A Scholar’s Life in Black and White

December 10, 2018

Ronald E. Osborn’s Papers at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society

Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D. (1917-1998),was a church historian by training who spent most of his adult years as professor or dean in academic institutions related to his communion, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Secure in his ecclesial identity and scholarly attainments, he was able to devote much of his attention to leadership in his church and in ecumenical activities, especially the Consultation on Church Union.

Osborn was in demand as preacher in churches throughout the United States and as lecturer on topics related to his scholarly and ecclesial interests. During his lifetime, he published or edited more than a dozen books. He published a long list of articles on major topics that were related to denominational, ecumenical and broadly cultural activities of churches in which he was engaged during a period of more than half a century.

He developed his scholarly habits long before the electronic age, although he began using computers in later years. He was meticulous in his habits, using cards instead of spreadsheets for some of his records and made paper copies of nearly everything. Two examples are included in a large shipment of papers and other media that have recently been received by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (DCHS) in Bethany West Virginia.

The first is his personal record of sermons and addresses delivered, baptisms and weddings performed, materials he read throughout his life, and some other activities—approximately 110 hand written pages, both sides. The second is his card index of books that he acquired throughout his life. He had developed his own numerical code as a way of recording pertinent information concerning his library.

Two of the boxes contain correspondence from May/June 1987 through May/June 1998. Another is identified as “Diary” and contains folders of material, beginning with one entitled “Ancestry,” that may have been intended to be the basis for writing his autobiography.

These boxes contain materials for two scholarly projects that could be thought of as the bookends for Osborn’s intended work as church historian. During his student days, he became interested in the life and career of Eli Vaughn Zollars, whom Osborn described as a “pioneer in the Southwest.” While in seminary, Osborn wrote a one thousand-page manuscript about Zollars, portions of which he used for his M. A. and B. D. theses at Phillips University. Two bound volumes of this material are in one of these boxes. Osborn’s first book was a biography of Zollars, published in 1947 when he was thirty years of age.

The bookend for the ending of his life’s work was to be a magisterial history of preaching from ancient times until now.  Many of the folders in these boxes contain materials for this project—lectures and essays by Osborn, papers written by students in his classes, essays on preachers drawn from scholarly journals and sources, and preliminary drafts of what might have become chapters in the three-volume book he hoped to write.

Volume 1, The Folly of God: The Rise of Christian Preaching, was scheduled to be published on September 1, 1998, but printed copies did not arrive until later. Although he did see galley proofs, Osborn died on October 1, 1998, without seeing a copy of this book which was to be the climax to his life as a devout and scholarly Christian. Fearing that he would not live to complete the remaining volumes, Osborn arranged with another Disciples scholar to finish the task, but this did not happen. Unless completed drafts of the two remaining volumes of the projected book are discovered, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to read the continuing story that Osborn wanted to tell.

The Osborn papers provide the source material for research and publication. He spoke and wrote extensively on the historical and theological aspects of actions that were being taken by his own church and by other churches as they sought to find a new unity in worship and work. He was a preacher of unusual depth and passion and prepared manuscripts for a high percentage of these discourses. Convinced that religious leaders needed to be well grounded in literature and the arts, he also lectured and wrote on these matters. Copies of several hundred sermons, lectures, and essays are now available in one place—the Disciples of Christ Historical Society—and now can be accessed by people interested in the liberal Protestantism during the second half of the twentieth century.

I hope that during the next few years a succession of scholars will make use of this unusually rich storehouse of documents by a scholar who loved his church and served it faithfully over a long and fruitful life.

Liberty, a theme that distinguishes Disciples from Mormons

April 30, 2012

It is not possible, or, in other words, it is not in human nature, to love liberty, freedom of thought, of speech and of action, in the state, and hate it in the church; or to love it in the church and to hate it in the state (Alexander Campbell).

During the 1830s, many people on the American frontier were drawn to religious movements that sought to restore the basic characteristics of biblical religion. Among them were the Latter Day Saints led by Joseph Smith and the Disciples of Christ led by Alexander Campbell. That their appeals were in some ways similar is illustrated by the fact that a prominent Disciples preacher, Sidney Rigdon, left Campbell’s new Reformation in 1833 to join the one that looked to Smith for its inspiration.

In an earlier column, I discussed the Disciples emphasis upon Christian unity as one of the factors that kept the Campbell movement tightly connected with the historic churches while the LDS movement became increasingly separated from mainstream Christianity. I referred readers to an important essay by mid-twentieth century Thomas J. Liggett in which the emphasis upon unity over restoration is well stated.

One of my respondants proposed that the Disciples’ emphasis upon freedom was another factor that distinguished these two restorationist movements. He cited a book by Disciples historian Ronald E. Osborn (1917-1998) as a cogent exposition of liberty—both religious and political—within the context of Disciples ecclesiology. Osborn entitled his book (published in 1978) Experiment in Liberty. He claims that throughout the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), liberty has stood along side restoration and unity as a central principle that accounts for the theological ideas and ecclesial patterns of his church. Among the emphases in Campbell’s position, Osborn points out, were these:

the freedom of the hearer to believe and obey the gospel, the liberty of Christians to hold diverse opinions on matters not revealed, the emancipation of the church from all oppressive structures of human authority whether theological or ecclesiastical. Repeatedly in presenting his position on church order he resorted to analogies with the American political system. He considered the reformation which he led and the new venture of the United States to be parallel and compatible experiments in liberty.

Although Osborn does not discuss the Mormon movement, the differences between the two became increasingly significant, and their sharply contrasting views of liberty and relationship to the American political system is one explanation.

When Osborn’s book was published, the Disciples were participating in a church union movement called the Consultation on Church Union. One of the partners in this enterprise and in other ecclesiastical activities was the United Church of Christ. Roger Hazelton, a well-regarded theologian in the United Church published a review of Osborn’s book in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal, a quarterly publication of the Disciples Council on Christian Unity. A paragraph from that review summarizes Osborn’s position:

Actually the theme of the book, presented as the Forrest F. Reed Lectures for 1976, is the interweaving of two historic ventures—one concerned with guaranteeing civil liberty in the nation, the other with the ecclesial dimensions of Christian freedom grounded in faith. By and large, both Disciples and especially the Congregationalist tradition in the United Church of Christ have “believed that both ventures were consistent, that both represented the purpose of God” (page 21). To maintain this original vision and commitment without either compromise or confusion, adapting it to changing complexities in church and state alike, has not been easy. Furthermore, there are sharp questions to be raised about this “holy alliance,” as recent discussions of American civil religion have insisted. The idea that political democracy is not only implied but positively sanctioned by Christian freedom under God has been a precious part of our common heritage, yet it needs closer theological and ethical examination. Those of us who share it should at least know better just what it is that we intend to affirm.

To read all of Hazelton’s review, click Hazelton.


The American Eucharist, Ambiguous Sign of Unity

October 4, 2011

Anthropologist Victor Turner notes that there often is a sharp contrast between the explanation that people give concerning important rituals and the facts that can be observed by the people who watch a ritual in progress. When observers discern this conflict they are challenged to deeper thought in order to solve the puzzle: Why is it that when people say one thing about their ritual, they do something else?

In the worship of American churches this puzzle is most fully illustrated by the celebrations of the Eucharist. Beginning in Scripture and continuing through the history of the Church, it has been affirmed that the Eucharist is the sign of our unity in Christ: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Corinthians 10:17).

In the Roman Catholic Church this unitive function is demonstrated. Despite the variegated character of this church, with its many orders and societies resembling Protestant denominations, priests and people alike are able to join together in the celebration of the Mass. Furthermore, the Mass is clearly at the central point in Catholic piety and religious life and practice, as can be seen in technical theology, pastoral writings, congregational program, and in the regular Christian practice of Catholics.

Yet the characteristic forms of American Protestantism do not display this same kind of unity with respect to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These churches have developed a way of worship that is non-eucharistic in its character. When Protestants come together for liturgical purposes, they unite in the singing of hymns, praying, and preaching. Throughout the history of Protestantism in this country, the Eucharist has been a sign of disunity rather than of unity.

The above paragraphs come from a paper that I wrote as part of a volume of essays honoring Ronald E. Osborn, who had been my mentor for many years. His interest in the liturgical life of the church helped shape my own continuing studies in this field.

In the paper, I discuss reasons for this ambiguity in the American Eucharist. I then point to one group of churches—those in the Stone-Campbell Movement to which Osborn and I both belonged—that have tried (without success) to reverse the process. I also suggest some of the possibilities for recovery of eucharistic unity in our own time.

The Disciples Seminary Foundation, original publisher of the paper, has kindly granted permission for it to be published in my online journal. To read the paper click THE AMERICAN EUCHARIST.

An Order of Holy Communion for Use Every Sunday

September 12, 2011

In 1962, during my first year as a neophyte professor at Christian Theological Seminary, Dean Ronald E. Osborn, who also edited the seminary’s quarterly journal Encounter, suggested that I consider drafting an order for celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday. He was thinking of most of the historic Protestant Churches, which celebrated this sacrament only monthly or quarterly. He thought that the experience of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with their tradition of the “every Lord’s Day Lord’s Supper” could provide encouragement to these other churches.

I drafted a brief essay of principles and a draft liturgy. It was my first effort to do this kind of work, and as I review it half a century later I see many evidences of my inexperience in this kind of writing. (But don’t expect me to point them out. You’ll have to find them on your own.)

After he had reviewed my essay and liturgy, my dean suggested that we send them out to people in several Protestant churches to ask for comments, which we would publish along with what I had written. With considerable trepidation, I agreed and together we developed the list. Only one person, as I recall, declined our invitation. When their comments came in, I read them with a growing sense of appreciation for the scholarly habits of respect to one’s comrades in the academy, especially those who were in the early stages of learning their craft.

In 1963, when these materials were first published, the movement to reform worship in historic Protestant and Catholic Churches was still in an early stage. Important preparatory literature had been published and several churches had begun the process of developing new worship books and hymnals. Scholars, writers, and editors were finding ways to collaborate, with the result that they were learning from one another in new ways.

Still to come, however, were some of the opportunities for sustained personal contact, such as the Commission on Worship of the Consultation on Church Union, the North American Academy of Liturgy, and the Consultation on Common Texts. Discussion was just emerging with respect to revisions in English usage, especially in matters related to gender-biased language and the continued use of Elizabethan styles in the language of prayer. Only later in the decade of the 1960s did new eucharistic liturgies begin the process of incorporating new patterns of English usage.

Not until 1978, fifteen years after my liturgy was published, did the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship publish The Lutheran Book of Worship, the first in a series of American books that was climaxed in 1993 (thirty years after my liturgy) by the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

Although later work would show significant advances in theology, liturgical forms, and the use of language in worship, this 1963 paper, with its symposium, provides a basis for understanding the mindset of representative scholars at a time when liturgical renewal was entering into a highly creative period.

To read the essay, liturgy, and symposium, click An Order of Holy Communion. . . .

Note: This online republication is with the permission of Encounter. Thank you. 

Liturgy and the Free Church

August 16, 2011

Fifty years ago this year, in the fall of 1961, I began my 33-year career as professor of worship at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. I had been interviewed for the position on campus the previous November. Flying back to California where I was engaged in my doctoral studies, I read an essay in the seminary’s journal, Encounter, written  by Ralph Wilburn, a Disciples scholar who was dean at another Disciples of Christ seminary. Wilburn made a case for the church of our time to be Catholic in substance and Protestant in spirit.

Instantly, I saw in this polarity the makings of a principle that could guide my work in the field of Christian worship. It was a long plane ride in those days before jet aircraft were prevalent. By the time my plane landed in Oakland, I had roughed out an essay explaining my adaptation of this principle. I talked about worship that would be liturgical in substance and free in spirit.

Soon after moving to Indianapolis, I finished the essay and gave it to Ronald E. Osborn, dean of the seminary and editor of its journal. He liked it well enough to publish it in an issue a few months later. This was my first published work after beginning my work as teacher and scholar. If publish or perish is a rule of academic life, I was at least getting my survival apparatus started.

Reading the paper now, I see evidences of my immaturity (I wouldn’t turn thirty until a few months after beginning my work as professor), but the principle that I presented in this paper has continued to be one of my guidelines ever since. Most of the Protestant liturgical movement and the significant liturgical development of Vatican II happened after this paper was written. My approach in 1961 allowed me to work with relative freedom and increasing contentment during one of the most remarkable periods of liturgical development in the history of the church.

I’m republishing the essay essentially as it appeared half a century ago. I have, however, edited it so as to revise the gender-biased language that still was in use when it was written. My book on this subject, Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship, didn’t come out until 1981, twenty years after I wrote the paper on liturgy and the free church. I have also added an extended prefatory note that provides a context for the paper.

To read the paper click Liturgy and Free Church.