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Exclusive: Trust to distribute $35 million to Churches of Christ in Tennessee, Kentucky

Final court order deems non-instrumental congregations and related ministries as beneficiaries.

A one-time traveling salesman born in small-town Kentucky before the start of the Civil War moved to Nashville, Tenn., in the early 20th century and started a successful apparel company.

In its heyday, R.W. Comer’s Washington Manufacturing Co. — best known for its DeeCee work clothing — employed more than 20,000 workers in two dozen-plus factories across the South.

Now, 75 years after Comer’s death, a trust that he and his sons established to benefit Churches of Christ is about to pay major dividends — roughly $35 million in all — to congregations in the two states that he called home.

The late R.W. Comer was a prominent businessman and Church of Christ elder. He died in 1944.

The late R.W. Comer was a prominent businessman and Church of Christ elder. He died in 1944.

A cappella Churches of Christ in Tennessee and Kentucky and related ministries will split proceeds from the fund established by the Comer family in 1936, The Christian Chronicle has learned.

“Within the next few days, every qualifying Church of Christ in Tennessee and Kentucky will receive a letter containing instructions, which must be followed within the allotted time in order to receive a distribution from the Trust,” William Tucker, assistant vice president for the major gift program and estate planning support at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., confirmed in an email to the Chronicle. 

“Every congregation, whether large or small, will receive the same amount from the Comer Trust,” Tucker noted.

If $35 million were split equally among the 2,000 Churches of Christ in those two states, it would amount to $17,500 per congregation. 

A trust fund letter received by multiple churches and reviewed by the Chronicle indicated that the trustee does not expect “appreciably more than 2,000” beneficiaries.

“I’m very thankful that he and his two sons had the foresight to set up the trust,” Jack S. Dugger Jr., the fund’s trustee, said of his great-grandfather and great-uncles. “Resources that were put into the trust have grown significantly over the last 70-plus years, and we’re able to now make a significant contribution to the congregations due to his generosity.”

“Resources that were put into the trust have grown significantly over the last 70-plus years, and we’re able to now make a significant contribution to the congregations due to his generosity.”

Asked if he had any advice for how congregations should spend the money, Dugger, a 79-year-old former elder of the Brentwood Church of Christ near Nashville, chuckled.

“No, not really,” he replied. “But we would hope that at least part of it would go to some sort of mission work.”

Late last month, Chancellor Louis W. Oliver III issued a final order in the Sumner County Chancery Court in Gallatin, Tenn., approving the trustee’s final determination of beneficiaries.

Robert Wickliffe Comer died on Aug. 5, 1944, at age 84. Comer ran the Washington Manufacturing Co. until becoming ill about five weeks before his death, according to an obituary published in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper. 

The benefactor was a charter member of Nashville’s Chapel Avenue Church of Christ, where he served as an elder until his death. He also served on the board of David Lipscomb College, now known as Lipscomb University. A January 1937 article in the Gospel Advocate noted that Comer gave a $3 Bible (about $53 in 2019 value) to each of his 2,500 employees for Christmas.

A $200,000 donation that he made to Freed-Hardeman College as a permanent endowment led to the college’s accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, according to the letter sent to churches.

“I’ve researched brother Comer’s life over the years,” said Scott Harp, editor of TheRestorationMovement.com and minister for the Crittenden Drive Church of Christ in Russellville, Ky. “His name has come up time and again as a gracious and liberal benefactor of good works among Churches of Christ. 

“By the appearances of his potential blessings even today, it seems that he being dead yet speaketh!” added Harp, making reference to Hebrews 11:4. 

Part of the final order filed last last month in Sumner County Chancery Court in Gallatin, Tenn.

Part of the final order filed last last month in Sumner County Chancery Court in Gallatin, Tenn.

According to the court order, R.W. Comer and sons Guy L. Comer and Mont B. Comer formed a trust in 1936 that was amended in 1941. The trust established three classes of beneficiaries. Class A and B classes were family members.

“They have all received their full allotment from the Trust,” Tucker said in his email. “The trustee is now ready to distribute the remaining corpus — $37 million — equally among the Class C beneficiaries.”

Dugger indicated that the final family member beneficiary died last year. “The bulk of the money goes to the churches,” he said.

The Class C beneficiaries are Churches of Christ and related ministries.

Part of the court order quotes Ed Harrell, a church historian and professor emeritus at Auburn University.

Part of the court order quotes Ed Harrell, a church historian and professor emeritus at Auburn University.

The court order goes into great detail to explain that the Churches of Christ receiving funds will be those deemed “loyal to the Church of Christ” as that description was understood both in 1936 and when the trust was amended in 1941.

Specifically, the order indicates that eligible congregations will be those listed in “Churches of Christ in the United States” directory published by 21st Century Christian and identified as not incorporating instrumental music into any of their assemblies. 

Since its beginning, the directory has denoted subgroups within the fellowship, including churches that use one cup in communion or practice mutual edification and oppose the use of paid ministers. But the publication’s 2009 edition made headlines when it omitted congregations for using instrumental worship in at least one Sunday worship service. However, those congregations were restored to the list in 2012. New codes were created that indicate “historically” a cappella churches that have added instruments to some or all Sunday assemblies. Those churches remain a small fraction of the 12,000 U.S. congregations included in the directory.

“There are a lot of factors involved,” Dugger said of the non-instrumental worship requirement for the trust money. “As you know, there have been a lot of changes in the various congregations of the Church of Christ over the years.

“This blessing has come to 36th and Garland at a time when our ceiling caved in due to a poorly constructed structure which allowed outside vermin to bite through the plastic tubing used for our water.”

“That was certainly one thing that stood out when we researched churches that existed in the 1936 and 1941 time span,” he added. “They worshiped a cappella with no music in their worship service. So we wanted to honor that and make that a stipulation.”

The 36th and Garland Church of Christ, a 40-member, predominantly black congregation in Louisville, Ky., praised God upon learning about its share of the trust.

“This blessing has come to 36th and Garland at a time when our ceiling caved in due to a poorly constructed structure which allowed outside vermin to bite through the plastic tubing used for our water,” senior minister Kenneth Ray said. “Because of God’s grace via R.W. Comer and sons, we will be able to rebuild and continue our children’s classes and training.”

Filed under: Chapel Avenue Church of Christ Comer Fund Guy L. Comer Kentucky Mont B. Comer National R.W. Comer Restoration movement Robert Wickliffe Comer Tennessee Top Stories trust fund Washington Manufacturing Company

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