Hall Laurie Calhoun was an educator and preacher for Christian churches and later churches of Christ in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Calhoun was born in Conyersville, Tennessee, December 11, 1863. Conyersville was once a thriving little place just a few miles north of Paris in Henry County, Tennessee, on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line. Not much remains of the community these days.
Hall Calhoun was always an exceptional student. He attended elementary school in Henry County until he was fourteen years old. In the fall of 1877 he entered the Mayfield Seminary, located in Mayfield, Kentucky. For the next two years, he studied spelling, writing, geography, arithmetic, English grammar, and United States history.
While living in Mayfield, Calhoun made the decision to be baptized for the remission of his sins. He was fourteen at the time.
In 1879, Hall moved with his sister, Mattie, and her husband, W. T. Shelton, to Union City, Tennessee. Shelton would become the minister of the local Christian Church.
At the time, Union City had one of the finest schools in the area (the Union City Training School). The school was housed in a brick building located on North First Street and was headed by R. E. Crockett, one of the outstanding educators of his day. While at Union City, Calhoun received instruction in algebra, higher mathematics, Latin, and Greek, to name a few. He graduated from the Union City Training School in 1893 and remained two more years with the institution as one of its teachers.
Hall Calhoun had proven himself as an exceptional student in every school he had ever attended. Upon graduating high school, Calhoun desired to attend the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Having passed his entrance examination, he was intending to enroll in 1888, when his father persuaded him instead to enter the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky.
What a decision that proved to be! It was at the College of the Bible that Calhoun was introduced to John William McGarvey. McGarvey became Hall’s mentor and would forever change the young man’s life.
In 1892, Calhoun graduated as an honor student from Kentucky University with a Bachelor of Arts degree and from the College of the Bible with the Classical Diploma, meaning he had met the language requirements in Greek and Hebrew. According to Calhoun’s biography written by Doran and Choate, “No student who had graduated from the College of the Bible surpassed him in ability and achievement in the estimation of John W. McGarvey.”
Calhoun’s first opportunity to engage in a career in higher education came in April, 1897. James A. Harding and David Lipscomb wanted him to teach at the Nashville Bible School, but Calhoun would not break his fellowship with “organ” churches, and soon the men parted ways.
On December 7, 1897, A.G. Freed had Calhoun deliver the dedication sermon for the newly established Georgia Robertson Christian College in Henderson, Tennessee. Calhoun joined the faculty of the newly formed college for the 1900 and 1901 sessions. He was listed as the Principal of the Bible Department and taught Sacred Literature, Hermeneutics, and Hebrew. His wife was also a teacher in the new school.
McGarvey’s influence was not only felt in Calhoun, but could also be seen in the textbooks used by the new school which included: McGarvey’s Notes on the Sacred History, and McGarvey’s Text and Canon. Moreover, two of McGarvey’s fundamental maxims were stated in the college catalog: 1.) An education without knowledge of God’s word is incomplete; and 2.) The demand for an educated ministry is so great that every preacher who can afford to do so must avail himself of such a course of study.
While teaching in Henderson, Calhoun received a letter from his mentor asking him if he was open to the idea of returning to Lexington to teach in the College of the Bible. Calhoun was delighted by this opportunity and immediately agreed to join his old teacher and friend on the faculty.
Before coming to Lexington, however, McGarvey suggested that Calhoun should work towards a greater education. Prompted by McGarvey, Hall Calhoun would be the first preacher in the grand Restoration to achieve a doctorate in theology prior to 1925.
Arrangements were soon made for Calhoun to enter Yale Divinity School. The College of the Bible agreed to support the Calhoun family while he was working on his education with a stipend of $50.00 per month, with the stipulation that Calhoun would return to Lexington and teach for them after he had completed his education.
McGarvey was hoping Calhoun’s advanced education would help prepare him to be his successor at the College. While away at school, Calhoun remained in constant communication with McGarvey. The disciple was fast becoming everything the teacher thought he could be, both as a scholar and an ally in the war against “destructive” criticism.
At Yale, Calhoun studied elocution at the feet of Samuel Silas Curry, the foremost celebrated speech teacher of his time. McGarvey would later rely on this aspect of Calhoun’s education to provide a new Public Speaking Department at the College of the Bible.
In June of 1902, Calhoun graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree, again being awarded with honors. With McGarvey’s permission, in the fall of 1902 Calhoun entered Harvard Divinity School. He remained there for nearly two full years and completed all requirements for the Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees respectively. Calhoun again graduated with honors and was held in high esteem by teachers and classmates alike.
At Yale and Harvard, Hall Calhoun was exposed to the rankest liberals in the field of biblical criticism. By that time in American history, the “destructive” movement had taken over many of the early American theological institutions.
McGarvey had hoped that such training would enable Calhoun to keep similar trends out of the College of the Bible after his retirement. T.Q. Martin, who was also a classmate of Calhoun at the College of the Bible, remembered how, “J.W. McGarvey once said to me, ‘I have selected Brother Calhoun as the man upon whom my mantle shall fall.’”
Calhoun returned to Lexington in 1904 and worked alongside his mentor until the time of McGarvey’s death in 1911. McGarvey’s esteem for Calhoun only increased during his waning years, and vice versa. Calhoun’s students recalled how he seemed to want to teach what McGarvey taught – exactly how McGarvey taught it. It is said that Calhoun would follow the class notes of McGarvey, write them on the blackboard, and have his students memorize them.
In the spring of 1911, Calhoun was appointed Dean of the College, and upon McGarvey’s death on October 13, 1911, Calhoun was selected by the Board as the acting President. It was upon McGarvey’s death that R.H. Crossfield, the President of Transylvania University, shrewdly made his play to become the joint-President of the sister schools.
He first resigned from his office, he claimed, to accept a “pastorate” for a large Christian Church in Atlanta. Upon his resignation, however, he suggested that the time was right to appoint a President over both schools. In December of that year, the Board appointed Crossfield to fulfill the dual presidency he recommended.
In truth, Crossfield had no business overseeing a Bible college. In the first place, he was a theological liberal. Secondly, he had absolutely no sympathy for the founding purpose of the school – to educate ministers for better service in the church.
Slowly the “old guard” which presided over the College of the Bible had passed, and by 1917 Calhoun found himself standing as the lone semblance of McGarvey’s influence in the College. As the old guard passed, they were replaced one-by-one with liberals of the same mind as Crossfield. Calhoun was helpless to do anything about it as the Board and President were in the same camp.
In the spring of 1917, controversy between liberal teachers and conservative students reached a boiling point and Calhoun found himself squarely in the middle. One of the liberal teachers Crossfield appointed, William Clayton Bower, allegedly taught that Jehovah was nothing more than a tribal God of Israel, and that a missing link had been discovered – the Java Man – which proved the doctrine of evolution. Another of Crossfield’s professors, Elmer Snoddy, was accused of being a “hard evolutionist” and considered the first chapter of Genesis to be mere poetry. A third professor, Alonzo Willard Fortune, denied the physical resurrection of Christ, the complete inspiration of the Bible, and that the men who wrote the Bible were inspired.
After a mockery of a “hearing,” conducted by an already biased Board, the faculty was exonerated of all charges. The last remaining conservative teachers were forced out or resigned, and the College of the Bible (now Lexington Theological Seminary) became one of the most liberal “theological” institutions in the country.
Calhoun resigned from the College, remembering McGarvey, I.B. Grubbs, and Robert Graham who opposed destructive criticism at every turn. He could not stay at a place that allowed such grievous error to be taught, while dishonoring the memory of those who had sacrificed so long and hard for the school.
McGarvey’s influence lived on in Calhoun at stops in Bethany (1917-25), Henderson (1925), and finally in Nashville (1926-35). Calhoun went to Bethany for the purpose of developing a graduate program in religion; however, this failed to materialize. From there, Calhoun returned to Henderson, Tennessee, and this time Freed-Hardeman College, the successor to Georgia Robertson Christian College, where Calhoun had previously been in 1900-01.
During this period Calhoun severed his ties with the increasingly liberal Christian Church, denounced the organ and missionary society, and devoted the remainder of his life to serving churches of Christ. One might wonder why he did not make this decision sooner. Again the influence of McGarvey must be considered. While McGarvey would not hold membership with an “organ” church, he did preach for them by appointment. Thus, we have a case where the inconsistencies of the teacher became the inconsistencies of the student. Calhoun simply did not draw a distinction in preaching for them and being in full fellowship with them.
Yet, in time he came to see how a disregard for Bible authority on one issue would lead to a complete disregard for the Bible’s authority on every issue. Therefore, he sought to be completely consistent in his convictions and remained that way for the rest of his life.
In Henderson, Calhoun would join N.B. Hardeman in a co-presidency of the college. However, this relationship proved untenable and Calhoun would resign after only one term.
In 1926, Hall Calhoun was admitted to a mental hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, as he sank into a severe depression. It appeared his best days were behind him, and many doubted if he would ever teach or preach again.
Remarkably, he would soon recover to preach some of the finest sermons of his illustrious life. Two men especially would not allow Calhoun’s talents to go to waste. George Bethurum, an elder at Belmont, and A.M. Burton of the Central congregation in downtown Nashville, put Calhoun to work in the pulpit and over the radio. He would first serve the Belmont church of Christ as their fulltime minister and later he served the Central congregation in the same capacity.
Since his days as a student at the College of the Bible, Calhoun was recognized as a gifted preacher. While a student, he attended the Broadway Christian Church in Lexington and sat at the feet of McGarvey. It is said that Calhoun replicated McGarvey’s style as a teacher, and it is entirely possible that he did the same as a preacher.
At Central, Calhoun had the opportunity of presenting his sermons every day on WLAC. Calhoun preached his “Daily Bible Lessons” from 1928-1935. To this day, Hall Calhoun remains the standard for a broadcast that has become the longest continual running religious broadcast in our nation’s history.
In summary, when surveying the influence John William McGarvey had on the life of Hall Laurie Calhoun, one can see such evidence in his convictions, education, teaching, and preaching. Moreover, Calhoun even met his wife while attending the Broadway church.
It is hard to imagine what this man’s life would have been had he chosen a military career. Given his immense capabilities, perhaps he would have been a legendary military figure. Yet one thing is certain: countless souls were made better because one man in a small college in Kentucky took another man beneath his wing and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.