Marshall Keeble the Evangelist of the 1940s
Written by Al Maxey
Marshall Keeble (1878-1968)
Marshall Keeble was born on December 7, 1878 on a farm near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was the son of Robert and Mittie Keeble, who were former slaves.
When he was just four years old, his family moved to the city of Nashville. He attended the Bellview and Noles schools until the seventh grade, and then left school to help support the family.
His formal education never went beyond the seventh grade, although in the latter years of his life, due to his great accomplishments, both socially and religiously, as well as in the field of Christian education, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree. His first real job, after he had quit school, was working in a bucket factory, where he spent up to ten hours a day for a mere 40¢ per hour. He was baptized in 1895, at the age of seventeen, by Preston Taylor at the Gay Street Christian Church in Nashville. At that time he had long since left the bucket factory, and was working in a soap factory. The year after Bro. Keeble was baptized, he married his first wife, Minnie Womack, who was the daughter of a very prominent black preacher in the Churches of Christ by the name of S. W. Womack [d. 1920]. Bro. Womack, along with Bro. G. P. Bowser [1874-1950], had previously withdrawn from the Gay Street Christian Church to pursue what they felt was a “purer form of worship,” establishing a group that came to be known as the Jackson Street Church of Christ, “which became a base for launching Churches of Christ among African Americans in the twentieth century” [Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 15].
Marshall and Minnie purchased a grocery store in Nashville and settled into their new life together. He also acquired what was known as a “huckster’s wagon,” and while Minnie ran the store he would sell produce from this wagon around the streets of the northern sections of the city. They did so well that they were soon able to purchase a second store. Under the tutelage of his father-in-law, however, Marshall soon began to develop an interest in preaching. In fact, a year after his marriage to Bro. Womack’s daughter, Keeble preached his first sermon at the Jackson Street Church of Christ. By the year 1914, he had become so popular as a gospel preacher that, at the encouragement of a number of preachers in the area, he began traveling about as an itinerant evangelist, holding meetings in tents, arbors, barns and even in some church buildings, while Minnie stayed at home and ran the stores. Keeble never looked back, spending the next 54 years of his life preaching the gospel all over this great nation, and even overseas (making several trips to Europe, the Holy Land, and Africa). His focus was evangelism, however, and he never in all that time served a congregation as a located minister. He declared that he did not have the time to devote to a located ministry, as he preferred spending all of his time, each and every day, preaching the Word to the lost, rather than attending to the affairs of an assembly of the saved.
Bro. Keeble was successful beyond anyone’s expectations! It was not unusual for him to baptize as many as a hundred people in a single gospel meeting. Although exact records were not kept, it has been estimated by his biographers that in his lifetime he may well have baptized as many as 40,000 people. He is also said to have established close to 250 congregations. Keeble’s great appeal was his “down-home” quality to proclaiming the Word of God. He spoke simply, but powerfully. He was a master of using yarns and contemporary parables to relate eternal truths to his audience, many of whom were poor and uneducated. Yet, even though he spoke in the language of the common black laborer of his day, often butchering the English language, his messages had the ability to hold enthralled even the top scholars of his day. Keeble was an absolute genius when it came to knowing his audience. He had the uncanny ability to connect with virtually anyone, whether they be former slave or university scholar. He spoke in barns, and he addressed the faculties of major universities. And he was the same man before both groups! And they adored him!
“From the very beginning of his career Keeble proved a master of the English Bible and of human psychology” [Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 442]. Don Haymes, one of this man’s biographers, wrote, “Keeble is an unlettered, largely self-taught, creative genius, and a master of two things: the plain words of the English Bible and human psychology.” Less than a year before his death, Marshall Keeble declared that one of his great role models in life had been Booker T. Washington. “He done a lot to help me,” Kebble stated. “I got lots outta how he made his points. Any man who can make things simple is a great teacher.” Bro. Keeble was definitely able to make the message simple, and yet his teachings were profound, moving men and women to accept the Lord by the tens of thousands.
Part of his appeal, and certainly a factor in his effectiveness, was his directness with his audience … what some characterized a bold bluntness. Keeble didn’t mince words; he told it like it was. And yet he was so skilled psychologically that people were rarely ever offended by such “in your face” preaching and teaching. “No one in his time and place possessed more formidable psychological and rhetorical weapons than Keeble, or wielded them more effectively” [Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 442]. One of his contemporaries summed up the approach of this great evangelist well by saying, “Keeble preached it hard.” “Yet Keeble delivered his hard, uncompromising message with elegant wit and unalloyed love; his parables, carefully couched in the images and idioms of his audiences, conveyed his practical guidance for everyday life and his truly evangelical call to share in the hope of heaven” [ibid]. Yes, he preached it hard, but his love for those to whom he preached was evident in every word and mannerism. He genuinely cared about those who were lost, and they knew it … and they responded.
Keeble was also not reluctant to “tell it like it was” to the “big name” white preachers and scholars. At an address before a large assembly at Abilene Christian College on Feb. 23, 1950, for example, Keeble several times lit into them in order to get them to lighten up a bit. “I think sometimes the trouble with the church is we carry too long faces in order to appear sincere. That don’t count,” he told them. Later he chided the group for showing too little emotion during his talk. “You know, I would like to have a few ‘Amens.’ Little as you think of it, we are retarding the progress of the church trying to be quiet, trying to be up-to-date and modern, and the preacher don’t know when he has said anything that suits anybody. We are afraid we will go sectarian!” In other words, he wanted to see some sign of life among his listeners, not just corpses propped up in a pew. Keeble later referred to them all as being like blocks of ice in a refrigerator, and yet by the end of the speech he had melted their hearts. In that same speech Keeble said, “I am in sympathy for the gospel preacher in the Church of Christ. Why? Because he stands up to preach in a Frigidaire. The congregation sits out there … good pious brothers just looking like a cake of ice looking at him. When I find one trying to freeze me, I don’t look at him no more. I want to say a word to the young gospel preachers. When you see someone trying to freeze you, you do like you do with your modern Frigidaire — turn on your defroster. That’s right. That’s right. I’ve got a defroster on you all this evening; that’s the reason you’re smiling and encouraging me. You started in here freezing, but I have you defrosted.” Keeble could “defrost” the coldest audience, leaving them warmed by the message of God’s love for them. Those who sought to “freeze out” this poor, uneducated black man, soon warmed to him. Yes, Keeble knew his audience; he knew how to touch souls for Christ. He had an ability that few have ever equaled.
“His doctrine reflected the prevailing conservative understandings of white Churches of Christ concerning the boundaries of the church and baptism” [ibid]. In other words, Keeble, theologically and doctrinally, would be what might best be characterized today as ultra-conservative. The Church of Christ church was the only church! Being in a “denomination” was a sure ticket to hell. He regularly challenged and castigated by name all other groups from the pulpit, a practice known as “denomination bashing.” And he did so without apology! Just for the record, I disagree 100% with such tactics, and feel they are out of place in our efforts to reach others with the good news of God’s grace. I certainly respect Keeble as a brother, minister and fellow human being, but have no use for his choice of tactics. Keeble was also completely focused on getting people into the waters of baptism, and he had absolutely no use whatsoever for anyone who was unimmersed. He accused such people of seeking to be “dry cleaned.” Keeble often told his audiences, “The devil wants you dry, so you’ll burn better!” Needless to say, such tactics got the attention of the people.
- Sometimes his bravado caused a few in the crowd to challenge him publicly. He never seemed to lose his cool, however. In the above mentioned speech at Abilene Christian College in 1950, he related the following incident. “I tell you what happened to me. I was holding a meeting once at a place and there was a colored man that happened to have finished college, had some advantage of me intellectually, and he knew that he had it because you could tell from our discussion in the language that I was using that I was short, and by the verbs that I was splitting and the adjectives that I was bursting. He could tell that I was unprepared intellectually to stand before him and he attempted to take advantage of me. And here’s what he said. When I quoted Acts 2:38, he got up right in the audience and asked me, ‘What is the Greek on that?’ He knew that I knew nothing about Greek. ‘What’s the Greek on that!!’ Well, I stood there puzzled; didn’t know exactly what to say about it, and didn’t want the cause of Christ to suffer, but he had me. This thought came to me, and I was proud of it. I said everybody in this audience that knows Greek, lift their hands. I looked around and I saw nobody’s hand up. I turned around to this great preacher and I said, ‘What’s the need of discussing Greek? Ain’t nobody out there knows it.'” Apparently that silenced his critic.
By the way, for those who have never heard Bro. Keeble preach, you are missing out on a truly unique experience, one that you can enjoy through the medium of your own computer. There is a web page that contains several of his sermons, and I would encourage you to go there and listen to a few of them. You will be moved. The location of Marshall Keeble’s audio sermons is: www.oldpathsmedia.org/Speakers/Keeble/Marshall/
Not everyone was enamored with brother Marshall Keeble. Some, especially some black brethren, “accused Keeble of accommodating to white racist policies of segregation and discrimination” [Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 441]. He was often called an “Uncle Tom” … some suggesting he had “sold out” to the whites, becoming their “boy.” Yes, it is true that Keeble tried to stay clear of racial issues, and chose not to use the pulpit to address the racial problems current in society. He did not speak out against segregation or discrimination against the blacks. Rather, he sought to uplift the spirits of his people as they struggled under oppression, and to soften the hearts of the whites with the love of Christ so that they might change from the inside out. Keeble had not sold out … he merely sought to address the problem from an entirely different perspective. As with Jesus and Paul, Marshall Keeble did not come preaching social militancy, but spiritual transformation. Change hearts, and you will change society. Although some misunderstood what he sought to accomplish, and how, others perceived his purpose clearly. Bro. Reuel Lemmons [1912-1989], with whom I was privileged to spend some one-on-one time in Red River, New Mexico just a few months before his passing, made the following observation in one of his editorials in his publication Firm Foundation — “Keeble did far more to break down any racial barriers that existed than anyone then alive; traveling for seventy years among blacks and whites alike, equally loved by both, preaching the gospel of peace.” Nevertheless, in the words of one of his many biographers, “he did not escape the suffering that is promised to all of those who proclaim God’s good news in every age or the humiliation imposed on every American of African descent in his time and place. He preached with guns pointed at his head, and he also preached while being struck with brass knuckles and rocks, never dropping a syllable.” Here was a man who, in this respect, truly evidenced the very spirit of Jesus Christ in the face of his tormentors.
Bro. Keeble was also well-known for his debating skills, and held numerous debates throughout the nation. Interestingly, his very first debate was with his very own father, Robert Keeble, who had joined a religious group known as the “Do-Rights.” This first debate was over the issues of washing feet and the contents of the cup in the Lord’s Supper (the “Do-Rights” substituted water for grape juice). Over the course of four nights in May, 1922 in Birmingham, Alabama, Keeble debated a holiness preacher on the topics of water baptism and the Holy Spirit. Two years later, in Paducah, Kentucky, he debated yet another holiness preacher on the Holy Spirit and the use of water in the cup of the Lord’s Supper. On January 24-26, 1928, in Jackson, Tennessee, he debated G. T. Haywood on questions relating to water baptism, miracles, and the Holy Spirit. He debated an Adventist in Denver, Colorado in 1932 on the church and the Sabbath. Another such debate was held in Muskogee, Oklahoma that very same year. And on and on his debates went over the years. One biographer wrote, “Marshall was highly successful in the field of debate. It was said that all of his opponents, after facing Keeble, retired from the debating arena. None of them ever came back for a second try.”
Not too many years after Marshall Keeble began laboring as an itinerant evangelist, he started coming to the attention of some rather wealthy and powerful white church members and leaders who desired to finance his preaching efforts. In the year 1918, for example, at Oak Grove, Tennessee, he baptized 84 persons in a single gospel meeting. This phenomenal success got the attention of one of the locals — N. B. Hardeman [1874-1965], who was the influential president of nearby Freed-Hardeman College. His greatest benefactor, however, was a Nashville multi-millionaire by the name of A. M. Burton [1879-1966], who was the founder of the very successful Life & Casualty Insurance Company. Bro. Burton fully funded Marshall Keeble’s travels throughout the nation, and later throughout the world, as he proclaimed the gospel message. This he did willingly, and without complaint, from 1920 until Keeble’s death in 1968. Only eternity will show the full extent of the return on that financial investment. Praise God for men like A. M. Burton!!
Bro. Keeble also did a lot of writing for a number of brotherhood journals such as Gospel Advocate, Firm Foundation, Christian Echo, and many others. From 1939 to 1950 he served as the editor of the Christian Counselor, which was a monthly journal for blacks published by the Gospel Advocate Company. This very same company published his autobiography in 1962. It had the creative title — History of My Life: Mule Back to Super Jet with the Gospel. Bro. Keeble was also very active in Christian education, especially (and primarily) among the blacks. The Nashville Christian Institute opened its doors in 1940 as an adult night school. When Keeble became its president in 1942 (a position which he held for 16 years) he expanded the focus of this school, offering daytime classes for black children. The institute ultimately became a reputable K-12 school in Nashville.
Marshall Keeble and his first wife Minnie enjoyed 36 wonderful years together, and they had five children. Sadly, his wife, and all five children, preceded him in death. Two of their children died in infancy. Their son, Clarence, died when only ten years old (he was electrocuted when he touched a high voltage wire on a utility pole in their front yard). Their daughter died in 1935, and their final son, Robert, died in 1964. His wife Minnie passed away on December 11, 1932. Not too long afterward, he met a young woman from Corinth, Mississippi by the name of Laura Catherine Johnson, who was twenty years his junior (in fact, at the age of 35, she was beginning to wonder if she was destined to die an “old maid”). Keeble always said that it disgusted him to see a preacher “flirting around with a woman,” so he never spent more than five minutes alone with Laura Johnson prior to their marriage, and much of his courtship was done via letters. He and Laura were married on April 3, 1934 by B. C. Goodpasture [1895-1977], a good friend and fellow minister of the gospel. It was reported by those present that Keeble almost broke up the wedding by his many “Amens” during the message. Their honeymoon, which Sis. Keeble laughed about much later in a 2003 interview, was a three month tent revival Marshall held in California! What a romantic!! Marshall and Laura never had any children together, but the new Mrs. Keeble became a devoted mother to his surviving children, and to his grandchildren. In fact, after Keeble’s daughter Beatrice died in 1935, Sister Keeble took in and raised the two young daughters as her own. She also frequently kept up to a dozen girls at a time in her home during the years that Marshall served as president of the Nashville Christian Institute. Thus, Sis. Keeble, although never having children of her own, was known as “Mama” to many!
Brother Marshall Keeble, after decades of faithful service to his heavenly Father, passed from this life 39 years ago. His funeral was held in the city of Nashville on April 20, 1968 with over 3000 people in attendance to pay their respects to this servant of God. The message was delivered by B. C. Goodpasture. He was laid to rest in the Greenwood Cemetery. One biographer noted, “In his lifetime he worked to overcome many obstacles for African Americans, both in education and preaching the gospel he loved. He broke many of the cultural barriers that separated black and white people. In 2000 the Christian Chronicle named Marshall Keeble the most influential preacher among Churches of Christ in the decade of the 1940s. Perhaps it could be said that Marshall Keeble was the most influential preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the 20th century.” The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement states: “Marshall Keeble was the most widely known black evangelist in twentieth-century Churches of Christ. His efforts helped produce a generation of leaders who provided crucial guidance to the body in the late twentieth century” [p. 441]. Thank God for Bro. Marshall Keeble, and for Minnie Keeble and Laura Keeble. May our Lord raise up many more like them as leaders among His people.