4 Mar 2020

Hard Fighting Soldiers, Edward Robinson and the History of African American Churches of Christ: A Review

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Church, Church History, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Ministry, Race Relations, Reading, Restoration History, Unity

Of all the forms of negro hate in this world, save me from the one which clothes itself with the name of loving Jesus.” (Frederick Douglass)

Edward J. Robinson

I met Edward J. Robinson through Don Meredith, the inimitable librarian at Harding School of Theology back in the late 1990s. I was working on a thesis and kept running across a figure, S. R. Cassius, in obscure journals in the Cave of Mirofilm. I started to collect his writings. That was when Meredith told me of Robinson who was working on a dissertation on Cassius at Mississippi State University. We would meet several times after. Robinson would go on to publish To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius (University of Alabama Press 2007). Since finishing his work on Cassius, Robinson has single handedly defined the historiography of African American Churches of Christ through a series of books and articles. His books include Show Us How You Do It: Marshall Keeble and the Rise of the Black Churches of Christ, 1914-1968; The Fight is On in Texas: A History of African American Churches of Christ in the Lone Star State, 1865-2000; To Lift Up My Race: The Essential Writings of Samuel Robert Cassius (editor); and I Was Under a Heavy Burden: The Life of Annie C. Tuggle.

Hard Fighting Soldiers

Hard Fighting Soldiers is a labor of love and a gift of grace to Churches of Christ.

The works of previous historians like Robert Hooper and Richard Hughes have included chapters, almost as an addendum, on black Churches of Christ. But Edward Robinson’s latest work is the first full length scholarly history of the African American Churches of Christ. Hard Fighting Soldiers: A History of African American Churches of Christ (University of Tennessee Press, 2019) is brisk, concise, and contextual.

Hard Fighting Soldiers has twelve chapters along with a short prologue and epilogue. The chapters take us from roots in slavery in 1816 to the presidency of Barack Obama. There are chapters on significant women, hymnody, and the quest for the “magic of education” that open whole windows to worlds that are often unknown among predominantly white Churches of Christ. Most white disciples in Churches of Christ will recognize the name of Marshall Keeble. But Robinson shows our family tree is both richer and far more complex than Keeble. We interact with the conflicted and convoluted views on slavery by Alexander Campbell (there is no discussion of people like Pardee Butler, Ovid Butler, Jonas Hartzel, etc). We are introduced to Levi Kennedy Sr, S. W. Womack, G. P. Bowser, J. S. Winston, R. N. Hogan, Fred D. Gray, Annie C. Tuggle, Thelma Holt, and a host of other hard fighting soldiers.

I used the word contextual above to describe Hard Fighting Soldiers. Contextual is the strength of this work. Robinson’s concise history is placed squarely within its north American context. Actually, the context can probably be narrowed even more, north American southern context. The African American Churches of Christ, like the white ones, are a creation of the land that was once the old Confederacy.

That context gave it (and us) birth, that context, shaped its growth and development, and that context ultimately shaped it as an independent religious body. Yes, the context is, within space and time, north America but the content of that context is the issue of race: slavery, Jim Crow, racism. It is impossible to tell the story of the emergence of African American Churches of Christ apart from racism.

Robinson takes us through the “racial thought of white churches of Christ” (ch. 4). It was this thought that framed all interaction with black disciples from the beginning (and many would say still does). Robinson shows how men like S. R. Cassius and G. P. Bowser fought hard against that context and were thus either ignored or marginalized and tried to be controlled by white power. But there were men like Marshall Keeble who took a different approach and tried to work within the system and was “rewarded” so to speak. In my opinion, this is why most white disciples know Keeble but frequently have no idea who Bowser is and never ever heard of Cassius.
But we should know who Ethel Carr is. Carr, six years old, desegregated the all white Buena Vista Elementary School in Nashville three years before Ruby Bridges in New Orleans. We should know Patricia Jenkins, who braved the “Freedom Rides” through Alabama.


There are a few puzzles to me about Hard Fighting Soldiers. While discussing Cassius’s response to the vile film The Birth of a Nation. Cassius is the only leader in the Churches of Christ, white or black, to publicly say anything about this grotesque apology for the KKK and racism. But Robinson does not inform the reader that SRC wrote an entire book in reply called The Third Birth of a Nation. He does not cite it either. Yet he has a section on “S. R. Cassius’s Fight against The Birth of a Nation.

Robinson refers to the Nashville Christian Institute several times through the narrative though no section is dedicated to it. The “Magic of Education” focuses upon Bowser’s work and legacy. The closing of the Nashville Christian Institute in 1967 is mentioned as the “grab of the century,” but if a person does not already know what that is they will not learn of that tragic miscarriage of justice in Nashville.

Not everything can be put into a book. And these are not necessarily criticisms but just puzzles to me.


Hard Fighting Soldiers is required reading for anyone wanting to understand our black sisters and brothers. It is also essential reading for understanding our own white fellowship.

There is great irony in the fact that while decrying worldliness, the dangers of the cultural church, and the like both white and black Churches of Christ have been extremely located, extremely worldly, extremely cultural all the while denying such vociferously. We, both white and black Churches of Christ, have a genuine, actual, faith shaping history that come from its American context that is greatly removed from Scripture.

Black Churches of Christ provide a brilliant critique for white Churches of Christ when it comes to our enmeshment in our racist Confederate heartland. But at the same time the two fellowships shared a common cultural hermeneutic that fostered neo-gnostic dichotomies between “physical” and “spiritual” enabling us to outright ignore (or justify) injustice and racism. Or when it was addressed such was thought of as political rather than biblical theology. Marshall Keeble was a product of both his southern American culture and his Stone-Campbell culture that taught him how to read the Bible or which parts were the real Bible.

Ed Robinson is to be thanked for his passion for telling us the story of black Churches of Christ. He has produced a compelling volume that sheds considerable light on not only where we are but how we got here.

You can purchase Hard Fighting Soldiers by following the link. I make no money for this btw.


We still have a long way to go.

Harding University’s 5,541 member student body is 5.34% African American (how many of these are athletes).

Abilene Christian University’s 5,145 member student body is 12% African American.

Lipscomb University’s 4,620 member student includes 467 African American students.

Pepperdine University’s student body is 6.82%.

Leave a Reply