1st Installment
Christian Scholars Conference, Pepperdine Campus, 1998

Introduction: My personal relationship with Boll

R. H. Boll preached in Louisville for 32 years before I got to hear him. But that wasn’t my fault. They tell me I was about two weeks old when I first attended the Portland Avenue Church of Christ and did hear him. So I drank in Bible teach-ing from “Brother Boll” along with my mother’s milk.

Our family heard him not only on Sun. mornings but also Sun. nights and in his Fri. night Bible classes. And a highlight of each summer was “tent-meeting time,” when he would preach the Gospel six nights a week for several consecutive weeks. We read the Word and Work too, which he edited. Yet little did anyone dream that when Boll died in 1956 (I was a college freshman then), my dad–a businessman and church elder–would succeed him in the pulpit. Or that 28 years after that, I would become the preacher there–and later on the editor of the Word and Work. Please excuse these references to our personal experiences, but that’s the only kind we’ve had.

Is it possible for someone with that background to write about this controversial man objectively and impartially? You must be the judge of that. It may help you to know that the present writer doesn’t agree with all that Boll believed (and he wouldn’t get up-tight about that). If pressed, I could mention maybe four or five points, mostly minor, on which we did not see eye to eye. He urged his students to pray, study and reach their own conclusions – not just be carbon copies of him. But though he’s not my pope, my indebtedness to him is beyond measuring.

Now on to our subject: R. H. Boll as a writer and editor. [For your information, he lived from 1875-1956.]

I. Boll’s Attitudes In Writing and Policies In Editing

Before 1916 Boll wrote numerous articles in various publications: the Gospel Advocate, The Way, Christian Leader and The Way, the Gospel Review, and Word and Work. He also gained editorial experience with three of those journals. From 1909-1915 he was front-page editor (perhaps today we would call him a regular columnist) for the Gospel Advocate. When he left that position, he was offered space in five other papers, but chose to become the editor of Word and Work. He continued in that post for forty years, from 1916 till his death. Besides his voluminous editorials and articles in that magazine, for decades he wrote a Sunday School quarterly for adults. In addition, he wrote over ten books, plus a number of booklets and pamphlets. (And during all that time he was also a fulltime preacher of God’s word.)

In what he himself wrote, and how he wrote it, and in the writings of others whose writings he included in his magazine, seven characteristics seem especially impressive. First, his attitudes: he held strong convictions, yet valued doctrinal freedom for all. Also, he was positive in emphasis, gracious toward those who differed from him, broad in fellowship within the limits of the Gospel, and spiritual in character. Second, in method he was mainly expository. Let’s take these up one at a time.

A. He held Strong Convictions — was Not a Conformist

He was not wishy-washy, but stood firmly for the truth of God’s Word as he understood it. The depth of his convictions is obvious, for through decades of strong opposition he taught and defended what he believed. As a German ex-Roman Catholic himself, he held Martin Luther in high regard. Early in his ministry, before controversy swirled around him, Boll penned these prophetic words:

“You must lay aside all that preoccupies your heart and your mind, and go straight to God’s Word. There listen, there learn, and obey, no matter where it may lead…. But if you follow that principle, you will have occasion to face enemies and say, as Luther once said, “Here I stand — God help me! I cannot do otherwise.”

Being committed to Scripture, Boll opposed what he believed were unbiblical practices and beliefs. He warned his readers against both moral evils and doctrinal errors. For instance, it was his belief that Christians who fought and killed in their country’s wars were wrong, and he said so more than once. In fact he came under U.S. government investigation for several months during World War I because of what he wrote in that regard. At least once in his writings he denounced abortion, a practice not often dealt with in those days. He spoke out strongly against modernism with its denials of the super-natural. He exposed the false doctrines he himself had been taught growing up in Roman Catholicism.

And he warned his readers against the cults. For example, in the Gospel Advocate he wrote, “It is because of our great ignorance of things prophetical that often simple Christians…are fascinated and taken in by Mormons, Adventists, Russellites [Jehovah’s Witnesses], and other isms that make great stock of prophecy.” Indeed, Hans Rollmann concludes from his research that during Boll’s “tenure as front-page editor of the Gospel Advocate from 1909 to 1915, e.g., he wrote no less than 10 articles directly against Russell [Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses]….In fact Boll was the most persistent and prolific critic of Russell in the GA….” This is ironic in light of insinuations made by several of Boll’s later critics that his prophetic views were in some ways shaped by Russell.

For a while Boll was a columnist for the Gospel Review. Every other month his column was entitled “In Defense of Truth.” In the intervening months it was called “Homiletic Paragraphs.” Probably he enjoyed writing the latter more than the former. Establishing the veracity of the faith was important. But explaining the contents of the faith was more important. We shall pursue that thought when we get to section C below.

B. He Valued Doctrinal Freedom — for All, not just Himself

Boll might aptly be called a “freedom fighter.” He had left a religion in which the hierarchy dictated what the members had to believe. Such a system discouraged the individual from studying God’s Word for himself. Unthinking obedience was required. To Boll this was totally contrary to the “Berean attitude” which Scripture commends in Acts 17.

He was determined to follow what he thought God’s Word taught rather than follow any group’s party-line. He valued his freedom more than popularity or riches. And he sought to extend such freedom to others too. He claimed he never forced his own strongly-held beliefs on others. Was that true or not?

Notice first his claim. When in the Word and Work he announced his “winter course of Bible classes” for 1916-17, he explained the nature of the studies:

….The members of these classes, both the teacher and the taught, are free under God. The teacher counts his liberty in Christ precious. By liberty he does not mean license,…nor irresponsibility, nor a disregard of love and righteous restraint–but the liberty of the children of God, which includes the privilege of studying, believing and teaching all the Word of God with all faithfulness, no man forbidding….

The students are just as free as the teacher. They search and study as unto God. If any fact or truth is pointed out and the student sees it for himself in God’s Word, he is free to accept it. If he is unable to see it, he is free (and even obliged) to reject it, and that without fear of affecting our mutual love and fellowship.

That was Boll’s stated goal. Did he accomplish it? The edition of Word and Work which was published the month after his death contained a number of “Tributes from Friends.” One was by Howard Marsh, long-time preacher in Sellersburg, Indiana. He wrote,

To me there was one thing that stood out in the life and work of Brother Boll. He never forced or even asked anyone to agree with him in his teaching, but left us free to examine God’s word. I spent seven years in his classes, and not once during this time did he ask me to accept what he taught us unless we could see clearly that it was what the word of God taught. Neither did I hear him ask anyone else this question.

Another preacher, Gaston Collins, stressed this fact in his testimony too:

It seemed to me that he was always willing to let me be responsible for my own faith–not once did he (nor those associated with him) ever try to get me to sign on the dotted line, or sound me out to line me up on any particular item of faith or doctrine, to commit me to their views. To me…this idea of freedom in Christ…grew to be very precious.

Scholar Hans Rollmann points out that during Boll’s dispute with the Gospel Advocate magazine in 1915,
he made the freedom of the Christian a main point in his discussions and considered his views on prophecy to be included in such evangelical freedom. He saw that freedom vanishing when only one party line was being propagated. Thus he defended his articulation of eschatological views with reference to a wide spectrum of millennial thinking in the past. He wrote in a letter of 26 May 1915 to J.C. McQuiddy:

“If old Bro. J L Martin can publish [his book] the Voice of the Seven Thunders; and Johnson his Vision of the Ages; A M Morris his Prophecy Unveiled; if the Standard can give Battenfield’s book in series form to its readers and no one fears any divisions of Churches from these causes, why should my humble teaching cause it? Unless, indeed, some should rise up in unbrotherly intolerance and by unbrotherly practices try to force a division; but in that case, those men would themselves be the dividers, and the Lord will hold them to account.”

Years later, as various leaders’ attempts to silence Boll got worse, not better, he sounded the following alarm in a letter to N. B. Hardeman.

Permit me to voice this warning to my brethren: that if we are unable to handle such a difference as this without division or disruption of fellowship we must evermore cease to preach unity to the denominational world; and if we make our prophetic views… an article of faith, to be subscribed to in order to fellowship, we forfeit the right to the name of the simple church of Christ, and must… adopt a sectarian designation to indicate that fact that we are Christians of a certain sectarian creed.

It is obvious that RHB thought that Christians could maintain both freedom and fellowship, that there could be unity along with diversity. And I can testify that he practiced what he preached–and it worked! For the last ten years of Boll’s ministry at the Portland Avenue church, my father was one of the four elders there. We saw earlier that Boll opposed Christians serving as combatants in war. My dad was a captain in the field artillery! Boll also took the view which David Lipscomb espoused in his book, Civil Government, that Jesus’ disciples should not run for political office, nor vote in elections. Dad and at least some of the other elders regularly voted! Yet Dad thought the world of Brother Boll, and Boll had a great respect and love for Dad. I don’t believe so much as an angry word ever passed between them. Their unity in Christ was greater than their differences in belief. That was loving, responsible freedom. They agreed to disagree agreeably!

C. He was Positive in Emphasis — Not Combative

Though Boll opposed what he believed was evil or erroneous, as noted above, he did not major on such themes. The main focus of his writings was on what is true and upbuilding. Warnings were made when and as needed. But his delight was to present the breath-taking Good News of God’s grace, and the riches of His provisions for our growth in love and all-around holiness.

He did not enjoy controversy. True, he refused to back off from writing and preaching about endtime prophecy after that became a bone of contention. Some faulted him for that. But he tried not to over-emphasize eschatology nor to neglect other aspects of Biblical truth. And his attitude affected not only what he taught, but how. Earl West comments, “It was one of [Boll’s] convictions to be gentle. He observed that one could not keep a horse by whipping it; one must feed it, so he believed preaching [and writing–avw] should not concentrate on negatives.”

Boll was reluctantly willing to engage in written debate when he felt it was necessary, but even then he sought to be constructive and loving. He felt that when differing views were compared in a loving manner, truth-seekers could benefit from it. But if harshness prevailed, all were losers. Here is how he expressed it in 1938:

That differences of views and doctrines should exist in the church of the Lord is not strange. Nor is it in itself bad. When free brethren study God’s word independently it is to be expected that on one point and another they will arrive at different conclusions. Where brotherly love rules, these different…findings and the discussions that follow, are mutually helpful. Where motives other than love control, differences result in dissension, strife, bitterness, sectarian parties and partisan hate. The blame in such a case, however, does not rest on the differences them-selves, but on the spirit and attitude of those who differ. The wrong comes in when lines are drawn, when brethren are branded, ostracised, disfellow-shipped.

When in 1927 he engaged in a written debate with H. Leo Boles regarding endtime prophecies, Boll said in his final statement:

To my honored respondent I express my gratitude for all kind and brotherly utterance in the course of the discussion…. And if in any matter I failed to do him justice, I beg his forgiveness…. I wish to express my kindliest personal feelings toward my respondent.

And brother Boles in his concluding statement expressed similar love and respect:

“I have had many discussions and many kinds of opponents, but I have never had a more courteous and brotherly opponent than Brother R. H. Boll…. Our differences and a discussion of them do not keep me from esteeming him very highly as a brother in Christ Jesus.”

Boll deplored and avoided the combative attitude which became popular in many Church of Christ publications as time went by. In his first editorial for Word and Work, he wrote,

The first thing we want to say about the new Word and Work is that it goes out on a mission of peace and good will….It is not designed to compete with any other publication….It is our chief aim to produce a clean magazine:…free from objectionable controversy, from personalities, and bitter sayings….

He seemed to fulfill that aim. During the 1940s a librarian at Harding College more than once told some students that if they were tired of magazines that argued and fought all the time and wanted to find something positive and upbuilding, they should read Word and Work.