Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 26, 1959
NUMBER 42, PAGE 1,9b-10

McGarvey, And The Course Of Digression At Lexington, Kentucky -- (III.)

Henry S. Ficklin, Owingsville, Kentucky

In the two former articles in the series on the above subject I have been recounting some experiences which I had while a student for five years at Transylvania College and the College Of The Bible, beginning in September, 1902, while John W. McGarvey was President of the College Of The Bible. In those articles I related that I was present at the morning services of the Broadway Christian Church, on November 23, 1902, when the congregation, by a majority of 149, voted to introduce the organ into the worship of the church. Brother McGarvey had opposed the introduction of mechanical instruments into the worship. But, seeing that the popular tide in the congregation was going away from the Scriptural position, McGarvey had transferred his membership to the Chestnut Street Christian Church. The man who was employed to play the new organ, if I remember correctly, did not belong to the Broadway Church, but to a denomination very prominent in the city. Naturally, also, a quartet now became one of the features of the singing. That has been the usual course with churches departing from Scriptural music — as the worship gets to be man-made, it becomes more professional inevitably. Leaving the New Testament, a congregation draws nearer to Romish ritual, all of the time.

Brother McGarvey was by far the most influential preacher, or teacher, in Lexington at that time, among those belonging to the Christian Churches. This was due, in part, to the strength of his Christian character. He was sincere, godly, high-minded, manly, courageous, Christ-like. Friend and foe alike held him in high esteem. His influence was also due to his great knowledge of the Word of God. Shortly before his death, the London Times stated that McGarvey was probably the most mature Bible scholar then living. As a preacher of the gospel, too, he was very influential. He obeyed Paul's injunction: "Preach the word". And the power of his preaching was the power of the word of God.

When we remember what kind of man McGarvey was, we will find it easy to understand why it was that he was a central figure in all of the great controversies of that day among people advocating a return to the faith and worship of the New Testament. Among the great issues of that day (or, of ANY day, in fact), are these: (1) Digression, (2) Modernism, or unbelief, and (3) Worldliness. McGarvey was amiable, but he was not the man to run away from a fight, where moral and spiritual issues were at stake. He followed the course, which an old preacher commended to a young preacher. "My son, if you know any good fight, anywhere, get into it". McGarvey was in the front-line in these three great battles. He failed in one way in the battle against digression: He advocated the organization of the Missionary Societies, and in a few other particulars. But he resisted the introduction of the organ into the worship, and resisted digression in many other forms and he battled against unbelief, modernism and higher criticism vigorously. He fought every form of worldliness.

In the former articles I have traced McGarvey's opposition to the organ in worship, and how he was overcome at Broadway, and in many other places. And I also described McGarvey as a preacher, and tried to tell what his refreshing influence was due to. And what I meant to say was that, as a preacher, he was Scriptural, natural, diligent, and Christ-like. Now, in this present article, I want to tell about McGarvey's work as President of the College Of The Bible, his methods of teaching, and about his work as a writer of books.

The College Of The Bible originated in 1865. It was then one of the units of Kentucky University, which is now Transylvania College. McGarvey began as professor of Sacred History, when the College Of The Bible opened its doors, in September, 1865. But this was not a satisfactory arrangement, where the College Of The Bible was a part of the University. A disagreement arose between McGarvey and the Board of Curators of Kentucky University, as Transylvania was then called. The leading figure in the Administration of the University held that the University was to serve the people of the state, while McGarvey held that the University should serve the church. It was to be expected that McGarvey would take the more earnest position in all moral issues. He became the leader in this controversy, for he felt that the College Of The Bible was being put in a position of compromise. As the disagreement became more bitter, McGarvey was dismissed from his position as professor by the Board of Curators of the University on September 16, 1873, after eight years as teacher. His dismissal hurt the University very badly, for McGarvey had the confidence of the great body of church members. The attendance at the University fell off to less than 40% of the previous enrollments, and the University suffered financially very much. The University had to yield, and a new College Of The Bible was organized July 27, 1877, as an entirely independent institution. It continued to be on the same campus with the University, but with a separate organization. This arrangement suited McGarvey, for he felt that the College Of The Bible could be kept pure more easily, if it would be independent from a University that held views that were more worldly, and far less spiritual. Ever since that time, the College Of The Bible has been independent in organization. But, unfortunately, since McGarvey's day, it has become more modern, and less Scriptural.

I was in McGarvey's classes for two years, and under his influence all of the five years that I was there. I vividly recall McGarvey as a teacher. He was then 76 years old. He was of medium weight and height, and just a little stooped. His step was unfaltering, and his walk was expressive of his character. His hair and his beard were gray. His eyes indicated liveliness and kindness, and his face was radiant. There was no levity about him, but there was a great deal of joy and happiness. His face was a kind of window of a redeemed and transfigured soul.

In his classes we really studied the BIBLE, not about the Bible. We each had a note-book, with questions on one side, and a blank place for our written answers on the other side. I still have the note-books used in his classes, and I go back to them, and get help from them. Brother McGarvey would go over in class with us the lesson assigned for the next day. He would explain things that were too hard for us to find out by study. But what we could learn ourselves we were to learn by diligent study. We would write out our answers, tentatively, with pencil. Then, as corrected by his help, we would write them out with ink in our note-books. Brother McGarvey became very deaf, as the result of an accident in the Mediterranean Sea, in which he almost drowned, while on his trip to Palestine. On that account he carried an ear trumpet, with a long tube. When our time would come to recite, we would come up to his desk and speak into this tube. In reciting, we were, first of all to recite the passage we were studying. Then, we were to explain it, and, finally to answer the questions he assigned, and others that he would ask us. It was no trying ordeal to recite to Brother McGarvey. We had to study, and to know the lesson, but he was no tyrant. We loved him, we admired him, but we did not fear him. Recalling the way in which Brother McGarvey looked upon us students as we recited, I am reminded of what Mark writes about the Lord talking to the Rich Young Ruler: "And Jesus looking upon him loved him." (Mark 10:21.) Brother McGarvey would always expose the errors of the Higher Critics about a passage that we would study, and he would uphold the infallibility of the Word of God. He would also point out some very common errors that people held in regard to the passage. And he saved us from many mistakes that we might have made in sermons, by giving the wrong interpretation of the text. For instance, when we were studying Exodus 14:10-20 he said (with a lively smile on his face) "Young brethren, be careful, lest you take this passage and preach a sermon on: 'THE STAND STILL POLICY, AND THE GO FORWARD POLICY', for Moses, when he said 'stand still' meant for them to not run from the Egyptians".

Brother McGarvey usually conducted the daily devotional service at Chapel. He had something that we needed, something edifying for us. Brother Tant has rescued from oblivion a series of "CHAPEL TALKS" by McGarvey, and you would do well to get this book, with that title. Through the kindness and thoughtfulness of Mr. Roscoe M. Pierson, present Librarian of the College Of The Bible Library, these manuscripts were brought to Brother Tant's attention and were published and made available to the public. Some months ago Mr. Pierson expressed to me his gratification that they had been thus published. Brother McGarvey's prayers, in a humble way, brought all of us students before the throne of grace, and gave us spiritual strength. The organ was not used in the singing at the Chapel of the College Of The Bible. But it was used in the Chapel Service of Transylvania College during those years. Nor were the Chapel Services at the College Of The Bible ever used for pep meetings for athletic games, or for other worldly exercises. The College Of The Bible had no basketball or football teams. Mc-Garvey saw to it that it was that way.

We had other able teachers, both in the College Of The Bible and in Transylvania, but none of them had McGarvey's influence as a teacher. Some of them had better training, educationally, than McGarvey, but none of them were as impressive as McGarvey. He knew God's Word, he loved people, and he was highly regarded for the strength of his Christian character. His manhood aided his teachings and his preaching. He was not magnetic or eloquent, nor as a preacher did he have the "sublime thunder" of Thomas Chalmers, but when he spoke, we listened. Only one of the other professors at the College Of The Bible agreed with Brother McGarvey in opposition to the use of mechanical instruments in worship. I refer to Brother I. B. Grubbs. I think every one of the other professors had, for various unsound reasons, gone with the most of the congregations in this digression.

And most of the students disagreed with McGarvey on this matter of digression. I recall some very noble young men among them. But most of them had conformed. Lexington is in the center of a very rich and prosperous territory. Many congregations were able to support preachers, but few were willing to accept preachers who opposed the organ's use. And very few of these young men were willing to be martyrs, or even to be unpopular. They, many of them, lacked the faithfulness of the early Christians. So, it was "Like people, like priest" (Hosea 4:9). And, is it not generally true, that preachers and congregations are on the same spiritual and moral level? If preachers would condemn sin and compromise in the congregations as they ought, they could change the churches, and there would be some hope in a spiritual decline and apostasy. Or, if the churches would dismiss tame, compromising, preachers, there would be some hope. But when it is "Like people, like priest", they will solace each other in their digression and unfaithfulness. But, after all, can we ever expect a College to stem the tide of worldliness? And how often has it ever occurred in your memory that a College was the spear-head of the battle against a dangerous false doctrine? Was it any College among brethren advocating a return to New Testament Christianity that fought the battle against Pre-millennialism? Rather, did not most of them wait until the battle was won by some one else? Anyhow when God has a great battle to be fought is it in the nature of a College to do it?

McGarvey was much alone in his stand against digression. To use a common expression "The times had gone off and left him". But McGarvey will long out-live all of his critics. Like Abel, "He, being dead yet speaketh." (Hebrews 11:4.) He will live on through his books. Who can find a better COMMENTARY ON ACTS than that by McGarvey? Or where is there a book on the land of Palestine for the Bible scholar better than McGarvey's LANDS OF THE BIBLE? And, unless it be the sound and Scriptural sermons of Benjamin Franklin, embodied in the book THE GOSPEL PREACHER, I doubt if any book of sermons has been more helpful than the book entitled McGARVEY'S SERMONS. In these sermons McGarvey preaches the Word and speaks in plain, simple language on the greatest subjects in the world. In his sermons, as in his teachings and in his life, he was guided by the Lord, and labored only for his glory.

Edward Gibbon, the historian, tells us how he came to write "THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE". "It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, as I sat musing among the ruins of the Capitol" he tells us, "that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind". Then, in his HISTORY, which is brilliant but not in every way commendable, he sets forth the reasons why Rome fell. So, when I pass the campus where the College Of The Bible was located in my student days, I think of the changes that have come about since McGarvey died in 1911 and some of them have been tragical, indeed. The College does not have the attitude toward the Bible that McGarvey had, nor does it have his faith and gospel simplicity. What has been the result of this? In the next article, we will endeavor to show what the result is.