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Harrell's Biography of Homer Hailey

The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, by DAVID EDWIN HARRELL, JR. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000. 455 pp. $34.95.

David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Breeden Eminent Scholar in the Humanities at Auburn University, has blended biography and institutional history in order to tell the story of churches of Christ in the 20th century. Because Homer Hailey (b. 1903) was a significant leader among the noninstitutional churches of Christ, Harrell believes his life is “an extraordinary window” (p. x) on that story. Hailey’s life reflects the ebb and flow of 20th century churches of Christ. His ministry provided stability and credibility to noninstitutional churches in the 1950s-1970s. Consequently, Hailey’s story and its historical contexualization provide Harrell the opportunity to analyze the development of churches of Christ in the 20th century.

The work is divided into three parts. Part I (pp. 3-36) describes the origins of the churches of Christ as a movement distinct from the Christian Church and introduces us to Hailey’s early years. The period between the 1906 and 1926 censuses reflect the emergence of a “new religious movement, the churches of Christ” that was “just beginning to define its own identity” (p. 9). The “antis” separated from the “progressives” (14%-86% split according to the 1906 census). Hailey was born into this emerging movement at a time when the lines were not always clear. His grandmother was a charter subscriber to the Firm Foundation but he was baptized in the Wilcox Christian Church in Arizona (1922).

Part II (pp. 39-218) is an institutional history. The 1920s-40s were a search for identity in the “wild democracy” (p. 40) of churches of Christ. A clear difference in attitude emerged by the end of this period. Cultural “boosterism” (the yearning for cultural respectability), ministerial professionalism (educated ministry), and denominational institutionalism (schools, sponsoring churches, orphan homes) unveiled the existence of two groups among churches of Christ (pp. 140ff, 197). One opposed institutionalism and advocated a cultural separatism while the other promoted institutionalism and sought cultural respectability. By 1960 the difference between the two was evident and two separate fellowships existed. The “antis” and the “progressives” had separated once again (10%-90% split; pp. 89, 145). While the mainstream churches of Christ boomed in the 1940s-60s, dissidents arose in the mid-1960s which gave birth to a progressive element that is now blossoming. The 1980-90s will ultimately yield a further separation of “antis” and “progressives.” Harrell believes that these “two camps” are “fairly evenly matched” at the present, but “time and youth seem to be on the side of the progressives” (p. 218).

While part III (pp. 221-388) is more biographical, it is also the story of the noninstitutional churches of Christ. Harrell leads us through Hailey’s education at Abilene Christian College, his experience of the tension within the churches of Christ in the 1930s-40s, and his ultimate identification with noninstitutional churches. Hailey lent credibility to noninstitutional churches. He was a quiet leader among them as Vice-President and head of the Bible Department at Florida College (1951-1973). His teaching, writing, preaching and personal trials (e.g., cancelled meetings, personal relationships strained, and persona non grata at various “brotherhood” events) are a microcosm of the experience of noninstitutional leaders. The 1960s-70s were a time of consolidation, but cracks began to emerge in the 1980s due to the “unity-in-diversity” (p. 353) and divorce/remarriage (p. 343ff) controversies. The “wild democracy” once again must decide the nature and application of fellowship. Harrell believes these controversies within noninstitutional churches will not generate a separation because there is still an underlying attitude that unites them (p. 360ff).

Harrell’s book, then, acknowledges three main groups within churches of Christ at the end of the 20th century. On the right are the noninstitutional churches which have maintained both a cultural separatism and a common-sense hermeneutic (typified by Homer Hailey). In the middle are conservative churches who embrace institutionalism but retain the common-sense hermeneutic (typified by Thomas B. Warren and Alan Highers). On the left are the contemporary progressive churches which reject the common-sense hermeneutic but who understand the need for a countercultural posture (typified by Rubel Shelly and Richard Hughes). Interestingly, the conservative and noninstitutional churches have much in common hermeneutically (p. 358), but the noninstitutional and progressive churches have much in common in terms of their cultural (Hughes calls it “apocalyptic”) vision (p. 366).

Harrell argues that the noninstitutional wing is the true heir of the vision of Restoration forefathers. Harrell may be correct in many ways. If James A. Harding is a model pioneer for churches of Christ, Homer Hailey is as close a theological and sociological heir as anyone in the 1990s (minus Harding’s premillennialism due to Hailey’s respect for Foy E. Wallace, Jr., p. 260). Theologically, there are many common perspectives: cultural vision, providence and prayer, indwelling of the Holy Spirit, grace, pacifism, and institutionalism (e.g., Harding opposed church sponsorship of a missionary). This may not be too surprising given that one of Hailey’s favorite teachers at Abilene was R. C. Bell (p. 225; 379) who was himself a student and colleague of Harding.

Harrell’s thesis, first articulated in the 1959 Gospel Guardian (24 September, pp. 312-4; cf. p. 171) article and anticipated by Hailey himself (p. 294), is that the major divisions among the churches of Christ in the 20th century are rooted both in sociological (cultural separatism) and hermeneutical attitudes. Harrell pioneered the sociological interpretation of the Stone-Campbell Movement in his Quest for a Christian America (1966) and his The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ (1973). Division arises when the sociological and hermeneutical attitudes become decisively clear. The “antis” separated from the “progressives” in the 1906-1926 because there was a clear cultural (illustrated by Hailey’s choice of ACC over TCU for his education) as well as hermeneutical chasm. The “antis” separated from the “progressives” in the 1950s because there was a difference in cultural vision and attitude (the simplicity of the local congregation versus institutional and denominational “boosterism”). Now, within the mainstream, the “antis” are separating from the “progressives” because there is a hermeneutical difference as well as a visionary one.

Part of the value of Harrell’s work is his engaging interaction with recent analyses in the 1990s by Richard Hughes (Reviving the Ancient Faith), Doug Foster (Will the Cycle Be Unbroken?), Michael Casey (Saddlebags, City Streets, and Cyperspace), Leroy Garrett (The Stone-Campbell Movement, 1994 rev. ed.) and Robert Hooper (A Distinct People). While differences emerge between these various interpreters (e.g., the importance of the premillennial separation, the nature of the “middle ground,” the significance of “grace” discussions in the 1930s-50s, etc.), they all generally (except Garrett) agree that the sociological framework of interpreting the history of churches of Christ is important and sometimes decisive.

The institutional controversy, according to Harrell, illustrates a “repetitious pattern” of division in the Stone-Campbell Movement (p. 173). The division between the institutional and noninstitutional churches of Christ is analogous to the division between the churches of Christ and the Christian Church in 1906 (pp. 167-8). The further division of the institutional churches of Christ into conservatives and progressives in 1960 is analogous to the further division of the Christian Church into Independents and Disciples in the 1930s (p. 190). The “repetitious pattern” is that a sociological and theological diversity separates one group from another (e.g., 1906 and 1960). While a unity is maintained within the separated group for a period of time despite smaller controversies (e.g., 1920s-40s) cracks begin to emerge that ultimately reveal deeper sociological and hermeneutical divisions. Separation ultimately results. Harrell believes that an underlying unity is still present among noninstitutional churches despite a fuss over Homer Hailey’s views on divorce and remarriage (p. 362), but mainstream churches of Christ are already de facto separated (“No one could write articles in both the Firm Foundation and Wineskins,” p. 201). The book is both an appeal for the former and a recognition of the latter.

Harrell locates the divisions, then, in attitudes (both sociological and hermeneutical). As long as there is a historic commitment to a common hermeneutic and a common cultural vision, then differences may be tolerated at various levels (e.g., rebaptism, pacifism, divorce and remarriage). But where there is no common attitude, ultimately the two groups will separate. Indeed, whether that common attitude exists is often a matter of assessing the “honesty and sincerity of a brother” (quoting James Adams, p. 362). Consequently, whether a church supports an orphan home or not is not the real issue. Instead a symptomatic question becomes a “test of loyalty to New Testament authority” (p. 45) which causes one group to “doubt the other’s commitment” to do what is right (p. 49).

There are currently three separate groups among churches of Christ: noninstitutional, conservative institutional and progressives. The “middle ground” or “moderate” voices between the conservatives and progressives were vanishing in the 1990s just as they did in the 1950s between the institutional and noninstitutional representatives. But the method of separation is the same: exclusion from institutions (schools, lectureships, papers) that represent the various parties (p. 212).

An evaluation of Harrell’s thesis would require a major review (better yet a full length monograph). However, a few comments are in order. First, I wonder whether the common-sense hermeneutic is the true signal of theological unity. I would not devalue the importance of hermeneutics to the discussion, but I would want to elevate Christology above the specific hermeneutic that is identified as “common-sense” (which is a narrow form of patternism). Can there not be a unity that transcends hermeneutic just as there is a unity that transcends pacifism? Harrell may hint toward this when he contrasts “propositionalism” with a broader hermeneutic (pp. 366-7), but he also recognizes that it is church practice (not beliefs) that create divisive tensions (p. 49). Second, I wonder if there is a vanishing middle ground among mainstream churches of Christ. There may yet be a broad middle that can hold together all but the extreme fringes of institutional churches of Christ if we acknowledge a common Christological basis for unity without judgmentalism. Harrell’s opinion that the mainstream is evenly divided between “antis” and “progressives” is unsubstantiated and wide of the mark. What Harrell hopes for the noninstitutional churches, I hope for the mainstream churches of Christ: a unity rooted in something more basic than disagreements about worship style, divorce/remarriage and evangelistic methodology. Third, I think the notion of “cultural vision” needs some historical testing. Hughes (“apocalyptic”) and Harrell have both advanced similar theses regarding this cultural dimension though they define it somewhat differently. I do not find it very tidy, but it is potentially quite illuminating.

While the book contains some minor (perhaps typographical) errors (e.g., Foy E. Wallace, Jr. died in 1979, not 1969 [p. 177], Shelly’s shift came in the early 1980s, not the 1970s [p. 204], Hailey’s first wife died in 1954, not 1952 [p. 252], William Woodson was not of Freed-Hardeman University at the time he is cited [p. 196], and Gary Collier was not from Abilene Christian University [p. 203]), the book is a substantial work. It deserves a wide reading and one cannot undertake the interpretation of history among churches of Christ without engaging the thesis which Harrell articulates. Between Hughes, Hooper and Harrell, we have three major interpretations of 20th century churches of Christ from essentially three different though complementary perspectives. Historiography among churches of Christ has truly matured as it has built on the work of previous chroniclers (e.g., Earl West’s The Search for the Ancient Order, Woodson’s Standing for their Faith, and numerous biographies).

First appearted in Restoration Quarterly 42.2 (Second Quarter 2000), 115-119.


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