William Bayard Craig, A True Hero

No. 12

There are moments in the history of many, perhaps most, churches when the future hangs in the balance.  Usually in its history, a moment comes when the question arises, “shall we continue, or shall we fold our tents?”  To survive these moments of uncertainty and depression requires some members, sometimes only or two, who have the tenacity to continue and to encourage others to continue.  But it also requires someone who, not only has the will to continue, but has a vision of where the church must go, what that church must become, and the ability to lead toward that goal .  Our congregation has had several periods of depression and uncertainty, but only once has the future of the church been so uncertain as to be in serious doubt.  That was in 1875.

After Dr. Sterling Pearre and his celebrated wife Caroline Neville Pearre left in 1874, the church was in dire straits.  The church’s first historian, Harry G. Plum, who was a member of the congregation during this time, wrote almost forty years later about conditions.  “After Mr. Pearre left the church was for some time without a minister.  As the record says ‘Failing in the meantime even to maintain the weekly meeting of the members to partake of the Lord’s Supper.’. . . The church was at its lowest ebb.  No officers had been elected, no one seemed ready to accept the responsibility and the membership had sunk to 68 members.”  Because of resignations and differences of opinion, the eldership had been reduced to one person, Peter Nipher.  Only the Sunday School continued to operate, with a reported eighty students.  As if this were not enough, the church had to deal with one of the divisive controversies that were then roiling the Disciples churches, that being the question of whether it was scriptural to use organs in worship (see vignette #5).

The congregation had the courage to choose to move forward, even in the face of daunting circumstances, and called as minister a young man, William Bayard Craig, as their minister.  Craig, newly graduated from Yale Theological Seminary was that unusual combination of scholar and an exceptional pastor (he was later Chancellor of Drake University).  Writing seven years later, as he prepared to leave Iowa City, he confirmed Plum’s account.  “In five years preceding our coming there had been seventy-five accessions to the church and seventy-nine removals. . . For one year preceding the church had been without a pastor, a considerable debt had accumulated, many of the members were discouraged and the most faithful and reliable workers felt the tug of a heavy load.  We found a membership of seventy-four, not all of them active. . .”

Craig set energetically to work, and with a combination of dedication and largeness of spirit, he transformed the church in seven years from a discouraged group of workers, who perhaps wondered whether it was all worthwhile, to a vibrant congregation of nearly 200, ready to face the challenges of the future and minister to its community and the world.

William Bayard Craig is one of the true heroes of our congregation.