Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Rethinking Restoration (Mar-Apr 2002)

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by Mark A. Noll
March – April, 2002

The growing relationship of Restorationists and evangelicals is evident on many sides. Max Lucado, senior minister of Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio, Texas, is widely, and justifiably, recognized as one of the most winsome public spokespersons today for a classically orthodox, Christ-centered “mere Christianity.” Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, with its roots in the Churches of Christ, has enlisted a wide range of well-known public Christians, many of them card-carrying evangelicals, to help launch an ambitious program for promoting higher learning in conjunction with Christian faith. Richard Hughes, the director of that program, is not only one of the nation’s moving forces in promoting the tasks of Christian colleges and universities, but he is also one of the premier historians of the Restorationist movement.[i] Pastors and scholars from the Restorationist tradition have also been making unusually interesting gestures toward re-appropriating some aspects of classical Protestant teachings about grace and interpretive humility before the Word of God.[ii]

Recent interchange between Restorationists and evangelicals is noteworthy because churches of the Stone-Campbell movement have not always enjoyed so many members so eager to sustain so much contact with evangelical enterprises. The movement arose in the early years of the new American republic when ideologies of self-assertion and criticisms of old-world religious traditions were both at their height. By the 1790s several dynamic leaders were promoting the idea that simple trust in the self-evident message of the Bible would overthrow the accumulated corruptions of the centuries, restore the church to its New Testament character, and unify the bewildering profusion of Protestant sects on the American frontier. These leaders included James O’Kelly of Virginia and Elias Smith of New England, both of whom were taking dead aim at historic ecclesiastical traditions by using the generic designation “Christians” for their followers.

Soon even more consequential leaders took up the cry. In 1803 Barton W. Stone (1772-1844), who had helped plan the great Cane Ridge revival meeting in 1801, led a group of Kentucky Presbyterians out of their church in order to pursue the ideal of being “Christians only.” A few years later Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) arrived in the American back-country after study in Glasgow and service as a Presbyterian minister in the north of Ireland. He was soon joined by his son Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) who became an effective itinerant in western Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and surrounding regions. In the old world the Campbells had absorbed the epistemological principles of John Locke (including a stress on “simple ideas”), the teaching of Scottish common sense philosophers (including a strong belief in inductive, Baconian method), and the anti-traditionalism of Scottish evangelicals James and Robert Haldane (including their profession to live with only the Bible as their guide). Drawing on these resources, both Campbells preached the need to dispense with the historic Christian creeds, what they called philosophical speculations (like Calvinism), and what they termed unbiblical practices (like the baptism of infants) in order to recover the primitive, non-sectarian, immersionist faith of the New Testament. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were willing to be called ”Baptists” for some time, but then they moved to establish congregations and associations self-described as “Disciples of Christ.”

An incident from the early nineteenth century illustrates the audacious character of the movement, especially its republican scorn for inherited, traditional authority. That scorn was expressed memorably by two of Barton W. Stone’s colleagues, Robert Marshall and J. Thompson, who were quarreling with Stone when a third party reprimanded them for disregarding the treasured insights of Calvin and other venerable theologians on questions of salvation and church order. Their reply was classic: “We are not personally acquainted with the writings of John Calvin, nor are we certain how nearly we agree with his views of divine truth; neither do we care.”[iii] For these Restorationists, a republican understanding of intellectual independence fit naturally with a common sense confidence in their own ability to understand the Bible in the raw. That combination, in turn, laid the foundation for their ecclesiastical novus ordo seclorum, the distinctive Restorationist conviction that the new “Churches of Christ” were simple replications of the churches of the New Testament.

The Restorationist spirit was also indicated by the insistence that the Bible was a plain book to be appropriated every man for himself (the Stone-Campbell movement was relatively traditional as its assumption that women would usually not take a public part in religious debate). Thomas Campbell’s early manifesto of American Restorationism, his Declaration and Address of 1809, left no doubt about the pillars of the movement. They were self reliance and the Bible. Campbell was convinced that “it is high time for us not only to think, but also to act, for ourselves; to see with our own eyes, and to take all our measures directly and immediately from the Divine standard.” No mere ”human interpretation” of the Bible or “human opinions” of any sort should stand in the way of appropriating “the Divine word alone for our rule; the Holy Spirit for our teacher and guide, to lead us into all truth; and Christ alone, as exhibited in the word, for our salvation.”[iv] For his part, Alexander Campbell professed to steer by the same lights: “I have been so long disciplined in the school of free inquiry, that, if I know my own mind, there is not a man upon the earth whose authority can influence me, any farther than he comes with the authority of evidence, reason, and truth. . . . I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me.”[v] These are the views that led to the popularity of Thomas Campbell’s saying: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where it is silent, we are silent.”

In 1826 some of the O’Kelly and Smith “Christians” linked up with Barton Stone’s movement. And then in 1831 many of the ”Christians” joined forces with the Campbells’ “Disciples.” What resulted was not so much a denomination in the traditional sense as a collection of interconnected networks calling themselves “Disciples,” “Christians,” or “Churches of Christ.” Campbell’s effectiveness as a leader of the movement rested in large part on his success as editor of two widely-read periodicals, The Christian Baptist (1823-30) and The Millennial Harbinger (1830-66).

It also rested on Campbell’s willingness to take his singular set of convictions into the arena of public debate. In one such early public confrontation, Campbell engaged the British socialist Robert Owen in a memorable verbal battle. Cincinnati was the venue in April 1829 when Campbell and Owen each delivered twenty-five separate speeches over the course of a full week. Campbell’s strongest arguments against Owen were also the banners of his movement.

To Owen and an eager audience, Campbell presented a brusque Baconian defense of the facts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the sure guarantor of the truth of Christianity. As he put it, “I aver that the christian religion is founded upon facts, upon veritable, historical, incontrovertible facts–facts triable by all the criteria known to the courts of law in the ascertainment of what is or is not established in evidence.” In making this case, Campbell drew on Lockean concepts of evidence and an encyclopedic grasp of Scripture. But at crucial moments he also thundered forth against “kingcraft and priestcraft,” against “the unhallowed alliance between kings and priests, of church and state.” As he described how Christianity had been corrupted by principles of hierarchy and deferential authority, Campbell knew well how to play his Cincinnati audience. In the past Christianity had been corrupted, as he put it, by “incorporating . . . the opinions and speculations of Egyptian and Indian philosophy.” “The creed system,” which was “the fruitful source of all the corruptions in morals, as well as the parent of all the religious discord now in christendom,” was the melancholy result. The prevalence of such distorted versions of Christian truth had provided Owen with ample targets for his infidel gibes. Campbell was pleased to announce, however, that Owen had “been fighting against the perversions of christianity, rather than against the religion of facts, of morals, and of happiness which our Redeemer has established in the world.” It was “the trinity of nature, reason, and religion” that Campbell was defending in Cincinnati against Owen.[vi]

Eight years later, Campbell returned to Cincinnati for another public disputation, this one conducted from January 13 to January 21, 1837, with the Roman Catholic Bishop of that city, John Purcell.[vii]

Against Purcell, Campbell once again offered biblical facts and straightforward commonsense reasoning, but for this debate he also drew from traditional wells of Protestant anti-Catholicism and the newer fount of American patriotism. So strongly did Campbell appeal to general American values that historians of the Restorationist Movement single out debate with Bishop Powell as an important point of transition in Campbell’s career when he moved from a primitivist critique of other Protestant denominations to stressing pan-Protestant unity against Roman Catholics.[viii]

From the angle of the early twenty-first century, the founding practices of the Restorationist churches look like a combination of ordinary Protestant belief, a purebred republican paranoia about concentrations of ecclesiastical power, and supreme Enlightenment self-confidence in the human ability to discern the simple meanings of the Bible. Those practices featured a requirement for baptism by immersion, which was taken to effect the remission of sins, as a precondition for church membership. (This insistence was thought to rest on a literal interpretation of Acts 2:38—“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’“ NIV) The founding principles included also the autonomy of local congregations, a plurality of elders in each congregation, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper each Sunday.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Stone-Campbell movement grew rapidly, especially in the Lower Midwest and the Upper South. Straightforward preaching, a frequent willingness to extend practical aid, full empowerment of the laity, and a vibrant attachment to the Bible were attractions that drew many to the movement. At the same time, the movement was also regularly riven by contentious debate over what exactly the Scriptures required by way of specific beliefs and practices. Inevitably such discussions set Restorationists to quarreling with each other about what “the Bible only” had to say. Although the “Christians” refused to organize as a traditional denomination, powerful editors, preachers, and college officials came to exert a quasi-denominational power among their followers, as they mobilized for their various tasks and, from time to time, engaged each other in no-holds-barred controversy.

Eventually, pressure from the U.S. Bureau of the Census led to an open fissure in the movement. When in 1906 the Bureau insisted on listing the Churches of Christ that rejected musical instruments separately from the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), a permanent break ensued. Later in 1927 a substantial body of conservatives departed from the Disciples when they thought that this group was moving too far in the direction of theological liberalism.

Today the Restorationist movement is divided into three general strands. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has modified many of the original Stone-Campbell commitments and looks pretty much like an American mainline Protestant denomination. The Disciples are one of the denominations taking part in the Consultation on Church Union and other ecumenical ventures sponsored by the National Council of Churches. They number slightly under one million adherents. The Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (independent) maintain many of the earlier Restorationist positions but usually sing hymns and keep themselves slightly less aloof from other Christian bodies. They number about a million adherents. Historically, the Churches of Christ (nonistrumental) have been the most ardent about maintaining the letter of Alexander Campbell’s strictest teachings. This association, with perhaps two million adherents, has consistently rejected the use of musical instruments in worship and participation in voluntaristic societies. But it is from the ranks of this, the most strictly Restorationist body in the Stone-Campbell tradition, that most of the recent contact with evangelicals has been arising.


The Restorationism of the Stone-Campbell movement is only a slightly more focused instance of something quite general in the history of Christianity. Many other Christian movements, when mobilized to propound their own belief systems – like dispensational fundamentalism, Higher Life piety, mechanical notions of biblical inerrancy, not to speak of some Catholic and Orthodox commitments to capital-T Tradition – have also acted upon beliefs in a primal innocence, as if they were able to escape the influence of the past by assuming that cherished Christian truths came directly from the skies with no intervening terrestrial history. What distinguishes the Stone-Campbell movement from other primitivist efforts is the willingness to move further and more consistently in these same directions.

Inevitably, however, such predispositions become ironic, as has happened also among American Restorationists. The Restorationist movement has often been very liberating because it frees converts from the restraints of dead traditionalism. Yet the regular pattern in such pietistic movements has been repeated for the followers of Stone and Campbell as well. The insights or practices that made possible the original liberation sometimes become a set of calcified standard procedures and automatically expected beliefs. The result for second and third generation Restorationists can be a restriction of spontaneity and an end to real freedom.

Restorationist movements are also sometimes marked by considerable self-congratulation at having broken through the stultifying bonds of tradition. Yet when such groups proceed to establish the particular forms of their restoration as “traditionless traditions,” they can become every bit as inflexible as the supposedly corrupt traditions that the movements came into existence to overcome.[ix]

The strengths and weaknesses in the Restorationist attitude toward Scripture are nicely illustrated by Alexander Campbell’s own wrestling with the question whether it was proper to establish beliefs and practices on the basis of “inference” from Scripture.[x] The issue was important because of the original Stone-Campbell argument that trying to reason by “necessary inference” from Scripture was just as much giving up the Bible for human reason as was the acceptance of traditional creeds. If it was going to be the “Bible only,” then it had to be the Bible only. Yet, as it turns out, when it came, not to railing against the errors of others, but guiding a full-blown church movement himself, Campbell eventually came to accept “necessary inference” as legitimate, at least in some circumstances.

Although various means of applying biblical authority had long existed in the history of Christianity, the modern notion of “necessary inference” originated in the Westminster Confession of 1647 with its statement in Chapter One that “the whole counsel of God” was either spelled out directly in Scripture or “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” The rejection by both Alexander Campbell and his father Thomas of their Scottish Presbyterian heritage hinged on a repudiation of this principle of “necessary inference” in favor of a “Bible only” view. Their migration to America coincided with ever-stronger convictions against the traditional Presbyterian practice. During the years 1810 to 1829, the Campbells’ popularity rested, in part, on their reputation as fearless opponents of inherited traditions that were not grounded explicitly in Scripture. Yet almost as soon as the Campbells’ movement joined with Stone’s followers in 1831, Campbell began to use “necessary inferences” from Scripture as a way of adjudicating the kind of questions that a Bible-only movement was fated to confront: for example, how should elders be ordained? should musical instruments be used in worship? was keeping slaves a sin? was it ever lawful to go to war? should local churches join with other churches to form larger organizations in order to promote missionary work? In turn, Campbell’s willingness to use “necessary inference” became a wedge that divided the ideal of restoring primitive Christianity and the ideal of promoting a new Christian union.

A modern evangelical evaluation might conclude that Campbell was acting responsibly when he abandoned his strict rejection of “necessary inference,” since that rejection seems so obviously to have rested on a particular understanding of Lockean and Scottish principles from the specific intellectual environment of the eighteenth century. It might also conclude that Campbell’s earlier position owed more to the singular ideological circumstances of the early American nation than to the timeless truths of Scripture.[xi] But these are judgments that would be difficult to make by someone who thought that Bible-onlyism really did offer the one true route to Christian truth.


The Restorationist tradition enjoys a long and honorable heritage of vigorous Bible scholarship.[xii] It is all to the good – for the Stone-Campbell movement as also for the broader evangelical community – when Restorationists once again join in the kind of vigorous public discussion that Alexander Campbell himself did so much to promote.

[i]See, as examples, Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian, eds., Models for Christian Higher Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); Hughes, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); and Hughes, Recovering the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

[ii]See, as examples, C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press, 1988); C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal (Abilene: ACU Press, 1988); and Anthony L. Dunnavant, Richard T. Hughes, and Paul M. Blowers, Founding Vocations and Future Vision: The Self-Understanding of the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ (St. Louis: Chalice, 1999).

[iii]Robert Marshall and J. Thompson, A Brief Historical Account of Sundry Things in the Doctrine and State of the Christian, or, as It Is Commonly Called, the Newlight Church (Cincinnati, 1811), 17. For discussion, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 174. Hatch’s book is an unusually helpful treatment of the general milieu in which the Stone-Campbell movement emerged.

[iv]Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address (1809), intro. F. D. Kershner (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1972), 23-24.

[v]Alexander Campbell, “Reply” (to an Episcopal Bishop who had written to reprove Campbell for breaking with tradition), Christian Baptist 3 (April 3, 1826): 204.

[vi]The Evidences of Christianity: A Debate Between Robert Owen, of New Lanark, Scotland, and Alexander Campbell, President of Bethany College, Va., Containing an Examination of the “Social System,” and All the Skepticism of Ancient and Modern Times. Held in the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, in April 1829 (St. Louis, n.d.), 35, 13, 14, 369, 370, 399.

[vii]A Debate on the Roman Catholic Religion: Held in the Sycamore-Street Meeting House, Cincinnati, from the 13th to the 21st of January, 1837. Between Alexander Campbell of Bethany, Virginia, and the Rt. Rev. John B. Purcell, Bishop of Cincinnati. (Cincinnati, 1851), viii, 311.

[viii]See Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith, 32-37; and L. Edward Hicks, “Republican Religion and Republican Institutions: Alexander Campbell and the Anti-Catholic Movement,” Fides et Historia 22:3 (Fall 1999): 42-52.

[ix]For expert historical analysis of such patterns, as well as much else, see Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Hughes, ed., The American Quest for the Primitive Church (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988); and Hughes, ed., The Primitive Church in the Modern World (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995). For my assessment of the first of these two books, which I have drawn on for this Introduction, see “Rethinking Restorationism,” Reformed Journal, Nov. 1989, pp. 15-21.

[x]This discussion relies upon Michael W. Casey, The Battle Over Hermeneutics in the Stone-Campbell Movement, 1800-1870 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1998).

[xi]A useful exportation of those circumstances is offered by Richard Hughes, Nathan O. Hatch, David Edwin Harrel, Jr., and Douglas A. Foster, American Origins of Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press, 2000).

[xii]For a personalized indication of the dimensions of that scholarship, see Thomas H. Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press, 1996).New Wineskins

Mark A. Noll

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