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One legacy of the Protestant Reformation has been an ever-increasing proliferation of religious sects with their widely divergent and contradictory beliefs and practices. This is immensely disturbing to anyone who appreciates the New Testament injunction to Christ's disciples to be united (Jn. 17:20-23; I Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6). This was true also of various denominational preachers and other individuals around the end of the Eighteenth Century and the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Their initial protests were primarily against denominational organizations and creeds which they viewed as contrary to the New Testament order and religious unity. Once this spirit of reform seized them and they tasted of the freedom, peace, and unity it brought they pressed forward in the elimination of other religious doctrines and practices which they found to be false in the light of newly-discovered principles. Indeed, they aspired to a "restoration of the ancient order" of the apostolic church of the New Testament, which they saw as not only desirable but also possible. For this reason the movement they inaugurated has been historically known as "the Restoration Movement."
At first unbeknownst to one another, these Restoration pioneers spearheaded prongs of a movement whose phenomenal growth and similarity of doctrine inevitably brought its various elements into contact and eventual union. It must not be thought that these pioneers arrived at a complete restoration of the ancient order or that all developed to an understanding of that ancient order at the same rate. They did not. However, their principles were right even if they were sometimes imperfectly applied. Under adverse circumstances they triumphed to the extent that by 1850 (less than fifty years since the beginning of the movement) they had succeeded in winning enough people to their cause to have the fourth largest church in the United States. They were courageous and conscientious men. Their story is interesting, informative, and inspiring. It is worth telling because it is so worth emulating.
II. Early Beginnings
As a result of the authoritarian control exercised by the hierarchy of the Methodist Episcopal Church certain preachers withdrew from its ranks. One of these was James O'Kelley (1735?-1826) who with others of kindred spirit in 1793 formed a confederation known as "Republican Methodists." One particular complaint which had led to their revolt was the power of the superintendent to assign preachers to their appointments without right of appeal (by the preachers) to the General Conference. The next year the Republican Methodists met in Surry County, Virginia and drew up an agreement, three points of which are particularly noteworthy: (1) to recognize Christ as the only head of the church, (2) to call themselves simply "Christians," and (3) to regard the Bible as their only creed and the sufficient rule of faith and practice. Though O'Kelley continued to cling to false religious practices, such as sprinkling, in some respects he was definitely faced in the direction of restoration.
In Vermont and New Hampshire just after the turn of the century two Baptist preachers, Elias Smith and Abner Jones, followed suit. They worked to establish "free" churches in New England, rejecting human creeds and all religious designations except that of "Christian." Like O'Kelley, they had far to go, but had also gone far.
III. The Stone and Campbell Movements
About the time that Smith and Jones established their movement a Presbyterian preacher in Kentucky by the name of Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) began to have misgivings about the doctrines of his church. Presbyterian doctrine taught that men were totally depraved and unable to believe. If this were true, Stone asked himself, what good did it do to preach and persuade men to believe? He and others of similar sentiment began to preach the universality of the gospel and faith produced by the word of God as a condition of salvation. Withdrawing themselves from their Presbyterian presbytery, they formed the Springfield Presbytery in 1804. However, they soon concluded that there was no authority for such an arrangement and announced its self-dissolution in "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery." In it they also rejected creeds and the title, "Reverend," and supported congregational autonomy. Some years later Stone became convinced, and began to preach, that baptism was to be administered to the penitent believer for the remission of sins. Stone's movement began to grow rapidly. In 1824 Stone and Alexander Campbell met for the first time and found that they stood on the same ground in rejecting human creeds, sectarianism, and unscriptural names and in accepting the universality of the gospel and baptism for the remission of sins. Groups from the Stone and Campbell movements began to meet together, and in 1831 a general meeting of leaders of both movements produced a recognition of fellowship between the two.
Although his son is a more illustrious figure in Restoration history, Thomas Campbell preceded his son in spearheading the Restoration. Shortly after his arrival from Ireland, Campbell found himself in trouble with his Presbyterian superiors over his alleged false teaching. He withdrew from the Presbyterian Church and formed the "Christian Association of Washington" (Pennsylvania). Campbell had become convinced that human creeds were the cause of religious division and took as his guiding principal: "where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent." In the light of this principle infant baptism was rejected. In 1809 Campbell wrote his famous "Declaration and Address" which set forth the views and aims of the Association.
Meanwhile, his family back in Ireland was making plans to join him in America. Alexander, his son, had broken away from the Presbyterian Church shortly before leaving school in Scotland for reunion with his father. However, after perusing his father's Declaration and Address, he happily found himself in substantial agreement with him. After a study of baptism, Alexander Campbell and others were immersed. Thereafter the Campbell's became associated with the Baptists, but the association proved to be too uncomfortable. In forthcoming years he achieved wide recognition for his remarkable abilities as a preacher, debater, writer, and college president. He edited the Christian Baptist and the Millennial Harbinger for many years. He is recognized as the outstanding figure in the Restoration movement.
IV. Exercises(Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) What were the things to which the early Restorationists primarily objected?
(2) Is it wrong for a local church or group of churches to draw up a statement of their beliefs and call it their creed? If not, why not?
(3) What was the guiding principle ("motto") of Thomas Campbell? What did it mean? Is it Scriptural? What was its result?