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Book offers surprisingly suspenseful church history

Believe it or not, the Land Run of 1889, celebrated and recreated yearly by school children across Oklahoma, had a negative impact on Churches of Christ. 

Many established congregations lost members who moved away to claim free land grants in Oklahoma, which became the 46th state in 1907. Depleted churches were left behind.

W. David Baird. Churches of Christ in Oklahoma: A History. University of Oklahoma Press, 2020. 345 pages.

W. David Baird. Churches of Christ in Oklahoma: A History. University of Oklahoma Press, 2020. 345 pages.

That’s one of the fascinating insights delivered by W. David Baird in Churches of Christ in Oklahoma: A History.” 

Baird, a native Oklahoman, is a former professor at Okahoma State University and a dean emeritus of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. He is the author of 14 previous books, most of which focus on the history of the Sooner State and its Indian nations. His latest presents a readable and fascinating narrative of the complex social, political and religious factors that shaped Churches of Christ in Oklahoma.

Beginning in 1857, when Oklahoma was known as Indian Territory, Baird documents the early mission work among Indians and early settlers. He tracks the planting of churches through the early, wild years up through the present. At points the book reads almost like a suspense novel that makes you want to learn more.

Baird introduces us to unsung heroes like S.R. Cassius, a former slave who followed Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell and their Restoration plea. Cassius, who preached in Oklahoma from 1891 to 1922, was possibly the first African-American national evangelist for Churches of Christ.

We also meet Meta Chestnutt, a tall, single woman from North Carolina who supported her ministry by teaching school. Baird describes the remarkable dedication of this missionary. She often consulted T.B. Larrimore and called on him for evangelistic preaching. 

Meta set up her school and Sunday school a few miles west of Oklahoma City in Minco. Eventually this devout woman led the El Meta Christian College there for several years, starting in 1895. 

We meet R.W. Officer, who preached in eastern Oklahoma along the MK&T Railroad line and ministered to many former slaves. Baird details Officer’s struggles raising support while he faced unfair criticism for his work. 

Whether you’re from Oklahoma or not, you’ll find Baird’s work to be fascinating and informative.

After considerable progress was made in establishing trusting relationships with the Indians, criticism of Officer and insinuation against his soundness resulted in most of the evangelistic gains being lost.

Baird explains how Churches of Christ struggled in the early 20th century to deal with doctrinal issues such as pacifism, pattern theology, millennialism, baptism, Sunday school and self-identity.

Baird also explains how the 1960 presidential election of John F. Kennedy turned Oklahoma from a progressive-thinking Democrat state to a conservative Republican state. 

At the beginning of each chapter, he sets the prevailing context for the time period he’s discussing. Clear and concise conclusions to each chapter aid our comprehension.

Baird occasionally assumes knowledge of concepts not fully explained, such as “Baconian,” but such occurrences are rare. At points the work is heavy in historical details, yet these are a crucial repository of historical information. Baird also uses the now-in-vogue term “Stone-Campbell Movement” rather than Restoration Movement.

Whether you’re from Oklahoma or not, you’ll find Baird’s work to be fascinating and informative. This is a read that opens windows of insight into the movement’s early history in the state. 

LYNN Mcmillon is a professor of Bible and dean emeritus of the College of Biblical Studies at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. He is president emeritus of The Christian Chronicle.

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Filed under: Churches of Christ Churches of Christ and sexual abuse Opinion Reviews W. David Baird

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