By T.R. Robertson
“Nobody knows more about the Restoration Movement in Missouri than Lloyd Pelfrey. In fact, he lived most of it.” Those words, spoken by Dan Sites, a preacher from Mexico, Missouri, were partially intended as a joke. Nevertheless, they ring true. Lloyd Pelfrey has been active in the movement for nearly 70 years.
Pelfrey’s personal definition of the Restoration Movement is, “Unity by restoration for evangelism.”
He always adds, “I’ve been using that line for so long, I don’t even know if it’s mine. But I think it is.”
I arrived at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri, on a fall day and parked in front of the main building on campus, Pelfrey Hall.
The building is named after Lloyd Pelfrey, an honor he earned through his almost six decades at CCCB. He began there as a professor in 1957, the year the college was founded. He has since served the school as president (for 26 years), then chancellor, and now as professor emeritus.
Soon Pelfrey came down the stairs, still in conversation with a student from the just-finished session of the class Pelfrey was teaching. He invited me to follow him to his office where bookshelves and file cabinets line the walls. Many are filled with Old Testament and Restoration Movement history, his areas of academic specialization.
Few people have spent more time and energy immersed in the details of Restoration history. Any conversation with Pelfrey will include tidbits from the vast store of Restoration Movement minutiae in his 84-year-old brain.
Did you know Barton W. Stone’s grandsons were boyhood pals with Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) in Hannibal, Missouri? Pelfrey will be glad to tell you about it.
When I told him this article would appear in the issue commemorating the 150th anniversary of CHRISTIAN STANDARD, Pelfrey rattled off the precise date of the first issue, from memory.
“CHRISTIAN STANDARD was very important for the movement,” he said. “It took over for the Millennial Harbinger. There were other periodicals in the 1880s, but CHRISTIAN STANDARD endured, after some early struggles. It endured, and Standard Publishing provided literature, information, and a rallying point without being a denominational headquarters.
“Standard Publishing literature influenced me during my early years,” Pelfrey said. He then went to a corner of his office. After briefly rummaging about, he handed me the book he was looking for. “Standard’s Christian worker’s ammunition packet,” he said, “Training for Service. I studied this when I was in junior high school and finally I straightened up what I believed doctrinally.”
Pelfrey’s attention is not exclusively focused on the Restoration Movement’s past. His knowledge of where we have been informs his ideas about where the movement is headed and the influences we can expect in coming years.
He recalled a statement by Edsil Dale, who was first his teacher and then his colleague. “Some 50 years ago, he predicted that music will have a huge impact on the future direction of the Restoration Movement. He had no idea the direction it would go, but he was correct.”
Pelfrey said American popular culture is having a powerful influence on the culture of Christianity. He identifies popular music as exerting the most cultural influence on the church. He sees people’s desire for entertaining music as a driving factor in the blurring of the lines between the three wings of the Restoration Movement. The end result is less clear.
“Will noninstrumental liberals get together with musical liberals? Will the lack of an instrument for the older group remain a mark of distinction? Or will the liberals just evaporate?
“If I were to guess,” he said, “there will be more groups, a new splintering, driven in part by the music.”
“Another factor today is the rise of Evangelicalism,” Pelfrey said, “sort of a conservative Evangelicalism.” He uses the term to describe an increasing willingness to cooperate by finding common ground.
“There’s a Baptist teacher at one of the seminaries in Colorado, Craig Blomberg, who spoke for the assembled faculties of the three Missouri Bible colleges about four or five years ago,” he recalled. “I went up to him afterward and said, ‘You almost sound like a Restorationist sometimes.’ He said, ‘Yes, I know. We’re coming toward you. At the same time many of your people are coming toward us.’ There are many exceptions, but maybe someday we can be honest scholars and get together. I hope there will be many young honest scholars.
“People like to be together,” Pelfrey continued. “It takes doing something together to make people realize maybe some of the things we had fights about aren’t worth fighting about.
“Evangelicalism is a major influence, through music, popular literature, popular speakers,” he said. “People pick their theological concepts from there. I just don’t argue with them. I figure it’s a matter of opinion. I’ll pick my fights. You start denying the miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection—especially the resurrection—I can’t tolerate that.”
Pelfrey acknowledged there are many different reactions to Evangelicalism within the Restoration Movement.
“I fear the Restoration Movement is probably going to splinter. The goal was unity,” Pelfrey said, “but we started dividing. And the reason people divide is because of sin. We put self against Christ. Christ prayed for unity, and we ignore it . . . because it’s got to be my way.”
For Pelfrey, evangelism is the most important priority for keeping the movement headed in the right direction. He appreciates the current emphasis on a missional approach, but with caution.
“It’s good to invade the culture,” he said, “just so you do your follow-up.
“The generation today is made up of people who want to do something, but they focus on kind acts. Deeds of kindness, that’s what they like to do. They like to take lemonade to the firehouse, take lemonade and cookies to the firemen. But as far as going out to talk to people about Christ, it’s still touchy. I think it’s mainly the fear of rejection, and rejection hurts.
“You have to meet people where they are. Do something that makes people like you. Like it or not, much of what we are able to do comes about because people trust us. Whatever works in one culture will not work in another culture on this planet.
“In the 1920s, the kind of sermon that had to be preached was hellfire and brimstone. You had to preach against this, against that. You were against everything. The people came.
“To be against something will not work in this day and age. They want you to be for something. So what are we for? Am I for a good time? Am I for a good concert, am I for a spectator sport on Sunday morning? That’s all right, but do something more.
“The Great Commission to me is often misinterpreted. I hear it said as ‘you are going.’ There’s too many participles there. It’s an aorist participle, which means it’s a completed action in the past. To me it really should be, “having gone,” then disciple and baptize. So wherever you are, do something.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Pelfrey what he wants his legacy to be. After some thought, he said: “This building is named after me, but so what? It’ll fall down. I would hope my legacy would be, ‘He was true to the Word while he taught it.’”
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.