophetic Word.(20)
Jorgenson wrote to the radio station a month before Cogdill came to town – not waiting even to hear what Cogdill might say. His letter to the radio station charged that only two or three of about thirty churches in the Louisville area supported the kind of preaching Cogdill would do (a blatant falsehood), calling them “dogmatic, sectarian, and bitter in the extreme. . . they do not represent the Churches of this area even in doctrine, much less in spirit and attitude.”(21)
Because Jorgenson’s supposedly confidential letter was released to others and later published in the bulletin of one church, readers were (and are) able to judge for themselves who had the “attitude problem.” But it is this very idea that we wish to emphasize in the conclusion of this article. Historical hindsight seems to suggest that the churches in this period were experiencing a change of “climate.” Several decades had passed since their major rupture with the “Christian churches,” and a second (even the beginnings of a third) generation had come to maturity. Many preachers and Christians seemed to be allergic to any sort of controversy, and willing to do nearly anything to avoid it, including embracing premillennial teachers (if not their doctrine), “running interference” for them, and, at best, ignoring critics of premillennialism. Often, the only attack some were willing to make was to attack the opponents of the premillennial teachers.
It has been noticed by contemporary observers, including this author, that the descendant of those in premillennial churches are very open to “Restoration ecumenists” such as W. Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett.(22) Often, one hears premillennial theorists refer to their conception of God’s “grace” as making millennial views relatively unimportant (though they continue to insist upon teaching their particular views of millennial theories).
Several years ago, two of the surviving leaders of the premillennial churches commented upon the situation in years past, both mentioning some surprisingly similar ideas regarding the flavor of premillennialism. among churches of Christ. LaVern Houtz, president of the premillennial college (Southeastern Christian College at Winchester, KY), was interviewed in 1967 for the “avant-garde” (read: “liberal”) publication, Mission, by David Stewart of Sweet Publishing Company. When asked about “the attitude of openness among premillennialists,” Houtz said, “Among our brethren there is a great emphasis on grace rather than on legalism. The love of God manifested in Christ makes us more tolerant. We do not have as many tests of fellowship as does the legalist who bases salvation on doctrinal conformity.” Houtz also admitted the possibility that “premillennial churches of Christ feel a closer kinship to premillennial denominational groups than they do to other amillennial Churches of Christ.”(23)
Several years later, H.E. Schreiner, a stalwart among premillennial churches in Louisville (Schreiner had debated Robert Welch on the premillennial question in 1956), was asked by Ron Durham (then editor of Mission) to publish an article describing the premillennial movement. Durham was impressed with Schreiner’s “maintaining that the thousand-year reign was not the most basic issue at all in this particular division . . . The main issue, Schreiner says, was the doctrine of grace . . . The ‘pre-mills’ depended so heavily on the return of Christ that they also depended heavily on the forgiveness he would bring, and in fact appropriated it confidently in the present. Thus they enjoyed greater confidence of salvation than main liners. . .”(24)
That Durham is not misrepresenting is evident from Schreiner’s own comment that “the real issue dividing us was the grace of God. I found many who were depending upon their correct doctrinal position for salvation.”(25)
I must say that I find this particularly instructive in view of some current circumstances. It is dangerous to attempt to overdraw historical “parallels,” but we have heard much in the last fifteen years about “God’s grace” (or at least, some preacher’s perceptions of it), from some who seem to have an “aversion to controversy” (i.e., who want the right to teach their views about “fellowship” without being criticized). Some of those advocating “wider fellowship” have found a ready audience among a younger generation which grew up in relative peace, not having experienced firsthand the doctrinal controversies which tested the mettle of their spiritual forebears. I must wonder how much of the discussion has truly been about scriptural teaching on “grace,” and how much has been simply a mask for the yearnings of some for wider fellowship and greater “respectability.”
One wonders whether it was the case that premillennialism. had an “impact” on the church, or whether the type of climate had developed among churches in which many Christians either welcomed the doctrine, or, at least, were quite disinclined to consider its implications and confront this false doctrine. Certainly it is true that the doctrine itself developed from denominational ideas and contacts with sectarian preachers and publications – it certainly did not originate from the Scriptures. But the “impact” in terms of number of converts to the doctrine and preachers openly advocating premillennialism was slight. More significant, however, was the revelation of the larger numbers of Christians who were unwilling to oppose anything except those who were combatting the premillennial teachers. By the time that generation (and their children) and others they converted came to maturity, the time was ripe and the stage was set for a fullscale division in the 1950s.
If it is true that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” (and it is certainly true that “there is nothing new under the sun”), then we need to inform ourselves, “lest we forget.” Obviously, the “issues” of the future will not be the same, identical “issues” of past generations. The motivations, aspirations, and tactics of digressive teachers, however, often remain the same from generation to generation. It is a time for study, a time to teach about these issues and attitudes, and a time for resolve that we shall not fall victim to error – whether of teaching, practice, or attitude toward God, His word, or our brethren.
1. In 1976, a well-known premillennial preacher estimated that “today we number about 12,000 members” (H.E. Schreiner, “Of Love and Labels and the Thousand-year Reign” [Mission, 9:9, April, 19761, P. 198). Several years earlier, the president of the premillennial college at Winchester, KY, bracketed that figure with an estimate of “about 120 congregations embracing a membership of between 8,000 and 15,000 members” (David Stewart, “On Premillennial Views: An Interview With LaVem Houtz” [Mission, 2:8, February, 1969], p. 248).
The following section of this article, with accompanying notes, comes from the author’s “Millennialism and the American Political Dream, in Guardian of Truth, 26:4 (January 28, 1982), pp. 54-58t, reprinted in A Study of Premillennialism (Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1982), pp. 100-112.
Footnotes in this article are primarily to guide readers who might be interested to appropriate sources for further reading.
3. See Steve Wolfgang & Ron Halbrook, “Alexander Campbell & The Spirit of the Revolution, I & II,” in Truth Magazine, 22 (February 16 & 23, 1978), pp. 123ff. & 137ff. See also Richard T. Hughes, “From Primitive Church to Civil Religion: the Millennial Oddyssey of Alexander Campbell,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44 (March, 1976), pp. 87-103; and Earl Kimbrough, “How the Restorers Dealt With Prophecy,” in The Restoration Heritage in America (Florida College Annual Lectures, 1976), pp. 57ff.
6. Ernest R. Sandeen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); reprinted in paperback edition by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1978). Other recent studies of Fundamentalism include C. Allyn Russell, Voices of American Fundamentalism: Seven Biographical Studies (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976); and the excellent recent book of George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism & American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), cited below.
8. For an excellent documentary of some aspects of the conflict, see Willard B. Gatewood, Controversy in the Twenties.- Fundamentalism, Modernism & Evolution (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969).
9. The following books may be useful in separating the various strands of millennial thought (postmillennial, premillennial, amillennial, dispensational, pre-tribulational, post-tribulational, etc.): Robert C. Clouse, ed. The Meaning of The Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), with chapters by George Eldon Ladd (Historic Premillennialism), Herman A. Hoyt (Dispensational Premillennialism), Lorraine Boettner (Postmillennialism), and Anthony A. Hoekema (Amillennialism): Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, ME Eerdmans, 1979); Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, ME Baker, 1977); For some historical backgrounds see Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), and C. Norman Kraus, Dispensationalism in America: Its Rise and Development (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1958).
12. Robert C. Welch, “R.H. Boll: Premillennial Visionary,” in Melvin D. Curry, ed., They Being Dead Yet Speak: Florida College Annual Lectures, 1981, p. 52. See also Welch’s article, “Why Fellowship Does Not Exist With Premillennialists,” in A Study of Premillennialism, pp. 113-118.
15. Probably the best-known debates on this question were (1) the Boll-Boles debate, entitled Unfulfilled Prophecy. A Discussion of Prophetic Themes (a written debate carried in the Gospel Advocate from May to November, 1927, and later published in the book form); and (2) the Neal-Wallace Discussion on the Thousand Years Reign of Christ (an oral debate also published by the Gospel Advocate, as a book, in 1933). Neal and Wallace had a similar discussion in Chattanooga, TN. In 1956, H.E. Schreiner debated Robert C. Welch in Louisville on this question, and this debate was also published.
16. A quick glance at Mac Lynn’s Where The Saints Meet for 1983 (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation, 1982), shows approximately 100 premillennial congregations, primarily in Kentucky (36), Indiana (17) and Louisiana (26), with the remainder scattered through about ten other states.
18. Lloyd Cline Sears, For Freedom: The Biography of John Nelson Armstrong (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1969), pp. 213-219, 275-299, especially 215-216. Sears was Armstrong’s son-in-law. See also William S. Banowsky, Mirror of a Movement: Churches of Christ as Seen Through the Abilene Christian College Lectureship (Dallas: Christian Publishing Company, 1965), pp. 196-199, and especially pp. 223-224).
19. Sears, pp. 213-215,277.! See also Roy E. Cogdill, “It is Written” (Guardian of Truth, 27:22 [November 17, 1983], pp. 685-686 [reprinted from Herald of Truth, 3:3-4, April 12-19, 1923]). Several of Cogdill’s articles from the 1930s have recently been reprinted in the Guardian of Truth. See “The Present Position of Jesus,” Guardian of Truth, 26:12 (April 15, 1982), pp. 224ff. (reprinted from Gospel Guardian, 1:1 [October, 1935], p. 33); and “The First and Second Coming of Christ,” Guardian of Truth, 26:17 (July 1, 1982), pp. 397ff. (reprinted from Gospel Guardian, 2:2 [February 19361, p. 27).
20. Steve Wolfgang, “There Were Giants in the Earth: A Sketch of the Life of Roy E. Cogdill” (Guardian of Truth, 29:14 [July 18, 1985], pp. 419ff). The author is at work on a biography of Roy Cogdill.
21. Jorgenson to Program Director, WGRC, Louisville, KY, April 16, 1942. A file of Jorgenson’s letters was on deposit in the Southeastern Christian College Library in 1976; xerox copies are in the author’s possession. The college was closed in 1979, and I am not aware of what became of Jorgenson’s papers. Also included in the file was a five-page “Analysis of Attack” by Jorgenson, Boll, and Cecil B. Douthitt, then living in Louisville, and a “confidential” letter to Jorgenson from J.N. Armstrong attacking Foy E. Wallace, Jr., as the editor of a “slanderous” paper with “evil designs. “
Guardian of Truth XXX: 1, pp. 13-15, 29
January 2, 1986