This is part three 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 suggest that the Restoration Movement helped Roman Catholicism grow in the United States.
“We never can divide . . . we never will.”
Moses Lard, 1866
The purpose of this series is to expose the often-overlooked themes of the Restoration Movement. Yet thus far when I’ve used the term “Movement,” I was actually referring to just one part of it—the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. But this represents only one third of the Movement, without acknowledging the Christian Church (Disciples) and the Church of Christ (Acapella) tribes. While we often state that our Movement consists of “three streams,” this peaceful imagery doesn’t reflect two traumatic rifts that define our existence and, hence, why I believe FRACTURE is a force of the Restoration Movement.
By now you’ve noticed that I’m working the “F” alliteration for this Five Forces series. While fracture fits nicely within this format, the word itself is off-putting as it implies brutality. Most commonly, fracture refers to the cracking of bone—an unnatural, painful split. Fracture requires an extended healing process and, if not treated properly at the outset, may never fully mend. Acknowledging all this, I still feel it’s an accurate trait. Instead of referencing streams, we should admit that our past features splits created by trauma.
FRACTURE OF DEBATE
Once again we begin by focusing on Alexander Campbell. Admittedly, I’ve talked a lot about Campbell in this series, but it isn’t merely because of fandom; so much of who we are today stems from his theology and ideology. He was the Movement’s mastermind, and in his quest for restoration, he discovered the perfect platform from which to spread its ideals: debate.
We today don’t have a full context by which to understand the debates of the early 1800s. Cities would practically shut down so people could attend them. The most popular example was the Lincoln-Douglas dialogue in 1858. Perhaps you were unaware that this famous debate was actually a series of seven debates in seven different locations. Thousands turned out to watch them, with attendance ranging from 1,000 to over 20,000 people. They were crowd-captivating events.
While Campbell wasn’t the only Movement figure to engage in debate, he undoubtedly set the bar. When dialoguing with religious leaders on their turf (many debates took place in the churches of those with whom he disagreed), Campbell could emphasize his strengths as a gifted orator and thinker. Even though his father, Thomas, was disinterested in debates, he came around when he saw how good Alexander was. Go back and read the accounts of Campbell’s debates and you’ll observe the brilliance behind his well-crafted arguments. Debate spurred the early growth of our Movement; after each debate, the concept of restoration spread and was further normalized.
In essence, our Movement was fueled by argumentation.
Yes, early leaders promoted unity, but in order to achieve it, they had to attack existing institutions—this was restoration, not reform. In some ways this was shortsighted. Debate appeals to our sense of urgency—to quickly win the argument. But it creates divisions that are difficult to mend. I’m not suggesting that this approach was either theologically or tactically wrong, but I do believe it set a precedent for how to achieve unity.
FRACTURE OF CULTURE
“Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
Thomas Campbell, 1809
Since I plan on detailing the rift with the Disciples of Christ in the next edition, I want to spend the rest of this installment examining the split with the Churches of Christ. This fracture is generally attributed to theological differences, but the true explanation is more complex.
In the middle of the 19th century, our country was truly divided. Obviously the north/south separation was due to the issue of slavery, but there were other differences as well. The economy of the southern United States was farming based, while the northern states relied on finance and manufacturing. Additionally, there were more established cities in the north, while the south was generally more rural. Citizens in the north tended to be more educated and affluent than their southern counterparts.
This divide was just as evident in our Movement. By the middle of the century, membership was approximately 200,000 believers, with the majority of them living in border states. Churches in the south thought like Barton Stone—holding to a more primitive expression of the faith. Northern churches were more in line with Alexander Campbell—embracing an intellectual practice of Christianity. Around this time, churches in the north adopted practices that had never before been debated in the Movement.
For example: Should churches employ a professional minister? Or can churches collaborate to create missionary societies? And, most notably, could instruments be used in worship? Generally churches in the south were against all these ideas. Northern churches weren’t phased by their objections, especially since they felt the southern churches weren’t taking a strong enough position against slavery.
Movement churches, whether north or south, developed theological positions around their cultural preferences. Yet even though these issues were contentious, they could have potentially been resolved peacefully. But the storm on the horizon would make unification virtually impossible.
FRACTURE OF WAR
One cannot understate the impact the Civil War had on the Restoration Movement. There was already tension within our brotherhood, but the advent of conflict made it explode.
In October 1861, just six months after the Confederate Army’s attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, a national convention convened in Cincinnati. While leaders from northern and border states were in attendance (among them, Alexander Campbell and future President James Garfield), there was no representation from the southern churches. Not only did some northerners attend the convention while wearing their Union Army uniforms, they attempted to pass a resolution demanding loyalty to the United States government. Even though it failed in 1861, northerners took the opportunity the following year to submit an identical resolution (finally passing in 1863). While this move might seem innocent today, it alienated southern members of the Movement; they believed their northern counterparts transformed a political conflict into a referendum on their salvation. The impact of this incident lingered long after the war concluded.
This spiritual conflict was exacerbated by the literal horrors of war. I mentioned David Lipscomb in a previous post; he was a key Movement leader who lived in the south. During the war his wife gave birth to their child. The Lipscombs were unable to attain proper medical attention for the baby because of the nearby Union blockade. Sadly, their son died and the Lipscombs had to cross the Union lines to bury the baby in a family cemetery. Historians suggest that David placed some of the blame for his son’s death on the north and that this tragedy at least partially influenced doctrinal arguments with northern believers.
After the war the South spent decades recovering from the conflict that took place in their backyard. While southern believers couldn’t raise the funds to rebuild their buildings, northern churches seemingly flaunted their wealth by building new facilities. The argument over instruments in worship emerged once again when Central Christian Church in Cincinnati constructed an opulent sanctuary, featuring a stained glass window believed to be the largest in the country as well as an expensive pipe organ. When criticizing this excess, southern Christians doubled down on their theological rightness—since the Bible was silent on instruments in worship, they mustn’t be used. Both sides maintained their positions while the debates became more personal.
“We are the only religious community in the civilized world whose principles . . . can preserve us from [division].”
Alexander Campbell, 1845
It all reached a head in 1889, when a group of churches in Illinois passed the Sand Creek Declaration. Not only did they create a document condemning many northern innovations like missionary societies, full-time ministers, and musical instruments, they went as far as urging Christians to disfellowship with any believer who supported them. Seventeen years later, when officials from the U.S. Census Bureau noted the stark division within the Movement, they wrote Lipscomb to ask his opinion on the matter. He suggested that the two sides were so far apart that it warranted a separate listing in the census for these non-instrumental churches.
Historians are still divided on the impact the Civil War had on the fracture within the Movement. There are some who contend that the split was mainly the result of theological differences (but most who take this position belong to the Church of Christ tribe). It’s my belief that the war created enough animosity between the sides that the differences in theology/methodology were a convenient excuse for the rift.
Our Movement wasn’t the only American religious group that divided because of the Civil War—the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians all experienced splits because of the conflict. But the fact that our unity movement could not emerge from the war intact is one of the darkest moments in our Movement’s history. I always found it interesting that Campbell died just one year after the end of the Civil War. It’s as if he knew that there would be no way to unify the Movement after this devastating conflict. Campbell’s dream of a unified church in a great nation would not become a reality.
MENDING THE BREAK
The stories I’ve offered here aren’t new; they’ve been recorded in countless histories of our Movement. I believe, however, that there is an interconnection of these events that isn’t often acknowledged. Our history of debate and conflict still influences our churches today. Our resting posture is adversarial. We want unity, but want it on our terms. I’ll discuss this further in the next installment of the series, but our desire to protect has overwhelmed our need to collaborate.
An event that took place recently in one of our churches illustrates this point. An elder board determined that their lead ministers were steering the congregation in a direction with which they disagreed. They had no issue with the ministers’ theology, only their methodology. After a short discussion over these issues, the elders’ decided to simply terminate the staffers because of their differing opinions. From coast to coast, leaders of our Movement have expressed shock and outrage, but we really shouldn’t be surprised. In our Movement, fracture is in our DNA. It’s a force that I wish would diminish among our brotherhood, but I’m not sure it’s going anywhere. We’re always fighting.
Elders versus ministers, instruments versus voices, collaboration versus isolation.
We fight. We fracture. We want unity. We don’t want to submit.
It makes Jesus’ prayer in the garden all the more obvious.
Instead of offering my solutions, I’ll lean in on the wisdom of one of our Movement’s scholars. In a recent Christian Standard article about debate, Jon Weatherly encourages us to get introspective. Urging us to examine our motives,
“I need to be humble and self-aware. I need to develop real love for those with whom I disagree, assuming the best about them and listening sincerely to them, as I want them to do for me. I should treat my adversaries respectfully, as individuals. I should save apocalyptic language for the actual apocalypse, and judgment for the true Judge.”
The story from the video is content from a Master’s thesis I completed at Xavier University. Since some of you might be searching for the cure to insomnia, I’m linking it here.
The most popular Movement book about Campbell’s debates is JJ Haley’s Debates That Made History.
There are quite a few books that go deeper into the Civil War issue in the Movement. Among them are David Edwin Harrell’s The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900; Bill Humble’s The Influence of the Civil War; and Ben Brewster’s Torn Asunder: The Civil War and the 1906 Division of the Disciples. These served as the primary sources for my work here.