This is part one 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 connect the origins of Mormonism with the Restoration Movement.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Declaration of Independence, 1776
"Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum."
Samuel Adams, 1776
“Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away.”
Hamilton: An American Musical, 2015
If you study the history of the Restoration Movement, you’ll notice a locational bias. It’s inescapable that all the major figures and events of the Movement are rooted in the United States. Even though quite a few of the early Movement fathers were immigrants, they did not make significant contributions until they were actually on American soil. There’s a good reason behind this:
Without the United States, the Restoration Movement wouldn’t exist.
This statement isn’t meant to detract from the Spirit’s role in the establishment of the Christian Church. But if we’re really to understand the DNA of our tribe, we need to acknowledge freedom as a significant force in the Movement. When the United States achieved independence from British colonial rule, it ushered in an unprecedented era of religious freedom. In this new country, long-held religious constructs were no longer sacred, opening the door for Christian experimentalism.
THE PURSUIT OF BIBLICAL FREEDOM
“Resume that precious, that dear bought liberty, wherewith Christ has made his people free; a liberty from subjection to any authority but his own, in matters of religion.”
Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address
While the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provided religious freedom, the ideologies behind the liberty were just as influential. The European Enlightenment of the early 18th century led to the American Enlightenment of the late 18th century. This emphasis on natural law, economic liberalism, and religious tolerance was catalytic to the American Revolution. Similarly, the Second Great Awakening, the broader revival from which the Restoration Movement was birthed, was deeply influenced by these philosophies as well. Yes, our early Movement fathers were dedicated to the restoration of biblical Christianity, but they were influenced by Enlightenment thinking—from Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, to Francis Bacon’s new method, to Lockean Empiricism.
Restoration Movement fathers viewed the Scriptures through these philosophical lenses while under the umbrella of American freedom. As the United States triumphed over its European captors, the Restoration Movement would be a spiritual revolution—a fight for liberation from denominational hierarchy and human creeds.
The parallel between American freedom and the biblical freedom of the Restoration Movement is exemplified by the incident surrounding the Springfield Presbytery in central Kentucky. Following the Cane Ridge Revival the state synod censured some of the ministers involved. In response, the churches (employing American freedom) started an independent presbytery. Less than a year later, as those same ministers worked out the implications of their new theological thoughts, they declared independence from their independent presbytery and wrote its last will and testament—a constitution if you will, in order that “the oppressed may go free, and taste the sweets of Gospel liberty.”
THE HIGH PRICE OF LIBERTY
"In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things love."
This slogan of the Restoration Movement—adopted in the latter part of the 19th century but widely embraced during the 20th century—elevates the spiritual value of freedom. It suggests that, while there will be areas of disagreement among those in our Movement, we should permit a latitude of expression, provided that they are not essential doctrines.
Throughout our history, however, the Restoration Movement has wrestled with how to distinguish our faith absolutes and freedom (I’d suggest that far too often we struggle with love, but that's a different story). While we value freedom, we’ve also become skeptical of it. The Movement features over two centuries of history filled with moments when it has turned out poorly. As a result, we’re skeptical of those who ring the bell of liberty.
The story from the video (of Sidney Rigdon and the creation of Mormonism) is just one example of freedom corrupted. Investigate the split with the non-instrumental faction of the Movement and the fight over theological liberalism (two topics I’ll examine in future posts) and you'll see that they are centered on arguments of freedom. And if you go outside our Movement, you’ll see that biblical freedom has often been cited to justify a myriad of unbiblical acts.
This examination of our past reveals the importance of grappling with the Christian liberty we so deeply embrace. While it created the Movement, it could lead to its undoing.
In our earliest days, liberty meant freedom from denominational involvement. Today, the liberty exercised by those in our tribe is freedom from involvement in the Movement itself.
We’ve been so conditioned toward independence that we no longer realize how much we actually need each other.
WIELDING OUR FREEDOM
"We have neglected to keep ourselves in the love of God, and in the humility and gentleness of Christ."
Barton W. Stone
So how ought we approach freedom today? Our Movement has benefited far too much from freedom to abandon the ideal altogether. Instead, we must view liberty with a mature spirit.
I’m reminded of the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 8, when he demanded that "the exercise of our freedom should not become a stumbling block to the weak." This theology of the “weaker brother” is often employed to keep people from employing certain freedoms with which we disagree. But we must acknowledge that this command is intended to protect those who are weak-minded theologically. That rarely applies to ministers and theologians disputing methodology. So how should we proceed?
The solution is simple: we need humility.
Much like American history, our Movement tends to recall fondly those who are bold and boisterous. But the exercise of our freedom insists that we “consider others better than ourselves.” Our Movement should first emulate the Jesus who sits with children before the Jesus clearing out the moneychangers from the temple. Remember that submission and surrender are Christ-like traits.
A historical example: when it comes to the exercise of our freedom, we in the Movement ought to be less like Alexander Campbell and more like Barton Stone.
This isn’t to say that Campbell isn’t to be admired, but he was far more lion than lamb. Stone, however, lived a much more humble life of servanthood. It’s likely why he is more anonymous than Campbell outside our Movement. In his biography on Stone, John Rogers noted that he
“was deeply imbued with that humility that disposes us to esteem others better than ourselves.”
Freedom exercised with humility safeguards us from co-opting the Word of God for our personal benefit. Yes, quite often the greatest display of our freedom is to choose not to exercise it.
Campbell critiqued Rigdon in a Millennial Harbinger article entitled Delusions. You can read a scanned version of the document here.
A simple illustration of the importance of freedom to our Movement is title of Eva Jean Wrather's biography on Alexander Campbell: "Adventurer in Freedom."
The above quote from Stone is found in Barton Stone: A Spiritual Biography by D. Newell Williams (p228).
My Seminary professor Dr Jack Cottrell (who's known me since I was a small child) has some thoughts on the motto concerning unity, liberty and love. Dr Cottrell cites the research of Dr Hans Rollman on the adoption of the motto.