Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 19, 1959
NUMBER 41, PAGE 6-7b

The Old Gospel Advocate

Jere E. Frost, Newbern, Tennessee

The Gospel Advocate made its appearance in July, 1855. One of the very aims of its founders, Tolbert Fanning and William Lipscomb, was to restudy and thoroughly examine the subject of cooperation and to open its columns to a full and free discussion in which both the friends and enemies of the societies could take a part. The month before the first Advocate was published, a prospectus appeared in the Millenial Harbinger containing this charitable and non-partisan resolution which speaks for itself: "Their motto shall be, 'Open columns and free discussion of all questions calculated to advance the spiritual interest of society.' " (June, 1855, p. 358.) In the fourth issue of the newborn monthly, Fanning further revealed his intentions as regarded both the societies and editorial policy, saying:

In establishing 'The Gospel Advocate,' I determined by the help of the Lord, to give the subject of cooperation a thorough examination. I do not pretend to say how it has been brought about, but I have for years believed that a change must take place in our views of cooperation, before we can labor to each other's advantage, or to the honor of God. (GA, 1855, p. 110.)

The American Christian Missionary Society, at this writing, was six years old. George W. Elley availed himself of the open columns of the Advocate to make a defense for the societies, and the battle in the GA was underway. The infant journal was yet in its third year when Fanning reflected upon the unpleasant conflict in which it was engaged, and which had been painfully anticipated before its birth, and pled with brethren for a fair discussion, saying:

We think it due to ourselves, to the cause we plead, and to the brethren especially who seem to differ widely from us, to state our teaching in reference to cooperative labor ... in very plain terms. It was with much hesitation we brought ourselves to the conclusion, in 1855, to commence the publication of the Gospel Advocate. As expressed to our intimate friends, we were satisfied that we would be forced to attack existing institutions among the brethren, and we felt unwilling to have their opposition. But we have freely spoken, and now all we ask of our brethren is a fair discussion. (GA, 1857, p. 131.)

It may be of interest to the reader, though it is not the purpose of this article to notice arguments, to observe that the basis for defense occupied by Elley was that the societies were merely an expediency, or a method, by which churches cooperated in doing the grand work committed unto them by God. The very crux of his contention was that human organizations were necessary (his word), implying that there was no cooperation without them and that independently functioning churches were handicapped and ineffective. The "expedient" had become "necessary" in keeping with the ageless egotism of man; man's institutions are necessary, for without them God's organization (the church) flounders! That is, so they said then! And so say some now! The similarity in the defenses for human organizations then and now is striking and sobering, but our chief concern at this time is attitudes. Fanning expressed his and the Advocate's pretty well, as touch- ing both human organizations and the sufficiency of God's plan and church, when he wrote:

Touching, however, institutions not recognized in the Scriptures, as agencies to carry forward the good work of saving the world, many of us have staggered . . . Not that we doubt for a moment that there is something good in them all, but we have been impressed with the idea that the church of God . . . fully covers all the ground which Christians should occupy in their labors of love. (GA, 1860, p. 8.)

The above words were not only penned amid religious unrest, but political uncertainties also prevailed. Hardly had another year passed until, in 1861, the threatening clouds of war burst with a volcanic roar, drenched the land with blood as the earth swallowed up her dead, and watched a nation tear at its vitals in the frenzied grip of mortal combat. The normal economy came to a sudden halt and the mails were disrupted. During this storm, the Advocate discontinued publication. It was not until 1866, after the sunlight and warmth of peace smiled upon the battle-scarred countryside, that the Advocate reappeared. Whereas it had been a monthly, it was now a weekly, and Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb were leading the way. The societies had scarcely survived financially, but still occupied a significant place not only in the religious economy, but also in the hearts of their founders and addicted friends. The Advocate announced that it desired to carry a wholesome and free discussion of the various existing issues, of which the question of human organizations and the right of a Christian to engage in war and politics were the most delicate and demanding. Lipscomb accordingly wrote:

In one word the Gospel Advocate shall not be partisan for or against Missionary Societies, nor for or against Christians engaging in war or politics, but shall be open to as free, full and candid investigation of the matters from those occupying opposing positions on these and other practical questions as our space will admit. (GA, 1866, p. 717.)

And both sides did contend for their respective positions therein, and to a greater extent than before the war, the GA being dedicated to, and intent upon, a fair presentation of the arguments for and against the subjects discussed. David Lipscomb, "the little old man with a broom," grappled with arguments and contentions, holding however that personal attacks proved nothing and did not benefit the discussion. Said he:

We intend hereafter, more rigidly than in the past, to exclude all personal quarrels and bickerings. The Advocate was not established to attack, nor to defend the characters of individuals, either its Editors or others... It matters but little to the great interest of the cause of God in the world whether I or any other man be a hypocrite or not. Principles and institutions that affect the interest of humanity, not men, shall demand our attention. It is only as men become identified with such principles and institutions that we shall ever notice them. (GA, 1866, p. 717.)

It does not tog*, e, very astute observation to note that the present day Advocate has completely reversed the policy of its founders and is almost, if not altogether, void of the spirit of fairness exemplified in Lipscomb's classic statement. And Lipscomb practiced that policy. One of his most influential and chief opponents was the gifted Isaac Errett, editor of a leading journal and champion of the societies, who frankly confessed: "We like Brother Lipscomb for one thing — his entire frankness. There is nothing of the assassin in his warfare." But the Advocate has descended from that high and lofty peak of honorable journalism to become a tool and instrument of bigotry in the hands of an entirely different kind of editor, proclaiming only one side of anything, and refusing to give space to those whom it attacks.

Free discussion of both sides, and attention to issues — we need a Gospel Advocate like that today.