As teacher and administrator, N. B. Hardeman deeply influenced generations of students and future ministers at two Henderson, Tennessee schools: Georgie Robertson Christian College and National Teachers’ Normal and Business College (later renamed Freed-Hardeman University). As preacher and debater among Churches of Christ, his enduring contributions are the occasional series of sermons he delivered at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (published in five volumes as Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons) and his 1938 debate with Baptist minister Ben M. Bogard. Displayed here is a photograph from that Little Rock debate.
Hardeman was born in Milledgeville in western Tennessee, the son of Dr. John B. Hardeman, Sr., a physician, and his wife, Nancy. He graduated in 1895 with a Bachelor of Arts from West Tennessee Christian College in Henderson. Thereafter, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree. He received thereafter a Master of Science degree from the same college. This institution was renamed Georgie Robertson Christian College.
On April 21, 1901, Hardeman married the former Joanna Tabler. The service was performed in Henderson by the clergyman A. G. Freed. "Miss Jo", a lifelong resident of Henderson, attended Georgie Robertson, excelled in music, and headed the Instrumental Music and Voice Department at Georgie Robertson and then Freed-Hardeman until her death on May 6, 1940.
While Hardeman was a student at West Tennessee Christiam College, he was baptized there by R. P. Meeks. Hardeman became an instructor at Georgie Robertson and served as the vice president of the institution. A charismatic gospel preacher, he served as the minister or assistant minister of the Henderson Church of Christ at various times periods. He was also a trustee of that congregation. Hardeman served too as superintendent of the Chester County School District even while he was an instructor, vice president and later president of Freed-Hardeman College.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s a split occurred within the local Christian Church/Church of Christ in regard to the use of musical instruments in the worship services. In January 1903, after much discussion and prayer, a majority of the members left the church and formed what is now the Henderson Church of Christ. Hardeman and his family, including his father, the families of his brothers and sisters, and followers in the faith, joined the new congregation. Because the Georgie Robertson administration was pro-musical instruments, Hardeman resigned as vice president of the institution.
Because of the lack of funding from private sources, mostly a result of the withdrawal of members and opposition to the use of musical instrument in worship, Georgie Robertson ceased operations after the 1906-1907 school year.
Hardeman and A. G. Freed, the former president of Georgie Robertson College and subsequently the president of the since defunct Texas Southwestern Christian College, Freed were approached by local businessmen about opening a new institution of high learning. Wanting the new facility to remain in Henderson, Freed and Hardeman offered to purchase the land and buildings of Georgie Robertson. However, the entity that owned the land and buildings, the Tennessee Missionary Association, a branch of the Christian Church, refused the offer because of the ongoing dispute between the Christian Church and the Church of Christ. Hardeman and Freed hence purchased land across the street from Georgie Robertson, with their own monies. Construction then began on what is now known as the Old Main Building. Because construction was underway on the new school, the 1907-1908 academic year was conducted in local businesses along Front Street. Several years later, some of the oldest buildings along Front Street were razed for redevelopment. A notebook filled with class notes belonging to A.G. Freed was found on an upper floor. In the fall of 1908, NTN&BC opened for its first school session in its final location. Freed became the first president of NTN&BC, and Hardeman became vice president.
The former lands and buildings of Georgie Robertson College were later donated to the Chester County school system and served as the county high school and later an elementary school. Hardeman, meanwhile, continued to serve as the public school superintendent. In 1963, the buildings were sold to Freed-Hardeman by the school system and renamed the Milan-Sitka Building, in honor of the Churches of Christ at Milan and Sitka, Tennessee, which had raised funds for the purchase. Primarily used by the theatre, business, and mathematics departments, the building was demolished in 2004. The new Bulliner-Clayton Visual Arts Center, built on the site of the old Milan-Sitka Gymnasium, opened at the beginning of the Fall 2007 semester. The original gymnasium floor serves as a patio to the new building.
In 1919, NTN&BC was purchased from Freed and Hardeman, and a board of trustees composed of Church of Christ members was authorized to operate the college. By unanimous decision, NTN&BC was renamed in honor of the two founders and became Freed-Hardeman College. The building, known as the Main Administration Building (later, Old Main), was designed by local architect Hubert Thomas McGee. McGee was originally from Chester County, but had moved to Memphis, Tennessee, by 1910. He was the architect for the original Georgie Robertson building and eventually designed ten buildings for the school. His most well-known building is the Clarence Saunders estate, the Pink Palace in Memphis.
Hardeman kept busy with his duties with Freed-Hardeman College and the Chester County schools. He was also was a widely regarded preacher and speaker. He was often invited to hold gospel meetings throughout the country; some of the revivals lasted for several weeks. One meeting that lasted a week at the Union Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis resulted in 94 baptisms with 14 others after the close of the revival.
Hardeman was a prolific debator for the cause of Christ. His first debate occurred when he was twenty-five; he had been preaching for only two years at that time. His last debate, considered to have been his finest, was with the Missionary Baptist clergyman, Ben T. Bogard of Little Rock, Arkansas.
The highlight of Hardeman's preaching career was his Tabernacle Sermons at the Ryman Auditorium, a series of five lectures held in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1922, 1923, 1928, 1938, and 1945.
The first of the meetings was held at Ryman between March 28 and April 16, 1922. Reports of the meeting were carried in The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner. Many national and region newspapers also carried reports on the conference. Attendance at the meetings ranged from six to eight thousand persons. As many as two to three thousand were turned away because of the lack of space.
Because of the great interest shown, Hardeman commissioned the printing of the text of the meeting. The first edition sold out, as did the subsequent editions. In 1992, Hardeman's grandson Joe Hardeman Foy, and his family, helped in a reprint of the three volumes which made up the four Tabernacle Sermons. These were presented to Bible students at Freed-Hardeman as a gift from the Hardeman family.
In 1923, tensions arose between A. G. Freed and N. B. Hardeman. The trustees asked both men to leave the institution for a time. Freed resigned as president. W. Claude Hall served as president from 1923 to 1925. In the 1925-1926 school year, Hardeman and Hall Laurie Calhoun served as co-presidents. Meanwhile Freed went on to become vice president of David Lipscomb College in Nashville, a position that he held until his death in 1931. When Calhoun resigned at the end of the 1925-1926 session, Hardeman continued as president of the college until his resignation in 1950. He was succeeded by Hubert A. Dixon.
Before he returned to FHC in 1925, Hardeman and colleague Ira Douthitt took an overseas trip to Europe and the Holy Land, which particularly influenced Hardeman.
Hardeman developed an interest in the Tennessee Walking Horse. He owned, rode, and trained several horses and was active in the National Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville. He was a judge during the 1939 celebration and continued to participate during the 1940s as a rider and an owner. One of his horses, Maid of Cotton, won a Tennessee Walking Horse championship and continued to live in the stable on the Hardeman property until Hardeman sold him. Maid of Cotton died in 1964.
After Joanna Tabler Hardeman's death in May 1940, Hardeman married the former Miss Annie Brown, also an accomplished musician and faculty member at FHC. In April 1950, Hardeman resigned the presidency of FHC and left Henderson to reside in Memphis. He continued to preach and hold a limited amount of gospel meetings until his health prevented him from doing so. On May 18, 1959, friends and family held a 'surprise' 85th birthday party for Hardeman at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. Among the dignitaries in attendance was a family friend - the United States Senate Majority Leader and future U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Nicholas Brodie Hardeman died peacefully at his home in Memphis late in 1965. He was interred at the Henderson City Cemetery in the family plot next to his beloved "Miss Jo". Annie Brown Hardeman was subsequently buried near her parents in Columbia, Tennessee. Several family members, including parents, children and siblings are interred in Henderson.