Struggle for the Soul of Churches of Christ (1897-1907)

When the division between Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches was recognized by the religious census of 1906, the theological perspectives among the Churches of Christ were fairly diverse. While there was an ecclesiological consensus to separate from the Christian Churches, there was considerable diversity between the three major representative “traditions” among Churches of Christ which threatened that formal unity.

In Kingdom Come Bobby Valentine and I identified this diversity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as (1) the Tennessee Tradition (or Nashville Bible School tradition, represented by the Gospel Advocate published in Nashville, Tennessee edited by David Lipscomb), (2) the Texas Tradition (represented by the Firm Foundation published in Austin, Texas edited by Austin McGary and others), and (3) the Sommer Tradition (represented by the Octographic Review published in Indianapolis, Indiana edited by Daniel Sommer). I continued the exploration of this typology in an essay honoring Michael Casey by looking at the decade when the Churches of Christ emerged as—to use David Lipscomb’s own 1907 language—a “distinct and separate” body from the Christian Churches and all other religious bodies. 

My essay “The Struggle for the Soul of Churches of Christ (1897-1907): Hoosiers, Volunteers, and Longhorns” was just published in And the WORD became Flesh: Studies in History, Communication and Scripture in Memory of Michael W. Casey, ed. Thomas H. Olbricht and David Fleer (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009), 54-71. I have uploaded an expanded version of this essay to my Academic Page.

1907 is my terminus ad quem. While the 1906 census symbolizes the division, the public discussions of this official recognition took place in 1907. 1897 is my terminus ad quo. Lipscomb, who hesitanted to sever relations with the Christian Church, opened 1897 with this observation: “I am fast reaching the conclusion that there is a radical and fundamental difference between the disciples of Christ and the society folks” (“The Churches Across the Mountains,” Gospel Advocate 39 [7 January 1897] 4). Between 1897 and 1907 the Churches of Christ became a distinct identifiable religious body in the United States.

Whatever differences Hoosiers, Volunteers, and Longhorns had, they were united against a common foe–the Christian Church. While there are obvious sociological and sectional dimensions, even causes, of the division between the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church, there were also significant hermeneutical and theological grounds as well. Editors at the beginning of the 20th century thought these were the primary reasons for separation. The primary hermenutical ground was a Reformed regulative principle discerned through the command, example and necessary inference. The primary theological grounds were the rise of higher criticism and a developing ecumenicism among many in the Christian Church.

Nostalgia easily recalls an ideal unity when it never existed. Though the Firm Foundation, Octographic Review, and Gospel Advocate were heremeneutically and ecclesiologically united in a common front against the Christian Church, there was significant theological diversity among the journals. Theological differences among Churches of Christ ranged from polity issues (e.g., number, qualification, selection, ordination and authority of elders) to materialism (e.g., soul sleep), from mutual edification to located evangelists, from the corporate practice of the right hand of fellowship to the necessity of confession before baptism, from a prescribed order of worship to legitimate uses of the contribution on Sunday, from women working outside the home to female participation in the assembly, from involvement in politics to institutionalism (including Sunday Schools and Bible Colleges), from debating the relation of the kingdom to the church to whether the Sermon on the Mount applies to Christians, from war-peace questions to social involvement in temperance movements, from the nature of special providence to reality of contemporary miracles, and from biblical names for the church to eschatology (millennialism, renewed earth theology).

My essay, available on this website in an expanded form than published in the book, focused on four significant issues that illustrate the different orientations of each of the three traditions: (1) Rebaptism; (2) Indwelling of the Holy Spirit; (3) Institutionalism; and (4) Sunday School.

In general, though not exclusively, the Tennessee Tradition embraced dynamic divine action in the world as the in-breaking kingdom of God, the Indiana Tradition stressed the non-institutional character of that kingdom, and the Texas Tradition rejected any semblance of dynamic divine action other than a cognitive understanding of the Bible which iteself resulted in divisive ecclesiological debates within the Texas Tradition. As the Tennessee Tradition stressed “divine dynamics” rather than “human mechanics,” in the language of the Nashville Bible School graduate R. C. Bell, this central “apocalyptic” vision shaped how almost every theological concept was appropriated. The Texas Tradition, relatively devoid of divine dynamics, embraced human cognition and ability as the critical factor in humanity’s relationship with God, understanding the law of God aright, and practicing it with precision. Though the Indiana Tradition shared some formal characteristics with Tennessee, it stressed non-institutional ecclesiology and opposition to worldly wisdom, wealth and power as the centerpiece of its agenda. The Tennessee Tradition is more dynamic than the other two traditions, and both Indiana and Texas tended to focus on ecclesiological form and function in ways that the Tennessee tradition transcended with an eschatologically-driven kingdom vision.

The critical turn in the story of this essay is the loss of a dynamic sanctifying presence of God in the hearts of believers through the personal indwelling of the Spirit as symbolic of the broader loss of “divine dynamics” within Churches of Christ as a whole. At an earlier point in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the movement had generally chosen Fanning’s Baconian rationalism over Robert Richardson’s openness to the work of the Spirit beyond the sacred page. The first decades of the 20th century were a similar turn. The Texas Tradition ultimately won the day on the nature of the indwelling Spirit among Churches of Christ. The loss of dynamic divine power in sanctification and the reduction of the Spirit’s work to an empirical epistemology of the word fostered debates over patterns and mechanics rather than an emphasis on the transforming, enabling and sanctifying life in the Spirit.


5 Responses to “Struggle for the Soul of Churches of Christ (1897-1907)”

  1.   cordobatim Says:

    “Nostalgia easily recalls an ideal unity when it never existed.” Great line.

    Doesn’t that always seem to be the case? We always seem to talk about a “golden era” (be it in religion, politics or whatever), yet a look at history shows that the people at that time were reminiscing about the good ol’ days as well.

    We must learn from the past, but we dare not try to live in it, nor live controlled by it.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2.   Frank Says:

    Having grown up among the Churches of Christ, much of this sounds so very familiar to me. Reading your fine analysis is sort of like seeing a blueprint of the house I’ve been living in all my life. Or maybe it’s more like a map of my hometown. Anyway, I like Tim’s comment too. Blessings.

  3.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Growing up in Indiana, the non-institutional movement is somewhat familiar. There were many such churches in Indiana. It would be interesting to see how the “Indiana Tradition” changed once members of the CoC began migrating from the south to Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio for work in places like the steel mills and auto-plants. My grand-parents were among these migrant CoC people and they helped begin the church I was raised in. That church had an identity shaped more by the Texas tradition but it was impacted by a huge split brought on over the non-institutional issues.

    Grace and peace,


    P.S., As I was packing up my office this week, I was looking through a collection of old CoC hymnals I have. I ran accross a hymn titled “The Church of Christ.” In an almost creed-like fashion, the words describe pretty much the core hermeneutical and doctrinal values of the 20th century CoC. Does anyone know how popular this song became (I never have heard it sang in any CoC worship setting)?

  4.   Frank Says:

    There’s a song called “The Church of Christ”? When I read that I started writing my own song by that title, but it was just way to crass to print. Now deleted.

    Years ago, a congregation of the Church of Christ had a sort of “We’re the Church of Christ” Vacation Bible School. The curriculum, including songs for children, was all done in-house. It was the intersection of sectarianism and Sesame Street, an absolute horror.

  5.   rich constant Says:

    all my life john mark i was told to get in step.
    homer Haily Pete Wilson and the wonderful preachers that i listened to.
    then there was my mom and her family from Oklahoma
    tradition john mark ….
    buying into a dead hand…
    what i mean by that is if the men of change were alive to day ….

    and the simplicity of wanting to be like everyone else…you know john mark i do not believe that they would be so perceptively myopic
    sometimes i miss my mom ….
    can’t as Paul says shrink back now.
    pressing onward to the upward call of god in Christ.

    blessings all rich


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