Nashville Tension — 1892 General Christian Missionary Convention

The Nashville Tennessean, in an article entitled “ALL DELIGHTED,” described the proceedings of the General Christian Missionary Convention’s 1892 annual meeting (October 21, 1892, p. 8). This was a highwater mark in the tension within the Stone-Campbell Movement (or, American Restoration Movement). The missionary societies held their convention in the capital of its opposition. There were three:  the domestic (American Christian Missionary Society), the foreign (Foreign Christian Missionary Society), and the Christian Women’s Board of Mission.  David Lipscomb and others considered this an affront to the good feelings of members who sincerely opposed the society on biblical grounds. The Convention appeared in the Gospel Advocate‘s backyard!

The Convention

The Convention was held at the Vine Street Christian Church, and “Rev. G. A. Lofton, the pastor of the Central Baptist Church” gave the Convention a “hearty greeting.” The attendees heard reports of mission work from around the world, including India, China (Edward F. Williams), Australia, England, and Japan (particularly C. E. Garst) among other nations.  Some of those who spoke included women as, for example, “Miss Judson, of Dunburg, Conn., a voluntary missionary to India.” “Miss Minnie Henley, of England,” was “preparing for missionary work in Africa” as a medical doctor and spoke to the convention about her plans. The meeting’s worship times included a solo by “Miss Kate Gillespie, of Nashville,” and Mrs. Garst sang a solo in Japanese as well. And The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement also had a prominent role in the meeting; their work was described as “working for purity everywhere, and for constitutional prohibition. Their purpose was to protect the home.”

The membership of the Convention counted twenty-eight states and five countries among its ranks. The Presidents of Drake and Bethany Colleges were present and addressed the assembly.

The Convention in 1892, through the arm of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, supported “104 missionaries–33 males, 23 females and 48 native helpers,” including China, India, Japan, Turkey, Scandinavia, and England.  And Miss Bonner, of Fayetteville, met with potential supporters from Tennessee after the close of the meeting to garner support for her Paris (France) mission. The Convention inspired her commitment.

On the closing night, C. C. Loos, the president of the Convention, remarked that this was the largest attendance in the Convention’s history and that Nashville had received them cordially and enthusiastically. There were full houses at practically every session. “What a grand brotherhood there was at Nashville!” The paper reported that the convention had been “remarkably quiet,” and that it “had made a profound impression on the city and the people for the missionary cause.”

The Loyal Opposition

However, not everyone in Nashville was happy. Indeed, the Convention–in many ways–was the last straw for David Lipscomb and others. They thought it was intrusive and simply unchristian manners to bring the convention to Nashville.  Moreover, the many ways in which women participated in the convention and their prominent role in the missionary work disturbed the hearts of Nashville’s conservatives. The way women were highlighted and promoted was a turning point for many.

They did not remain silent. Several leaders prepared a statement for the Convention, which was “introduced by C. M. Wilmeth.”  Here is the text of the statement:

“To the General Christian Missionary Convention, Assembled in Nashville, Tenn.

Dear Brethren in Christ:

Inasmuch as your body is now in session in this city purports to represent the churches of Christ, untrammeled by creeds, and there is a conspicuous absence of many myriads of brethren whose sentiments are voiced in such periodicals as the Gospel Advocate, Christian Leader, Octographic Review, Firm Foundation, Christian Messenger, Christian Preacher, Primitive Christian and Gospel Echo; and,

Inasmuch as your [sic] assembled in the State of Tennessee, which contains about 40,000 Christians who profess to practice the primitive order of things, and perhaps not more than 1,000 of these thoroughly sympathize with your organization; and,

Inasmuch as arguments and appeals have been made on the floor of your convention to win these brethren over to your ways, we respectfully submit to your august body this memorial.

1. That we, believe as we do, that all should be one in Christ, of the same mind and of the same judgment, speaking the same things and endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, cannot countenance the corruption of the pure speech of the Bible, and do deeply deplore the grievously divided state of the church; whereby brethren are embittered against each other, congregations are torn asunder and sections are arrayed one against another.

2. That, believing as we do, that whatsoever is not of faith is sin, we cannot conscientiously co-operate in the organization or workings of any missionary society, home or foreign, with officers unknown to the New Testament and terms of membership at variance with the spirit and genius of the Gospel, it being our firm and abiding conviction that in building up such societies we are pulling down that which our fathers labored to build up and are sapping the strength of the church for which Christ died.

3. That, believing as we do, that the scriptures furnish us unto all good works, and that preaching the gospel stands pre-eminent as a good work, we bodily affirm and earnestly contend that the Bible contains a divine system of evangelism, powerful enough to shake the Roman Empire in its day and perfect enough to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth; and we modestly submit that, putting this faith into practice; we have demonstrated in our [sic] this divine plan is effectual, in that without other organization the primitive gospel has been planted in this region, a mission among the Indians has been sustained for many years, a mission in Turkey has been established and the Volunteer Band in Japan supported.

4.  That we, in consideration of the aforesaid truth and facts, come before you with brotherly love and beseech you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you abandon these organizatoins that found no necessity or recognition in apostolic times, and that you concentrate your zeal and energies in the churches of God, under the direction of their heaven-appointed officers, which we all admit to be common and scriptural ground, thereby removing a cause of wide spread division and bringing about that union and co-0peration in which there is strength and which will enable us to make more rapid conquest of the earth for Christ, and to this end we present this memorial and for this consummation devoutly to be wished shall we ever pray.

C. M. Wilmeth
David Lipscomb
E. G. Sewell,
J. A. Harding,
M. C. Kurfees,
and others

 Comments on the Above

This statement by the “loyal opposition” represents a unifying force within what became known as the “Churches of Christ.” This united the Texas  (Firm Foundation), Indiana  (Octographic Review), and Tennessee Traditions (Gospel Advocate). The opposition to the missionary society staked out an identity for Churches of Christ.

They opposed the missionary society on several grounds.  Hermeneutically, there was no support for the human institution within the apostolic record.  Theologically, the society supplanted the local congregation as the highest organization of Christ’s body, which was charged with God’s mission. Practically, it was unnecessary (evangelism and missions happen without it through churches) and misdirects the energies of the body of Christ (supporting the society rather than focusing on the mission).

The appeal for unity is rooted in both the biblical text and in the common ground between the two parties in practically the same way that Alexander Campbell argued for unity through immersion. The common ground is that everyone agrees that mission through the local congregation is biblical (just as all agree immersion is baptism); so the church should do and unite upon what they all agree is biblical. If one loved unity and Scripture is sufficient, why not simply divest ourselves of all questionable practices and unite upon what everyone agrees is biblical?

Conclusion

Alas, rather than unity and mission, the 1892 Nashville Convention marked the beginnings of a clear organizational, ecclesiological, and theological divide between the “Christian Church” (ultimately Disciples of Christ) and the “Churches of Christ.”

This became apparent in Nashville itself. While previously congregations in Nashville were known as the “Christian Church,” by the late 1880s and 1890s congregations were increasingly distinguished as “Christian Church” and “Church of Christ.”  In 1887, according to the Daily American [April 10, 1887, p. 9), there were five congregations, each named “Christian Church” in Nashville (Church Street [800 members], Woodland [250], North Edgefield [150], North Nashville [250], and Gay Street [African American, 850]). Soon, however, the name “Church of Christ” began to appear with regularity as new congregations were planted. [The South College Street Church, planted in 1888, was the mother church for 35 other congregations in Nashville through the use of tent meetings during the first 20 years of its existence. See David Lipscomb, “South Nashville Church of Christ,” The Nashville American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.]

The distinction is apparent in this blurb in Daily American (Oct 2, 1892, p. 6) regarding the Green Street church which was a church plant of the South Nashville Church:

The non-Christian Church on Green street is nearing completion. It is located on the lot that was used by Elder John T. Poe recently with the tent meeting. When completed it will be used by the Filmore-street congregation and be known as the Green-street Church of Christ.

Thus the distinction between the Christian Church and the Church of Christ appears in Nashville.



4 Responses to “Nashville Tension — 1892 General Christian Missionary Convention”

  1.   David P Himes Says:

    A lamentable event in the history of the American Restoration Movement. Interesting to read about, John Mark. Thanks

  2.   rich constant Says:

    so many feelings about this
    grateful and ashamed
    always
    grateful for this blog and the changes that have taken place in my life of the journey of the love of the lord.
    thanks
    always for the teaching
    you are one good piece of work :-)
    RICH CONSTANT

  3.   Rick Says:

    Thank you Dr. Hicks. Very informative and quite interesting.

  4.   Dale Jenkins Says:

    It is sad to read this history. Sadder still to see that we may be in the very process of repeating much of it.

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