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by Dale Jorgenson

DaleJorgensonAlexander Campbell was an avid advocate of simplicity and economy in matters of Christian worship.[i]   He was opposed to the use of instrumental music and “robed choirs,” and he favored simple lines in the architectural design of houses of worship.  One conspicuous exception to that simple emphasis, however, was his advocacy for an “appropriate” house of worship at the “crossroads of the world,” Washington, DC.   In the 1851 Millennial Harbinger he gave a report of the meager funds raised that period for a church building in the national capital city, and then added:

We ought to have the largest meeting house in Washington City, and there, also, a stationed advocate of the great cause we plead; a master spirit, that would neither be ashamed of himself nor a shame to others—to stand up in the presence of Kings and earth’s nobility, and proclaim the unknown Gospel, as Paul did the Unknown God, in a city which had more temples than palaces, and more gods than men.[ii]

Two years later the fund was growing at a snail’s pace, and Campbell placed a notice of “female benevolence” in the 1853 Harbinger commending a sewing center in Hannibal, Missouri for their contribution of five dollars toward the major project he had in mind.[iii]

The Stone-Campbell Movement clearly was slow in responding to the call for a “respectable” house of worship in the District of Columbia.  During the presidency of James Garfield, the president was said to be attending church in the “Campbellite shanty” of the city.  But in 1830, early during the difficult years of the Great Depression, the leaders of the Vermont Street Christian Church were ready to dedicate their handsome new edifice, now called the National City Christian Church, located advantageously on Thomas Circle.  The building was designed by John Russell Pope, a famous American architect who also designed the Jefferson Memorial, the west building  of the National Gallery of Art, and Constitution Hall, as well as other federal buildings in America and the Tate Gallery in London.

To help dedicate the new building, the leaders of the Church called upon a series of well-known ministers related to the Christian Church for sermons dedicating the building, the baptistery, the choir, and the organ.  The minister of the High Street Christian Church in Akron, Ohio delivered the dedicatory address for the baptistry of the new church building.  Following is an excerpt from the core of his sermon entitled “Death and Incarnation and delivered October 16, 1930:

How better can we dedicate this glorious building to the service of God than by here and now making full surrender of ourselves and our substance, changing defeat into triumph, worry into peace, and impotency into power.  Here we may put ourselves upon His altar, and await the wonder-working power of God. He who makes beauty for ashes, and who makes stars out of dust and lilies out of muck will take the remains of our sacrifice and transfigure them into a character of radiant beauty and triumphant power.[iv]

In 1930, the group now associated with the “Independent Christian Church” and the Disciples of Christ were not yet formally divided, an organizational separation which was consummated in 1968 with the advent of Disciple Restructure.  The Christian Church preacher from Akron was George D. Knepper.

Twelve years after the Washington dedication, my recently-widowed mother and I had moved into the upstairs apartment of John D. Thornton in Searcy, Arkansas.  As a sixteen-year-old preparing to enter Harding College as a freshman in the fall, it was necessary for me to go to the hospital in Little Rock for knee surgery to repair a high school athletic injury.  After my week in the hospital, my mother, who had no car, was looking for a comfortable way to transport me the fifty-five miles back to Searcy.  The first ready volunteers were a couple who had just brought their son to Harding to prepare for the fall term.  They had been among the last to purchase a new automobile before no more were available at the beginning of World War II, and their son was also planning to live in the Thornton apartments.  The couple, from Fostoria, Ohio, brought my mother to Little Rock and both of us back to Searcy where I continued my recuperation.  The minister-father was G. D. Knepper, and his son George would be my room-mate in the fall term.

Also living in the Thornton upstairs, besides my mother (“Mother Superior”) and me were fellow Nebraskans Dale Larson and LaVern Houtz.  We four students dubbed ourselves the “Thornton Hall Quartet.”  We didn’t sing together much, with one tenor and three baritones, but we staged “events” on campus.  George Knepper Jr. was a brilliant young engineer, having patented a special kind of spark plug before coming to college.

At the end of the 1942-43 academic year, George joined the Navy.  I have always assumed he was awarded an officer’s commission because of his engineering abilities.

Returning to the campus from the Pacific Theater of World War II in the spring of 1946, I met my future wife, Mary Lee Strawn.  She had just spent a year in Washington, DC working for the FBI and attending the very active 14th Street Church of Christ, located less than a mile from the National City Christian Church, and having sprung from the same original evangelistic roots as the older church.[v]  At the 14th Street Church, Mary Lee was touched by the singing ministry of Andy T. Ritchie, who, when he left to join the Harding College faculty in 1946, played a “pied piper” roll for a large group of young people—including Mary Lee-- who had been working in Washington during the war and now were ready to attend college.

Six years after my return to Harding, those of us who were teaching at the Kentucky Bible College in Louisville were happily blest with the addition of an exciting new colleague in the Bible Department.  John Fulda has written of the excitement among both students and faculty members with the Biblical expositions by the new professor, especially his lessons on the Sermon on the Mount.[vi]  Brother Knepper was now a retired Christian Church minister and had long been interested in the writings of R. H. Boll.  He was clearly a valuable asset to the teaching resources of KBC.

Besides living a very spiritually-oriented life and bringing a strong intellectual effort to bear on his subject, Knepper kept a wonderful sense of humor.  As the KBC chapel met daily in the back room of the Portland Avenue Church of Christ, each male faculty member was given responsibility for one day per week of chapel programs.  Brother Knepper’s day was Wednesday, when we would often have to move in more chairs to accommodate the visitors eager to hear his talk.  One Wednesday he said, “When I was a kid, we sang a Gospel song called, “Every Day Will Be Sunday By and By.”  But it was wrong.  I feel like every day is already Wednesday!”

LaVern Houtz was able to arrange for a final meeting of the Thornton Hall Quartet at a Baptist Church camp in southern Kentucky around 1990.  Dale and Raylene Thornton Larson drove up from their retirement home in Florida, George Knepper and his new wife, Margaret came down from Michigan, LaVern and Allene Covey Houtz attended from Winchester, Kentucky, and Mary Lee and I came from Missouri.  It was a sweet time of remembrance. Now George, Dale Larson, and LaVern have all “graduated” to their eternal home, and I am the only member of the Quartet to remain in this veil of tears.

But the preacher from Ohio, who helped dedicate a baptistery for the Disciples of Christ, who preached his life long in an “Independent Christian Church,” who sent his son to a mainline Church of Christ College, and who ended his career in a premillennial-oriented Church of Christ- related college demonstrated most of all how the Love of God  transcends  all party lines, just as Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone dreamed early in the nineteenth century.


[i] Dale Jorgenson, Theological and Aesthetic Roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement (Kirksville, Missouri:  Jefferson University Press, 1989), Chapter viii.

[ii] Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, 1851, p. 53.

[iii]Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, 1953, p. 54.

[iv] G. D. Knepper in National City Christian Church, Dedicatory Sermons and Addresses, compiled by Dr. Peter Morgan (Washington DC, 2007), 15.

[v] The 14th St. Church has been replaced by the Church of Christ at 16th and Decatur Streets in Washington.

[vi] John Fulda, “Letters of Encouragement from the Sermon on the Mount—G.D. Knepper,” Word and Work, July 2016.

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John 10:10