What Caused the Great Division of the Nineteen Fifties and Sixties?

By W. R. Jones

I write as one who was there. I begin with a historical look at the last 55 years. Preachers like N.B. Hardeman, Foy Wallace, Jr. and H. Leo Boles, to name a few, were in their prime. They were more in the limelight, but in the background there were thousands of faithful preachers who quietly went about kingdom business with little notice. The religious census of 1926 reported there were 433,000 members in churches of Christ. Others estimated the number at a half-million. There had been great prosperity in the 1920s, but this was followed by a horrible depression of the thirties. I lived through part of it and I can assure you first hand, it was bad. You may be surprised to learn that during these hard years churches of Christ enjoyed solid growth and development. Across the South, North, and West parts of our country the gospel spread at a rapid pace. Gospel preachers were aggressive and the strongholds of error were challenged and met on every hand. Great numbers were being baptized. As a young preacher I baptized as many as 22 in one meeting. People were hungry for the simple gospel. Then came the automobile, radio, airplanes, and later TV. All these assisted in a greater spread of the message of Truth across our fair land. It was a thrilling time to be a Christian.

It was a period of harmony and unity among the churches. Following the great division of churches of Christ from the digressive Christian churches there was significant doctrinal harmony. Brethren rallied together for a common cause, the cause of Truth. When, for example, the premillennial issue invaded the churches we were confronted with a very divisive issue. I was quite young, but I remember it was a very vocal and visible disagreement, and yet, when it was over very little damage had been done to the churches. Do you know why? Brethren stood up and fought for the Truth. Foy Wallace, Jr. led the fight and did a lot to stamp out this false doctrine that dethrones Christ as king. This unity during that period can be seen by the fact that many widely publicized and well attended debates were con- ducted. Many debates were held with Baptist opponents and others with representatives of the Christian churches over the matter of instruments of music in the worship. Many overtures of so-called unity were made by Christian churches, but there was almost a total rejection by united brethren toward this spirit of compromise. During those days there was a kind of distinctive, no-nonsense preaching. Not many preachers were trying to be entertainers and both preachers and members were generally known as “people of the Book.” Materialism was low, spirituality high.

Following World War II, the church enjoyed a tremendous growth, especially in urban areas. Prosperity was increasing and times were changing. Many Christians began to climb the economic and educational ladder. Nice and even fancy buildings began to appear and for good or for bad the churches were moving “across the tracks.” With increased prosperity, “liberalism” began to show its ugly head. Liberalism is an “attitude” and that makes it hard to get a handle on. Liberalism is a “loose attitude” toward the Divine Constitution. The only way we could deal with it was to deal with its “symptoms,” which will be named further in this article.

How could our brethren fall for liberalism? Several things are involved, but a very important one is the tendency to transfer authority from the Book to the church. The following became a popular way of thinking. (1) The church of Christ is the Lord’s church (no problem). (2) The church of Christ has the truth (sounds pretty good). (3) Therefore, what is taught and practiced in churches of Christ is right (a dangerous way of reasoning). Things were being accepted as scriptural because the churches were doing them and not because that was what the New Testament taught. This is an attempt to transfer “authority” from the Book to the belief and practice of the churches and that is extremely dangerous regardless of how good it may sound.

Institutionalism was knocking at our door. Prior to Pearl Harbor several colleges operated by brethren had quietly been accepting church contributions. In 1938, G.C. Brewer was reported to have said at an Abilene Christian College Lectureship that a church which did not have the college in its budget had the wrong preacher. A decade later, N.B. Hardeman (President of Freed Hardeman College) and others, revived the controversy in a public attempt to at- tract financial support from church treasuries. Even before the G.I.s returned home in 1945 churches were awakening to a great need to spread the gospel here and elsewhere. Many soldiers had taught the word across the seas and they were urging us to send preachers into these countries. Zeal is wonderful, but it began to get out of control and many brethren were embracing most anything that would spread the word. The end began to overshadow the means in the minds of many Christians. Spurred on by this unbridled zeal to bring the world to Christ, the churches were flooded with appeals to support cooperative works in Germany, Italy, and Japan. In the beginning these efforts were primarily among churches in Texas and Tennessee.

Institutions (colleges, orphan homes, homes for the aged, etc.) soon grew to more than thirty. We should remember, these things had not always existed. The first orphan home was Tennessee Orphan Home in 1909, Potter’s Orphanage 1914, Boles Home 1927, and Tipton Home in 1928. Added to all these projects was a national radio (later TV) program called the Herald of Truth. All these innovations were calling for the collective action of churches. This quickly brought about the sponsoring church arrangement which called for many churches to send contributions to some sponsoring church and her elders that they might oversee some mission on the behalf of contributing churches. One would think these brethren didn’t know 1 Peter 5:1-2 was in the divine text.

A conflict of minds. After exercising considerable patience, some good and respected brethren began to seriously question these practices. More and more good brethren were being pushed against the wall by these zealous out- of-control promoters. A “quarantine” program was started by the Gospel Advocate and imposed by many churches. This produced a tremendous tension between the boosters of the new projects and those who opposed them. At first, I was very enthused about these innovations. Fortunately I had been well taught on “how to establish authority” from God’s word. I had an honest heart and a deep respect for the Scripture. At the end of a great Herald of Truth rally, a preacher friend asked me how I would justify that arrangement from the New Testament.

When my preacher friend asked me where I would go in the New Testament to find authority for the sponsoring church organization it took to produce the Herald of Truth, I responded with these brilliant words: “What kind of a nut are you, don’t you want to spread the gospel?” My next dumb statement was, “You know it is scriptural or these brethren wouldn’t be advocating it.” Fortunately, I decided to research the word and in so doing I saw the truth and took a stand. This caused me to be “quarantined.” I was dismissed from my work, my support terminated, and I had twelve meetings cancelled within two weeks, all because I spoke against sinful innovations.

Confusion about the Real Issues

One sad aspect of the conflict was that many brethren were confused about the issues because of emotional- ism. (1) Opposition to churches contributing to human institutions was pictured as “they hate little orphans.” (2) Opposition to sponsoring churches and sponsoring elder- ships was portrayed as “They don’t believe in mission work.” Teaching that the responsibility of the church out of its treasury in benevolence is limited to “saints only” was translated as, “They don’t believe in helping a neighbor.” Opposition to fellowship halls was made to mean, “They are against brethren having a good time with one another.” None of these “false charges” was ever true, but many fell for them and were blinded to the truth.

The real issues were: (1) The right of churches to con- tribute to human institutions, (2) the sponsoring church arrangement, and (3) church benevolence to aliens. In 1960 I met Henry McCaghren at Baytown, Texas in a six-night debate on these three issues. Between 650 and 800 people were in attendance each evening. Elmer Moore moderated for me and much good was accomplished. As time passed another issue, “the social gospel” started making inroads and grew rapidly. Just take a look about you today and you will realized how far this practice has taken brethren who embraced the digression. I personally, never dreamed it could happen. IT HAS!

Who caused the division? It was not the brethren who stood with the word of God and gave a “thus saith the Lord.” It was caused by those who pressed unauthorized

practices upon us. Practices we couldn’t (1) share in, (2) share with, (3) nor give a share to. Conviction in these matters of faith forced us into a separation. Today, we are still trying to maintain God’s plan. Our brethren who embraced liberalism to various degrees, have moved further away from the truth. It is sad, but true. Our plea toward them continues: Come back totally to the solid truth!