This Week in Texas Methodist HIstory October 31
This week begins a two part series in which we will tell the stories of two Northwest Texas Conference preachers who withdrew from the conference under pressure. One was a modernist and the other a fundamentalist. The cases are interesting because both men were among the most prominent preachers of their conference.
The battles over modernism in the Methodism are most famous in the 1920s, but the case of James Dickson Shaw (1841-1926) shows that disputes over modernism existed decades earlier.
Shaw was born in Walker County, served in the Confederate Army and then taught at Marvin College. In 1878 he was appointed to Fifth Street Methodist Church in Waco. Annual conferences in those days had to pass on the character of each preacher individually. When Shaw’s name was called at the Northwest Texas Annual Conference meeting at Cleburne on November 2, 1882, no one could say anything negative about his character or his behavior, but his presiding elder reported rumors criticizing his doctrinal purity. A committee was appointed to examine the rumors. Shaw appeared before the three person committee and told them that he had modified his opinions concerning the inspiration of the scriptures, the divinity of Jesus, the vicarious atonement, and the punishment of the wicked.
The committee reported their findings to the full conference, concluding that his views were “detrimental to religion and injurious to the church.” Shaw asked for time to withdraw rather than be expelled and also asked for time to address the annual conference in a farewell speech.
On Saturday, November 4, Shaw delivered that farewell and resigned not just from the conference but from his various offices including an editorship of the Texas Christian Advocate, one of the curators of Southwestern University, Secretary of the Board of Missions, member of the Board of Publications of the Advocate, and member of the General Board of Missions.
Shaw moved back to Waco and only a month after the conference, on Dec. 2, 1882, was instrumental in forming the Religious and Benevolent Association. In 1883 that association began publishing the Independent Pulpit, a monthly twenty-four page magazine that championed the modernist cause. By 1884 the Association had grown large enough to build its own building, Liberal Hall. The Independent Pulpit circulated beyond Texas, and Shaw gave weekly lectures.
Naturally those lectures attracted the scorn of more orthodox preachers. Waco Baptist, B. H. Carroll preached a sermon, “The Agnostic,” aimed directly at members of the Society. The Religious and Benevolent Society did not last. Liberal Hall burned in 1889 and was not rebuilt.
Shaw’s personal life was filled with tragedy. His first wife died leaving him to raise five young children. His second wife also died. In 1910 he moved to California to live with one of his daughters. After his death in 1926, his ashes were returned to Waco.