Fighting for the pure gospel

DEAR WHITE BRETHREN, some of the loyal colored brethren have the zeal, the whole truth, and the courage to do the right thing, and you white brethren who are loyal have the zeal, the whole truth, the courage, and the money.”

So wrote Alexander Cleveland Campbell (1862–1930) in 1909—not the revered founder of the Stone-Campbell Movement, but a later African American preacher. Campbell was pleading with white supporters to help him in the cause of the “pure gospel”: worship without musical instruments, the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, and evangelizing without missionary societies. 

When he protested these innovations during a sermon at Lea Avenue, his home church in Nashville, Tennessee, the Lea Avenue organist played loudly enough to drown him out in response. After this incident, he soon founded the Jackson Street Church of Christ in Nashville—the “mother church” of African American Churches of Christ. Here he could exercise what he and others called not only the “pure gospel,” but “pure worship,” “pure Word of God,” and “pure religion of Jesus Christ.”

Against enormous social barriers, black leaders and members in the Stone-Campbell Movement toiled to plant their own churches, establish their own schools, write and edit their own journals, and organize their own conferences. 

Many felt that given the prejudice they faced, without white support and philanthropy their efforts would eventually prove futile. They relied on white generosity to advance the “pure gospel.” Others, however, sternly spurned it and worked independently instead.  

Preaching to beat the devil

African Americans had been responsive to the Stone-Campbell Movement from its beginning. In 1804 there were 851,532 enslaved Africans in the United States. A handful joined the Stone-Campbell Movement, the harbinger of greater things to come. 

Blacks and whites connected in complex ways within the movement. White believers owned slaves who attached themselves to the movement, and talented black preachers caught the interest of sincere and well-meaning white Christians. 

In the mid-1830s, yet a third Alexander Campbell, an ardent black preacher, presided over a congregation in Midway, Kentucky. Generous white Christians purchased Campbell so that he could give his time and talent solely to preaching. His wife, Rosa, a convert of pioneering white preacher John T. Johnson (1788–1856), cast her full support behind her husband’s efforts. 

By 1850 the population of enslaved Africans had grown to 3.2 million; 101,000 of them now belonged to the Stone-Campbell Movement. Alexander Cross (1811–1854), a gifted enslaved preacher from Kentucky, came to white attention at this time. In 1853 white Christians pooled their resources, purchased Cross’s freedom, and sent him and his family as missionaries to Monrovia, Liberia. But Cross contracted malaria and suddenly died. 

Black believers would not remain in such large numbers for long. As the Civil War approached, many enslaved Africans escaped northward and flocked behind Union lines, leaving the religion of their masters behind. By 1862, black membership numbered only around 7,000. 

After the Civil War, Samuel W. Womack (1851–1920) of Tennessee emerged as a pivotal leader. Shortly after his emancipation, Womack came under the influence of three white preachers who “made impressions on my mind that the waves of time will never be able to wash out.” As a result, Womack developed a “high ecclesiology,” the idea that the church—specifically, membership in a Church of Christ—was central to God’s scheme of salvation as local churches were “the God-given institution provided for all his work.” 

Around 1900 Womack joined the pure-worship-seeking Alexander Cleveland Campbell in leaving “modernizing” Christian Churches in Nashville to form Jackson Street. Womack was against institutional bureaucracy beyond the local church, saying, “I know of no way taught in the Book to succeed in the work, but to work, talk, and trust God by doing what he says, just as he says it.” His son-in-law Marshall Keeble (1878–1968) also launched his evangelistic campaigns in 1914 saying, “I had rather follow God’s plan than man’s.”  

“Tearing up” the church

This conflict in Tennessee was merely a foreshadowing of a much bigger fight about what God’s plan looked like. Discord broke out in Longview, Texas, in 1935 when young African American preacher R. N. Hogan (1902–1997) convinced 95 members of his Disciples church to leave. Black Disciples called the police and put him out of their building. 

Around the same time, J. S. Winston (1906–2002) “tore up” a Christian Church in Marlin, Texas, transforming it into a Church of Christ by convincing the congregation that God did not approve instruments and missionary societies. Yet, despite this raging conflict, African American youth in Churches of Christ who wanted to pursue higher learning received a cordial welcome from Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, a school established by black and white Disciples in 1913 (see “The story of a school,” p. 28). 

Paradoxically, while African American preachers in Churches of Christ were attacking the organs and organized missionary efforts of African American Disciples, they relied on these organ-playing foes to receive a college education, since white Church of Christ colleges barred them—a prejudice Hogan lambasted, writing harshly against segregated schools and racism.

Meanwhile, Samuel Robert Cassius (1853–1931) was fighting both worship innovations and white racism in Oklahoma and beyond. Born into slavery, Cassius converted to the Stone-Campbell Movement in the 1880s. After being ordained by white leaders, he lived and labored for three decades in Oklahoma. There he filled various roles: evangelist, educator, farmer, postmaster, family man, and “race man” (a common term for an African American who devoted his life to promoting black advancement).

While Cassius’s primary focus was the “pure gospel,” he also fixed his heart on resolving America’s race problem. His Third Birth of a Nation responded to D. W. Griffith’s inflammatory Birth of a Nation, the infamous 1915 motion picture that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as “savior” of white womanhood and white civilization. Cassius vehemently contested racism and chided white Christians who ignored America’s race problem while funding foreign missions. “Brethren, when you think of heathen,” Cassius proclaimed, “don’t look beyond the United States. You have Africa at your door.’” 

Cassius died impoverished and disappointed in Colorado Springs in 1931. At the time of Cassius’s death, Keeble was preaching a gospel campaign in Valdosta, Georgia. It marked a changing of the guard, as that year Keeble announced that his evangelistic campaigns had resulted in over 1,000 baptisms. B. C. Goodpasture, a white admirer of Keeble, had Keeble’s sermons published, making the preacher a household name. 

Cassius and Keeble both had strong faith in God, a passion for the lost, and a hatred for religious error. But Keeble had one thing that Cassius did not: the consistent support of white philanthropist A. M. Burton (1879–1966). Keeble once called Burton “the greatest missionary in the church today.” Keeble steered clear of racial strife and focused on planting churches. Such an approach garnered generous support from white believers, enabling him to travel extensively and establish congregations across the United States.

Not everyone followed Keeble. Some took Cassius’s path. One was George Philip Bowser (1874–1950), a former Methodist minister. Bowser’s bold stance meant that he never enjoyed support from white Christians. But he shared with Keeble the same goal of leading people out of “human institutions to the church of our Lord.” 

Building for the future

In 1907 Bowser launched Silver Point Christian Institute. By 1918 it fizzled out. Two decades later, he began the Bowser Christian Institute, but lack of funds doomed this school as well in 1946. Bowser’s dream finally lived on in the 1948 founding of Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas—the only accredited African American college in the Churches of Christ. 

There he collaborated with Keeble, who sent many students from his Nashville Christian Institute to Bowser’s school. Together, both schools formed the next generation of African American leadership. That formation led to a new era: the New Wineskins movement of the early 2000s, which contested the idea that no salvation was possible outside of Churches of Christ. 

Supporters of New Wineskins chose, instead, to address economic, social, and racial conditions obliterating African American families. The “fighting style” of previous generations of preachers was giving way to different practices appropriate to a twenty-first-century American culture—a new way to practice the “pure religion of Jesus Christ.” CH

By Edward J. Robinson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #106 in 2013]

Edward J. Robinson is associate professor of history and Bible at Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, and the author of Show Us How You Do It: Marshall Keeble and the Rise of Black Churches of Christ in the United States, 1914–1968.
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