This article was originally published in Restoration Quarterly (Volume 41:1, First Quarter 1999), pages. 11-26. It is reprinted here by permission of Restoration Quarterly.

Nashville’s Central Church of Christ
The First Twenty Years
Harold Shank

The role of the local church in evangelism and benevolence has been discussed at both the theological and methodological levels.1 At the theological level, there has often been a tension between the two. If either evangelism or benevolence is placed at the center of the church’s mission, the other tends to suffer.2 At the methodological level, most churches find it difficult to do both evangelism and benevolence effectively. As Ron Sider notes, some churches excel in benevolence. Other churches do extensive evangelism. Most churches do neither. Few churches do both.3
Nashville’s Central Church of Christ (NCCC), from 1925-1945, did both evangelism and benevolence well.4 The purpose of this study is first, to document both the beginning of the congregation and their practice of evangelism and benevolence, and, second, to outline the theological foundations of this ministry.5
The Development of a New Congregation

In the early 1920s, A.M. Burton, born in Sumner County, Tennessee, February 2, 1879, was President of Life and Casualty Insurance Company and Chairman of the Board of David Lipscomb College.6 At about the same time, E.H. Ijams, born in Florence, Alabama, on May 30, 1886, joined the Psychology and Education faculty at Lipscomb.7 During 1923-24, the two discussed their common concern about the church’s service.8 Ijams gathered together 30-35 Christians from three congregations, Belmont Church of Christ, Waverly-Belmont Church of Christ, and College Church of Christ, early in 1925 to study the “works of the New Testament Church.” That study had two results. First, Ijams wrote a document which summarized their vision which eventually was expanded and published as Real Religion and Practical Christianity.9 Second, the group decided to start a congregation to accomplish these goals. Burton purchased two adjacent residences for sale on Fifth Avenue North in downtown Nashville.10 Some forty-three years later, Ijams would describe the location as “ghetto status.” Ijams spent the summer of 1925 gathering twelve families to help establish the new congregation.11
Forty-seven people attended the first service on October 4, 1925. Ijams was selected as the preacher. J.E. Acuff, C.E.W. Dorris, E.H. Ijams, and J.S. Ward were appointed elders.12 Immediately Christians moved from other congregations. By November, attendance was 150.13 An auditorium seating one thousand people was completed by the next May. By June 1931, the church had 576 members, and by December 1941, the congregation had grown to 1,200 members.14 A Sunday School also began on October 4, 1925. By April 1931, there were eleven children’s classes and five adult classes. A.M. Burton taught a class in 1931, with an average attendance of 130.15
Ministers who worked with NCCC include Ijams (1925-1928, 1943-52), J. Petty Ezell (1927), A.R. Holton (1926), Charles R. Brewer, Hall L. Calhoun (1926-1935), and E. W. McMillan (July 1935-December 1941).16
Evangelistic Efforts
From the beginning NCCC determined to do daily teaching. According to Ijams, they “sought a place of teaching, worship and benevolence that was never to be closed. Here we proposed to meet every day of the year, including Christmas, July the Fourth, and all holidays.”17 A twenty-five-minute preaching service was held at noon every Monday through Saturday. The daily service not only attracted people from NCCC’s auditorium, but the message was broadcast on WDAD (later WLAC) radio beginning in December 1925. At times the church had ten programs on the station each week.18 The church purchased the station in August 1927 in a joint ownership with Life and Casualty Insurance Company. Initially, the church simply broadcast the daily noon service, but later the messages originated from a studio. Hall L. Calhoun became the regular speaker on the noon program in January 1928 and, over the next eight years, built a considerable radio audience. Adron Doran recalls the claim that a person could walk down Main Street in any Middle Tennessee town and hear from house to house the voice of Calhoun preaching the noon radio sermon.19 The extent of the audience may be reflected in the 2,478 letters received in 1929-30 from 33 states, Canada, Cuba, and the Bahama Islands.20 By 1948, some 7,500 programs had been broadcast.21
NCCC maintained a weekly visitation ministry led by the wives of the nine elders and deacons. Each wife was captain of a team of five workers. Workers were rotated every six months. Each member of the congregation was visited twice a year. New members were visited more frequently.22
In the first five years, NCCC gave away more than five thousand New Testaments and ten thousand portions of the Bible.23 From 1925-28, some 275,000 pieces of religious literature were distributed.24 In 1930, NCCC supported twelve missionaries, including J.P. Sanders in Jackson, Miss., J.W. Shepherd in Richmond, VR., B.D. Moreland in Japan, J.D. Eckstein in Dallas, and Marshall Keeble in Nashville.25
During the twenty years from 1925-45, over eight thousand people were baptized at the NCCC, an average of a little over one person a day.26 Baptisms were typical at the daily noon service and nearly certain at the Sunday morning assembly. Many people came from the city, but others traveled considerable distances to be baptized at NCCC.27 People even called in the evening hours or at night to be baptized.28
Benevolent Efforts
Not only did the church do evangelism seven days per week, it also helped the poor every day. The benevolence of NCCC covered a broad range of services to the poor of Nashville and the surrounding area.29
Medical. The new church initiated a dental and medical clinic in the building. Two dentists worked a minimum of two hours a week. In January 1931, the City Health Department supplied Central with a dentist. From 1924-30, 196 people were served without cost. Five physicians, including two elders at NCCC, provided medical services. They treated 109 patients from June 28 to December 30.30 A nurse was employed initially but was discontinued by 1930 because a suitable person could not be located. All care was provided free.31
Educational. NCCC also provided a library which was open to the public.32 Ninety percent of the 1,042 volumes were on religious subjects. Most of the books came from the library of Corey E. Morgan, preacher at Vine Street Christian Church.33 Additionally, the congregation offered classes in a variety of areas including: physical exercise, problems of life, music, Bible, personal hygiene, dietetics, and health.34
Support Services. Next to the church building, the congregation constructed an enclosed playground for neighborhood children who had previously played on downtown streets. A five-story addition to the church building completed in October 1928 provided space for a “day home,” a day care center for children whose mothers were sick or had to work or who had no mother and whose father worked. From 1929-30, the day care center averaged thirty-four children per day. The day care center continued until 1972. The church staff included several who were available for counseling. A full-time business manager coordinated volunteer activities and funding. Several secretaries aided in the general business of the congregation. An active program of visiting the sick and grieving included a personal letter from NCCC’s minister to the family of each person who died in the city. The church also supplied funds for rent, burials, bus fare, and transportation, and had a store room of donated clothing. Members helped the needy with groceries, clothing, and coal.35 By the mid-1930s, NCCC employed college students to make deliveries to the poor in the church pickup truck.36
Meals. The congregation provided a free noon meal to homeless and poor people in a large parlor off the building’s main lobby. Some 45,000 hot meals were served from 1925-28. From June 1928 to December 1930, 11,117 meals were served.37
Jobs. At times, the church had a full-time individual to help people find jobs. From 1928-1930, the church assisted 590 people in finding employment and provided free lodging to 3,222 individuals.38
Housing. NCCC developed an extensive housing program. Sometime in 1926-27, the church purchased the Cumberland Hotel next to the church building and renovated the structure to provide housing for girls. Some 67 rooms allowed an average 110 girls to maintain residence in the building. Of those 328 registered in 1929, 53 were widows, 19 were children, and 256 were young women. Most had come to Nashville for school or work. Minimal fees or room-for-work arrangements provided some support for the house, but it was generously subsidized out of the church treasury.39
The 1928 addition to the church building provided a three-story area for housing men. As many as sixty boys and men lived there while attending night school or business colleges in the area. Some of the boys were handicapped. Central not only provided lodging, but also offered physical exercise sessions and classes in a variety of areas.40
Theological Foundations
NCCC not only built an extensive ministry of evangelism and benevolence, but also constructed a clear theology of ministry. As the new church was developed, it was the theology of ministry that drove their practice. The extensive ministry grew out of the private thinking of both Ijams and Burton supported by the 1925 study group that clarified the nature of their future. This theological thinking provided the foundation for the ministry and also dictated some of the methodological decisions made along the way. The second half of this study outlines that foundational thinking and shows how that theology prompted the church to balance the roles of evangelism and benevolence and to stop their social action short of political involvement.
Out of the 1925 study group, the founders of NCCC developed a document called Real Religion and Practical Christianity. The complete text recorded in A.M. Burton’s volume, Gleanings, appears below:
Real religion? Practical Christianity? What is it? It is a congregation of religious people truly obedient to “the faith once for all delivered unto the saints.”
Seeking first the Kingdom of God, really putting God first, thus worshiping God and serving man “really serving, in spirit and in truth.”
Making peace and good will among men, in little things, in big things, working for peace and brotherhood between man and man. Trying to do good to everybody, striving to develop the best in every man.
Giving due regard to the bodily needs of men, hence:
Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick, teaching all respect for bodily purity and vigor.
Giving due regard to spiritual needs, teaching daily the word of truth, “publicly, and from house to house.”
Exemplifying the transformed life through the renewed mind.
Accepting the Bible as the revelation of the Wonderful, Mighty, Everlasting God.
Honoring Christ as “head over all things to the Church.”
Always abounding in the work of the Lord.
Imagine a group of people zealous of all these things, yet,
Prayerfully guarding against pomp and vain glory.
Thoroughly alive to the dangers of an empty formalism.
Practicing nothing unscriptural or anti-scriptural.
On watch day and night against the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Imagine, I say, a congregation of genuinely converted Christians, prayerfully avoiding every wrong, humbly and lovingly active in every good work. What would such a religion working through such a congregation be? Would it not be the real religion? Would it not be the religion that honors God and blesses men?41
These lines, sometimes called “Central’s First Objectives” or the “First Statement of Principles,” appear regularly in the literature of the congregation.42 Lacy Elrod in his 1931 study of NCCC emphasizes how significant it was that the new congregation had their prospectus in print before it began in order to guide the new church.43 This study isolates five themes in this statement that undergird the ministries of NCCC: both doctrine and practice are necessary to authenticate the restoration ideal; practical Christianity includes meeting physical and spiritual needs; ministry seeks to give glory to God; service is to be offered to all people without limits; and ministry must be motivated by love.
Practical Christianity Authenticated Restorationism. The ministry of evangelism and benevolence was a critical index of the congregation’s authenticity. The citation in Practical Christianity and Real Religion of Jude 3 (“the faith once for all delivered unto the saints”), one of the slogan verses of the Restoration Movement, formed the basic theological core for the congregation’s ministry. The leaders of NCCC felt that, without an active program of benevolence and evangelism, they could lay little claim to having restored New Testament Christianity or to having God’s heart of love and service.
The massive programs of evangelism and benevolence of the NCCC were rooted in the language and ideals of the Restoration movement. Writing in 1966, Ijams recalled:
In Nashville, during 1924-25, I discovered that Brother Burton and I felt about the same way as to certain aspects of the Restoration Movement. I had entertained these ideas for a dozen or more years, almost alone among brethren I then knew. Churches of Christ, as I had observed them during the first quarter of the twentieth century, were commendably strong in doctrine, but were often very, very weak in good works. The more I considered this failure in good works, the more it loomed before me as a dangerous inconsistency in those who would restore New Testament Christianity. I came to feel that we could not get far in restoring the religion of the early Christians unless we learned to do a better job of uniting faith and works.44
The first sermon of the new church called for “practical Christianity” which included serving the poor and daily teaching in order to reestablish “real New Testament religion.”45 The same restoration ideas appear in a NCCC publication called The Sunday Visitor in 1937: “The Central Church of Christ is a congregation of religious people obedient to ‘the faith once for all delivered unto the saints,’ thus trying to worship God and serve our fellow men.”46 A movement that restored New Testament doctrine without attempting to imitate New Testament practice was not a complete Restoration Movement.47 The goal of NCCC was to more fully restore New Testament Christianity by developing a congregation committed not only to the doctrine of the New Testament but also the practice.
Practical Christianity Included Meeting Physical and Spiritual Needs. The NCCC statement spells out clearly what “practical Christianity” meant. “Giving due regard to the bodily needs of men” includes concern with food, clothing, illness, and health. The other half quickly follows: “Giving due regard to spiritual needs” Practical Christianity could not do one without the other. Practical Christianity included both.
The congregation was just as serious about “feeding the hungry” as it was about “accepting the Bible as the revelation of God,” just as focused on “teaching daily” as on “honoring Christ as head over all things to the Church.” Service to the poor and daily teaching to the lost was intentional in the congregation’s plans, central in the church’s teaching, and exhibited in the church’s practice.
Practical Christianity Gives Glory to God. Practical Christianity, when played out, would give glory to God. The attention drawn by the ministry would be reflected to God, who would be praised. Worship was not limited to an hour on Sunday but was reflected in all that the church did. “Practical Christianity” had clear connections with giving God glory. Ijams wrote:
The first sermon [at Central] . . .stressed a strong plea for “practical Christianity” and “real New Testament religion.” These words and ideas had been used in the teaching that preceded the decision to start the new congregation. Being familiar to that first audience, these phrases easily became working slogans that served to kindle and sustain the growing enthusiasm of Central’s early members. Behind these slogans, or watchwords, were two New Testament ideals, “SERVICE” and “GLORY”, “Service to humanity,” and “glory to God,” in the Church, through Christ Jesus the Lord.48
Practical Christianity Serves All. Theologically, the ministry of NCCC was aimed at all. They tried to “do good to everybody, to develop the best in every man.” No one was to be excluded from the ministry of the church. “Practical Christianity” was not limited to any particular economic, social, or ethnic group. One of the original aims of the church said, “Keeping house open for anyone.”49 The thousands who came to Central, whites and blacks; transients and Nashville residents; sick and well; employed and unemployed; bank presidents and habitual drunks; young and old; men and women, were all helped and taught. Although Central kept careful records and conducted discreet investigations to ensure that the help they offered remained fair and just, the congregation never considered merit in offering help. The treatment was always the same.50 Nobody was turned away because of a social, racial, or economic barrier.
A young boy from the Philippines lived at the Boys’ House in 1930. In a letter to the church administrator, he wrote,
This gives me an opportunity to mention my gratefulness in being able to be with you here. It is my desire to do well in any task I am given. It makes me more conscious of how wonderful the gospel of Christ is as a bond between all races of mankind whatever blood or speech or color, a sacred bond to make me feel the more and believe that we are all the children of God.51
Anecdotes from the NCCC history reflect that they put no limits on who could be served. A man who was only a child when he attended Central recalls that after a particularly disastrous flood in Louisville, many refugees poured into Nashville with no money and nowhere to go. Central threw open its doors, which were never locked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and people entered the building. He remembers walking through the auditorium seeing people asleep in the aisles and, going into the lobby, finding it necessary to step over tired refugees sleeping off their suffering.52
On another occasion, the Cumberland River flooded the tenement housing in the lower part of the downtown area. Before any other agency in the city acted, NCCC went on radio and told people that two trucks were parked in front of their building, one contained mattresses and the other dry clothes. People hit by the flood were invited to get what they needed.53
Ministry was motivated by love. The “genuinely concerned Christians” were to be “humbly and lovingly active in every good work.” They sought for “peace and good will among all men.” Their motives were not simply to restore New Testament Christianity doctrinally, but to be the kind of loving people New Testament Christians were called to be. Burton wrote, “It is the practice of love that wins, not merely the telling of it.”54 In 1930, Elrod argued that one of the aims of NCCC was to be “a congregation of truly connected Christians, loving God with heart, mind, and soul, and others as themselves.”55
The “practice of love” called for people to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances. One worker recalled, “The people we helped were never made to feel that they were different from anybody else. All are created by the same creator. We all share in the good things he gives us.”56 Even those who counseled the poor insisted on calling their sessions “sharing programs” so that those being helped could sense the “practice of love.”
One congregational publication entitled A Spiritual Report reflected on the first twenty-three years of ministries. Even then the ministries of the church were listed under the title “Works of Faith and Labors of Love.”
This daily sharing of our material possessions is conducted in a humble semi-private way so as not to embarrass or pauperize those who are helped. It is a service which we try to perform in a spirit of humility, loving kindness, and in the name of Christ, and for the glory of his church. Central receives and answers many calls for help. Each call is studied carefully, as an important opportunity to perform a ministration of love.57
After twenty-three years, the church still maintained its original intention of restoring practical Christianity and the language of love still abounded.
The concern with practical Christianity motivated by love is seen not only in the literature of NCCC but also in anecdotes that have survived from this twenty-year period. In the early 1930s, people lived all around the Central building in downtown Nashville. One family lived on Fifth Avenue in an old brick house. One worker later recalled, “The church fell in love with them because they were in need and we could supply it.” Once when a worker asked the mother if they needed food, she declined, explaining that they had eaten potatoes the night before and she had saved the peelings for potato soup that evening. The love relationship between the church and the family continued a number of years before they moved.58
Later a child drowned while jumping on a log in the Cumberland River. The Central worker noted, “The family gave us a blessing and allowed us to come into their lives.” The church purchased a burial plot, conducted memorial services, and helped the family grieve.59
In the early 1930s, a family from Texas was involved in an automobile accident nine miles out of Nashville. The police called Central church. The family’s young boy was killed in the accident. They had no money, so Central conducted the funeral and buried the boy in one of the church-owned lots at Spring Hill Cemetery. The family remained in NCCC’s care for several months before moving back to Texas.60
On such occasions, people in the community would call the NCCC church office and ask why the congregation was so generous to these poor transients. People would inquire about why the church provided a memorial service for people they did not know and why an expensive tombstone was placed over the grave of a pauper. The answer from Central was always the same: “We believe even the poor deserve to be buried with dignity.”61Despite the large numbers and the many years, NCCC has sought to maintain a loving relationship with those they helped and taught.
Balancing Benevolence and Evangelism
As significant as the NCCC statistics first appear, the most amazing aspect of their history lies not in the numbers of people fed or individuals baptized, but in the striking way in which this congregation accomplished both. The magic with which they melted the two together stands out, both for its uniqueness and its effectiveness.
Restoration thinking provided a theological foundation for NCCC programs of evangelism and benevolence, but the way in which the two elements worked together relied on a theological construction developed out of their concern for “practical Christianity.”
Theologically, they believed that Christian love in action (i.e., benevolence) would convince people to come to Christ (i.e., evangelism). Teaching the Gospel verbally in evangelism would be effective only if the target audience could see the practical application of Christianity in their own lives. Founders of the Central church intended to help the poor and win people to Christ. As they reflected on the biblical teachings prior to the establishment of the congregation, they were moved to start a church for just such a purpose.62 Burton wrote, “It is the practice of love that wins, not merely the telling of it. . . It is the practice of the gospel that is convincing.”63The “practice of love that wins” took on several striking qualities in the ministry of the NCCC. Three are mentioned here.
1. No Strings Gospel. The “practice of love” refused to tie benevolent help to evangelistic response. No study was required to get help. No baptisms had to be in place before purse strings were opened. No attendance at the noon meeting was required for the church pickup truck to bring more coal.64 Benevolent help was free to all at NCCC. While no soup-for-sermon policy was ever adopted, they maintained a constant readiness to do both to whomever asked.
In their concern for others, the NCCC naturally served the needy and preached their faith, not as two separate functions, but both out of the concern they had for others. The love of the hurting and needy unified their efforts to help and teach. It was in that unified effort that they also intentionally showed the grace of God.
2. Verbalized Gospel. The “practice of love” included speaking the Gospel. Central’s audience did not respond simply because they saw good deeds in action. Workers in the massive benevolent programs of this church expected people to turn to God. The church’s original goals stated, “All persons having any connection whatsoever with this work should be prepared at all times to preach the gospel to those with whom they came in contact.”65In showing them the love of God, they raised in the receiver a spiritual interest. In illustrating grace by the gifts they gave, Central workers uncapped a desire for the God of mercy. One young woman who lived in the girls’ home remarked, “We were never told to go to church. We were not made to go to church. But it was understood that we should go.”66 However, the church did not remain mute. Into every bag went a message about the love of God, communicating in print what they did with actions and said with words. The radio message of the same God and His Son went into every part of the city. At noon every day and in the two Sunday assemblies, the church invited all to participate with them in a study of Scripture.67
3. Evangelism and Benevolence Were Customized to the Needs of the People. The evangelistic message of NCCC met the people where they were. NCCC did not begin with specific doctrines of the Church of Christ but focused on the fundamental principles of the Christian faith: love, grace, and mercy. As people became more interested, they were taught how to become Christians and the specific views of the church.68
Benevolence was also customized at NCCC. John Carter, who began working with the NCCC in 1934, capsulized the Central attitude when he noted, “The greatest service I can render to another is to listen to that person when that person is hurting.”69 Central people did more than listen over the decades, but the calm, gracious spirit needed for careful listening and adaptation characterized all they did. Central met people with unwanted pregnancies, deadly diseases, and injuries from accidents; people suffering from unemployment, broken marriages, deep sorrow, alcoholism and drug abuse, depression, divorce, and weak faith; people who were runaways from home and lost children.70 These people found acceptance and help, practical evidences of the grace of God, in their dealings with NCCC.
Evangelism at Central never emerged as a separate ministry because of the way they conducted evangelism. Helping the poor was evangelism because it was the love of God in action, an illustration of the grace of Christ, and a printed or verbal message of the same. Benevolence never became separated from evangelism, because helping people was spreading in action the love of God and the grace of Christ, both in spoken and unspoken forms. There were not benevolent people and then evangelistic people at Central. There were just Christians.
Social Action and Politics
“Practical Christianity” at the NCCC included relief and development but no politics.71 Evidence of this is primarily anecdotal. A family moved to Nashville in 1927. After their arrival, Central provided for the burial of their eighteen-year-old son. The congregation then helped the family find clothing, housing, and furniture. Central obtained a license for the father to sell coal and vegetables, but he did not do so well at the job. A year later, he asked the church to buy him a horse. They did, even though he had failed at the earlier job. Three months later, he returned and asked the church to buy him a new wagon. Central put new tires on his old one. Over the next few years, the congregation continued to provide food and clothing, yet in all their aid, they never considered the family’s merit a factor in their aid.72
Unemployed and unable to control his drinking problem, a twenty-nine-year-old man sought aid from Central on January 7, 1930. They helped him face his difficulty, gave him housing, and even offered him part-time employment. Within a year he had become a Christian, married a young woman in the congregation, and went on to become a successful businessman in Nashville.73
Clearly NCCC both provided relief (such as food and housing) and did development (bought horses, provided part-time jobs), but stopped short of seeking structural through political involvement.
When E.H. Ijams moved his family into the apartment on Fifth Avenue at the location where the NCCC would meet, the sign across the street from his living room window advertised a dance hall and the associated establishments that surrounded such places in the 1920s in urban America. Further down the street was a prize fight arena. Other shady kinds of businesses did not make it an attractive area of town.
Ijams recalls the next few years:
Now, it is significant that Central Church never, during those years, said one word against any person, place or thing in its neighborhood. We did nothing but try to teach and demonstrate the gospel of Christ. We met every day at noon, six days a week, for a twenty-five-minute service, with the house being open for teaching and benevolence from morn till night. Though we launched no attack or pressures on them, the dance hall and related businesses gradually faded away–and rather quickly.74
Even the Nashville Chamber of Commerce noticed and issued this report about the Central church:
There is nothing pretentious and grand about this wonderful church. It is simple and appealing, just the kind of place that both the fortunate and unfortunate like to go for spiritual comfort, and within is found those with their hearts in the work, and who grasp the hand of him in rags and tatters and make him feel as much at home as the man in finer dress; where the woman of the underworld and the primrose path is as welcome as the woman in finery and splendor. The new institution has become a wonderful power in the civic life of the city of Nashville through its simplicity and whole-heartedness. . .. In reality, the church is a civic center, and any and all are welcome.75
The unofficial transition in the downtown Nashville neighborhood and this official record by civic leaders both illustrate the reaction to the work of the Central church. By their concern and love for people and by their generous and graceful aid, Central church built an admirable reputation. Their theology of benevolence included relief and development which influenced social structures, but they never became involved politically.
The first twenty years of the NCCC represents a congregation that effectively practiced both benevolence and evangelism out of a theological concern to fully restore New Testament Christianity by the restoration of “practical Christianity” and the “practice of love.” This theological foundation enabled them to excel in both evangelism and benevolence, melting the two together in one unified ministry. Their interest in social action included relief and development. Without resorting to political involvement, the NCCC did alter the structure of downtown Nashville in the two decades from 1925-45.
Most churches do neither evangelism nor benevolence. A few do either evangelism or benevolence. Nashvilles Central Church of Christ did both.


1. While fully aware of the debates over the definitions of evangelism and benevolence, this study uses “evangelism” to refer to the teaching and preaching ministry of the church seeking to save lost people and uses “benevolence” and “social action” interchangeably to refer to the ministry of the church to serve and help the poor. The exact way in which Nashville’s Central Church of Christ (NCCC) practiced these ministries is the focus of this study.
2. The theological battle lines are oft discussed. See Ronald J. Sider, One-Sided Christianity? Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), and David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991) 432-446. For a discussion of the issue in Churches of Christ, see Richard Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 278-280. For a survey of social services in the Restoration Movement, see Jimmie Moore Mankin, The Role of Social Service in the Life and Growth of the Madison Church of Christ(Dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1987) 21-35.
3. Ronald J. Sider, One-Sided Christianity? Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 15.
4. This study is limited to the first twenty years of the history of NCCC. The limitation was made by E.H. Ijams in “Priceless Memories of Central’s Early Years,” a sermon preached at NCCC on October 6, 1968. Since much of the data in this study was derived from that presentation, the same limits have been used.
5. Recent efforts to chronicle the work of NCCC include: Robert Hooper, “The Cry of the City: Two Southern Urban Churches and the Needy,” unpublished typescript in possession of the author; Paul Brown, “Evangelism by Mass Benevolence,” in 17th Annual International Bible College Lectures, ed. David L. Lipe (Florence, AL: IBC, 1988); Richard Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith; and Harold Shank, “Aggressive Grace: Central Church of Christ in Action” Wineskins (August 1992) 7-9.
6. Era Irene Emmons in Gleanings by A.M. Burton, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Life and Casualty Insurance Company, 1948) v-vi; E.H. Ijams, “History, Central Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee,” (typescript in possession of the author) 5.
7. Who’s Who in America, Vol. 25. s.v. Ijams, Elvin H. (Chicago: A.N. Marquis Co., 1949) 1232; Ijams, “History” 5; E.H. Ijams, “Acknowledging a Debt of Gratitude: A Tribute to Andrew Mizell Burton on the Occasion of His Eighty-Seventh Birthday,” February 5, 1966 (typescript in possession of author) 1.
8. Burton had worked on the establishment of a new church prior to meeting Ijams. Paul Brown indicates Burton started in 1922, while the Nashville Banner says 1920 [Bob Bell, “Downtown Church of Christ Plans Told” Nashville Banner March 30, 1972, 29]. A typescript without indication of authorship in the papers of E.H. Ijams in possession of the author entitled “The Greatest Decisions of His Life” covers Ijam’s life through 1944. At one point, this text states, “More than to anyone else, this great church in Nashville [NCCC] owns its existence to Bro. A.M. Burton. And, it is to Brother Burton and the providence of God that Brother Ijams attributes the fact that he was privileged to share in the efforts that brought the church, Central, a great church, into existence” (8). Ijams would later write to Burton on 26 October 1965, “Your life is a striking demonstration of the inestimable contributions which real Christian business men can make to the cause of Christianity. Not only that, but our association at Central Church in Nashville greatly strengthened my devotion to practical Christianity”. You have helped tremendously to convince our brethren that, and Americans generally, that “Real Religion” New Testament Christianity, is a combination of “faith and works”, of profession and performance. It is significant that you put the great force of your being into this all-important effort at a time when the Restoration Movement was in danger of becoming just another impotent Pharisaic system of “saying and not doing.” The value of your efforts in awakening believers to the importance of demonstrating Christian faith by Christian works has been and is inestimable. All of this, plus your example of consistent, liberal giving, giving which proves the blessedness of the greatest of the beatitudes (Acts 20:35), has benefitted me possibly more than I know. I want to be grateful to God for these blessings, and to you; and I want you to have this written token of my sincere and thankful appreciation” (letter in possession of author).
Ijams’s interest in practical Christianity began long before he met Burton. His wife, Una Hartley Ijams, wrote this: “E.H.’s deep inner faith and his deep-seated desire to render a service to others did not have its beginning after his marriage. He had learned in the home of his father and mother the joy of depriving himself of non-essentials and to place other people’s need above his. Neither his father nor mother had good health and by the time E.H. was in his lower teens it was necessary for him to take over most of the responsibility of their welfare” (“E.H. Ijams as a Husband,” typescript in possession of author, 6).
9. A.M. Burton and E.H. Ijams, Real Religion and Practical Christianity (Nashville: n.p., n.d.). According to Lacy Elrod, Burton sent out a series of letters to leaders among Southern Churches of Christ about the teaching of Christ in Mt. 25:31-46 and Lk. 14:12-14. His letters and the responses received were formed into a pamplet called Real Religion and Practical Christianity. I have a typed copy of an early edition of this document with markings by E.H. Ijams. The main text appears later in this essay.
10. Ijams, “History” 5-7.
11. E.H. Ijams, “Priceless Memories of Central’s Early Years,” a sermon preached at Central Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, on October 6, 1968, 1. Typescript in possession of author.
12. Lacy Elrod, A Study of a Downtown Church (M.A. thesis, Peabody College for Teachers, 1931) 12. Dorris and Ward were still elders in January 1948. A Spiritual Report (Nashville: Central Church of Christ, 1931) ii.
13. Ijams, “Priceless Memories,” 1.
14. Elrod, 91. W.E. Barr, “Unique Work of Church Attracts Wide Attention,” Nashville Banner May 30, 1926, Gravure Sunday Section. By 1948, the membership was nearly 1,500. [A Spiritual Report 91].
15. Elrod, 85.
16. Ijams, “History” 9; “elfare Program Including Social Service Emphasized by Central Church of Christ,” Nashville Banner December 24, 1941, p. 10; Preachers of Today (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1959), 1.226, 2.216; Adron Doran, The Christian Scholar (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1985) 164-68. Typescript from John G. Carter,” Central Church of Christ” (1982), 1. Mrs. J.B. Isom was full time Social Work counselor at Central from the 1930s (Bell, “Downtown Church,” 29).
17. Ijams, “Priceless Memories” 2.
18. Ijams, “Priceless Memories” 2.
19. Adron Doran, The Christian Scholar (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1985) 163-169.
20. Elrod, 90.
21. A Spiritual Report, 9.
22. Elrod, 80-82.
23. Elrod, 78.
24. Robert C. Hooper, “The Cry of the City: Two Southern Urban Churches and the Needy,” unpublished typescript in possession of the author, 19.
25. Elrod, 83, 91.
26. Ijams, “Priceless Memories” 3. The figure is collaborated by Bell’s article in the Nashville Banner, 29. Brown reports that Ijams had records of over eight thousand baptisms for the period.
27. After speaking in Nashville, Landon Saunders tells of an older man coming up and saying, “I was plowing in my field and stopped for lunch. I listened to E.H. Ijams on the radio. This was in the 1920s. I got on my horse, rode into Nashville. I tied my horse up in front of the Central Church and asked to see E.H. Ijams. He sat me down and I said, ‘I’ve been listening to you on radio. It’s time to change my life. Would you baptize me into Christ?’” (Landon Saunders, interview with author in Memphis, TN, Mar. 23, 1997.
28. John G. Carter, interview with author in Nashville, TN, March 19, 1990.
29. Elrod, 30-32. This description of the benevolent efforts of NCCC is selective. The Nashville Banner included pictures of the children’s playground, dental clinic, medical clinic, libraries, clothing room, and dining hall in 1926 (Barr). Elrod describes the 1925-30 efforts in detail. An article in the Nashville Tennessean in 1938 included most of the same activities (“Homeless Find Friendly Help at Central Church” Nashville Tennessean, Sept. 3, 1938). A Spiritual Report indicates that most of what Elrod reports for 1925-30 is still going on in 1948. This study does not document the activities of each year 1925-1945, but only surveys the kind of ministry that characterized all twenty years. A 1982 document from John C. Carter entitled “Central Church of Christ” claims, “The benevolent has continued on a daily basis for 57 years.” Some services were interrupted during World War II (Bell, 29).
30. Elrod, 30-32. Local clinics eventually volunteered their services, and NCCC medical clinic closed in 1930 (Elrod, 79).
31. Elrod, iv, 61, 78-79.
32. “Central Church of Christ,” Gospel Advocate Oct. 22, 1925, 1013.
33. Elrod, 24.
34. Elrod, 52; Hooper, 19.
35. Barr; Elrod, iii, 28-32, 63-64, 88-89; Carter, “Central Church of Christ.” According to A Spiritual Report, a nursery school was opened in 1943, limited to twenty children (10).
36. John C. Carter, interview with author, Nashville, TN. Mar. 19, 1990. Also Elrod, 107; Hooper, 19.
37. Elrod, 30-32.
38. Elrod, 30-32.
39. Elrod (53-53, 57) has the home opening in October 1926. A mimeographed document entitled “Girl’s Home, Central Church of Christ” covers the history of the home from its beginning in 1927 until its closing in May 1972.
40. Elrod, 52-53, 61.
41. A.M. Burton, Gleanings (Nashville: Life and Casualty Insurance Co., 1932), 86-87.
42. This prospectus is found in A.M. Burton, Go (Nashville: n.p., 1925) pp. 38+ and in A Spiritual Report, 3-4. Elrod includes an earlier version (8-11). A flyer from a dinner honoring Ijams (typescript in possession of author) includes a biographical sketch. At one point, it says, “E.H. Ijams wrote a prospectus which set forth goals and the purposes of this new congregation. He asked the question, ‘Real religion? Practical Christianity? What is it?’ He summarized his answer by saying it is a ‘congregation of genuinely converted Christians. . ..’”
43. Elrod, 86-87. Elrod outlines the statement into two sets of aims. The first set of aims concerned the building and its purposes: (1) well located; (2) benevolent room; (3) public meeting and rest room for travelers; (4) lunch counter; and (5) daily kindergarten. The second set of aims concerned personnel and activities of the congregation: (1) keeping an open house; (2) visiting the sick; (3) reconciling and restoring broken marriages; (4) daily noon service and special daily morning prayer service; (5) committees for hospital visitation and Bible teacher visitation to all government institutions in the area; (6) always prepared to share the gospel; (7) medical staff available; (8) “truly converted Christians”; (9) keeping itself pure, “living soberly, righteously, and godly”; and (10) “always manifesting meekness, humility, and love of Christ their Master.” (Elrod, 14-17.)
44. Ijams, “Acknowledging” 1-2.
45. Ijams, “History,” 1.
46. A.M. Burton, The Sunday Visitor, vol. 3 (Nashville: Sunday School Class No. 13, Central Church of Christ, 1937), no page numbers.
47. In practice, the NCCC departed from a major plank of David Lipscomb’s theology of benevolence. Anthony L. Dunnavant has chronicled Lipscomb’s insistence on a “concern for the poor rooted in concrete historical and personal experience” [“David Lipscomb on the Church and the Poor,” Restoration Quarterly 32.2 (1991) 85]. Lipscomb argued that, because Jesus was poor, all Christians should also be poor, and that it would be through poor Christians that other poor people would be served. Lipscomb went so far as to say, “it is altogether a mistake to think that the poor are to be preached to by the rich” [“The Churches Across the Mountains,” Gospel Advocate39/1 (January 7, 1897), 4]. This kind of argument never appears in the literature of the NCCC. One of the key financial backers of the congregation was A.M. Burton, whose Life and Casualty Insurance Company had assets of ninety million dollars in 1948 [cited in Era Irene Emmons, Gleanings, vol. 2 (Nashville: Life and Casualty Insurance Co., 1948) v]. The practice of the NCCC suggests that Christians who are not caught in poverty can effectively, and biblically, minister to the poor. However, it should be noted that many people and local businesses also contributed to the NCCC cause. Elrod, 21-22.
48. Ijams, “History” 1.
49. Elrod, 15.
50. Carter, interview. The policy on free meals was to offer any person one free meal. The second meal was given only after investigating the person through the Social Service Exchange (Elrod, 26).
51. Elrod, 40.
52. Dr. Joe Ijams, interview with the author in Memphis, TN. Oct. 3, 1989.
53. Paul Brown, “Evangelism by Mass Benevolence” in 17th Annual International Bible College Lectures, ed. David L. Lipe (Florence, AL: IBC, 1988). Lecture presented at International Bible College Lectures, Florence, AL, 1988.
54. Burton, Go 39.
55. Elrod, 16.
56. Carter, interview.
57. A Spiritual Report, 8-9.
58. Carter, interview.
59. Carter, interview.
60. Carter, interview.
61. Brown, “Evangelism.”
62. Ijams, “History” 2-7.
63. Burton, Go 39.
64. Carter, interview.
65. Elrod, 16.
66. Dolores H. Olive, interview with author in Nashville, TN, Mar. 15, 1990.
67. Carter, interview.
68. Carter, interview.
69. Carter, interview.
70. Elrod, 15. Elrod’s master’s thesis at Peabody College contains forty case studies (pp. 23-24, 33-52, 97-140) with people who sought help from NCCC. The cases include people with all the problems listed here. NCCC was often the last stop and the last hope for individuals and families in these situations.
71. Sider identifies three levels of social action: Relief provides immediate help to the poor and oppressed. Development uses long term help to enable the poor to finally support themselves. Structural change uses the political process to change unfair social structures. Sider, 137-158.
72. Elrod, 121-122.
73. Elrod, 45-46.
74. Ijams, “Priceless Memories” 2.
75. Cited in Burton, Gleanings, 91.