Vantage Points

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Reflections on History (and the History of Freed-Hardeman University)

Nov. 11, 2019

by Greg Massey


Old Main, Hall-Roland, Draughn-1930


Over the past five years, I’ve been researching and writing a history of Freed-Hardeman University, to be published in coordination with this year’s 150th anniversary celebration. The manuscript is 535 typed pages with 959 notes! If you think a book of that length is definitive, in the sense that it contains everything possible about the history of Freed-Hardeman, you’d be wrong. As I mention in the book’s preface, I focus on the beginnings of things, how important components of the school’s life like the Bible Lectureship, Makin’ Music, Mid-South Youth Camp, and the FHU Associates started, rather than provide a blow-by-blow account of their specific histories. I only have space to tell some of the stories of Freed-Hardeman and mention some of the school’s people.

That’s the way it is with history. The goal of any historian is to illuminate the past. A historian can never fully recapture how it was. There are too many gaps in the surviving information. Surviving sources themselves contain the biases of those who created them. Then there’s the inevitably biased point of view of the individual historian. So while this history of FHU is long and will probably stand as the most comprehensive treatment of our school’s past, it won’t be fully definitive. It can’t be. But as a historian, I can at least shed some light on the institution’s past, revealing important details that were formerly shaded or unknown.

As I await final page proofs from our publisher, Abilene Christian University Press, I struggle with my own tendencies toward perfectionism and with the historian’s natural desire to produce a book that is as complete and accurate as possible. In the past few weeks, these struggles have only heightened. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a Facebook post on a Restoration History page commenting on how Earl West’s autobiography sheds important light on Leroy Garrett’s controversial appearance at FHC’s Bible Lectureship in 1955. (Does that make you want to know more about Garrett’s appearance and why it was controversial? If so, you’ll want to purchase and read the forthcoming book, By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.) [Insert mischievously smiling emoticon.]

Back to the FB post: On reading it, I was surprised and a bit horrified. I was unaware of West’s autobiography, but should’ve been. Most people know West for his important four-volume history of the Restoration Movement, The Search for the Ancient Order, but Brother West was also important to me because he was a student at FHC in the late 1930s and was briefly on the FHC Bible faculty in the mid-1950s, present during that 1955 lectureship. I wondered, “what have I missed?!” It was late afternoon and I told my wife, Kelda, “I’m taking a quick trip to the library.” Once I arrived at FHU’s library, I immediately went to the second-floor stacks and found the book, Searcher for the Ancient Order: The Golden Odyssey of Earl I. West.

I skimmed to the pages on the 1955 lectureship and, to my relief, found that West’s comments shed no new light. My written account of Garrett’s visit and the ensuing controversy was fine just as it was. But then I turned to pages dealing with West’s time as a student at the junior college in the late 1930s. There I saw an anecdote that hit me in the pit of my stomach. During this period, Freed-Hardeman College was small, with slightly over 300 students. It was close-knit, with an environment more resembling a large family than a college, though the classes themselves were academically rigorous, befitting a college. Known on campus as a particularly challenging teacher was English and grammar professor, Mary Nelle Hardeman Powers, daughter of N. B. and Joanna (“Miss Joe”) Hardeman.

In 1938, student Earl West was a charter member of the newly formed literary society, Phi Kappa Alpha, which strived to make its mark on a campus long dominated by the Philomatheans and Sigma Rho. PKA was in charge of the chapel program one morning and West played the part of “Professor Quiz,” calling FHC faculty to the stage for some surprise questions and embarrassment in front of an audience of highly amused students. The campus newspaper, The Skyrocket, published an article about that chapel, and noted that Professor Powers was called to the stage, where she failed to answer correctly Professor Quiz’s question, “When is it right to say ‘I is.’”

I loved the story of PKA’s first big chapel program and mentioned it in a chapter on campus life in the 1930s. I knew from the Skyrocket article that Powers failed to answer the question, to the delight of the students. What I didn’t know was her specific answer to the question. West’s autobiography literally told “the rest of the story.” Powers’ response was loud and unequivocal: “Never!” After a pause for effect, West said, “I is a pronoun.” Having gotten the answer wrong, Powers returned to her seat, and it was a delicious moment the students never forgot, such a pleasant memory that West included it in his autobiography. I immediately wanted to add this detail to the FHU history. But I knew that it was too late. The book is already in production; I had to let West’s wonderful anecdote go. That’s the way it is for the historian. There’s always a tidbit, a story, an important fact, that will be missed and won’t make it into publication. If the historian waits to accumulate everything and get everything just so, his or her work will never be published.

This past Friday afternoon, my struggles with perfectionism and eleventh-hour concerns about the FHU history hit me full-force in an unexpected way on an otherwise perfect day. It was Alumination Day, a chance for our school’s alumni to come to campus and connect with current students. It was also the day we celebrated the re-opening of Old Main. It was a nice opportunity to welcome back to campus Erin Adams, a 2001 graduate, who majored in English and history, and has gone on to a distinguished career as a historian. During her four-year tenure as FHU’s university archivist, she initiated the move to get Old Main on the National Register of Historic Places, a process that literally got the ball rolling toward the $5.5 million renovation that we were celebrating. In a morning class, she spoke to our history majors about her work as director of education at Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage. That afternoon, immediately after the ribbon cutting ceremony in the beautifully refurbished Chapel Hall, Erin spoke on the construction of Old Main. While preparing the successful application to get Old Main on the National Register, Erin became intimately acquainted with the building’s architectural design and wonderfully unique features. In her speech, she mentioned details that I wished I’d included in the forthcoming book. In addition to describing how Old Main’s halls originally were full of coat racks for a campus of boarding students, she explained how founders A. G. Freed and N. B. Hardeman tried to make the best of Henderson’s remote, rural West Tennessee location, putting a map in the institution's catalog that advertised their school as located at the center of the major north-south railroad, the Mobile and Ohio.

I immediately regretted not having some of this material in the book, but realized that it was too late. I also realized that it was entirely appropriate that Erin mention wonderful details that I left out of the book. She’s a historian with different interests and strengths. She embraces the specifics of material culture. I tend to shy away from describing physical features, feeling it’s a bit beyond my narrative powers. I had glanced at the same map she looked at, but focused my gaze more on the words Freed wrote in the catalog, describing in glowing terms the school he and Hardeman had built with their own money and credit. That map conveyed a story that caught Erin’s eyes, but not mine. Each historian looks at sources with a different set of lenses and unique biases. While I realized that it was appropriate that Erin caught points that I overlooked, I still couldn’t help wishing I’d heard her presentation earlier, in time to draw on her research and further enrich the FHU history.

The forthcoming FHU history contains information that will doubtless surprise readers. Few Christians today know that a sizable portion of our fellowship was pacifist in the years before World War II, and that the administration and faculty of Freed-Hardeman College believed that the proper response of a Christian man in time of war was either conscientious objection or participation as a medic devoted to healing the suffering caused by armed conflict. The story of FHC’s early pacifism is one of many story threads explored in the book. While I read the original writings of church leaders in publications like Firm Foundation and Gospel Advocate, I also examined the writings of historians who did their work before me, like the late Michael Casey of Pepperdine University and FHU’s own John Collins. John, my longtime history colleague and department chair, who passed away in July 2017, wrote a dissertation at Middle Tennessee State University on pacifism in churches of Christ. It’s still the most thorough study available on this important subject. I cite John’s dissertation several times in my own book, but one thing that struck me was how both of us read some of the same articles in brotherhood journals yet gleaned different insights from them. Our eyes caught different details and nuances, which we in turn analyzed in our writing. That, too, is the way it is with history and the historians who do it: We interpret sources differently, sometimes in subtle ways like John and me, sometimes with vastly different insights.

As I close these reflections, I again make peace with these challenges (frustrations?) inherent in the practice of history. We historians never get it completely right. Our publications invariably include factual errors, hopefully minor ones. We miss sources that would’ve enriched our work. We miss nuggets in sources that other historians catch. And, finally, other historians draw different shades of meaning from their research in the same sources. As the common saying goes, “it is what it is.” In doing history, historians embrace ambiguity. While we don’t give up our quest to illuminate the past, we recognize that the past will always remain slightly beyond our grasp. So it is with all published histories, and so it will be with the history of Freed-Hardeman University.