Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Life of William Wesley Otey

            W. W. Otey, Contender for the Faith: A History of Controversies in the Church of Christ from 1860-1960 (Akron, Ohio, 1964), published by the author, Cecil Willis, is a very different sort of book from the one I talked about in my two previous blog posts. Otey, as I will abbreviate the title, is a biography, not a memoir. Moreover, it focusses on a limited aspect of its subject, as the subtitle suggests. William Wesley Otey was a redoubtable debater; the author writes near the end, “It was extremely difficult for Otey to stay out of a fight.” (p. 350) He debated Mormons, Primitive Baptists, Dunkards and the progressives and digressives of his own church. He argued forcefully, always from the conservative side, in the controversies over instruments, societies, colleges, co-operation among congregations, evangelistic oversight, premillennialism, and church unity.

The cover of W. W. Otey, Contender for the Faith, by Cecil Willis

            Perhaps I am less informed than I ought to be, but I had no idea what most of these controversies were about. And the biographer does not offer much explanation; Willis was writing for initiates, who were aware of these matters beforehand. In a nutshell, as I understand it, all these controversies within the Church of Christ concerned the mission to recreate the church as Christ had founded it – that is, nothing would be allowed in the church for which there was no precedent in Scripture. According to Otey and other “Anti” evangelists, nothing in Scripture authorizes musical instruments in church, or any delegation of the individual congregation’s authority to a society of any sort. Add to the book’s narrow focus the fact that “Otey was dead serious most of the time” (p. 280), and except for historians of religion, Otey is not much fun to read.
            The accounts of this argumentative culture are nevertheless sometimes entertaining, and remind me a great deal of the Presidential debates of recent years. According to the biographer, 1908 was the most significant year in Otey’s life, because it was the date of the “famous Otey-Briney debate” (pp. 194-212). John Benton Briney was a “digressive” preacher in the Church of Christ, reputed to be a formidable debater, and his party issued the challenge. The two men agreed to argue two propositions: “The use of such organizations as the Illinois Christian Missionary Society, the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, etc., is authorized in the New Testament Scriptures and acceptable to God,” and “The use of instrumental music in connection with the songs sung by the church on the Lord’s day, when assembled for edification and communion, is opposed to New Testament teaching and sinful.” Otey took the negative on the first and the affirmative on the second.
            Shortly before the scheduled meeting, however, Briney demanded a change of venue, which Otey arranged with some difficulty, for a site in Louisville. Otey then tried to arrange a planning meeting with Briney, who declined to come to a hotel and refused to allow Otey to bring his team to Briney’s home. Otey bargained to bring at least a stenographer, but Briney would permit only Otey’s words to be recorded. Then Briney refused to argue an affirmative version of his position on instrumental music. When the event finally occurred, it was generally agreed that Otey won, and the printed account of the debate sold out quickly.
            Not long afterward, another opponent, R. O. Rogers, resorted to personal attacks, calling Otey “a sort of ecclesiastical tramp” who deserted his wife and children for eight months a year, leaving them “to shift for themselves on a fourteen-acre tract of the most sterile land that lay beneath ‘the shining canopy of God’s blue heaven.’” He charged that Otey had his own “Ladies Aid Society” in the form of his wife and daughters, and that while the family fed “on the husks that the swine did eat,” the preacher was feasting on “floating islands and two story pies” (p. 217). This debate concerned instrumental music again, and somewhere amidst the invective Brother Rogers invoked 1 Corinthians 14 in support of it; but observers considered it an easy win for Otey, despite the effort to Swift-Boat him.
            I confess to a certain sympathy for Rogers in my feelings about this biography. Otey’s family are virtually invisible. In the opening pages, the author quotes a moving passage Otey wrote in 1956 as an obituary tribute to his wife. It describes their first meeting: “Our eyes met and held as if by magic for a moment,” and ends “I loved her more than seventy years.” (p. 35). They had nine children, of whom seven were still living in 1956, along with fourteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren (p. 358). There is almost no mention of them, though. We learn that his two eldest daughters attended Lynchburg College, a fact which some critics found inconsistent with Otey’s views on colleges and the Church of Christ (p. 220); and that his son Ray wanted to go to Abilene Christian College in 1929, but Otey moved to Rocky, Oklahoma – and Ray went instead to an osteopathy college in Missouri (pp. 255-56).

W. W. Otey, his wife Minnie, and their children, in 1920
Front: Joe, W. W., Minnie, D. S.
Back: Ray, Ola, Bentley, Willie, Verna, Lucille
            As related by Willis, Otey’s life was almost entirely made up of preaching, debating, leading church meetings, submitting articles to church periodicals, and writing books. He began his career in western Floyd County, Virginia, in the corner formed by the borders with Pulaski and Carroll Counties; the post office was called Showalter, Virginia, and it no longer exists, alas. Otey was baptized there in 1886 and began to preach in the late 1880s. Except for a few months in Ohio, he remained in western Virginia until 1904, when he moved to Indiana. After seven years there, he moved to Kansas in 1911, then to Oklahoma in 1929, to Texas in 1934, and back to Kansas in 1939, residing in Belle Plaine until his wife’s death, after which he moved to Winfield, near his daughter’s home. He died there on 1 November 1961, at the age of 94, justly honored for his lifetime of service to his church.

 Brother and Sister Otey, 1950

            I have omitted something up to this point, which will explain why I read this book and thought it was worth talking about in this blog. W. W. Otey’s mother was named Sarah Ann Showalter. The wife he loved for seventy years was Amanda Elizabeth “Minnie” Showalter. He was baptized by Josiah Thomas Showalter. George Henry Pryor Showalter’s periodical Firm Foundation published 192 of Otey’s articles between 1928 and 1954. Even though Cecil Willis devotes very little space to Otey’s family, he says a good deal about the connections with the Showalters and about the complicated relationships between Otey and his Showalter kin. The next two posts will explore those topics.

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