Theophilus Brown Larimore
Written by Al Maxey
A Champion of Unity and Harmony within the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Born into abject poverty in Jefferson County, east of Knoxville, Tennessee on July 10, 1843, Theophilus Brown Larimore would nevertheless rise to become one of the great shining beacons of the Stone-Campbell Movement, leaving behind a rich legacy of tireless effort to bring disparate disciples together in sweet fellowship rather than the partisan wrangling that was, and still is, so woefully characteristic of our movement.
He was a champion of unity in diversity and acceptance of others regardless of differences in perception, preference and practice. As a result, he was both loved and hated by his contemporaries in the movement and his fellow leaders. John Waddey, a legalistic preacher for a small group of factionists in Surprise, Arizona, wrote, “All change agents cite the example of Bro. T. B. Larimore as they seek to persuade conservative brethren to sit silently while they work to change the church and capture congregations, church buildings and schools” [Christianity: Then & Now, August, 2005].
John Waddey, not surprisingly, has completely failed to perceive the true spirit of Larimore and what he sought to accomplish, as well as the type of change that many within our movement seek to bring about today — i.e., the very same change of attitude toward brethren promoted by the teaching and life of Bro. T. B. Larimore.
Not very much is known of his parents, although Larimore had a very close relationship with his mother for a great many years. It appears that his father might have passed away early, as T. B., his siblings and his mother moved to Sequatchie County, Tennessee in 1852 when Larimore was only nine. His schooling was very sporadic at this time (only 10-12 weeks a year) as he had to work six days per week on a farm to help support the family, for which he was paid a mere four dollars per month. At the age of 16, T. B. Larimore entered Mossy Creek Baptist College in Jefferson City, which he attended from 1859-61. He would walk many miles each way from his home to the college, and this he did every day while he attended school there. While at the college he became increasingly interested in religious studies, but at that particular point had pretty much failed to find any kind of positive experience (in an organized/institutionalized setting) that was spiritually satisfying to him. Nevertheless, he vowed to do his best to live righteously before His God as long as God granted him life on this earth.
When the Civil War began, Larimore entered the Confederate Army where he served as a scout. In the fall of 1863 he was captured by troops from the North, but was later released after taking an oath that he would never return to combat. He, his mother, and his siblings then moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and it was here that an elder in the Christian Church, Enos Campbell, studied the Bible with him and eventually led him to a deeper relationship with Christ. He was baptized on July 10, 1864 — his 21st birthday. He decided to enter Franklin College, located near Nashville, Tennessee, and begin training for the ministry. This institution was operated by two great leaders within our movement: A. J. and Tolbert Fanning, who had a tremendous influence on the young Larimore. In fact, he often declared in later years that Bro. Tolbert Fanning was one of the best teachers he ever had. Larimore also began doing some preaching during this period of time, developing a great love for evangelism (which was to become the primary focus of the remainder of his life). He graduated from this school in 1867, and was chosen to deliver the valedictory address at the graduation ceremony.
After graduation from Franklin College, Larimore moved to northern Alabama and began teaching school and preaching. He preached for several communities in that area of the state. He also met and fell in love with a young woman by the name of Esther Gresham (pictured at left), who was from the city of Florence, Alabama. They were married in 1868. Esther owned a prime piece of land near Florence, and on January 1, 1871 he opened a school on that property, naming it Mars Hill Academy (which later, as the school grew and prospered, was renamed — Mars Hill College). Mars Hill would remain open for quite a few years, training hundreds of young men to preach the gospel (although other academic areas of learning were also taught). Although a number of good textbooks were employed, T. B. Larimore was convinced that the two best for his students were the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary. He felt that if his students knew these two, then they were truly educated. His pupils came to be known as “Larimore’s Boys,” and quite a significant number of them went on to become some of the most beloved and respected evangelists in the Stone-Campbell Movement. “In 1875 and 1876 Larimore edited an irenic and short-lived paper titled The Little Angel. Though he spent several months each year in evangelistic work while running Mars Hill Academy, Larimore finally closed the school in 1887 to be able to devote full time to evangelism” [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 453].
T. B. Larimore loved to preach the gospel message. It was his passion! Local work — serving as a paid minister for an established congregation — was not really something he cared for, although he served a number of congregations in this capacity. His true calling was to travel about the nation holding gospel meetings, and these tended to be rather lengthy events. For example, he conducted a meeting in Sherman, Texas which lasted from January 4 to June 7, 1894. During this five month meeting he preached twice every day and three times on Sunday, baptizing 254 people. Another such event occurred in Los Angeles, California, where his meeting lasted from January 3 to April 17, 1895. Again, he preached twice every day and three times on Sunday, and he baptized 120 persons. He would preach wherever and whenever presented with an opportunity, whether it be in a church building, a schoolhouse, a log cabin, or under a brush arbor. Nine weeks into one particular meeting he was asked in a letter from a friend how he was holding up under such a grueling schedule. He wrote back, “You are anxious to know how I am holding up. I am well. Nothing can be better for me than to preach twice every day and three times on Sunday, unless it is to preach three times every day and Sunday too.” This same friend was curious how Larimore found enough topics to preach on, to which T. B. replied, “Exhaust Bible themes and thoughts and truths at this rate, after a while? Yes, when swallows drink the ocean dry!” [C. Leonard Allen, Distant Voices, p. 156-157]. He believed, and rightly so, that there was sufficient truth in the Scriptures to provide a lifetime of preaching … even at 2-3 sermons a day!
A significant part of the evangelistic effectiveness of Bro. T. B. Larimore was his demeanor from the pulpit, as well as his personal interaction with those to whom he sought to share the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Bro. H. Leo Boles, a noted spiritual leader in our movement in his own right, in a biographical sketch of this great evangelist, wrote the following: “Brother Larimore was kind and gentle in his manner and very pleasing in his address. It was not his style or disposition to engage in controversy or to be offensive in his preaching. Larimore chose his subject and presented it in a simple, straightforward way without turning aside to notice any religious error. He preached the truth with earnestness and clearness and said little or nothing about any of the popular religious errors of the day. He was an eloquent speaker, with music and charm in the well-chosen phraseology with which he clothed the thoughts which he gleaned from the Book of God. All who heard him loved him and felt that it was good to hear him” [Gospel Advocate, c. 1932]. Another brother in Christ, who was in attendance at one of his meetings, wrote, “On his face there was a settled expression of goodness and melancholy which touched the hearts of the people with a feeling of sympathy and love. There was an indescribable and irresistible pathos in his voice, manner, and general appearance that melted audiences to tears, moving hearts long hardened by sin to repentance at the appeal of the gospel” [ibid]. Bro. Rubel Shelly, in his book In Step With The Spirit, observed, “A while back I was reading of a man who was led to Christ by a gentle soul named T. B. Larimore. The man in question had been to hundreds of church services and to dozens of evangelistic meetings before Larimore came and preached in the town. So someone asked him, ‘Why did you respond to the gospel under Brother Larimore’s preaching when you hadn’t before?’ His answer is a rebuke to some of us and our methods. ‘From other preachers I’d learned I was going to hell,’ he said, ‘but they seemed pleased that I was. From Larimore I learned I was going to hell, but I could tell it broke his heart to have to tell me so!'”
- Emma Page (1855-1943), who was born on a plantation close to Donelson, Tennessee, was a student of Charlotte Fanning, and she later became a rather successful teacher, writer and editor. For many years she edited a column in Gospel Advocate called the “Children’s Corner,” where she gave out advice to the youth of her day. She was quite taken with the life and work of T. B. Larimore, and, along with Fletcher Douglas Srygley (Larimore’s primary biographer), worked on and published three books containing the letters and sermons of Larimore. When T. B. Larimore’s first wife, Esther, died in 1907, she began showing even more interest in Larimore, and they were eventually married on January 1, 1911. She remained at his side for the remainder of his life, chronicling their life and travels together, which was then published in book form under the title: Our Corner Book: From Maine to Mexico, From Canada to Cuba. Years later she released the book: Life, Letters and Sermons of T. B. Larimore. She passed away in 1943 and is buried next to her husband in Fair Haven Cemetery in Santa Ana, California. (She and T. B. are pictured at right.)
The fame of T. B. Larimore grew year by year, and he began to come to the attention of a great many people within the Stone-Campbell Movement. Clearly, he was a force to be reckoned with, as he was having a tremendous impact upon the people of North America through his extensive evangelistic travels. People began to write about him, and those who were fussing and feuding over the “issues” of the day would seek to get him to endorse their positions. To the credit of this great evangelist … he absolutely refused to take sides. Although his own personal views were somewhat conservative in nature, he nevertheless believed it improper and unbiblical to elevate his own views to the level of divine law. They were opinions, nothing more … and should never be made tests of fellowship or conditions of salvation. He would often say, “No man has a right to make a test of fellowship of anything which God has not made a condition of salvation.” He firmly believed that brethren could differ on any number of “points of conviction” and yet remain united in fellowship. One of his favorite passages, often employed, was: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” [Psalm 133:1]. Larimore taught that it was far more important to embrace all the saints and evangelize all the sinners than it was to fuss and fight over party preferences. A dentist who actually knew T. B. Larimore very well relates the story that “there was this train engineer that would get terribly upset over a dog that continually came to bark at his big engine. He would stop the train and throw coals of fire at the dog! Then Larimore would declare, referring kindly to those who wanted him to preach either for or against organs or missionary societies, ‘I don’t have time to stop and throw coals of fire at dogs!'” [Dr. Leroy Garrett, Restoration Review, March, 1980, vol. 22, no. 3].
Don’t misunderstand — Bro. Theophilus Brown Larimore spoke out boldly on the issues of his day, and wrote extensively on them (his pleas for unity appearing in such publications as Gospel Advocate for many years), but he absolutely refused to endorse one side or the other. Rather, his position was that we should all learn to love one another more, and squabble and separate over our preferences less. Needless to say, this utterly infuriated some leaders on both sides. Some blasted him as a dreaded liberal; others regarded him as a closet conservative. Some on both sides of a number of issues refused to fellowship him since he wouldn’t take a vocal stand for either position. Larimore did take a stand, but it was squarely in the middle where he hoped all brethren could come together and have unity in spite of their differing views. He said, “I must love my brethren, and never refuse to fellowship them — ANY OF THEM — simply because we do not always understand all questions exactly alike.” On another occasion Larimore wrote, “Shall I now renounce and disfellowship all of those who do not understand these things exactly as I understand them? They may refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with me, but I will never refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with them. NEVER.”
In the view of T. B. Larimore, the musical instruments issue was strictly a matter of “opinion.” As were the issues of missionary societies and paid located preachers, just to name a couple more “biggies” of the day. They simply did NOT rise to the level of fellowship or salvation issues, to his way of thinking. Therefore, he refused to take one side in the squabble over another, although he himself did have an opinion on these matters, as well as a personal preference. Nevertheless, in the month of July, in 1897, one of Larimore’s former students at Mars Hill — an Alabama evangelist named Oscar Pendleton Spiegel (1866-1947) — penned: “An Open Letter to T. B. Larimore,” which was published within the pages of the Christian Standard. Although this piece was filled with praise for Bro. Larimore and his evangelistic work, it nevertheless contained an urgent appeal to T. B. to take sides in the warfare being waged. Spiegel urged, “You owe it to yourself, your family, your friends, your Savior and your God to speak out on some matters now retarding the progress of the cause of Christ.” He demanded that Larimore take sides on four key issues that were then facing the movement: instrumental music, missionary societies, attendance at “cooperative meetings,” and salary contracts for located preachers. “In many letters and sermons,” as well as his articles, “Larimore made his conviction and practice clear. ‘My earnest desire,’ he wrote, ‘is to keep entirely out of all unpleasant wrangles among Christians. … I propose to finish my course without ever, even for one moment, engaging in partisan strife with anybody about anything'” [Allen, Distant Voices, p. 156]. John Waddey states in his above mentioned article that Larimore “pitched his tent with the conservative brethren of the Churches of Christ rather than with the progressives of the Disciples of Christ.” In point of fact, this is not true. He continued to write for both the Gospel Advocate (a publication of the Church of Christ wing of the movement) and the Christian Standard (a publication of the Christian Church wing) throughout his later years. He was even still listed among the recognized preachers in the Disciples Yearbook up until just four years before his death. When someone once asked him which particular wing of our historical movement he belonged to, T. B. boldly responded, “I propose never to stand identified with one special wing, branch, or party of the church” [Distant Voices, p. 156]. This resolve he maintained throughout his life.
“In a Ph.D. thesis on this divisive period of the Movement’s history, Douglas A. Foster notes that T. B. Larimore did not take sides on the organ and society issues because he considered them opinions. While one has the right to his opinions, Larimore believed, he does not have the right to impose them on others” [Dr. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 452]. “Larimore was among the first of a long line of preachers and scholars among Churches of Christ who had a broader view of fellowship. … Some scholar would do well to do a thesis on these free spirits in early Churches of Christ history. It would serve to show … that the church also has a non-sectarian side to its heritage. … It is significant that while these leaders suffered abuse for their more open views, they always loved the church and did not leave. If the spirit of Larimore and these men had prevailed, the history of Churches of Christ would have been different” [ibid]. Sadly, what came to dominate for much of the past century was an exclusive, sectarian spirit, and our movement has suffered greatly as a result.
- The legalists and sectarians among us, of course, perceive the spirit of Larimore quite differently. Indeed, not a few of them almost regard him as a traitor to the cause of Christ. John Waddey goes so far as to question whether “Larimore’s actions reflected a proper spirit for a Christian soldier in the face of hostile enemies” [Christianity: Then & Now, August, 2005]. In Waddey’s view, Larimore should have been “contending for the faith” by stomping the “liberals” at every opportunity. “We must ask, if every member of the conservative churches had responded as did Larimore, what would have been the result? Would we even exist today? Would all have been swept into apostasy? Do our modern change agents think such would have been the preferable course? Is that what they want for today?” [ibid].
Though “tossed up on tongues” for daring to promote a more open fellowship among disparate disciples in the Stone-Campbell Movement, and for daring to suggest that the “weighty matters” on both sides were NOT fellowship or salvation issues, but mere matters of personal opinion and/or conviction, T. B. Larimore never compromised his principles. He spent the rest of his life seeking to embrace and unite all of his many brethren, choosing to do this by calling them to lay down their weapons of sectarian warfare and simply come together to proclaim the grace of God to a lost and dying world. I wish I could say that he was successful in this effort, but, sadly, we know that he wasn’t.
|The Devil’s hold on the hearts of the religionists of Larimore’s day was strong, and the fratricidal feuding continued. However, in the midst of this strife a beautiful spirit beamed forth the love of the Lord for all to see. That light finally went out on March 18, 1929 when Larimore died due to complications from a hip fracture. He was buried in Santa Ana, California.
Thank God for T. B. Larimore, and may our Father raise up more like him. They are desperately needed today! (The last picture taken of T. B. and Emma together appears to the left.)