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Review: Freed-Hardeman history is more than a highlight reel

‘By the Grace of God’ candidly details the 150-year story of the Christian college.

‘It seems like God wants Freed- Hardeman to be here.” With those words, David Shannon began his tenure as Freed-Hardeman University’s current president. Greg Massey’s book By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University shares that sentiment. 

Greg Massey. By the Grace of God: The History of Freed-Hardeman University. Abilene, Texas. Abilene Christian University Press. 384 pages.

Greg Massey. By the Grace of God: The History of Freed-Hardeman University. Abilene, Texas. Abilene Christian University Press. 384 pages.

From its very beginning, the Henderson, Tenn., university associated with Churches of Christ has faced considerable challenges. Yet, despite strong headwinds, it is still here. And Massey, a professor of history at Freed-Hardeman since 1993, offers an interesting and enlightening glimpse into the university’s story. 

“By the Grace of God” is filled with engaging stories, making it an enjoyable read. These stories illustrate institutional and personal challenges faced during the Great Depression, World War I, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and 9/11. 

From the opening story of Wayne Poucher paying for his first semester by winning a speech competition with co-founder N.B. Hardeman’s help, to the closing story of scattering Paul Copeland’s ashes on the campus, Massey illustrates the special place FHU continues to be for many.

Members and alumni of the university will be interested to learn stories of supporters for whom buildings and scholarships are named. Massey also traces the history of such beloved university traditions as its athletic programs, social clubs, Makin’ Music and Bible Lectureship.  

The book, however, is not just for the FHU community. Anyone interested in Christian higher education and its influence within the Restoration Movement will find this book helpful. 

Anyone interested in Christian higher education and its influence within the Restoration Movement will find this book helpful.

Prominent voices within Churches of Christ have passed through the campus of Freed-Hardeman: Hugo McCord, James O. Baird, Earl West, Leroy Garrett and Rubel Shelly. Twentieth century controversies among Churches of Christ — premillennialism, pacifism, campus evangelism, institutionalism, Bible translations and denominational relationships — passed through personalities and programs on the university’s campus. These controversies sometimes challenged the school’s reputation as “the most doctrinally sound Christian college,” Massey writes. 

The author tells how leaders of FHU fought to preserve that image against attacks by Foy Wallace, Ira Rice and others. These battles often unfolded, sometimes quite personally, in the influential pages of Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation.

But “By the Grace of God” is more than a highlight reel of FHU’s history. 

Massey is candid about the rocky relationship between “feuding founders” A.G. Freed and Hardeman. He does not shy away from difficult moments such as Hardeman’s painful departure, Leroy Garrett’s lectureship arrest and various internal debates over finances and accreditation. 

More recent history receives less critical attention, though Massey is honest about one of the school’s greatest failings: civil rights. Sadly, as with too many Christian colleges, Massey reveals how needed change was influenced primarily by federal law rather than the Gospel. Freed-Hardeman’s recent and notable steps in the right direction receive some attention. 

One intriguing part of FHU’s story is the debate over the year of its beginning. 

The book cover celebrates the university’s 150th anniversary, marking 1869 as its start. Prior to 1907, however, three successive schools operated in Henderson, the last being Georgie Robertson Christian College. 

Georgie Robertson was owned primarily by the Tennessee Christian Missionary Society. Identified as non-sectarian, the school’s board supported missionary societies and instrumental worship. Freed worked at the school for years before leaving out of opposition to both. Georgie Robertson closed in 1907, but the original land and charter, now known as Freed-Hardeman, were purchased and established the same year to form a competing school. 

Noting 1869 as its founding, the university can claim to be the oldest higher-ed institution among Churches of Christ as opposed to Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., which holds claim to be the oldest school under the direction of members of Churches of Christ.

Freed-Hardeman University does share elements of these previous institutions, but choosing 1869 as its beginning creates an interesting tension with the current mission and image of FHU.  

Jeremie Beller | Views

Jeremie Beller

As an alumnus of Oklahoma Christian University, Massey’s work reminds me of the tremendous blessing Christian education has been in my life and in the lives of others. 

Like other Christian universities, Freed-Hardeman faces its share of challenges moving forward, primarily the decreasing pool of students and donors with connections to Churches of Christ. 

Despite these challenges, perhaps, by the grace of God, Freed-Hardeman and other Christian universities can continue blessing generations to come.

JEREMIE BELLER is congregational minister for the Wilshire Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. He is an adjunct professor of communication for Oklahoma Christian University. 

Filed under: Freed-Hardeman University Greg Massey history Reviews

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