Hardeman Takes Ryman Auditorium Stage


Eleventh in a Series Exploring the History of Freed-Hardeman University
In 1921, N.B. Hardeman accepted the greatest preaching opportunity of his life. More than 40 congregations of churches of Christ in Middle Tennessee planned a cooperative gospel meeting in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. They chose Hardeman as the speaker. Despite his increasing reputation as a preacher, he had never before spoken in Nashville.
Beginning March 28, 1922, Hardeman preached 39 sermons over a three-week period, speaking at afternoon and evening sessions. Large crowds flocked to the services. According to reports, 7,000 people packed the auditorium on opening night; another 2,000 were “turned away for lack of room.” Both Nashville newspapers, The Tennessean and The Banner, covered the event and reprinted the sermons. Hardeman employed literary allusions, historical examples and much quoting of scripture, all without the benefit of notes.
Known as the “Tabernacle Meeting,” these sermons established Hardeman’s reputation as the leading preacher among churches of Christ. Two of the meeting’s organizers, J. E. Acuff and Wayne Burton, reflected on the meeting’s success, noting some 160,000 people had attended and more than 200 people were baptized or restored to the church. The organizers had paid all of the expenses without collecting funds from the audience. Acuff and Burton concluded that it was “perhaps, taking it all in all, the greatest meeting conducted by the churches of Christ since New Testament times.”
Prominent Middle Tennessee preacher F. W. Smith described Hardeman’s powers of oratory: “He has all the elements of an orator, and, if he had been so disposed, could have gone to the top in the political world, but chose rather to consecrate his God-given powers to a better cause. . . . This man of God is, beyond any question, a master of assemblies, and sways his audiences with an ease and grace of voice and manners that attracts and holds almost the breathless attention of his auditors.”
For Hardeman, it must have been quite the experience. He shared his impressions in letters to his wife. “Hilary Ewing Howse (a prominent Nashville political leader) said, ‘I was the greatest speaker he ever heard,’” Hardeman wrote. In addition, “Lots of big men of the city hear me every time,” he noted. Also, “prominent preachers were amazed that he preached fluidly without reference to a Bible,” according to Hardeman. Tennessee churches and communities eagerly scheduled him to preach gospel meetings.
The Tabernacle Meeting had forever altered his life, and he knew it.
Preaching engagements would take him away from Henderson and Freed-Hardeman College. “With reference to school,” he wrote, “I fear ‘them days are gone forever.’”
Over the next twenty years, Hardeman delivered four more series of Tabernacle Sermons. The printed volumes, particularly the first series, became the model for a generation of young preachers. Hardeman’s increased reputation brought greater visibility to the school that wears his and A. G. Freed’s names.
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university in Spring 2020.