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John W. McGarvey: Defender of the faith

by Larry Miles


In the first century, the early church was attacked from within and from without. Just as had been foretold, false teachers had sprung up. One such group was the Gnostics. To give you an idea of the threat to Christianity that such teachings bring, here is a brief statement about Gnosticism. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, writes these words in the Ryrie Study Bible,

“The heresy of Gnosticism had begun to make inroads among churches in John’s day. Among its teachings were: (1) knowledge is superior to virtue; (2) the non-literal sense of Scrip- ture is correct and can be understood only by a select few; (3) evil in the world precludes God’s being the only Creator; (4) the incarnation is incredible because deity cannot unite itself with anything material such as a body (Docetism); and (5) there is no resurrection of the flesh. The ethical standard of many Gnostics were low, so John emphasized the reality of the incarnation and the high ethical standard of the earthly life of Christ”

It was a result of this and other false teaching that Jude wrote the following in his epistle Jude 3

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (NASV)

Many of the men that we have been talking about in this series were true de- fenders of the faith. Along with many men of the past and present, the subject of this article had a long and fruitful life serving the Lord of Glory.

John W. McGarvey was born in 1829 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. His father died when J.W. was quite young. His mother then re-married. In 1839, his step-father, Gurden F. Saltonsall, moved the family to Tremont, IL. One reason for the move was that he was against slavery, as it was practiced in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Gurdon Saltonsall had been converted to the Ancient Gospel and was a supporter and a trustee for Bethany College. He was a generous supporter of the school and his only stipulation was that some of the money that he had donated be used to educate his sons who chose to attend there.

On March 17, 1847, J. W. McGarvey entered Bethany College. Soon after his arrival at Bethany, he responded to the gospel invitation and was baptized by W. K. Pendleton in Buffalo Creek. He graduated on July 4, 1850

His family had moved to Missouri while he was at Bethany. He opened a school at Fayette, MO. He started preaching in Fayette in September of 1852. Soon after his step-father passed away.

In 1853 he began a ministry with the Church in Dover, MO. It was here that he met his future wife. In the spring of 1862 he was invited to become the preacher at the Main Street Church in Lexington, KY. This was during the Civil War and McGarvey’s position was was that Christians should not engage in carnal warfare. This view was also shared by Alexander Campbell, Benjamin Franklin and Jacob Creath, Jr.

J. W. McGarvey favored the use of the Missionary Society as an expedient. On the other hand, he rejected the use of instrumental music in the corporate worhip of the saints. Concerning why he opposed the instrument, he wrote the following in the Millenial Harbinger in 1864,

In the earlier years of the Reformation there was entire unanimity in the rejection of instrumental music from the public worship. It was declared unscriptural, inharmonious with the Christian institution, and a source of corruption. In the course of time, individuals here and there called in question the correctness of this decision , and an attempt was made to introduce the instrument in some churches.

McGarvey had rejected instrumental music because of the silence of the scripture. Dr. Earl Irvin West, in Search For the Ancient Order, had this to say,

McGarvey himself began this discussion by an examination of the ground instrumental apologists generally covered. If instrumental music were in the Bible, and if God by His written word had approved it let us have the scriptures, McGarvey would say. If it is not in the Bible McGarvey pled that the whole ground of expediency be given a through examination.

The College of the Bible was established in 1865. This is now called Lexington Theological Seminary and is under the control of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. McGarvey would teach there until death in 1911. More about that school later.

In 1869 there came on the scene a periodical that would be the organ for the middle-ground position It was was called the Apostolic Times and was edited by the following men: Moses E. Lard, Robert Graham, Winthrop Hopson, Lanceford Wilkes and John W. McGarvey. Robert Hooper writes about this in A Distinct People,

"In 1869, six self-proclaimed moderates in Lexington, Kentucky, began publishing the Apostolic Times. The Gospel Advocate, the American Christian Review, and the Christian Standard, they believed, did not fully represent the Disciples. Led by John W. McGarvey and Moses E. Lard, the six editors supported the missionary society but opposed the instrument in worship."

These brethren held that instrumental music was unauthorized by that the Society had a right to exist. Concerning their position, West writes the following in Search For The Ancient Order,

The Apostolic Times editorially occupied what was after the war the popular middle-of- the-road ground. It, on one had, favored the missionary society, yet, on the other hand, it bitter- ly opposed instrumental music. For a few years this was the popular position, but as time went by, many could not see the consistency of such a position and it gradually faded out of exist- ence. To oppose instrumental music as being a human addition to the divine worship was the same in principle as opposing the missionary society as a human addition to a divine work. Moses E. Lard and John W. McGarvey could never see it that way. The Christian Standard saw the position, and on the same ground that it accepted the society it was led to accept the instrument. The American Christian review and the Gospel Advocate saw it this way, and on the same ground they were led not to accept the society, also rejected the instrument Clearly the Times was not occupying a consistent position, but while the issue was yet in its definitive period, the Times represented a large bulk of the brotherhood.

In 1893 McGarvey began a department in the Christian Standard titled Biblical Criticism. The liberal elements within the Disciple of Chrsit were fast departing from the truth. They were denying the inspiration of the Scriptures, denying the virgin birth of our Lord, were advocating open membership (that is, accepting the pious unimmersed as members in local bodies), and other key doctrinal matters. McGarvey’s aim in writing these articles was to inform the people of the activities of these men and of the false teachings that they were rapidly spreading. James DeForest Murch, in Christians Only, gives this account,

His writings made thousands of active church members at least conscious of liberal- ism’s threat to the cause they loved and gave them the tools to deal with it when it reared it’s head in their local congregations.

We want to mention one other important event that took place in the life of J. W. McGarvey. This event took place in 1909, 2 years before his death. 1909 was to be the 100th anniversary of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address. It was decided that a centennial celebration would be held in Pittsburgh, PA.

McGarvey remained as teacher and later President of the College of the Bible until his death in 1911. As you would expect, the liberals were waiting for his death with the anticipation that they would, at last, gain control of the school as they had at Bethany and other Disciple colleges. McGarvey’s choice to succeed himself as president of the College of the Bible as Hall Laurie Calhoun. But after McGarvey’s death the liber- als gained control of the presidency and Hall Calhoun was named Dean.

Robert E Hooper, in A Distinct People, writes these words,

By 1917, only 6 years after J. W. McGarvey’s death, a struggle arose as to who would control the school (The College of the Bible). From every indication, McGarvey had picked Hall L. Calhoun to succeed him as President of the College of the Bible. But by 1917, the liberal element of the Disciples had gained control.

Later, Calhoun identified himself with the non-instrumental brethren where he served on faculties of Freed-Hardeman and David Lipscomb Colleges until his death in 1935. Concerning the events that led to this move, Robert Hooper writes in A Distinct People,

With no place to turn, Calhoun resigned from the College of the Bible and accepted a position on the faculty of Bethany College. Evidently, he planned to spend the remainder of his life at Campbell’s school. His conscience, however, would not allow him to remain within the ranks of the Disciples of Chrsit. Thus, in 1925, he announced his decision to turn from the divi-sive issues of the society and instrumental music and join ranks with churches of Christ. He accepted a position with N. B. Hardeman at Freed-Hardeman College in Henderson, Tennessee.

After one year at Henderson, he moved to Nashville where he filled the pulpit for a number of churches, including Belmont and Central. He died in 1935.

John W. McGarvey died in 1911. He had led a long life of service to the cause he loved. He had stood for the old paths and preached the ancient gospel. It can truly be said that John William McGarvey was a true defender of the faith.


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Philippians 4:13