History of the Restoration Movement

John Nelson Armstrong


Biographical Sketch On The Life Of J. N. Armstrong

John Nelson Armstrong was born to Robert and Elizabeth Armstrong, January 6, 1870, on a farm near Gadsden, Tennessee. Despite the rude simplicity of his birthplace, Armstrong received from his parents a remarkable heritage of personality and character. From his father, Robert, came his deeply emotional nature, his warm friendliness, a fine sense of humor, and perfect integrity. From his mother, Elizabeth, came his penetrating insight and his good judgment.

Altogether, there were twelve in the family. Living on the farm, young Nelson (nicknamed Nelse), like the other children, learned to hoe, weed, pick strawberries or cotton and to do many other chores on the farm.

Entering school for Nelse was difficult but proved to be profitable when he found his teacher, J. R. McDonald, to be excellent. McDonald managed his students well by placing the younger ones behind him and the older ones in front so he could keep a close eye on them. The school contained eight grades and when these were finished, McDonald, being the excellent teacher that he was, carried the students through the high school course. Here the students were organized for a debating society on Friday afternoons. Here Nelse got his first experience in public speaking. McDonald encouraged his students to go to college. Nelse left home for college to prepare for law. He entered West Tennessee Christian College, which is now Freed-Hardeman University at Henderson, Tennessee. He spent two years at Henderson and left college for lack of money.

Nelse applied for the Matthews School some four miles from Gadsden. The summer term opened with 35 students, which quickly grew to 63. He taught all eight grades.

At first, the students called him "Nelse," but after he explained to them kindly that he was now their teacher, they addressed him with the respect due the new relationship.

He re-entered college at Henderson for a third year but left after Christmas to attend Union University at Jackson. After his term at Union University, he decided to go to Lexington, Kentucky, where J. W. McGarvey's influence was strongly felt, but he wound up at the Nashville Bible School, now Lipscomb University, October, 1893. While there he preached his first sermon on the subject, "What It Means To Be A Christian." He graduated from Nashville Bible School in 1896.

J. N. Armstrong married Miss Woodson Harding, daughter of James A. Harding. Woodson was 19 at the time of their marriage. The marriage ceremony was performed by J. W. Harding, Woodson's grandfather. The Armstrongs had one daughter, Pattie Hathaway.

Mr. and Mrs. C. D. Potter planned a new college at Bowling Green, Kentucky, and asked James A. Harding to serve as president. The Armstrongs had been with Nashville Bible School eight years but left and went with James A. Harding to begin the new school at Bowling Green, Kentucky. The school was named Potter Bible College.

At Potter Bible College, Armstrong was head of the Greek Department but also taught Latin and Bible and even though he had a very heavy load he still continued taking Hebrew under M. C. Kurfees, who came down from Louisville for the class.

In 1904, Armstrong and his four associates stated that for the previous six years they had wanted to establish another Christian school in a new location and a new field. A. D. Gardner, brother of R. N. Gardner, Armstrong's close associate, offered a 40-acre farm, two miles from Paragould, Arkansas, for the school, but plans fell through and John Nelson Armstrong went from Paragould to Odessa, Missouri, for a meeting. At Odessa, he talked with a Mr. Foster who told him they had built, several years before, a school building, which was now standing idle. It had a two-acre campus with beautiful trees, and Mr. Foster thought that the town would donate all these to Armstrong if he would move the school to Odessa. Armstrong looked it over and the town readily agreed to deed over the property to the school. Armstrong and his associates agreed that Odessa was the best location. Western Bible and Literary College in Odessa opened in 1905.

J. N. Armstrong was an educator, evangelist and a writer. Some of the articles he wrote appeared in the Gospel Herald, Living Message, Truthseeker, Gospel Advocate, and Firm Foundation. Armstrong was one who fought long for freedom of conscience, freedom to learn and to teach, and for Christian tolerance over differences of view.

Armstrong's preaching took him into the states of Texas, Tennessee, New Mexico, Arizona, Alabama, Florida, California and Michigan.

His teaching included, besides the Matthews School, Nashville Bible School, Nashville, Tennessee; Potter Bible College, Bowling Green, Kentucky; Western Bible and Literary College, Odessa, Missouri; Cordell Christian College, Cordell, Oklahoma; Harper College, Harper, Kansas; and Harding College, Morrilton and Searcy, Arkansas. He served as President of four of the colleges: Harper College, Western Bible and Literary College, Cordell Christian College, and Harding College.

Schools which he attended were West Tennessee Christian College, later called Georgia Robertson and still later, Freed-Hardeman College (now University), Henderson, Tennessee; Union University, Jackson, Tennessee; Nashville Bible School, Nashville, Tennessee; Potter Bible College, Bowling Green, Kentucky; and the University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of his life-long friends, who was a student at Freed-Hardeman when Armstrong was a student, was R. L. Whiteside.

In 1935, Armstrong started a weekly radio broadcast which he continued until his death.

In 1936, John Nelson Armstrong was still the president of Harding College. Its enrollment was approximately 500. Many families had moved in, new houses were built, and new teachers added to the faculty. In 1936, inspectors who visited the college were frank in saying that "no other college in the state included in its survey is more strongly equipped."

Though no one would have ever taken the presidency during the depression, the college was now in condition, Armstrong believed, for a younger man to carry it forward. At a special meeting, April 22, 1936, he stated that he believed it was time for him to retire, and so he recommended that the Board elect George S. Benson to replace him.

On November 24, 1936, the Board of Governors conferred on Armstrong Honorary Membership in the Eugene Field Society for "having by his writings made an outstanding contribution to contemporary literature." This was never mentioned by him, but was later discovered among his long-forgotten papers.

In the summer of 1938, Armstrong held meetings in California, and at Los Angeles Mr. and Mrs. George Pepperdine had attended the meeting and invited him to dinner. Pepperdine was a native of Kansas and knew of Armstrong's work at Harper. The Pepperdines were interested in Harding and in Armstrong's long experience in Christian education. The Pepperdines made a gift of $25,000 and with help of other sums of money raised from some of his best friends, plus a discount of a sum of $2,300 from the Booth family who held the mortgage, the mortgage could now be paid and Harding College freed for the first time in its history.

On Thanksgiving day, 1939, the mortgage was cleared. A bonfire was lit and the mortgage burned.

Now relieved of his administrative duties, he gave himself to the work he loved best - teaching, preaching and writing. He often wrote for the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation.

In 1937, he held meetings in Kentucky and Michigan. At Flint, it was said that "more outsiders were preached to in this meeting than in any other meeting ever held in Flint." People drove from Canada and from many places in Michigan to hear him.

The summer of 1938 he spent in California. He held meetings at different places in California and the strenuous schedule of speaking twice a day and visiting into the night was too much. He had never been physically strong but in spite of the strenuous schedule and his illness, he enjoyed the summer.

But John Nelson Armstrong, who had fought so long for freedom of conscience, freedom to learn and to teach, and for Christian forbearances over differences of view, finally found peace at last. He fell asleep very quietly, as he had wanted to, and passed from this life on August 12, 1944, at Searcy, Arkansas. The funeral was held in the college auditorium in Godden Hall. Dr. George Benson read some favorite Scriptures and S. A. Bell spoke. Armstrong's body was laid to rest in the Oaklawn Cemetery but, later, due to some circumstances, his casket was moved from Oaklawn and reburied in the new White County Memorial Gardens.

- In Memoriam, Gussie Lambert, c.1988, pages 13-16, Updated For The Web, January, 2005

J.N. Armstrong And Andy T. Ritchie, Jr.

J. N. Armstrong was an important educator in Churches of Christ. His father-in-law was James A. Harding for whom Harding University is named. Armstrong was president of three schools that were predecessors to Harding University and his descendents in the family of L. C. Sears have contributed to the University until this day.

Armstrong was born in a log cabin near Gadsden in Western Tennessee. His family became Christians when J. N. was pre-teen and started subscribing to the Gospel Advocate. He attended what later became Freed-Hardeman and other colleges then finished his degree at Nashville Bible School in 1896. He took courses from both James A. Harding and David Lipscomb. Under Harding he read Greek classical works such as, Homer, Xenophon and Plato. While still a student he taught the beginning Greek courses and had as a student Woodson Harding, James A. Harding's daughter whom he later married. The Armstrong's had one daughter Pattie Hathaway Armstrong Sears, wife of L. C. Sears, long time Harding University dean. Upon graduation J. N. became a faculty member teaching Greek and Latin.

Both Harding and Lipscomb encouraged the founding of Christian schools in other regions of the country. When an opportunity came to found Potter Bible College in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1900, James A. Harding took up the challenge and the Armstrongs went with them. In Bowling Green friends of the Armstrongs, discussed the need for a college farther west with the result that J. N., B. F. Rhodes, and R. N. Gardner agreed to found Western Bible and Literary College in Odessa, Missouri, which opened in 1905, with Armstrong as the president. Armstrong wrote, "The starting of this work does not depend on your gift, for God's hand is not shortened. Your salvation may depend on it, but the school does not. (Sears, p.74) Armstrong taught Bible, Greek and Hebrew.

Two years later Armstrong developed throat problems and moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and held Gospel Meetings. He lived by faith in regard to finances much as did James A. Harding. He was asked to hold a meeting in Tucson, Arizona. "As the time approached for the meeting, Armstrong had no money for a ticket and hesitated to borrow, but the day before he was to leave he received a check for $23 from the Tucson women, with the note, "We thought you might need this. (p. 96).

Don Hockaday of Granite, Oklahoma was instrumental in founding a college in Cordell in 1907 but after the first year, due to a conflict in views, the president resigned and Armstrong was offered the position which he took up in 1908. He was soon joined by Rhodes and S. A. Bell. Cordell College did well. It offered instruction in the lower grades as well as on a college level. Difficulties developed in 1918, however, as the United States entered World War I. Several young men at the college declared conscientious objector status and relations with the draft board and the city became estranged. Armstrong resigned the presidency and the board closed the school.

A new college had been founded in Harper, Kansas, and B. F. Rhodes and L. C. Sears, Armstrong's son-in-law, started teaching at Harper. In 1919 the Armstrongs moved to Harper where J. N. took up the position of president and served for the next five years. Considerable headway was made. The enrollment at all levels was 323 in 1921 and the college had an endowment of $300,000 in 1924. Armstrong was highly respected by his faculty associates and they remained loyal to him wherever he led them.

It was evident however that the town was too small to support the growing college. Therefore when A. S. Croom of Morrilton, Arkansas, proposed a merger with Arkansas Christian College of which Croom was president the decision was made by the Harper faculty to join forces with the college in Morrilton. Armstrong was to become president and Croom suggested naming the resulting institution, Harding College beginning in 1924. In 1934 Harding had the opportunity to purchase the campus of Galloway College, Searcy, Arkansas. Armstrong remained president until 1936. He recommended his former student from Harper College, George S. Benson, as his replacement. Armstrong's descendents the Sears continued with Harding, L. C. Sears as Dean and Jack Wood Sears as long time head of the biology department.

Armstrong was an avid promoter of undenominational Christianity. "Truly, we have found undenominational Christianity pure and simple…With it, too, we have found God's people of one heart and one soul; there are no divisions among them, but they are being perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment, the holy prayer of our Savior, that all believers may be one, is really answered. With denominationalism how may divisions ever cease, and how may the prayer of our master ever be answered.

Andy T. Ritchie, Jr. came to Harding College (now University) in 1946 to teach Bible, private voice and direct the college choruses. He was likely the most influential Bible teacher on campus from 1946 to 1953. Many other Bible teachers have impressed me variously, but none exhibited the spiritual depth of Brother Ritchie. I also sang in the large chorus and the men's glee club and in my sophomore year in the small chorus. Ritchie encouraged personal teaching of prospective converts and chaired a weekly meeting called personal evangelism.

Andy T. Ritchie, Jr. was born in Neely's Bend, Tennessee, in northeast Nashville in 1909. His father, Andy T. Ritchie, Sr., was born in Ash Flat, Arkansas, and attended Lipscomb University when it was called Nashville Bible School. Andy T. Ritchie, Jr. followed in his father's footsteps. Ritchie had a resonant, powerful bass-baritone voice and was appointed to the Lipscomb male quartet which traveled widely so as to secure students and funds for the college. He received a B. A. in music from George Peabody College in Nashville.

After graduation Ritchie took voice lessons from noted private teachers, sang on radio stations, led singing for churches and campaigns and often preached. His interests in a musical career took him to Atlanta, Louisville, Texarkana, Dallas, Tulsa, and Jacksonville. From 1936-44 Ritchie led singing and did personal work at the large Central Church of Christ in Nashville. He also launched choral and other musical groups at David Lipscomb. Upon leaving Central he took a position at 16th and Decatur, Washington, DC 1944-46. He was especially noted for quoting a poem while his choruses hummed, "My God and I".

"The stars shine over the earth
The stars shine over the sea;
The stars look up to God above
The stars look down on me.
The stars may shine for a million years,
For a million years and a day.
But God and I will live and love,
When the stars are past away."

Ritchie enrolled in a number of religious courses at Lipscomb, Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, the University of Louisville, and Vanderbilt. In 1955 he obtained a M. A. in Bible from Scarritt College, Nashville.

In 1933 Andy T. Ritchie married Kathryn Cullum, who was a math and piano student at Lipscomb. She accompanied Andy when he sang concerts. His favorite solo was "Ole Man River." Kathryn taught at Harding beginning in 1946. The Ritchies had four children: Andy T. Ritchie, III, Edward C. Ritchie, Bettye Ritchie Casey and Joan Ritchie Toepel.

In the Personal Evangelism meetings, Ritchie led meaningful devotionals and stressed one on one teaching, and involvement in campaigns. His repeated saying was, "Only one life which soon will pass, only what's done for Christ will last." He requested from the dean permission to seek out unbaptized students for his Bible classes and led a number of them to Christ. In class he emphasized the teachings of Jesus, especially the decisions of the heart over rote obedience, and love.

Ritchie first became involved in campaigns upon receiving invitations to lead the singing for campaigns organized by Otis Gatewood in Salt Lake in the summers of 1943 and 1944. He also led the singing for a campaign in England and campaigns in which Charles R. Brewer preached in Trenton, New Jersey and Schenectady, N. Y. The Salt Lake efforts were the earliest campaigns undertaken by Churches of Christ leaders. Ritchie published an influential book on worship in 1969, Thou Shalt Worship the Lord Thy God (Austin: Firm Foundation).

Beginning in 1946 Ritchie recruited a team of Harding students and held campaigns in the Northeast, baptizing several persons in each campaign. In the summer of 1946, the campaign team worked in Hamilton, ON, Erie, PA, Fort Wayne, IN and Schenectady, NY. He returned to the Northeast in 1947; then in 1948 held campaigns in Worcester and Natick, MA, Newport, RI and West Hartford, CT. My sister, Nedra Olbricht McGill was involved in the 1948 team. Over the next 15 years, Ritchie continued holding campaigns. Soon after that, his sight began to fail as the result of a retina detachment in 1962 and then of diabetes. He next directed youth camps accompanied by Harding students including Camp Hunt in New York and Camp Gander Brook in Maine. I preached in Natick, MA 1959-1962 and spent a week in the summer of 1962 teaching at Gander Brook under the direction of Andy T. Ritchie, Jr.

Ritchie encouraged former students who taught in new Christian colleges in Lubbock, TX, Rochester, MI, Villanova, PA, Parkersburg, WV, Portland, OR, and Albion, ID. He especially encouraged the founding of Ohio Valley, Parkersburg, West Virginia, according to Keith Stotts, Glenn Boyd and Glenn Olbricht who were involved.

Ritchie trained and encouraged a number of missionaries. In June 1963 Andy and Kathryn left New York and visited more than 60 missionary families in 20 countries including Great Britain, Holland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. They returned home November 20, 1963. It is a great joy to remember this significant Christian servant.

Tom Olbricht
RiverWoods, P113
7 RiverWoods Drive
Exeter, New Hampshire 03833

-Source - Contributed by Ancil Jenkins - Februrary, 2015.

Directions To The Grave Of J. N. Armstrong

J.N. and Woodson Armstrong are buried in the White County Memorial Gardens in Searcy, Arkansas. White County Memorial Gardens is located on the southeast side of Searcy. Enter the cemetery and dead end. Turn right, note statue of Jesus in center of section to your left. Go to the next left and go to the step-up entrance in the center of the section heading toward the statue of Jesus (west). Just a few sections in look to your left and travel in about halfway to the Sears/Armstrong plot. See Map Page Here!

GPS Coordinates
N35º 14' 537" x WO 91º 41' 350"
35.242291, -91.689163
Lot 87, Section C, Space 2

White County Cemetery

L.C. Sears Plot

J.N. Armstrong Plot

Recent Photos - 2019

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