Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mansion with Stone-Campbell pedigree

Another of Ottumwa’s landmark homes, the William T. Harper house at 908 N. Court Ave, is on the market --- priced at $85,000, which seems a bargain-basement price. Providing the buyer has a few hundreds of thousands handy to invest in restoration.

For as long as I’ve been driving by, this has been the headquarters of an outfit called the Midwestern School of Evangelism and institutional use has not been cosmetically kind to the interior of the structure. The Realtor photos seem to have been taken on a bad day, when owners and photographer decided to make the interior as unattractive as possible.

According to brief mention on a city of Ottumwa Web site about the Court Avenue Historic District, the home was built in the 1880s, at a time when Court was the place to show off in Ottumwa.

Although white paint now covers everything, the construction was of deep red brick with cast hood molds above doors and windows and limestone trim. The paint could not be removed without endangering the brick, but it remains an attractive building.

The style is Italianate, but the neoclassical front porch is not original. Although its sparse brackets mirror those below the eaves, it probably replaced the original porches during a general overhaul early in the 20th century. The woodwork appears to be original, but other details suggest an effort to modernize. The chimney pieces are uncharacteristically plain, of pieced marble that probably replaced substantially more ornate mantles, and a panel of stained glass at the top of the south bay window seems to be arts and crafts.

The builder was William T. Harper, who arrived in the Ottumwa area in 1853, when he was 20, and prospered in various entrepreneurial pursuits, including drug wholesaling. He died in this house on Oct. 5, 1900. His widow, Mary E. Knight Harper, survived until 1930. Both are buried in the Ottumwa City Cemetery, a couple of blocks north.

I have no idea when the evangelism school moved in, but it, too, is a part of Ottumwa’s history, an outgrowth of one branch of what sometimes is called the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, which began on the American frontier during the early 19th century. Arising independently in several places, the goal of the coalescing movement was to recreate the Christian church according to what its organizers perceived to be an exclusively New Testament pattern.

Early leaders included, in Kentucky, Barton W. Stone, and in western Pennsylvania and (West) Virginia, Thomas Campbell and his son, Andrew.

By the early 20th century, the restorationists had informally divided in part in response to what was perceived of as the dangerous liberality of what now is the Christian (Disciples of Christ) denomination, with linked congregations and denominational infrastructure. That odd combination of names developed because leaders could not agree to call the denomination either “Christian” or “Disciples of Christ,” so kept both names --- a decision that can confuse non-Disciples.

The larger balance has by now divided more or less into two threads with similar theologies and structure --- autonomous congregations without formal links or denominational infrastructure toward the right or extreme right theologically and socially. They differ primarily on whether or not musical instruments are appropriate in a church based on a New Testament model.

The Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ are sometimes modified by the term “instrumental” and the Churches of Christ, by the term “a cappella.”

Anyhow, the Midwestern School of Evangelism was an outgrowth of what became known as Independent Chriistian Churches/Churches of Christ.

According to the “Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement,” the school was founded by three young students from Ozark Bible College, Donald G. Hunt, Burton W. Barber and James R. McMorrow, who were heavily influenced by the Oregon-based ministry of Archie Word. Sometimes called the Ottumwa Brethren, the three began publishing the “Voice of Evangelism” in 1946 and founded the Midwestern School of Evangelism in Ottumwa in 1947.

Their brand of Christianity was sometimes called a holiness movement because of its preoccupation with the evils of perceived worldliness --- movies, television, smoking, drinking and the like --- and unwillingness to fellowship with those outside its circle.

The Ottumwa school flourished for many years, matriculating hundreds of students. The Brethren’s influence spread to an estimated 650 churches primarily in Iowa, Missouri and in the West Coast and involved a network of nearly that many preachers.

As the founders died, however, zeal diminished and the rather plain and plain-spoken restorationists had difficulty adapting to the current technobabel tower of megawhatever evangelical Christianity.

The Ottumwa school suspended classes during 2007 and retreated online. It continues to publish the “Voice of Evangelism” and other materials, but apparently no longer needs a large and drafty mansion for its headquarters.

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