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Church Renewal in the Midst of Change
One Hundred Years Ago

By J. E. Choate

religion, articles, christianity

The A. I. Myhr Era (1890-1910)

The warning of Howard Norton, editor of the Christian Chronicle, should be taken seriously. He wrote: "Spiritual men and women to the right and left of center are concerned about our future. They have never before experienced the amount and/or kind of turmoil that afflicts so many of our congregations." They fear what might happen to the church. Some believe we have already experienced a split in the fellowship, which needs only to be recognized. Brother Norton is optimistically hopeful that this worst scenario is only imagined. This writer makes a realistic appraisal that division among the churches is present and growing. The tares have been being sown since the late 1960's. The bitter harvest is here.

Exactly 100 years ago, the ugly specter of division first reared its ghastly head in the Woodland Street Christian Church in Nashville. In April of 1883, the ladies of the church suggested that a missionary fund be started to spread the gospel in destitute places in Tennessee. The Tennessee Home Missionary Society was organized on February 11, 1889, in the Woodland Street Church building. This was done over protest which included E.G. Sewell, an elder.

It was during this time that the "digressive" leaders in the Christian Church deemed it timely to push "organized societies" and the "organ" into the churches in the Southern region. On October 6, 1890, the Tennessee Christian Missionary Society was organized by the Walnut Street Church of Christ in Chattanooga. One year later, the TCMC met on October 6, 189 1, in the Woodland Street Church building. One year after that, October 18, 1892, the General Missionary Convention met for the first time in Nashville, Tennessee. David Lipscomb and other kindred church spokesmen knew that the "Digressives" meant business. They had taken over the Northern churches with the society and organ, and they started their Southern invasion to do the same.

The Andre Iverson Myhr Era (1890-1910)

The Woodland Street church brought in A. I. Myhr to serve as their field missionary. The Tennessee Christian Missionary Convention enlarged his role to "missionary in the field." He was given the title of "Corresponding Secretary" and was paid the handsome salary of $1500 per annum. David Lipscomb and his associates, and with the support of the influence of the Gospel Advocate, mounted a counter campaign to keep organized societies and the organ out of Tennessee churches.

Lipscomb and his associates put Myhr in their "sights" and tracked his every move over 20 years. Myhr was not a popular type of religious leader. He was talented, abrasive, and militant. He pressed the causes of the "Digressives" untiringly for 2 decades. Myhr had become "battle weary" by 1910 and suddenly resigned his post. He summarized his successes: 75 churches established; 15,000 new members added; and $300,000 collected.

The late Dr. Herman Norton, Vanderbilt professor of religion and Restoration history, wrote there was another side to the story that Myhr did not tell. Dr. Norton wrote in his definitive Tennessee Christians that Myhr

had engendered a bitter partisan spirit in almost every congregation in the state. He himself had helped sow seeds of discord, strife, bitterness, and alienation that followed in the wake of his program activities. While there had been one communion, admittedly with discord, when he arrived in the state, there were now two separate and distinct bodies with no meaningful communication between them.

When Myhr resigned, he had not won over a single church in Nashville and had very little success in middle Tennessee. Time would prove that his successes in west Tennessee were limited. The east Tennessee churches have been a bastion for the "Digressives" since the days of Alexander Campbell.

When and Where the Tennessee Churches Divided

David Lipscomb was an astute church historian. He saw clearly that church division in Tennessee had become a fact. Before the turn of the century, Lipscomb made the appraisal that the Christian Church is "as clearly defined and organized a denomination as can be found anywhere" (Gospel Advocate, Vol. 39, 1897, p. 513). In 1902 the Newbern, Tennessee, Christian Church split when members sued in protest when an organ was moved into the church building.

In early January of 1903, a band of 86 members pulled out of the Henderson, Tennessee, Christian Church to establish their own fellowship. The "split" widened and deepened in the years ahead. The United States Religious Census for 1906 made the judgment that the Church of Christ and the Christian Church exist as two separate and distinct churches.

The Christian Church leaders were encouraged to believe that they would take over most of Tennessee. They were wrong! The Hardeman Tabernacle meetings (1922) and the Boswell-Hardeman music debate (1923) proved them wrong. The churches of Christ were growing in Tennessee and were enjoying favorable approval by the public. Christian Churches have not found a similar favorable approval with the public in Tennessee.

Dr. Norton said that if called upon to supply specific dates for the separation of the Christian Church and the church of Christ that he would suggest two. His first choice was October 6, 1890, which marked the establishing of the Tennessee Christian Missionary Convention by the Walnut Street Church of Christ in Chattanooga. He designated October 26, 1890, to be his twin choice. This marked the time when E.G. Sewell and a small band of Christians pulled out of the Woodland Street Christian Church and established the Tenth Street Church of Christ.

Will the Churches of Christ Divide?

The Christian Churches divided again in the 1968 "Restructure." This is another story! My answer to the question is that churches of Christ in Tennessee are troubled and dividing, and this is true in Texas and elsewhere. A split occurred when opposing groups in the Hendersonville, Tennessee, Church of Christ went their separate ways. Churches in Nashville are deeply troubled, and some are in turmoil.

Division in the ranks of the churches of Christ got underway in the late 1960's. One indicator was the publication of Mission magazine. Its editors and staff deemed the time right to begin to push for the adoption of the modernism of the "new theology" reflected in the writings of Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, and others. Mission magazine died aborning.

A new generation of kindred liberals has now arisen among us who deem the time right to begin the "takeover" of the conservative churches of Christ. They are strongly ensconced in many of our educational institutions, editors of some brotherhood papers, and authors of several books. Popular preachers are delivering messages based on the "junk theology" of the "New Age" church spokesmen.

They announce the imminent death of the conservative churches. The denial of the "virgin birth" of Jesus and the assumption of the illegitimacy of his birth appears in a recent publication of Wineskins. Would-be church historians, who don't know what they are talking about, write articles. The Second Incarnation, written by Rubel Shelly and Randall Harris, relies completely for documentation on contemporary liberal theologians outside the church without even an honorable mention of the likes of David Lipscomb.

Two Dates Marking Division
in Contemporary Church of Christ

This writer suggests two dates and places that mark the split between the "conservative" and "liberal" churches of Christ. My first choice is April 10, 1973, in Memphis, Tennessee. Then the representative of the Herald of Truth defended the program against its critics. Lynn Anderson denied that he claimed a "miraculous vision." Landon Saunders ignored the charge that his "Heartbeat" devotionals (an adjunct of the Herald of Truth) were tinctured with charismatic terminology. Today a look back sees Lynn Anderson and Landon Saunders as only bit players in a larger, unfolding drama.

Brother Anderson cannot soon forget describing the churches of Christ as a "big sick denomination." The emerging "New Age" church of Christ seems to have "Kierkegaardian" symptoms of a "sickness unto death." The think-tank of the Herald of Truth labored under the delusion that the public could be hoodwinked into believing a fellowship, other than the churches of Christ were the sponsors of "Heartbeat." The Mormons take enormous pride in their world class TV ads with the "Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints" affixed. Managers of Herald of Truth were not so honest.

The Herald of Truth people thought that E. R. Harper could be dropped from the program with a minimum of "damage control." They were wrong! "Art is long and life is short." Though the life of a man is short, the memory of history is not. We will remember the Memphis meeting as the place and time when the loyal members of the churches of Christ stood up to be counted and forced the liberals to show their hand.

I would choose the week of July 4, 1991, as the time that marks the widening of the gulf. This was during the second meeting of the Nashville Jubilee. During these lectures - in a workshop, and in the Nashville Tennessean - Jubilee spokesmen trashed and ridiculed churches of Christ. These transactions have been widely publicized.

A Postscript

Just as A. I. Myhr is associated with troubled times in the churches of Christ, so was Don Finto a few years back in the highly profiled Belmont church split. We have in our midst a new generation of trouble-makers who would usher us into the 21st century with their idea of a "New Age" church of Christ. They now are busily drafting a "new ecclesiology" and a "new theology." They have a peculiar notion that the church is the "second" reincarnation of Christ.

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Published April 1993