These days we are conscious of the bridge to Selma, AL because of the fiftieth anniversary of these events, and a recent movie recalling them (re: the Civil Rights Movement Selma to Montgomery March) . In Churches of Christ, too, there were heroes who acted courageously to achieve the unity in Christ it should have had.
It was 1960 at Abilene Christian College’s annual Bible Lectureship. Professor Carl Spain was assigned a lecture titled “Modern Challenges to Christian Morals.” It would be interesting to know what the lectureship organizers were thinking he would cover in such a discourse.
I have always wondered what must have gone through Spain’s mind as he stood before the gathered lectureship crowd. Would he endure catcalls and censure? Would some walk out in anger? Would he be fired?
He began by speaking of recent events in Poland, and the manner in which communist rulers had sought to suppress Christianity there. Then he deftly turned the tables by recounting an incident in his own life where a visiting black evangelist brought several converts to the white church building to baptize them. Some willing white members admitted them; others were so incensed that they called the police, who put a halt to proceedings, “just like the communists broke up [religious] services in Warsaw, Poland last year,” Spain concluded (Christian Faith in the Modern World: The Abilene Christian College Annual Bible Lectures, 1960, page 216).
Next he rebuked his own college institution: “God forbid that churches of Christ, and schools operated by Christians, shall be the last stronghold of refuge for … people who have Nazi illusions about the Master Race.” He pointed to the hypocrisy of claiming to be the “the true Church” while driving their own preachers “to denominational schools where he can get credit for his work and refuse to let him take Bible for credit in his own school because the color of his skin is dark!” (page 217).
His remarks are particularly noteworthy when he points to the Church of Christ’s long standing claim to be a church of the Bible. “Our moral attitudes are so mixed up that we use the story of Philemon and Onesimus to justify refusing a Negro admission to study Bible in our graduate school of Bible.”(page 217). Spain understood the pressure points of his own fellowship, and made his appeal from Scripture. “The Bible does not rule against it [admission of black students]. Why are we afraid?” he asked. Then he answered his own question. “There are people with money who will back us in our last ditch stand for white supremacy.” “We fear the mythical character named Jim Crow,” he concluded, “more than we reverence Jesus Christ.”
Although Spain’s words aroused the inevitable criticism, they also marked a sea of change. Abilene Christian College admitted black graduate students in 1961 and undergraduate students the following year. A year later Oklahoma Christian College and Freed-Hardeman College followed suit. Spain’s courageous stand had made the difference. To its credit, Spain’s employers, Abilene Christian College, did not fire him. Instead, they acknowledged the truth of his words and began to make the proper changes.
There are heroes in our own fellowship. The Lord has, and is using our own for his glory.