This is part two of the Five Forces of the Restoration Movement series. I suggest first watching the video below and then reading the accompanying article. In this video, I show how postage helped make the Restoration Movement what it is today.

Unfunded movements tend to die.

This statement generates an emotional reaction. I personally don’t like it; it isn’t romantic to think that good ideas are still beholden to the affluent and powerful. Unfortunately, the fact that we dislike it doesn’t make it any less true. While we might counter this with a list of grassroots movements that have succeeded, they almost always relied upon robust funding—whether media outlets projected their cause to a broader audience or benefactors supported key leaders.

We’re no different. One of the reasons that the Restoration Movement exists today is because there were individuals and groups who invested in it during those earliest years. This is why finance is a force behind our Movement.

We see this force on full display in the lives of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, the namesakes of our movement. When it comes to financial freedom, they were ships in the night. Campbell started from the bottom and ended up wealthy, while Stone was born into affluence but passed away in poverty.

Stone came from a family that was part of the Southern aristocracy; one of his ancestors was a governor of Maryland. His father died when he was young, which forced his mother to make some challenging financial decisions. One such move was to spend a portion of the family inheritance on Barton’s education so he could pursue a career in law. Unfortunately for the family’s fortunes (but fortunately for us), Stone chose the path of ministry. Obedience to this calling did not make Stone rich.

Campbell was the son of an immigrant preacher, so he already knew what it was like to scrape by. Even though he too pursued a ministry calling, he married the daughter of a wealthy farmer and benefited mightily from that relationship. Access to resources through his in-laws permitted Campbell the freedom to fully devote himself to the work of restoration. 

While Campbell was comfortable, Stone felt financial stress throughout his career. One of the detriments of an autonomous church structure is insufficient clergy support. Stone was bivocational and would work at his Kentucky farm late into the evening to provide for his family. He preached for decades, all while toiling in hard labor, a regimen that contributed to his poor health.

I find this notable because our Movement’s historians consistently mention that Stone wasn’t as intellectual as Campbell. While this seems true, their financial picture forces us to ask:

  • Would the ideals of the Movement have spread if Campbell had to operate bivocationally?
  • And could Stone have been just as prolific if he had the opportunity to fully devote himself to the work of restoration like Campbell?

While analyzing Stone and Campbell’s bank statements, we should also examine their theological views of wealth and poverty, as those perspectives influenced our Movement’s formative years.

Later in his ministry, Barton Stone articulated a more primitive approach to financial issues. His frontier attitude impacted his perspective, and he preached a path to biblical obedience that emphasized modest living. In The Christian Messenger, Stone wrote that “the eternal happiness or misery of the human family . . . brought Jesus from heaven to earth, brought him to poverty; this led him to the cross; to the grave.” Stone endorsed a more humble view of stewardship as it matched his lifestyle.

Campbell, however, was seemingly influenced by his access to wealth. He did not think that Christ’s path of poverty was an attribute to be emulated. For example, in an issue of the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell attacked the monastic habits of Catholic priests, specifically that they forsake “all the business and enjoyment of society.”

The myriad of theological issues from our Movement’s early years kept finance from becoming a central issue. Years later, however, as the rift between the non-instrumental Churches of Christ widened, finance was an understated cause. I’ll dive deeper into the 1906 split in an upcoming installment, but I want to highlight the position of David Lipscomb, a key leader in the southern churches during and after the Civil War. He was influenced by Stone’s perspective on stewardship and, when articulating why the southern churches were more biblical, he insisted that they were following the financially humble way of Christ. Of course, southern churches were still reeling in the aftermath of the war and had little choice but to live in poverty, yet it was still an argument Lipscomb presented.

Interestingly enough, Lipscomb was reared in affluence—much like Stone and Campbell, his theological perspective seems to be heavily influenced by his experiences.

Since the conclusion of World War II, there has been little conversation in our Movement about biblical views of wealth and poverty. Churches in all streams of the Movement began to seek congregational growth opportunities in affluent communities. In line with the rest of American evangelicalism, our churches abandoned impoverished American cities and expanded toward the suburbs.

So examine the key moments of our Movement and you’ll see that many of them are somehow connected to cash flow. One such issue is how to keep parachurch ministries in line with the Scriptures.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of the Movement’s parachurch organizations grew significantly. Benefitting from the financial support of faithful believers, these missionary societies and ministry schools were able to build robust reserves and large endowments. At the same time, liberal theology began to gradually infiltrate some of these institutions. Many churches and ministers criticized these organizations for their eroding biblical beliefs and demanded they change course. Yet the parachurch organizations had money in the bank and, without financial consequence, continued operations unabated. This led to a wave of new colleges and ministries started to counter these theologically liberal ministries.

Not only did this usher in an era of fundamentalism in our Movement, it altered the way we financed parachurch organizations. No longer were individuals and churches willing to invest in their long-term viability. A wealthy college or missions organization was not susceptible to financial leverage. So to maintain accountability, churches and donors invested intermittently in parachurch work; yes, they would continue to give, but would ration out donations monthly or annually. In this way, institutions would be unable to build large endowments and savings. Then, if an institution became liberal, donors could quickly shut off support and force change.

This actually explains one of the reasons we believe our Movement is in decline. While many of our colleges and missions organizations are struggling financially, we believe the blame is solely on poor money management. While I’ll admit this is true in some instances, the organizations also struggle because they operate in a historical system of funding that keeps them constantly beholden to the generosity of donors and churches. Parachurch leaders are forced to structure budgets without the margin of savings and thus have become overtly reliant on charitable gifts.

In recent decades, as Movement donors and churches have developed new ministry priorities, they have reduced support of our parachurch ministries, who in turn are scrambling for survival; the margins just aren’t there. It’s incredibly challenging for them to continue to provide the previous level of services and ministry without the support they expected.

And all this can be traced back to our Movement using finances as a theological safeguard. I’m not judging if it’s right or wrong, but it’s reality.

Thus, as it has in our past, financing issues will continue to impact our Movement in the coming years. We’ll likely witness a wave of contraction of our parachurch organizations, but at the same time we’ll see new organizations started outside of 20th century funding models. How this will impact institutional theologically has yet to be determined.

At the very least, we should consider all of this when thinking about the viability of our Movement. Stewardship is a spiritual discipline, so we shouldn’t feel obligated to continue to support a ministry merely because of our historical roots. Yet we ought to at least grapple with the decision. We must not forget that our thriving churches and institutions today have benefitted from those who came before us. Ultimately, it’s a symbiotic relationship, so we need to give back.

Permit me just one short speech from the soapbox. As someone who has spent his entire professional career in the Movement, I’m contacted weekly by missionaries trying to raise support. I feel like we have more workers than ever eager to enter the field, but with churches reducing (and even eliminating) missions support, it’s difficult to make the finances work. As much as the Lord has blessed our Movement to be leaders in non-denominational Christianity in the United States, we must not forsake our call to support the work of restoration around the globe. Jesus taught that “where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.”

As we get introspective about our Movement, we need to recognize that we, like Campbell, are living in plenty. This demands that we continually reexamine our stewardship.

Where is our heart?

Geek Notes
1. The recollection of Alexander Campbell the postmaster can be found, among other places, in Benjamin Smith’s biography on the man (p161-162). An admission: I struggled to pronounce "franking privilege" in the video.
“In 1828 [Campbell] was able to secure the establishment of a post office at this home, and was himself appointed postmaster. This was of great assistance to him, for the remuneration for a fourth class postmaster in those days was the franking privilege; and as both his publications and his private correspondence were exceedingly heavy, he profited largely by exercise of his stamp. Small wonder that he kept the office of postmaster for more than twenty years, through all the changing administrations at Washington.”

2. The information on the familial affluence David Lipscomb can be found on page 131 of Reviving the Ancient Faith by Richard Hughes: “Yet Lipscomb was not a poor man, having inherited substantial means from a moderately wealthy father.”

3. Some valuable insight on this topic can be gleaned from James Cook’s dissertation entitled, “The Myth of the Stone-Campbell Movement.” Although I disagree with some of his broader assertions, he rightly addresses the friction between the Campbell and Stone positions, especially as it pertains to issues of finance. 

4. In the 20th century, the ideology of the Movement was able to expand due to the investment of people with significant financial means. There are some fascinating stories out there, but of note:

a. D.S. Burnett, the first located minister in our churches, used his family’s wealth to fund the writing of Benjamin Franklin (not that one). 

b. The descendants of Isaac Errett parlayed the success of Standard Publishing into a familial fortune, with its curriculum and magazines functioning as the voice of the Movement.

c. Also, the descendants of T.W. Phillips used their oil earnings to fund numerous ministries and quite a few of our academic institutions. Interestingly, some of these funds were stewarded by institutions to become endowments. To my knowledge, there has been little concern that these endowed institutions will adopt liberal theology.

Money Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash