Saturday, July 05, 2008

This Week in Texas Methodist History July 6

Harding-Alderson Debate Begins in Bruceville, July 8, 1895
Regular readers of this column will know that summer in late 19th century Texas was revival season, and that camp meetings and protracted meetings attracted tens of thousands of attendees. The closing decades of the 19th century were also a golden age of debates. Political campaigns often featured debates between candidates or their surrogates. The success of the Populist Movement was in part due the skill of debaters who carried the message of soft money and low tariffs to crowds across America. As hard as it may be for us in the 21st century to understand it, it was common for farmers with grade school educations to stand for as long as four hours at a time to listen to debates on monetary policy.

Church audiences of the era also relished debates. Judging by articles in the Texas Christian Advocate, the favorite opponents for Methodists seem to have been Adventists and Campbellites.

One of the great debates of the era began at Bruceville on July 8, 1895. The debate topic was infant baptism. The Methodists were represented by Eugene. W. Alderson, Presiding Elder of the Dallas District. His opponent was James Alexander Harding, principal and co-founder of Nashville Bible School. Harding was a graduate of Bethany College where he had studied under Alexander Campbell’s son-in-law. After graduation, he embarked on an evangelistic career that included at least fifty debates. One of the published debates—against Baptist J. B. Moody in Nashville, lasted sixteen nights.

Alderson was obviously matched against a formidable opponent whose background was similar to his. Both men were in their 40’s and both had been born and raised in Kentucky. Both had founded church schools.

Even though they had much in common, the theological divide over infant baptism separated them. They debated the subject 10 days in a tabernacle at Bruceville. The event had been publicized and drew a huge crowd.

In debates such as this, denominational loyalties rather than debating skill determined winners and losers, but Alderson later commented that Harding was the most able debater he ever faced. He said that Harding relied on logic and scripture instead of rhetorical tricks.

Both men went on to lead productive lives for their respective denominations. Alderson was a delegate to four General Conferences. He died in 1939 and is buried in Bonham. Harding died in 1922 and is buried in Bowling Green, KY. His ministry is remembered through Harding University in Searcy, AR.


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