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Debate Reports Overview

The Remarkable Spread of the Restoration
and the Key to Its Success

Jon Gary Williams

In the late 1700s and on into the 1800s, there arose people from within religious denominational ranks who saw the need for rejecting the man-made doctrines and practices that divided them. Their desire was to go all the way back to the New Testament pattern of the church and restore it to its original, unadulterated state.

Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, the efforts of these few grew into a rapidly spreading restoration movement. The many errors of man-made religions were being exposed - - doctrines such as total depravity (babies are born in sin), infant baptism, special election (God selects those to be saved), the saved can never be lost (once saved, always saved), sprinkling for baptism, salvation by faith alone and a host of other unscriptural teachings.

Many, upon discovering their errors, were abandoning these denominational teachings to become a part of nothing more than the restored "church of Christ" (Romans 16:16). It was a unique experience to be a part of the church as it existed in the first century. People were realizing they could be Christians without being attached to any denomination. The call to be united in the one true church was resonating far and wide. How wonderful it was for them to belong to Christ's church as it was in the very beginning - - to be added to it upon their obedience to the gospel of Christ and to work and worship according to the pattern of the New Testament.

As we reflect upon this amazing restoration story, we are made to realize how truly blessed we are today to have the good fortune in this century of belonging to the church Jesus established so long ago. This is a treasure beyond our dreams. We should be ever thankful for the efforts of those dedicated Christians who went before us to help restore Christ's church.

Now consider a question. What made it possible for the Lord's church to be restored and expand so rapidly? The answer, of course, lies in the fact that plain, Biblical truths were being expounded and people could see the difference between the scriptures' teaching about the church and what the vast array of denominations were advocating.

Yet, how was this teaching being accomplished? And herein lies the key to why the restoration was so successful. The answer involves one key ingredient: religious debates!

From its beginning, the restoration plea was built largely upon religious discussions - - debates which regularly engaged preachers of the various denominations. In these debates people were being exposed to truths about the Lord's church which they had never before heard. Gospel preachers considered these debates as pulpits - - platforms from which they could explain to their audiences the distinctive nature of the church as found in the scriptures. In these arenas of discussion, people were able to distinguish between their religious affiliations and the one true New Testament church. From the mid-nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the positive effect of these debates was immense, opening the door for more and more people to learn about the Lord's church.

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Debate Reports Preserved - Dating Back To 1900

A Treasure Chest Of Restoration History

In 1989, an old friend and gospel preacher passed on to me a large collection of 5x8 cards containing hand-written notes. These cards had been given to him several years earlier by a yet older preacher. My friend, being well up in years at the time, gave the collection to me in hopes that I might make use of them. He gave me no details about the collection in general, nor did he give me the name of the brother who produced these old documents. I initially made no real effort to examine the cards, assuming them to be an old collection of sermon or class notes of some kind, so I stored them away with plans of someday taking a closer look.

As we all know, time flies! Twenty years later, while cleaning out a storage area, I came across the box of cards again, and decided to toss it out along with other various unusable items. But, as good fortune would have it, this would not be the case. Standing at the trash bin, I paused long enough to take a closer look. It was then that I was shocked to discover that these cards were actually brief, concise reports of religious debates dating back to the year 1900. There were more than 1000 of them! For two decades I had been in the possession of a valuable reserve of restoration history, and I still shudder to think that it came so close to being discarded.

Included in these reports are records of some of the early debates of M. C. Kurfees, W. T. Boaz, N. B. Hardeman, John B. Hardeman, H. Leo Boles, F. B. Srygley, J. D. Tant, Joe S. Warlick, S. H. Hall, C. R. Nichol, G. C. Brewer, J. W. Brewer, A. G. Freed, J. H. Lawson, L. S. White, A. W. Young, W. T. Beasley and J. R. Bradley, to name only a few. Most of these reports also contain the names of the men who wrote them - - men who had attended these debates and were able to give first-hand information. Some of the reports were drafted by the men who had conducted or moderated the debates.

The brother who had gathered these reports must have been quite well known, considering he made contact with these many different preachers, regarding such a wide variety of debates, and over so many years. Evidently desiring to keep these reports in a unified form, he had carefully sorted and copied the contents in his own handwriting, apparently with some special purpose in mind.

Since a number of the cards have a notation of being "used," I suspected they may have been intended for publication - - possibly in the Gospel Advocate. And sure enough, in checking the microfilms of past Gospel Advocate issues, I found that some of these reports had indeed been published. For many years this brother had supplied the Advocate with a number of these debate reports. Sadly though, all attempts to determine the identity of this good brother have failed.

As I read through the 1000+ hand-written reports, the significance of these debates loomed before me. Exploring and examining these reports was an education in itself, for I discovered things that had escaped me. I had simply been unaware of the great number of debates that had actually taken place. And furthermore, I had not discerned the profound impact they had upon the spread of the Lord's church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

How Many Debates Were There?

These debates were not just occasional, random events springing up now and then. This had been my own impression, but I was terribly mistaken. The number of debates held between 1900 and the 1950s was enormous. The one thousand plus debate reports in my possession represent only a portion of the total number of debates which actually occurred. And keep in mind that this collection of reports covers a period of time only back to the year 1900 and does not include the large number of debates which were conducted during the last half of the nineteenth century.

Many gospel preachers were said to have conducted dozens of debates, with some holding as many as fifty or more. It is known that brother Guy N. Woods participated in at least two hundred  - - only twenty of which are referenced in this collection. We may never gain an accurate estimation of the total debates conducted back into the late 1800s, but suffice it to say, they numbered into the thousands.   

I recently conducted a quick, one-question survey among a large number of gospel preachers, asking them how many restoration debates they believed were held between the years 1900 and 1950. The average response was about 150. This illustrates just how far removed we are from comprehending the volume of debates that actually occurred, and consequently, the important role they played in the growth of the church.

Debates between brotherhood preachers and men representing denominational groups were common, especially throughout the mid-section of the country, with some held as far west as California and as far north as Canada. In some states there were but few counties where debates had not taken place. During some months, upwards of eight to ten debates were being conducted somewhere. Debates were not occasional or incidental happenings - - they were a crucial part of the restoration movement. Because of them, it is no wonder that thousands of people were being exposed to Biblical truths they had never before heard.

The Nature And Substance Of The Reports

These one thousand plus debate reports were written as brief overviews of the debates rather than as full expositions of the arguments; however, some are more lengthy. Most reports give the names of the gospel preachers, the names of their opponents and their religious affiliations, the dates the reports were made, and with few exceptions, the locations of the debates and the names of those who submitted the reports. Also, several of the debates pertain to false views held by some within the church, such as: instrumental music, cooperation in evangelism, orphan homes and divided classes. 

Reviewing these reports reveals a number of things that help explain why the debates played such an extremely important role in the restoration movement. In addition to showing how widespread the debates were, notice these important facts as revealed in the reports:

A. The debates were held on a high plane. Though some today may feel that debating only created hostility and was unproductive, this was not the case. Time and again, these reports emphasize that the participants conducted themselves as gentlemen and that the audiences were well behaved. On rare occasions, any bitterness or rancor displayed was on the part of those who taught false doctrines, which served only to hurt their cause.

Notice this unique observation by brother C. R. Nichol, following one of his debates in 1922: "We need more debates. Every member of the church needs to be indoctrinated; the fundamental principles need to be grounded in the members. I have never conducted a debate that did not result in good; and if at the time of the debate there was not a congregation, one was immediately established in that place."

B. Gospel preachers did not spend time seeking out opportunities for debate. Rather, they were sought out to participate in such discussions. First and foremost they were gospel preachers. But when the need arose to defend the truth against error, they accepted the opportunity. Many times when congregations of God's people were challenged by false teachers, the brethren would contact preachers who they knew could meet the challenge, inviting them to participate.

C. Preachers considered the debates as pulpits. These discussions provided them with captive audiences. No matter whom they were debating, folks from different denominations would be in attendance. From their "pulpit," these men emphasized the identity of the church, the oneness of the church, and how it was different from man-made organizations. They carefully exposed the false ideas of the various denominational groups. Many people were seeing for the first time what true New Testament Christianity really was. In a sense, these preachers looked upon the debates as gospel meetings.

D. Following many of the debates, the preachers were often asked to continue teaching. This gave them additional time to explain to people more about the church. Sometimes the debates led to gospel meetings, some of which lasted for days. Also, many of these debates were reported in newspapers and some were broadcast by radio. Additionally, following the debates many home Bible discussions were created, enabling members of the church to teach their neighbors. Many written discussions were spinoffs of these debates. All of this led to many hundreds of people being brought out of their denominational backgrounds and being baptized into Christ.

E. Considering the widespread nature of these debates and their overwhelming influence, virtually all members of the Lord's church today, if it were possible, could trace their spiritual heritage back to one or more of these debates. Though at first this may seem difficult to acknowledge, there is no doubt this is an accurate observation. Looking back into restoration history, various congregations of the Lord's church merged together, even if only remotely, through these many past debate endeavors.

F. By the middle of last century these debates were slowly dying out. Why was this happening? There were two reasons: 1) Denominational preachers who had debating skills were passing off the scene, and younger men, unable to defend their false doctrines in public debate, were not filling the void. 2) Leaders of denominational churches, after witnessing their preachers unable to defend their creeds, were ceasing to sponsor such events.

Reviving The Spirit Of The Debates

The day of restoration debates has passed. On occasion debates still occur, but their influence is limited. We cannot revive the extensive debating that existed in earlier times, but we can revive the spirit manifested by our preaching brethren through those earlier debates.

In our pulpits we should duplicate the initiative propagated by those preaching debaters of the past. We should emphasize what they emphasized - - the identity of the one church, its unique nature and its pure teachings. We should make it clear that the church is different from denominational bodies. We should clearly explain the need for restoring the church to the pattern of the New Testament.

This is something sorely lacking in some congregations, and because of this many of our youth never hear of the oneness of the Lord's church and how different it is from the denominational world. In some congregations children grow up with the impression that we are no different from the denominations around us. Why is this happening? It is because such congregations have lost touch with the concept of restoring the church. The zeal for explaining the true nature of the one church, as contrasted with man-made religions, has departed from their pulpits.

There is a great need for duplicating the spirit and motivation of those earlier preachers. If we will devote more time in our pulpits to stressing the unique oneness of the Lord's church and how truly different it is, we can revive the restoration plea in the hearts of God's people. We need more preaching like this! Congregations are more evangelistic when the pulpits keep the unique identity of the church at the forefront. By frequently emphasizing how the church is different, our members, and especially our younger generations, will be filled with more evangelistic fervor. It is my hope that as brethren are exposed to the nature and substance of the religious discussions of the past, more enthusiasm will result for telling lost people about the one way that leads to eternal life.

After considerable time and with able assistance in converting these many documents to text, I am pleased to make a complete searchable index of thes
e debate reports available online. My hope is that brethren everywhere, and especially younger preachers, might gain a greater appreciation for the important role that religious debating played in the expansion of the Lord's church in our recent past.