Restoration Quarterly Vol. 1 No. 1 (1957): 32-34


Tolbert Fanning

A. R. Holton

Tolbert Fanning was born May 10, 1810, in Cannon County, Tennessee. It is interesting to note what was happening in our country in that year. James Madison was president of the United States. Napoleon was at the height of his power in Europe and within two years we would have a war with England which is known as the War of 1812. Abraham Lincoln was just a year older than Tolbert Fanning. The vast territory to the west was just beginning to open. Clay and Calhoun and Webster were in the Congress of the United States. Many people were talking about the new invention by Robert Fulton. The Erie Canal was a great prospect of rapid transportation. Somehow the world was not secure then even as it is not secure now.

In the years to follow the birth of Tolbert Fanning our war with Mexico was to come, and our Civil War with all of its tragedy was to be enacted within his lifetime. Perhaps one of the busiest periods of Fanning’s life was in the period of reconstruction following the Civil War, up until his death in 1873.

Over against the tragedy of the Civil War, Fanning had launched an educational venture. This educational venture was known as Franklin College, whose buildings were burned at about the time of the close of the Civil War. There had also been launched in this period a publication known as the Gospel Advocate. As it was in the case of Moses, great and stirring events were taking place outside the church and outside his chosen field of education. Perhaps there was no man in the South more aware of what was happening than was Tolbert Fanning, a man who understood the needs and problems of the South as well as any man who has lived there. His boyhood days were spent on a plantation in Alabama. He came to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend school at the University of Nashville where he graduated. It was his ambition to establish a college of his own. The scene of his first educational venture in Tennessee was at Franklin, Tennessee. He had a profound influence upon three people who were to greatly influence the restoration movement in the years to come. These three were D. L. Lipscomb, E. G. Sewell, and T. H. Larimore. The contribution of Tolbert Fanning to the restoration movement is thereby tremendous. The tide of the restoration movement took a turn in Tennessee which has not duplicated elsewhere in the country.

The one point of emphasis made by Tolbert Fanning was that the church was the great instrument by which and through which the cause of Christ was to be spread over the whole earth. This emphasis was given by Fanning even though he was the editor of a paper and president of a college. It was his firm belief that in editing the paper he was helping to further the standing of the church. He felt also that in the school work at Franklin College he was lending aid to the cause of Christ. He believed that leaders in the church needed education and training. He believed that the press was an effective aid in the spread of the gospel. There was no conflict of cross purpose in his life. He never felt that he was disloyal to the church because he ran a school or published a paper.

From 1845 to his death in 1873, Tolbert Fanning was Tennessee’s first citizen. Education at Franklin College was on a broad basis. It involved agriculture. It involved livestock raising. It involved the basic foundations for all the professions. It was an education that involved the whole of man and was designed to fit one for responsibilities and duties in all walks of life. This, therefore, meant that Tolbert Fanning was recognized in Tennessee as the founder of scientific agriculture and livestock raising in the State of Tennessee. He published the first paper devoted to these basic industries.

In his work he was preacher, editor, and teacher. In all three fields he was looked upon with great admiration. His former students knew him as one of the most eloquent preachers of the restoration movement. They knew him as one of the most fruitful teachers of his generation. They knew him as one of the most incisive and cleanest writers of his day. His editorials in the Gospel Advocate are gems of pure English.

His emphasis on the church and its work prevented the growth and development of missionary societies in the South. His emphasis on the church made it possible for great development of leadership. The churches under his influence developed great men for the eldership and when the time for testing came, the churches in Tennessee were not swept away by departures from the New Testament order as they were swept away in many parts of the country. It was this influence then that in 1891 brought together one of his graduates, David Lipscomb, and a graduate of Bethany College, James A. Harding, in an educational venture in Nashville, Tennessee. The work thus begun is now David Lipscomb College in Nashville. This college has led, to a great extent, the spread of Christian education and furnished the leadership for many of our schools that sprang up later.

In 1906, the churches of Christ was given a separate place by the Bureau of Census in the United States Census. This separate accounting is mainly due to the fact that through the influence of Tolbert Fanning, just after the Civil War, the churches of Christ were held back from joining missionary societies and from introducing instrumental music in the worship. The churches of Christ today cover the entire United States and many parts of the world. Our missionaries are gradually but surely spreading this cause into all parts of the world. Had it not been for Tolbert Fanning and his influence, the restoration movement would have been dominated entirely by what we now know as the Disciples of Christ. The churches of Christ as we know them today can be thankful for Tolbert Fanning and the boys that he trained at Franklin College, and for the influence that was set in motion by this great preacher, editor, and teacher.

Fanning was younger than Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and Walter Scott. He was, however, contemporary, and his writings recognized by references in his papers the death of the three of these great leaders. He had traveled as a young man with Alexander Campbell. He had met Walter Scott in Kentucky. He makes mention of the death of Barton W. Stone.

In 1834, just as he was finishing college in Nashville, Tennessee, the restoration movement was just getting a good start. Tolbert Fanning, unlike the other leaders in the restoration movement, never had to unlearn sectarian interpretation of the Bible or the church. He was never anything but a Christian. The influence of the sectarian background of Campbell, Scott, and Stone was never far from their mature and later work, even though they were sincerely endeavoring to follow the New Testament pattern. Tolbert Fanning, from the time he was a boy eighteen years of age, gave his boyhood and young manhood and his mature experience and scholarship to the cause of the church based on the New Testament order. His brilliant contribution to the restoration movement is yet to be fully recognized.

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