Steve StatenMay, 2023
During the turbulent era of the 1880s through the 1940s when there were competing publications, mission societies, schools, and conventions, there were four courageous evangelists who strove to both restore gospel essentials and pursue unity. James Vincent “J.V.” Coombs (1849–1920), Charles Reign Scoville (1869–1938), Theophilus Brown “T.B.” Larimore (1843–1929), and Pearl Howard “P.H.” Welshimer (1873–1957) served heroically when the Stone-Campbell movement underwent two drastic separations.
It was 1987 when, as a young man about to enter full-time ministry, J.V. Coombs captured my imagination with his anthology, The Christ of the Church: Sermons, Lectures, and Illustrations. Coombs would become an important model for my future ministry as an evangelist and teacher. In the coming years, I began to search for more material about him and his contemporaries.
In 1994 I reached out to Enos Dowling, an 89-year-old Restoration Historian and retired Dean of Lincoln Christian College. When I expressed my interest in Coombs, he laughed and said, “J.V. Coombs, the one-armed evangelist!” Not only did I learn about the gun accident that took Coombs’s arm, but I also began to dream about the possibilities that lay ahead.
I soon discovered Scoville, Larimore, and Welshimer. I saw in these four individuals a commitment to unity that inspired me during a time of increasing acrimony between influencers among the Churches of Christ and the International Churches of Christ. The two-sided “cutoff” that began in the late 1980s was deeply disorienting. This led me to study the challenges these bridge-builders faced, how they handled internal conflict, and how they engaged believers across denominations. Even without any direct cooperation between these four men, their ministries were marked by the same commitment to unity.
Coombs, Scoville, Larimore, and Welshimer each represented the best of the three wings of the movement while also bringing their own unique personalities and gifts to their ministries. Their prime years overlapped with the formal separation of the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ (1906) and the divergence of the Christian Church/Churches of Christ from the increasingly centralized leadership of the Disciples by the late 1920s.
Throughout the decades, as evidenced in their writings, reputations, and the references made about them in the same publications, they were striving to build bridges at a time when others were trying to tear them down. These men possessed an ecumenical spirit without sacrificing the gospel message for the sake of getting along. As you can see from the brief descriptions below, their ministries were incredibly fruitful.
J.V. Coombs baptized 17,000 people, put 100 men into the ministry, and met with separated churches in towns and helped them unite and grow. He went from coast-to-coast numerous times to lead “protracted meetings,” which were multi-day revivals, and wrote training materials for other evangelists to hold similar sessions.
Charles Reign Scoville was the founder of the fast-growing Metropolitan Church of Christ in Chicago, held the largest evangelistic campaigns in Disciples of Christ history, and was considered by Billy Sunday to be the best preacher alive. He eventually averaged over 1,000 baptisms at his own rallies.
T.B. Larimore was considered by many to be the best preacher of Scriptures, for which he was respected even among rival denominations. After the formal split of 1906, for the remainder of his life, he was considered a member of the North and South wings of the Stone-Campbell movement, the Disciples of Christ, and the Churches of Christ. Partisan watchdogs constantly screened his sermons and unsuccessfully tried to compel him to take sides on important but nonessential issues.
P.H. Welshimer led the largest congregation in the history of the movements up to the mid-twentieth century. Like Scoville, he was admired by Billy Sunday. He played a pivotal role in founding the North American Convention, which became the flagship for yearly events for the Independent Christian Churches, which was established to shield the interests of cooperating churches from progressive influences. Over the next fifteen years, he worked on a commission that included members of Disciples of Christ for the purpose of understanding what had gone wrong that led to an inability to cooperate and explore ideas for repairing a rift.
During these polarizing times, both in society and the church, I am invigorated by stories of peacemakers and problem-solvers. I am also refreshed by spending time with folks who are self-reflective and honest about the shortcomings of their own tribe. May we embody that kind of unity as we venture into the unknown.
Steve Staten worked as an engineer before entering congregational ministry. For the last decade, Steve has served as an organizational health consultant, working with single and multisite churches of 250 to 6,000 members. He is currently working on a donor-funded project called Transforming Toxic Cultures.Steve has a master’s degree in Theology (Wheaton College, 1997) and a master’s degree in Conflict Management (Lipscomb University, 2013, and was certified with a Safety / Risk Management method and philosophy called Just Culture (2016).