By Jerry Harris
I, like so many independent Christian church preachers, had the opportunity to study the history of the Restoration Movement in Bible college. My experience was a droning professor in a 7 a.m. class. My goal then was simply to survive it, achieve the best grade possible, and then move on to more interesting things. Biographical sketches of our movement’s pioneers held little interest for me at the time, and for the most part, it stayed that way for many years. It wasn’t until our church launched a multisite location in Hannibal, Missouri, that an interest in our movement’s roots came to life in me.
I learned that Barton W. Stone, a founder of our movement, died in Hannibal. I discovered I had passed Stone’s farm in Jacksonville, Illinois, countless times while traveling on Interstate 72. When I found that Stone’s wife of 33 years was buried in Hannibal, I wrote my first article for Christian Standard: “Rediscovering the Sacred Stones.” These things piqued my interest about other pioneers, their stories, their milestones, and their legacy.
I read and researched our history, but it was a long time before I heard about a man one might argue is the greatest evangelist in the history of the Restoration Movement. Why would his incredible life and ministry be absent from classroom lectures and reference books? There was no shortage of information about Stone, Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Raccoon John Smith, John T. Johnson, and Samuel Rogers. Plenty of material can be found about Isaac Errett, P.H. Welshimer, David Lipscomb, J.W. McGarvey, and others.
But through it all, I had never heard about Marshall Keeble.
Keeble was born in 1878, the son of former slaves. His education ended in the seventh grade. He began preaching in 1897 and set aside business interests to become a full-time evangelist in 1914. In 1930, Keeble reported to The Gospel Advocate that he had baptized 15,000 people. By 1967, estimates of that number had grown to 47,000!
In his lifetime, Keeble established more than 350 congregations and conducted evangelistic services all over America as well as Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, Singapore, and Korea. In Nigeria, a tribe made him an honorary chief. He helped found the Nigerian Christian Secondary School in Ukpom and the Nigerian Christian Hospital. He helped found Nashville Christian Institute and served as its first president. Harding University presented him with an honorary Doctor of Law degree.
He was a successful debater; it was said no opponent ever sought to debate him a second time. He was instrumental in the founding of Southwestern Christian College in Texas. He preached in brush arbors, tents, barns, and church buildings. A man shot at him in Florence, Alabama, and yet Keeble continued preaching, and even tried to prevent the man’s arrest. He was beaten with brass knuckles on another occasion, but turned the other cheek as the man was quietly removed.
He was no stranger to personal pain, as all five of his children and his first wife preceded him in death . . . some tragically. Tennessee’s governor presented him with the state’s highest honor. When he died in 1968 at age 89, 3,000 people attended his funeral. In his lifetime, he worked to overcome many obstacles for African-Americans. He broke many of the cultural barriers that separated black and white people. Keeble was one of the most influential preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the 20th century.
Lessons Learned from Marshall Keeble’s Life
I can’t help but believe that my ignorance of Keeble and his accomplishments was born out of two circumstances—that he was a noninstrumental church of Christ preacher and that he was black. I have asked numerous independent Christian church preachers if they had heard of him but they were as oblivious as I had been. I have also spoken to some church of Christ brothers who are very familiar with his life and ministry. This, to me, clearly illustrates what happens when sectarianism and/or racism exists. We become less than we were intended to be or were equipped to be.
Lately, as a board member of The Solomon Foundation, I’ve had the great opportunity of meeting some of our brothers in the African-American churches of Christ. Solomon has been blessed to partner with 19 of these churches, providing loans of approximately $70 million. If not for those relationships, I wouldn’t have started the research that has been so edifying to me. I’m concerned I am guilty of unintentional racism and sectarianism. It might sound like I’m blaming my teachers, but the truth is that the information was always there . . . I just remained ignorant of it.
A particularly powerful part of Keeble’s life and ministry was his partnership with A. M. Burton, a man of humble origins. Burton attended school for only 20 months and worked as a youth in tobacco fields for 50 cents a day. As he grew, he became a day laborer, earning a dollar a day, until he was able to secure a job selling insurance. When his employer went out of business, he took what little he had and started his own insurance company. The little business, established in 1903, became the Life and Casualty Insurance Company of Tennessee, and Burton became wealthy.
As a philanthropist, Burton gave more to David Lipscomb College than any other Tennessean had given to anything. Burton funded churches and ministries in downtown Nashville, he had the Bible translated into Braille for the blind, and he funded the work of evangelist Marshall Keeble. This part of Keeble’s story is especially inspiring to me because Keeble was able to do things that Burton could never do and Burton could do things that Keeble could never do. Only by working together did all these great things happen.
The Legacy of Marshall Keeble
Preacher, educator, and historian J. E. Choate said of Keeble, “His parables were built out of the logic of stubborn facts.”
Keeble described himself this way: “I don’t know how to use deceit. I have grown on facts. No man with any sense will deny a stubborn fact.” Keeble often said, “The Bible is right. You can go home and fuss all night. The Bible is right. You can walk the streets and call Keeble a fool; the Bible is right. You can go home and have spasms; the Bible is right.”
“[Keeble’s] teaching was done in the midst of humble circumstances,” said minister and educator Willie Cato. “Often during his life of service, he suffered shame and blame. When Marshall Keeble ‘set his hands to the plow,’ there were no public accommodations for him. There were few public services of any kind from which he could receive assistance and encouragement. He bore this life gladly. Even as he reflected upon many of these ‘unpleasant’ experiences, there was never a note of bitterness. Often he has told me that these circumstances brought him closer to God and made him rely more entirely upon God.
“Once I asked brother Keeble how he had come to have such great faith and how he had learned to rely upon God so much. I distinctly remember that he stated, ‘I have had to rely upon God, he is the only one I had. The white man didn’t like me because of the color of my skin. The colored man didn’t like me because of my religion. Now son, who else did I have?’ May all teachers have the same faith of this great teacher.”
“His students loved and respected him, not for what he was, but for what they were when they were with him,” said Mrs. Lambert Campbell, who taught at Nashville Christian Institute. “They loved him for overlooking the selfish and petty traits which were in them. They loved him for closing his eyes to the discord among them and for using these inadequacies to bring out the possibilities that he could see within each of them. Perhaps this is what being a teacher really means.”
“Brother Keeble was never disturbed,” said Percy Ricks, who helped establish many churches of Christ in the South. “In the presence of man’s anger he grew calm; in confusion, he registered peace. All these things I say of him without any exaggeration or sense of worship. His personal habits were simple, orderly, and meticulous, without being fastidious. So, no one was ever ill-at-ease in his presence. No one’s shortcomings were food for his conversations; but he was a faithful counselor of people in their needs, using the Bible as his reference, or authority.”
Marshall Keeble belongs to the same heritage of the Restoration Movement as me. While bearing fruit on different branches, we all are part of the same tree that ministers to millions worldwide. He is just one of so many who preached the same Christ, trusted fully in the same absolute truth of the New Testament, immersed the repentant in the same soul-cleansing water, and broke bread in the same weekly Communion as me. Different times, skin colors, and worship styles don’t have to rob us of the rich relationships God has provided, and I pray that almighty God would bind us back together with cords that cannot be broken as we prepare for eternity.
Some of Keeble’s profound and powerful sermons can be heard on YouTube. Quotes and facts are taken from therestorationmovement.com and from Biography and Sermons of Marshall Keeble, Evangelist, edited by B.C. Goodpasture (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1959).