Book Review: Reviving the Ancient Faith – The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Mar – Apr 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

reviewed by Larry James, Director Central Dallas Ministries
March – April, 1996

Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America,
by Richard T. Hughes
(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. Be Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996)

Richard T. Hughes, Distinguished Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University, crafts the story of Churches of Christ in America as a fully invested “insider.” Yet, he manages to develop the story of the history of his own folk with the fresh insight and precise analysis of a knowledgeable, yet unaffected historian. Hughes provides heirs of the Stone-Campbell movement within Churches of Christ the first fully developed, critical history of their heritage to be written by a fellow member.

Though Hughes follows the “majority, mainstream tradition of the movement” in unfolding his story, he attempts, using a methodology reminiscent of Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States and Declarations of Independence), to “tell the story of mainline Churches of Christ from the viewpoint of various dissenting streams of this tradition” (p. 1). In fact, Hughes’ book documents the almost continual conflict existing in the Restoration Movement from its inception down to the present day by providing a penetrating analysis of the competing ideas and visions that insured division. In each case, the minority viewpoint or opinion receives careful attention as he unfolds the story. As a result, readers come away with a better understanding of key factors in the movement’s progression (i.e., Barton W. Stone’s influence on Churches of Christ, the enduring impact of Alexander Campbell’s early thought as expressed during his days as editor of the Christian Baptist, the importance of premillennial theology to a fragmenting fellowship, the conflict over institutionalism, the viewpoints of the non-class and one-cup churches, the attitudes of African-American members of Churches of Christ concerning racism and segregation in the fellowship, the call for social engagement by younger members of Churches of Christ during the 1960s and 1970s, the tensions and insecurity prompted by a crisis of hermeneutics, and a brief historical overview of the role of women in the churches as it relates to current discussions). The strength of Reviving the Ancient Faith resides in Hughes’ ability to unpack and analyze the sometimes radical differences in the faith, opinion, and worldview of the various participants in his story.

Hughes believes that “four major themes have shaped the character” of Church of Christ tradition from its beginning in the early nineteenth century. Those recurrent themes include a commitment to the restoration of primitive Christianity, the evolution of the movement from a sect at the beginning into a denomination during the twentieth century, the importance of two “first-generation leaders” rather than just one, and the radical differences existing between Campbell and Stone regarding how they understood the Christian message and how they “oriented themselves to the world” (pp. 2-3). Hughes returns to these four abiding themes throughout his book.

Especially important to his thesis are the differences in outlook and the theology of Stone and Campbell. The story of Churches of Christ in America reduces itself at many crucial junctures to the demise of Barton W. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview with its radical commitment to the triumph of the Kingdom of God over everything human and to the impact of Alexander Campbell’s optimistic commitment to human progress and to the American experiment. Both Stone and Campbell worked hard to unite all believers in Christ, but from radically different perspectives. Stone, the pietist, believed the surest way to achieve this unity involved a return to apostolic holiness. Campbell, the rationalist, insisted that the New Testament provided a scientific blueprint for constructing the church of God on the American frontier. Stone’s motivation flowed from the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit which he had experienced first hand during the extraordinary Cane Ridge revival of 1801. Campbell depended on the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke, as well as the “Baconian” school of Scottish Common Sense Realism. Stone was pessimistic about American culture and about his age. Campbell maintained an optimism born of his postmillennial perspective leading him to champion the causes of science, technology, and American civilization. Thus, from the earliest days the movement devoted to uniting all believers headed off in two fundamentally different directions making division inevitable.

Still, by 1832, Campbell with his “rational progressive primitivism” and Stone with his “apocalyptic primitivism” found enough common ground in their shared emphasis on the restoration of primitive Christianity and the importance of the unity of all believers to formally unite (p. 112). As the Church of Christ moved from sect to denomination, members embraced the rational, sectarian view of the “early Campbell” while abandoning the anti-cultural, other-worldly sectarianism of Stone.

The division of thought existing in the Restoration Movement from the very beginning eventually resulted in two distinct denominational bodies. The Disciples of Christ “essentially are the flesh-and-blood embodiment of a denominational ideal that was present in the mind of Alexander Campbell from the beginning of his reform…” (p. 17). Churches of Christ “essentially are the flesh-and-blood embodiment of a sectarian ideal that was present not only in the mind of Alexander Campbell but perhaps even more fully in the mind of Barton W. Stone” (p. 17)

The complexity of the history Hughes attempts to write can be seen in his use of the terms “denomination” and “sect.” As used in the book, a denomination is a church that understands itself to be only a part of the universal body of Christ and one that lives at relative peace with the dominant culture in which it exists. On the other hand, a sect is a religious organization that believes it is the entirety of the kingdom of God and that stands in judgment on other religious groups as well as the culture in which it exists. For Hughes, the story of the Church of Christ in America involves the strange and uneven co-mingling of the apocalypticism of Stone with the rationalism of the early Campbell. Then follows the story of the erosion of Stone’s radical vision and the steady progress of the movement from a sect standing over against the values of the culture to a denomination embracing its culture, if not the truth of its denominationalism. Hughes concludes that by “the 1960s, the theological house that Churches of Christ had built for themselves in the nineteenth century had all but collapsed” (p. 352). This house rested on twin pillars: the primitive church of the apostolic age and the apocalyptic kingdom of God. By World War I the apocalyptic pillar began to decay and the movement depended more and more on the defining ideal of primitive Christianity. But this second pillar could not hold the structure as the residents of the house altered their restoration ideals to accommodate the culture in which they found themselves.

For instance, in Chapter 13, “Fragmentation Left and Right,” Hughes links the reform efforts of the younger generation of the 1960s with the sectarian vision of Stone and Lipscomb. Standing against the status quo of American culture and pressing for change in both church and society, these young “rebels” within Churches of Christ actually more faithfully reflected the heritage of the pioneers of restoration thought than their parents who had accommodated themselves to their culture. Hughes concludes, “Therein lies the final irony of the tradition: the older generation characterized the younger generation as deviant, liberal, and subversive when in fact the younger generation upheld many of the sectarian ideals of the nineteenth century, especially the ideals that had descended from the Stone-Lipscomb tradition that their parents had rejected” (p. 308).

Hughes’ book presents readers a masterful narrative of this complex and revealing story. From “The Making of a Sect,” with his careful description of the influence and radicalizing of the thought of Campbell by his later disciples and his helpful presentation of Stone’s apocalyptic worldview, to “The Making of a Denomination,” with his brilliant analysis of the premillennial controversy, modernism, the acceptance of a conservative, American civil religion, and the upheaval and fragmentation of the movement brought on by the social foment of the 1960s and the emergence of a radical shift in hermeneutics, Hughes offers readers the first history of Churches of Christ with interpretive substance beyond the details of historical narrative.

As an heir of the Stone-Campbell tradition, reading Reviving the Ancient Faith moved me deeply by revealing several truths I needed to grasp. First, the history of my religious heritage reads like that of all other people. Sincere men and women attempted to pursue the vision they felt God had provided for their lives. Their story, like mine, is filled with victory, defeat, discouragement, division, sin, and progress. The beauty and the power of the history I claim as my own can be seen in the lives of individual disciples who devoted their lives to following their Lord to the best of their ability and understanding. Second, there is enough error and evil in my story to protect me from the arrogant notion that my people are God’s only people. Hughes’ narrative spotlights the inadequacies of both this hyper-rational, “blueprint” theology and its spokesmen so characteristic of much of the Church of Christ thought and preaching I grew up on. Further, the failure of Churches of Christ across the nation to stand for truth and justice against racial hatred and discrimination during the days of “Jim Crow” and the Civil Rights revolution shame me. Third, our current struggle with the issues of identity and hermeneutics make perfect sense in light of the events in our churches and the nation since World War I. A new generation in the lineage of Stone and Campbell ask hard, demanding, honest questions forced on them by their experience and their understanding of history. If our common heritage teaches us anything, it urges us to never stop asking and seeking.

The struggles of Barton W. Stone, the pessimist, and Alexander Campbell, the optimist, led these two pioneers and their followers in radically different directions. The influence of the conflicting worldviews of both live on among our people today. Hughes’ book challenges Church of Christ readers to come to grips with the history and the meaning of their religious experience. The future well-being and survival of the “temple” in which we reside depends on our honest open struggle with the truth we discover.

***********
A True-False Quiz for Members of the Churches of Christ

The following statements are based on information drawn from Richard Hughes’ new history of the Churches of Christ in America. Reviving the Ancient Faith. Select True or False for each statement, then refer [to page 38] to check your answers.

1) Alexander Campbell’s chief concern had to do with the establishment of Christ’s millennial reign on earth. He regarded unity on the basis of restoration as a means to the goal of Christ’s millennial reign. (T-F)

2) It was Alexander Campbell’s firm and unchanging conviction that there were Christians scattered throughout the various denominations. (T-F).

3) David Lipscomb envisioned a literal kingdom ruled by Christ on the earth during the coming millennial reign. (T-F).

4) David Lipscomb urged congregations to excommunicate those who tried to refuse church membership to Christians of other races. (T-F).

5) The followers of Barton W. Stone believed that those who took seriously the values of Jesus would refuse either to vote or to fight, would free their slaves, and would turn their backs on wealth, power, and selfish advantage over other human beings. (T-F).

6) Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb were both pacifists. (T-F).

7) Harding University was once regarded as a “hot-bed” of premillenial heresy. (T-F)

8) The circulation of the 20th Century Christian dropped from 40,000 subscribers to roughly half that number immediately after the publication of the July 1968 issue dealing with “Christ and Race Relations.” (T-F)

9) James A. Harding taught and lived out the belief that Christians should get by on as little as possible materially and give the surplus to the poor. He also rejected the ideal of churches hiring “located” preachers. (T-F)

10) Alexander Campbell spent his later years speaking and writing in support of the goodness of the “common Christianity” of Protestant America versus the threat of control by the Catholic Church. (T-F)


The answers to the True-False Quiz for Members of the Churches of Christ [on page 11] are all true, according to information in Richard Hughes’ new book, Reviving the Ancient Faith.Wineskins Magazine

Larry James

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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