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Are We Nurturing Another Crossfield?

By Adron Doran

religion, articles, christianity

The main thrust toward liberalism within the Christian Church during the first decade of the twentieth century was led by Richard Henry Crossfield as president of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. He was elected to the presidency by the board of curators in the fall of 1908. John William McGarvey was serving as president of the College of the Bible, and Hall Laurie Calhoun was a member of the faculty. Crossfield had not been on board long before he clashed with McGarvey and Calhoun over his liberal leanings. W. C. Moro was serving as dean of the college, while Isaiah Boone Grubbs and Samuel Mitchell Jefferson were also members of the faculty. All of the faculty of the college had followed the pattern of teaching and the curriculum content established by McGarvey and his predecessors since 1865.

In the fall of 1911 W. C. Moro resigned as dean of the College of the Bible, and Calhoun was elected as the replacement. J. W. McGarvey died on October 6, 1911, and on October 13, 1911, Calhoun was selected as acting president of the college. Crossfield saw that if some dramatic move was not made, the college was destined to follow in the McGarvey conservative tradition with Calhoun as president. Crossfield resigned the presidency of Transylvania University on November 3, 1911. He gave his reason for resigning the post that it would open the way for the curators and trustees to consider selecting an individual who would serve as president of both institutions. The two boards met and agreed to request Crossfield accept the joint appointment; he did on February 1, 1912.

In reality, the leaven of liberalism had invaded the college body under the presidency of Burris A. Jenkins, who had served from 1901 to 1906. Dwight E. Stevenson wrote that Jenkins was "an energetic liberal who had been profoundly influenced by Alexander Proctor and his university training at Yale and Harvard to look favorably both upon Darwin's theory of evolution and upon higher criticism of the Bible." Soon after the election of Burris, McGarvey took him to task over his statement, "I do not believe that historical study, which, applied to the Scriptures, is called historical criticism, can endanger anybody's faith in the Bible, in God, or in Christ." After a series of rebukes by McGarvey, Jenkins replied that he had been styled "as a higher critic of the deepest dark blue" and described McGarvey as "though in private conversation and relationships, he could be the sweetest old gentleman in the world, when he began to write in what he considered the defense of the faith, he dipped his pen in gall and blotted his paper with asbestos." Shortly after his clash with McGarvey, Burris Jenkins resigned his position and moved away from Lexington.

R. H. Crossfield came to the presidency of Transylvania University from a very liberal background in preparation and experience. He had earned a doctorate from Wooster University and had served as minister of the Gwensboro (Ky.) Christian Church, which was known as an "organ and society church." Early in his tenure he came in direct conflict with Calhoun over the liberal policies which Crossfield advocated. The trustees advised Calhoun to cease his attack upon Crossfield "because of the drastic effect it would have on the standing of the college in the eyes of the brotherhood." When W. C. Moro left the College of the Bible in 1910, he wrote the trustees, "I believe we are on the eve of a great social change. With other things the church also will be changed."

With the changes in sight and at hand, Crossfield set about to fill all the vacancies of the faculty of the college with men of the most liberal leaning and reputation. Alonzo W. Fortune, who held a doctorate from the University of Chicago and had served as minister of an extremely liberal church in Cincinnati was chosen to teach church history and New Testament theology. The appointment of Fortune, who had been closely associated with the Campbell Institute, came under severe attack from the conservatives led by S. S. Lappin, J. B. Briney, and John T. Brown. The critics charged Fortune with being willing to give up baptism for unity, with teaching that there were contradictions in the Bible, with denying the miracles of the Old Testament and claiming that the apostles were not under the infallible direction of the Holy Spirit.

William Clayton Bower was appointed to occupy the chair of the Bible School Pedagogy. He had graduated from Butler College and had a master's degree from Columbia University. The selection of Fortune and Bower was followed by the appointment of Elmer E. Snoddy and George W Hemry.

Crossfield had successfully rebuilt the faculty of the College of the Bible and was on his way to opening the floodgates to every form of liberalism in the classrooms. The slow and insidious process of changing the teachings of Christ and the apostles and liberalizing the pattern of operation of the church did not originate with the men and women in the church pews but in the college classrooms and the administrative offices. The young men who were subjected to the new theology went into the pulpits of the area churches preaching a social gospel. Only a very few of the congregations rejected the new, liberal thrust.

The controversy which had been going on for sometime finally came to be a "Firestorm in the Bluegrass" at the College of the Bible in the spring of 1917. As McAllister and Tucker point out in Journey in Faith, "The liberals won a decisive victory over the conservatives at the College of the Bible in 1917."

Some of us today seem to detect the likeness of Richard H. Crossfield and his associates in strategic positions within our Christian colleges. If they continue on this same course, we are destined to lose our position in our plea for the "old path." If the boards of trustees of our colleges and universities acquiesce, in the face of the battle which is raging, as the trustees did at the College of the Bible in whitewashing the charges, then it remains for the brotherhood to rise up and call them to account. There seems to be no one within the faculties and administrators deeply enough convinced of the dangers to stand up and call a halt. Is liberalism within the churches of Christ producing another Crossfield? Are elders of congregations and trustees of colleges providing a climate in which another Crossfield will emerge?

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Published September 1993