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Love letters teach about Christian education

Imagine this scene: While going through her late father’s things, a Boston professor of religion and culture stumbles on two shoe boxes stuffed with her grandparents’ love letters, written a century ago. 

Sitting down to read them, she finds the writers dreaming of a shared life and a shared mission: improving the quality of Christian education, the “greatest work in the world.”  

What should the professor do with this archive of her intellectual and spiritual roots? She does what professors do: she publishes them in a book. 

In Print | Carisse Mickey BerryhillWhat connects these letters to us? The writers were members of the founding families of Harding University and Lipscomb University, two of the largest higher education institutions associated with Churches of Christ.

The book, The Greatest Work in the World: Education as a Mission of Early Twentieth-Century Churches of Christ, chronicles the correspondence between Lloyd Cline Sears and Pattie Hathaway (Pataway) Armstrong Sears during their courtship and early married life. 

The letters were written between 1915 and 1921, while Cline spent seasons enrolled in advanced studies in English at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Kansas. He later served as the longtime academic dean at Harding, retiring in 1960. 

Also in the published collection are a few letters from Pataway’s father, J.N. Armstrong, the first president of Harding University; from her mother Woodson Harding Armstrong; and even one from her grandmother, Pattie Cobb Harding, wife of James A. Harding, who with David Lipscomb founded the university that bears Lipscomb’s name.

Elizabeth Cline Parsons, the heir and editor of the letters, is a lecturer in religion, culture and development at Boston University School of Theology. Her introduction to “Greatest Work in the World” thoughtfully explores the themes in the letters, such as counter-cultural living, education as mission, dependence on God and attitudes toward race, gender and modernity. 

A foreword by historian Richard Hughes and an afterword by Harding University Provost Larry Long frame the contents. Parsons has also developed useful notes, a timeline, a biographical index, a general index and four pages of photos.

The letters provide compelling glimpses of the family and their social, religious and cultural contexts. Particularly poignant is a series of letters between 16-year-old Pataway, her parents and Cline in August 1915 when the couple announced their engagement. 

“I have always tried to be ready and willing to make any sacrifice for your highest and best good,” wrote Armstrong. “So I am ready now to sacrifice my judgment in this matter for your happiness, and am willing to give you and Cline my blessing. 

“I have but one baby in the world, and it breaks my heart to give her up, even in promise.”

When tensions were high during the Mexican revolution in August 1916, Cline refused to donate to a student effort at the University of Oklahoma to purchase a flag for the Oklahoma regiment called up to serve. 

“I know this ‘patriotism,’ as they call it, is contrary to the great principles of Christ’s government, and for me to lend encouragement to such a spirit would be to forsake the very principles of Christ.”

One sees how this detachment from national culture resulted in the closure of Cordell Christian College for its pacifist stance in August 1918. 

“We have had such severe persecution from brethren and the county,” Cline wrote a donor, “that we have had to discontinue and there will be no school this year. Nothing has ever pained me so much — except the early death of my father. I could hardly stand it if I did not know that in some way it is best.” 

The Armstrong and Sears families moved to Harper College and eventually founded Harding University, which endures today.

While working hard to obtain the academic credibility needed to sustain their efforts in Christian education, Cline and Pataway were even more committed to what Parsons calls an “alternate perspective … a transcendent idea of the good that could result from God’s generous reign.” 

This way of seeing the church in relation to the world around us may be very instructive in our century as well.

CARISSE MICKEY BERRYHILL is professor and associate dean of the Abilene Christian University library in Texas, where she directs Special Collections and Archives.

Filed under: Features Reviews

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