History of Churches of Christ

One of my research interests lately has been to consider the history of Churches of Christ, particularly in the 20th century. Many people pinpoint their existence as a separate group from the Disciples of Christ in 1906, although they certainly had a history before this time. I’ve tried to focus on Nashville’s role in this history with a special interest in the institutional debate and what gave rise to this division. I’ve tried to delve into the original sources as much as possible, particularly a page-by-page thumbing through the Gospel Advocate. It’s a time-consuming and daunting task on the part of an amateur historian, but it’s been helpful to make connections and better understand my group’s history.

As I mentioned, I have tried to delve into the original sources as much as possible, but I have also read some extremely helpful histories by top-rate historians. The books below are given in chronological order of writing.

  • A Distinct People: A History of Churches of Christ in the 20th Century, by Robert E. Hooper. The book was published in 1993, so the century had not quite finished. The author mainly covers the period up until around 1970 with some brief comments up until the time of writing. Hooper bases his history on an Insider-Outsider thesis, which explains the changes that took place within Churches of Christ as a transition from a group on the fringe of cultural accommodation and acceptance to a group fully in step with the culture. They went from backwoods and backwards to being movers and shakers within society. Hooper makes his point effectively and unfolds a fascinating transition of the group in his book.
  • Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America, by Richard T. Hughes. Hughes completed his book in 1996 after 14 years of research, and the wealth of scholarship is apparent. He makes a similar point about the transition of the group over the century, but he approaches the subject from a different angle. Hughes traces the group’s transition from sect to denomination. This process involved a loss of the apocalyptic vision of a previous generation (apocalyptic is defined as an outlook of life where the believer gives his or her allegiance to the kingdom of God, not to the kingdoms of this world, p xii).
  • The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, by David Edwin Harrell, Jr. The author consider the history of Churches of Christ by way of the biography of an influential individual whose life spanned most of the century (published in 2000). Within this biography, Harrell uses the life of Homer Hailey to trace the history of the mainstream, its changes and the causes that gave rise to the institutional debate and division. The author also looks at controversy that followed Hailey within non-institutional churches because he held some minority positions.
  • Common cause: B. C. Goodpasture, the “Gospel Advocate”, and Churches of Christ in the twentieth century, by John Hardin. Common Cause is Hardin’s dissertation for his doctorate at Auburn in 2009, and it is available online by clicking here. Just like Harrell (who was the director for Hardin’s dissertation) Hardin uses biography as a means of considering the history of the group. He begins by looking at the growth of Churches of Christ as Goodpasture was appointed to the editorship of the Gospel Advocate in 1939. He then considers two main controversies faced by Goodpasture – the “antis” and the “liberals.” He charts Goodpasture’s and the Advocate’s response to non-institutional proponents in the 1950s and those critical of the mainstream in the 1960s and 70s. Their response to these controversies reflect a tension between simultaneous progressive and conservative tendencies. Hardin’s work is excellent, and well-worth the read.

I’m sure there are more works to consider, but these are the histories that I have found particularly helpful. I have found myself consulting them time and time again. If you have secondary sources or histories that have helped you, please let me know in the comments section.

What’s interesting to me about all these works is the role that the institutional debate played in shaping and revealing the transition of Churches of Christ. As I have grown up, I have only heard the history from a polemical standpoint from a partisan in the debates. These works trace the history and development of the controversies, and the broad sweep helped contextualize the controversies. For the most part, these books did a good job of showing the legitimate desires of each group and the tensions faced by their positions.

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