John Nelson Armstrong was born in a log cabin on a farm near Gadsen, Tennessee on January 6, 1870. His parents were Robert and Elizabeth Hathaway Armstrong. While he was still young, his parents were converted to the ancient Gospel. Later he too, joined them in naming Jesus as His personal Savior. His parents were strong believers in reading the Bible. Also, in their home was the Gospel Advocate.
Recognizing the importance of education, J. N. Armstrong entered West Tennessee Christian College in Henderson, Tennessee in 1887. This institution later became what is now Freed-Hardeman College. He spent two years there. After his first two years he returned home and taught school near Gadsen, Tennessee. He returned to Henderson for a brief time before enrolling in Union College in Jackson, Tennessee. He finished out his third year there.
In 1893 at the age of twenty-three, he journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee to enroll in the Nashville Bible School. It was for the chance to study the Bible under James A. Harding and David Lipscomb that prompted him to come.
He took these classes his first semester at Nashville Bible College. Latin, Greek and Bible with James A. Harding; English with Dr. Grant; Physiology with Dr. Ward, and Bible with David Lipscomb.
Armstrong’s biographer, L. C. Sears, tells us how Armstrong felt about J. A. Harding in For Freedom,
“…But Harding was a daily inspiration. He could double the lesson anytime and make the students love it. He had no equal in leading students to feel that they could do anything they set their hearts to do. He had a perfect faith in God’s immediate presence and instant help. He was fond of quoting Paul’s statement, ‘I can do all things through Him that strengthenth me.’ And as he spoke, with an intensity of feeling and conviction that was contagious, no one doubted that God could help him also as he had helped Paul.”
His two favorite classes were Bible and Greek. In his third year at Nashville he taught three classes in Greek in exchange for his room and board. Concerning his capabilities in Greek, David Lipscomb said, “Well bro. Harding that Greek is all right, Armstrong can do it.” One of his pupils in his Greek class was J. A. Harding’s daughter, Woodson, who later became his wife.
He also taught Latin. One of his first students was the late John T. Glenn, long time minister and worker in the Buechel Church of Christ in Louisville, Kentucky. In his later years, Armstrong comments about John Glenn,
“He and I learned the first rule, i.e., to love one another. In a little while he took my place in the teaching of Latin at Nashville. It is not exaggerating the fact to say that Glenn has never had a superior in all the Bible School faculties as a teacher of Latin, and I think only one equal.”
Sears tells us that unnamed equal was Harding’s son, Dr. Leon K. Harding.
J. N. Armstrong graduated from Nashville Bible School in 1896. He spent the summer in evangelistic work in and around Nashville. While he was teaching at Nashville Bible School, he married Woodson Harding. They were married in Winchester, Kentucky by her grandfather, J. W. Harding. In 1899 their one child was born. Her name was Pattie Hathaway Armstrong. They also helped raise two nephews.
In 1901 J. A. Harding went to Bowling Green, Kentucky to establish Potter Bible School. He took his son-in-law with him. At Potter Armstrong was head of the Greek Department. He also taught Latin and Bible. Armstrong and his wife had long dreamed of establishing a Bible School west of the Mississippi River. They shared their dream with three men who also were interested. The men were R. C. Bell, R. N. Gardner, and B. F. Rhodes.
In 1905 he established The Western Bible and Literary College in Odessa, Missouri. There was immediate opposition to the school’s right to exist from a scriptural viewpoint. Daniel Sommer led this opposition, the editor of the Octographic Review, later the Apostolic Review. There were three debates held on the college issue. Sommer and Rhodes had two oral debates and Armstrong and Sommer held a written one. We will go into more detail about Daniel Sommer’s opposition to Bible Schools in our article about his life. Later in life, he became convinced that his views on Christian Schools should not be made a test of fellowship. May of 1938 found Sommer and Armstrong together at a Murch-Witty unity meeting. Then they were in fellowship with each other. In 1907, after two years at the helm at Odessa, he was forced to resign because of his health. Armstrong spent the summer of 1907 living and preaching in Las Vegas, New Mexico. There were many outstanding graduates of the Western Bible and Literary College. Sears writes the following in “For Freedom. “
“From Odessa also came a host of leaders in the church around the world–the Dow Merritts, George Scotts, Leslie Browns, A. B. Reeses, and others in Africa, the Orville Bixlers and E. A. Rhodeses in Japan, Don Carlos Janes, who probably did more than any man of his time to encourage support of missionaries, and a long list of preachers, teachers and devoted church leaders, . . . “
In 1908 he was asked to take over the Presidency at Cordell Christian College in Cordell, Oklahoma. He came to the post with the stipulation that every student be required to take a daily Bible class. In his second year there Rhodes and Gardner joined him, the third year by S. A. Bell and W. T. Vaughn. He was to stay at Cordell until the school’s closing in 1918.
In 1919 Armstrong was asked to be the head of Harper College in Harper, Kansas. On August 4, 1921, Harper College became a fully accredited Junior College. In 1924 Harper College merged with Arkansas Christian College, which was located in Morrilton, Arkansas. The new institution was named after James A. Harding and was called Harding College. It was to be located in Morillton, Arkansas.
J. N. Armstrong directed the college through the dark days of the depression. Without the sacrificial service of Armstrong and his faculty, there would not be a Harding College left to serve the brotherhood.
Armstrong spent his summers preaching the Everlasting Gospel. In 1934 the college moved to Searcy, Arkansas where it has remained till the present. On April 22, 1936, John Nelson Armstrong decided to step down as President of Harding College. He remained to serve as President Emeritus and as Active Dean of the Bible. Dr. George Benson succeeded him, who was a missionary in China.
Commenting on the change of Presidents at Harding, J. N. Armstrong wrote the following that both the Gospel Advocate and the Firm Foundation carried.
“For thirty-nine years I have taught in Christian College work. For twenty-nine I have served as President and Mrs. Armstrong as Dean of Women. Our home has been a girl’s dormitory where we have been on duty day and night throughout all these years. As we look back, we wonder how we have borne the weight of the burdens–both mental and physical–that have often been placed on our shoulders. Nevertheless, . . . there has never been a time when we were not glad to have had the privilege of spending our lives in Bible School work. We are thankful to God for the great opportunity it has given us to help mold the lives of young people.
With the rapid growth of Harding College, with its attendant increase in administrative work, we believe we need younger blood. Mrs. Armstrong is now fifty-seven and I am sixty-six. We believe by ridding our shoulders of a part of the load. We will be able to help guide the destiny of Harding College for years to come. For this we pray . . . “
John Nelson Armstrong was to have eight more fruitful years to participate in the growth of Harding College. In his closing years he wrote both for the Gospel Advocate and for the Firm Foundation. He also conducted a weekly radio broadcast. His summers were spent in evangelistic work. He spent the summer of 1941 with the church in Huntsville. Death came to John Nelson Armstrong on August 12, 1944.
R. H. Boll, writing in the Word & Work, dated October 1944, gave this tribute to J. N. Armstrong.
“For nearly fifty years I have known Brother Armstrong and through all those years he was ever the same faithful, true man of God, a servant of the Lord, earnest, humble, strong and steadfast. He taught Greek in the old Nashville Bible School. I was in his classes, and well do I remember his uncompromising strictness, his high standards, his unremitting demand on his students, his insistence on accurate knowledge. So through was his work that to this day I remember rules of Greek accent and grammar, and can still repeat the forms of irregular verbs which he drilled into me in those days of long ago.
However, that was only one side of his character. On the other side, one would find a genuine, humble and friendly heart and a tender spirituality and deep reverence for God. Those who knew him loved him and held him in high regard and honor. Well did he deserve it. Under many trials and difficulties he fought his way through and did his great work as a preacher and teacher of the Word of God, in the pulpit and in the schools, teaching day by day the precious lessons of the Bible in his inimitable way. …. In Brother J. A. Harding’s school (the Old Nashville Bible School—-where he married Brother Harding’s daughter, Woodson–‘Miss Woodie’, as we always affectionately called her); then at Potter Bible College in Bowling Green, still with Brother Harding; then at Cordell, Oklahoma; then at Harper, Kansas, and then at a school of his own building, the Harding College which for a few years was located in Morrilton, Arkansas, and later was established at Searcy, Arkansas. Of the latter he was head, until a few years ago feeble health compelled his retirement. However, even after that and to the end he continued to teach the Bible there and I have heard of many how great were his lessons, and how inspiring his chapel talks to the students.
Brother Armstrong was a true, staunch, loyal, faithful Christian–and through all his life a growing one–growing in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. His face was always toward the light. He could not be content to preach the representative views of the brotherhood’. He must evermore draw his light and instruction from the fount of God’s truth. Thus he lived and wrought and taught until his Lord called him home. In his departure I have lost a dear friend and brother, Harding College has lost a pillar of strength, and the church of the Lord a servant of God true and faithful. We will meet him again in the light of the Morning, with all the saints at Jesus’ feet.”
John Nelson Armstrong will go down in the history of our heritage as one of the stalwarts of Christian education. Along with the names of James Alexander Harding and David Lipscomb, the name of J. N. Armstrong will go down as one who helped cause the evolution of the Christian college ideal among non-instrumental churches of Christ. He taught in six Christian Colleges and was President of four. Truly John Nelson Armstrong was a giant in the field of Christian education.
Lord willing, our next few articles will center on the life and times of one of the most controversial men in the annals of Restoration History, that of Daniel Sommer, who lived from 1850-1940. We will be tracing a life that was contemporary with some of the early pioneers of the Movement.