Two Into One
Creator: Central Woodward Christian Church
Description: A speech given to commemorate the history of Central Christian Church and Woodward Avenue Christian Church, and to celebrate their merger.
Date: May 4, 1975
Original Format: Other
Rights Management: Central Woodward Christian Church
Contributing Institution: Array
Contributor: Brett Boor
Transcript: Two Into One-A Study in Congregational Merger and A Detroit Landmark of the 1920's
Address delivered at Central Woodward Christian Church Detroit, Michigan, May 4, 1975 by Dr. Willis R. Jones on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the merger of the congregations of Central Christian Church and Woodward Avenue Christian CHurch.
I once heard a distinguished graduate, who had returned to her Alma Mater on its 50th annniversary, devote an entire address to events, historical highlights, human drama that had occurred in the room in which the reunion was taking place. And that room was the college dining hall, crucible throughout those 50 years of life giving sustenance-physical, emotional, spiritual. There is an understandable temptation for me to o this now. THis room, this dining hall, is almost 50 years old. Its ample spaces and sturdy wall and handsome decor have been something of a cradle for Central Woodward's marvelous growth and spreading influence. Naturally, I am tempted to sound the events and name the names. But delightful as that would be it would divert my attention and yours from the primary purpose that has brought us together.
a. But I bef of you one reference. IT is an even of late December, 1939. It is very personal.
I was about to leave Detroit to become director of public relations at William Woods COllege, PUlton, Missouri. It was a big adventure. I was nervous, apprehensive--scared to death.
The good people of Central Woodward must have sensed my condition. FOr they arranged in my honor a most memorable occasion in this room. It included a dinner, some comforting remarks, a lovely gift and an affection-
a. It was 37 years after Stone began in Kentucky, 32 years after Campbell began at Bethany that the Disciple movement touched Michigan, and then only tangentially. The great forward thrust was toward America's heartland--Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska--and from there, moving with the frontier, it was westward bound. Michigan, and its first Detroit church of 1841 were on the sidelines, a status that continued for the next 75 years and colored to some degree, I believe, all of Detroit's Disciple history prior to the achievements of the 1920's.
And if the Detroit church was born with a handicap it spent its first thirty years in struggle, schism-splitting and then reuniting. During the first twenty of those years its meeting places were many, short lived, often rented commercials--ertswhile a school house, a Mechanics Hall, an old city building; others both early and late.
a. It was not until 1862 that the Detroit church had a building to call its own-a small structure purchased from the Congregationalists, located at Jefferson and Beaubien. Even so it represented the support of but one of the contending factions-was in fact part of an act of cleavage.
Yet, in those first thirty years here in Detroit great and decisive battles were being waged and won and through them was delivered to posterity a church in the very forefront of liberal thought. What had been accomplished here a century ago was the striking away of those restrictive shackles that cause so many other congregations in later years to spill out their energies in theological controversy.
a. We owe an unpayable debt to Richard Hawley and Colin Campbell and their 14 brave followers who in 1862 stood their ground-for a while going their own separate way-in support of their then unpopular positions:open communion; the one man, in-residence pastoral system; the use of musical instruments in worship.
When the two divided parts united again in 1871, they came back for good. They purchased a small, frame building on Washington Avenue at the spot now occupied by the Book Building. As if by habit they were again buying a building outgrown by the Congregationalists. Coming together now as congregations of the First Church of Christ and the Jefferson Avenue Christian Church they took for their name, Central Christian Church.
a. At once they began to reap the benefits of tranquility and cooperative efforts. Twenty years later they were able to build the first Disciple built church in Detroit's history. Though relatively small it was a truly handsome structure of quality materials-beautiful soft brown stone and matching brick-located in one of Detroit's attractive residential areas, Cass Park and Ladyard Street.
b. IN many ways this was a notable achievement- a building to be proud of; an area of prestige. But in studying the history of our Detroit work I have asked myself many times why it was that our people in 1891 did not follow the pattern of every other major religious denomination in the city and locate their mother church in the mainstream, on Woodward Avenue, the great avenue of churches, famed then throughout the nation for its beauty and its prestige. Perhaps they tried. Perhaps they felt otherwise.
In the history of Central Woodward the year 1903 is decisive.
a. On June 13 of that year in a drab old building at Griswold and Lafayette twelve men, stock holders in a newly formed company met to organize. They would call their enterprise The Ford Motir Company. They would select as president the stock holder with the largest cash investment ($10,500), Detroit banker and Disciple layman, John S. Gray. From that day forward Detroit would never be the same, nor would be the many religious and institutional interests so close to the hearts of the philanthropic Gray family. John Gray died in 1906, but by 1915 his estate had received $10,000,0900 in dividends. Sale of the stock itself was to come later. One of four major beneficiaries of John Gray's estate was his son Philip whose name is carved now into the stone of this church, and whose relationship to it, along with the relationships of his beloved wife and his daughter Almena, are treasured in the hearts of its people.
b. IN 1903, yet another event--Charles J. Tannar accepted the call as minister of Central Christian Church. He had vision, energy administrative know-how. He saw a new day coming and he knew what to do. Unfortunately, Tannar's contriubtion (1903-1918) is pretty much lost in the pages of history, but it was sizable. One reference wil do. It is this:
1. On April 18, 1906 forty members of Central Church went forth to establish a daughter church on a magnificent site on a world renowned street--the street of churches. Detroit Disciples were reaching out to serve the city's accelerating expansion. Detroit Disciples had come at last to Woodward Avenue.
Mid-year 1918. Raphael H. Miller, age 44, one of the young giants in the brotherhood of the Disciples of Christ is called to Detroit to carry out the dreams now shaping up of a great new building program and the establishment at last in Detroit of a truly adequate and representative manifestation of the Disciples in the city.
a. The Cass Park location is rapidly deteriorating, the Gray philanthropic interest has been asserted. The lay leadership in Central is enlightened commanding city wide respect and recognition. Dynamic Detroit is erupting and spreading across the landscape like a Vesuvious volcano.
b. Mid-year, 1919. Raphael H. Miller suddenly resigns. Reasons--I don't know. I do know that when the man who later succeeded him , his intimate friend, Edgar DeWitt JOnes, sought his counsel he said: "Don't go, Edgar. Don't go."
It was inevitable that Edgar DeWitt Jones would be called from his Bloomington pastorate to a larger destiny in 1920.
a. He was 44, had come into the fullness of his intellectual and spiritual powers. As one of the youngest presidents ever of the International Convention (1918-19) he was a national figure. HIs books--already 5 in number--were well received. His eloquence was running before him like a star.
b. Equally inevitable was the fact that if he were to make a move it would be a response to challenge, risk and adventure, where the stakes were high and the needs compelling. To Edgar DeWitt Jones in 1920 "deep was calling unto deep".
c. in 1920 no church in America could have placed before Edgar DeWitt Jones a more compelling summons than could Central of Detroit. In addition to the marvelous mix of its own appeal was the excitement of the city. Even I as a lad of 12 could feel its electric charge.
d. Perhaps in its history America has never had a city with the magnetic draw of Detroit in the early 1920's. If it had irresistible lure for laborer and banker, exploiter and entrepreneur, it was for the gifted pulpiteer a preacher's paradise.
1. Little wonder tha Lynn Harold Hough left his post as president of Northwestern University, Gaius Clenn Atkins his prestigious eastern pulpit, Bill Stidger his growing church on western shores, Edgar DeWitt Jones his select spot in America's heartland to come to Detroit and join that illustrious company of Vance, Rice, Emerson, Niebuhr, Marquis in what was soon to be called the greatest concentration of pulpit power on the American scene.
One of the world's best stories was lost when the Jones family moved from Bloomington to Detroit in the days before the motorized moving can.
a. For I would like to have interviewed a man who had loaded a van with books from the dignified second floor study of impressive First Christian Church, Bloominton; and emptied them in a dark, noisy, first floor office in old Central, Cass Park and Ledyard, Detroit.
b. I would like to have interviewed a man who loaded furniture from the big, handsome house at 8 White Place, Bloomington, where tall trees shaded his work, where he watched children romp and play up and down the wide, wide
street, and emptied his van at 5215 Second Boulevard in Detroit, tight against neighbor, bold against the curb of a swiftly moving stream--a stream full of cars, a stream full of peril, a stream where the madding crowd came at you full blast--on wheels under strident warning of horn and siren.
c. If the Jones children had an hour or two that day to wonder about the sanity of their parents they got a heart warming and reassuring answer by nightfall. For at our front door stood a tall, handsome young man holding a large tray, heavy laden. Under its elegant cover, steaming hot, beautifully enthroned was a meal fit for a king--but prepared especially for the Joneses.
The handsome emissary was Douglas Campbell, direct descendant of Colin, and original founder of this church. Furthermore, Douglas was the son of Forrest who as the church's oldest member would one day turn the first spade when the new church was huilt. He was the nephew of Caroline who among her many virtues was that of being the church's most literate and disciplined historian. He was the brother of Elma Campbell Hart whose artistry and kindness had been responsible for the meal and whose concern for others was the hallmark of her brief but wonderful journey through life. He was the brother-in-law of Henry Hart whose competence as a financier was later to be such a blessing to this church.
Lest you fear I have fallen victim to the impulse for nostalgia I assure you I have not. The above reference is made for illustration. The Jones children through the ministry of kindness on that day in 1920 were beginning to discover what their parents already knew--that a church is not a place but a people; it is not a structure but a spirit. ON the basis of those qualities human values Central
Church of 1920 was outstanding.
a. On this nostalgia matter let me say that I had thought to come to you in the coverage of the 1920 uears through other eyes and voices. It would help keep me out of nostalgic pitfalls. It would assure a safer objectivity. But when I began my search for primary sources I confronted the reality of the passage of fifty years. If I was but a lad of 12 when it first began and 16 when the merger took place, at least I was here, pricy to a pretty good listening post. ANd if at best I am a primary source of sorts, I suspect it is that very status that has brought me here today. Certainly I entered those Detroit years wide eyed and big eared--and you are a compassionate and understanding audience.
Central began at once to grow in 1920. The new minister received wide acclaim in the city-- was linked in glowing references to the great galaxy of Woodward Avenue pulpiteers. The building--oldbefore its time--was bursting at the seams. If space became available in adjacent structures in the rapidly declining neighborhood the church seized upon them--filled them with chairs, peopled them with Sunday School members of youth organizations. Work was prospering in the daughter church at Woodward and Josephine under the tight, energetic hand of Harry B. McCormick, later to become such a major figure in Disciple missionary work.
But slowly at Central a disturbing condition was revealing itself. Illness and with it inaction had befallen the gallant and generous layman, Philip H. Gray, whose vision and planned provisions had been the touchstone and the spearhead of its drive for expansion. A beautiful block long frontage, half a block deep, on Second Boulevard, Putnam to Warren, purchased by him as the new location for Central became now a matter of uncertainty. The lay leadership needed time to adjust to that perilous unknown and the deep tragic personal aspects involved. The minister shared these reactions. But his recovery from the blow and his renewed resolve came earlier than theirs. When in the passage of time which he believed to be sufficient the church's resolve continued to lag behind his own he startled the congregation and the city of Detroit by submitting his resignation.
On May 21, 1922 he stood before the members of Central and read this brief statement:
"Ever since the collapse last summer of the great building campaign which induced me to come to Detroit I have questioned seriously the wisdom of my continuance as your minister. At the request of members of the church in whom I have the deepest confidence, I agreed to withhold my decision in the matter until every means had been exhausted for the putting up of a plan and the introduction of a policy that would warrant my remaining as your minister. I have sought to give this church every advantage in realizing on its investment in me, if there was such a possibility. I have come to the conclusion that further delay is unwarranted and I herewith submit my resignation as your minister to take effect October 1."
The members of Central, the wider constituency in the city, the press in news articles and editorials reacted in stunned sadness. And then in what have been one of Central's finest hours the congregation met to face their new dilemma. With no assurance whatsoever that their minister would reconsider his stand, they decided that mno matter what was before them they would put their present building up for sale, look for a new site, and face the future in faith. Straightway they returned to Edgar DeWitt Jones his letter of resignation and urged him to remain as their leader in this new commitment of purpose.
a. I well remember the Sunday in Early June, 1922 when the minster's response was given. But accounts in the press can describe it more graphically. The church was crowded. Many persons stood. Dr. Jones' words were greeted with a spontaneous burst of applause. After announcing the withdrawal of his resignation with these words--"nine times out of ten a resignation should be irreversible", he said: "Every time I have attempted to back away from the proposition it is as though influences above and beyond me have pushed me squarely into the gap again. I am doing this with my eyes open. The proposition I am now accepting is not so alluring on the surface but it is more feasible, more equitable, better foundationed and in the long run promises fully as much as the original. It means a long pull and a hard pull. It means new policies and consequently a new outlook. It means a new solidarity and a new fervor in this congregation. I am with Central Church in the closest co-operation and the finest leadership I can give, to see this thing through to victory."
Following the service, Dr. JOnes stood receiving the expressions of pleasure from his parishioners. One elderly woman rushed through the group, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Nine persons took the first step toward the church (end of press account)
In an historical document prepared by the late Dr. R.C. Field who was chairman of the Board of the Woodward Avenue congregation at the time of the merger, he states that the first overture toward union was made by Central in May 1922. From a general reference made by Edgar DeWitt JOnes in his book "The Coming of the Perfect" it is recorded that this was an overture made without his sanction. I believe it must have been made by lay leadership during Central's period of trauma sometime between the resignation of Dr. Jones and his withdrawal from that resignation. If so it was a most understandable act, but it was unsuccessful and highly resented by Woodward's minister, Harry B. McCormick. Dr. McCormick made it clear he would not support such a move then or at any time thereafter. For one thing he had launched a building expansion program of his own much needed by the solid, forward looking church he was so ably serving.
Things for Central were destined to get worse before they got better. The difficulties experienced in the earlier days of Mr. Gray's illness were many times compounded when in late 1922 his condition worsened, and following an operation for brain tumor in Boston by the world famous Harvey Cushing, this great hearted man died. No provision had been made in his will for Central's building program. In essence, whatever dreams Central had lived with up to now, based on his planned participation, were shattered.
Edgar DeWitt Jones wrote of the travail through which the church and its minister passed during the immediate period to follow:
"Many a night I walked up and down Woodward Avenue wrestling with the problem, and feeling pretty much as did Abraham of old when he went out not knowing whither he went, yet believing that God is, and that he is a rewarder of them who seek him."
Of his public posture he wrote:
"HOwever much I agonized in private, I showed only a high heart in public, and gave my best to the pulpit and the shepherding of the flock".
And indeed, answers, strong swift, affirmative answers were soon to come. The following year, 1923, was highlighted by the merger of Central and a group from historic old Plum Street Church. Not alone was this a salutary experience in union for Central, but the group from Plum Street brought outstanding human skills, leadership ability, and individual resourcefulness. The year 1924 began with the coming to Woodward Avenue of Earl N. Griggs of whom Edgar DeWitt Jones was later to say:
"I give to Earl N. Griggs a large share of credit for the building of Central Woodward Christian Church. He is a man who stands four square to every wind that blows."
In the fall of 1924 in a letter to Dr. Jones from Paris, France, Mrs. Philip H. Gray announced her decision and that of her family to lend all necessary support to make possible the building of a representative structure in honor and memory of Philip H. Gray. In late December, just before the close of this momentous year, a fire broke out in the upper reaches and under the roof of Woodward's building, which by now was proving much too small for the church's developing program. Now it was from Woodward Avenue that renewed merger overtures were initiated.
a. This time Central's minister urged his church board to withhold any response until he could meet with Woodward's minister. This was done. Then followed weeks of total silence. When Central and its minister had just about concluded the merger was not to be, a telephone rang at 5701 Second Boulevard, home of Central's minister. It was late January or early February, 1925. It was about 9 o'clock at night. Our phone was in the dining room and I was at work around the big table preparing lessons for school. I shall never forget my father's reaction to that call. It was controlled as always, but exuberant with joy. Earl N. Griggs had called with a message which in his own words Edgar DeWitt Jones reported as follows:
"The pastor and members of Woodward Avenue have reached the conclusion that if the Disciples are to have a church building worthy the city and our cause it would be wise to merge our churches using Woodward Avenue's lot as the building site. "
After three months of careful, thorough, statesmanlike procedures taken by both congregations they came together in early May to officially finalize all separate acts of merger and as one body took for their name that of Central Woodward Christian Church. If I could push back the clock and ask one question of Neil Bentley or Chester Field, or Wellington Logan, or William McConnell, each of whom had such major roles in the merger and in the absorption in the immediate thereafter my question would be like this:
"How do you account for such a smooth transition as that experienced by the congregation in the coming together of Central and Woodward?"
Certainly, they themselves and so many others of those early leaders through their Christian statesmanship and unswerving devotion were very much a part of the answer to that question. I pause to remember them appreciatively here. No words we can offer could in any way match the esteem in which they are held or the debt of gratitude we owe them.
And now thinking along lines I believe they must have thought in the matter, I offer four additional contributing sources:
1. One- the congregations came together as equals--something of a gracious concession on the part of both partners. Each had much to give the other, gave it generously, neither partner asserting its areas of superiority or pushing its weight--a rare, rare achievement. The strength areas are important to note:
a. Woodward had its magnificent location, Central the great financial support of the Gray family.
b. Woodward had its outstanding young people--winner in 1924 of the coveted Detroit Christian Endeavor award as the city's number one, all around group.
c. Central had its unique strength in the number of leading business and professional men in its membership.
d. Central and Woodward shared alike in the superlative power, talent, capacity for work, of its women.
2. Two: The merger was marked by adroit and far sighted structural and policy actions.
a. The merger was not hurried, each congregation remaining for many months in its own building, keeping in close communication through a common bulletin, pulpit exchanges, and joint get-togethers. The two congregations were eager and ready when at last they began holding unified services in the splendid auditorium of the General Motors Building, their meeting place from January 1927 until the new building was completed a year and a half later.
b. A measure of the unity and statesmanship of the new congregation was reflected in the ease with which they moved through danger areas that were tearing apart and splitting asunder many other churches that tried them: open membership; the use of the formal and the chaste in architecture; a robed choir; a robed minister.
It should be remembered that Central Woodward by its new building helped Disciples turn the corner from pedestrian to worshipful architecture, was a Disciple pioneer in increased dignity and reverence in worship, and in its new membership policy helped ease the way for others to follow in the matter of open membership.
3. Three: The Christian demeanor of the two ministers in their relationship one with another, culminating in that uncommonly selfless and gracious action of Earl Griggs, who after the union was well established and just before the two congregations were to begin worshiping as one, said to Dr. Jones: "you are the man to see this through. ONe man must be at the head of the new church, not two. I'll drop out." "Not one man in a hundred, nay a thousand, would have so forgot himself.", said Edgar DeWitt Jones of Earl N. Griggs.
4. Four: I think it is required of me that I cite another element-- the pastoral heart of Edgar DeWitt Jones. Truly, I have a deep conviction that greater than the power and authority of his persuasive pulpit strength during those days of transition was his deep pastoral concern, his magnificent patience, the priority he gave to his role as shepherd of the flock. Although I once delivered two one hour lectures at Bethany College on the pastoral ministry of Edgar DeWitt Jones providing a substantive and in depth treatment of this subject, I am going to let the words of Charles Clayton Morrison, the man who recommended Dr. Jones to Detroit Central in 1920 and who himself was one of the most eloquent religious spokesmen of his day, address the point. Said Dr. Morrison:
" It is the shepherd instinct, that after all is the greatest quality in Edgar DeWitt Jones. He loves people. He believes in them. He invests even the unworthiest of them with dignity. And in the spirit of Jesus he delights to serve them. He is a real pastor. He knows little children by name and they cling to him. The best thing I can say about him is that I should like him to be my own pastor".
In Emil Ludwig's magnificent book "The Nile" he describes the coming together of the two great branches that formed the main river-- the White Nile and the Blue Nile. I think of his words and I reflect on the merger in May, 1925 of Central and Woodward, and with them I close.
" This...is a match...which seems to offer an alliance on equal terms, so that they may, from now on, traverse the world together. It brings gifts with it, memories of the high mountains of youth, still invisible but destined one day to become a life giving element.. ...The White Nile meets the Blue Nile. They create in brotherly embrace one of the lovliest spots in the world."