by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
In previous Forthright articles on the Restoration Movement, we have explored the meaning of the Restoration Plea, discussed the lives and efforts of the leading men among the many early leaders of the Restoration Movement, and learned of the efforts to bring unity among the followers of Jesus.
These efforts culminated in the unity meeting at the Hill Street Christian church in 1831. That meeting, for all practical purposes, brought about unity among the Christians (Stone’s followers) and the Disciples (Campbell’s followers)./1
The growth of the resulting brotherhood under the ministrations of the early leaders we have discussed, as well as others yet to be considered, continued to be like “wildfire in dry stubble driven by a strong wind.”/2
Through the 1830’s and 1840’s, the churches enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity. Congregations were found throughout the country. Even as folks migrated to newly opened lands as far away as Oregon via the Oregon trail, they took the plea to return to the ancient order of things with them./3
The brotherhood grew to be able to support numerous papers and start more than one college. These efforts will be considered in future articles.
This period was a period of relative peace, for the continuing effort to compare all their beliefs and practices to the New Testament, created its own controversies, both with those opposed to the effort to restore the ancient order and among those sympathetic to the effort.
Such issues as infant baptism, church organization, what name should be worn, the state of the “pious unimmersed,” and others were discussed and debated in the pages of the aforementioned papers.
Generally, over time, consensus on many of these issues was reached. Guided by such principles as “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent,” and “in matters of faith unity, in matters of opinion liberty, in all things charity,” fellowship was maintained.
That fellowship was eventually challenged and broken by two divisive issues; how churches can organize and cooperate in doing mission work, and the use of instrumental music in worship. The former we will consider in this article and one more to follow, the latter in subsequent articles.
The issue of how churches can cooperate was brought to general attention when the Mahoning Association, in which the churches for whom the Campbells and Walter Scott labored, held membership, disbanded at their 1830 annual meeting.
The concern was whether or not such organizations were scriptural. Many of its members recalled how authoritarian the Baptist associations had become in dealing with their member churches and ministers. This they wanted to avoid.
Campbell was present at the 1830 meeting, and was not pleased that the association was dissolved. He arose and said: “Brethren, what now are you going to do? Are you never going to meet again?”
He then suggested that an annual meeting be held for preaching the gospel, mutual edification, and for hearing reports on the progress of the cause./4 This became the accepted practice for several years. Care was taken by many to declare, and to be sure that these meetings had no authority over the churches.
However, the death of the Mahoning Association precipitated much discussion on the scripturalness and expediency of such organizations. “How can congregations cooperate?” was a question to which many sought an answer.
In 1831, five articles appeared in Campbell’s Millennial Harbinger in favor of greater cooperation, three of which were written by Campbell. Several articles also appeared in Stone’s periodical, The Christian Messenger. Here the matter rested for nearly a decade. /5
In 1842, the subject returned to the pages of the Harbinger as Campbell began a series of articles on the subject. These articles were also in favor of greater cooperation through greater organization. Critics reminded Campbell that many years before he had written against such organizations in the Christian Baptist, his first periodical.
Others took up the cause. Meetings were called to discuss the matter. These were at first local and regional. In the face of opposition, these meetings were ostensibly for discussion of the topic only. However, the movement for some national organization was gaining momentum.
By 1849, the efforts brought forth fruition. On October 23, 156 delegates from eleven states met in Cincinnati to form the American Christian Missionary Society. Campbell was not present./6 He felt forming such a society was premature. However, all present knew if he was not behind it, it would not find wide support in the brotherhood. Though absent he was elected president, a position he eventually embraced.
By the time the convention was closed, a constitution was written, twenty vice presidents and other officers were chosen, and over five thousand dollars was collected or pledged to finance the new organization and its proposed labors.
Nevertheless, not all was well. Opposition to the ACMS was immediate as we shall see. But with the support of brotherhood giants, especially Alexander Campbell, the course was set. In
1850, Campbell wrote: “We have an organized Missionary Society – a committee of ways and means – and desire no more, at present, than to notice the foundation laid, on which we may build a glorious superstructure…”/7 He then proposed an explanatory article in which the ways and means by which this would be accomplished.
On this, Earl West commented:
“While in the articles that followed, Campbell appeared to be interested in pushing aside all criticism, yet some was to come, and with the passing of years was to increase. The chief work of 1849 had been done; the Rubicon had been crossed; the crisis had come. A glance at the horizon ahead showed the gathering of dark clouds, but to escape them was impossible. Straight toward them the course of events was moving.”/8
1/ See previous Forthright article: Unity
2/ See: Rushford, Jerry, Christians on the Oregon Trail, Covenant Publishing, 2001.
3/ Elder John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone (Cincinnati: J. A. & U.P. James, 1847, as reprinted in the Cane Ridge Reader, edited by Hoke Dickinson, 1972), 37.
4/West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, 1974, Gospel Advocate, Co. Nashville, TN., 150-51.
5/ Ibid, 155-58.
6/ Scholars have differed on why Campbell was not present. In the December 1849 issue of the Harbinger he gave his regrets for his absence due to “an unusually severe indisposition.” Some have speculated he was not present because he wanted the work to be a work of the brotherhood and not of himself. Others have speculated he felt the society might take support away from his publishing and educational ventures. Still others have opined that his feeling the effort was premature might lead to failure and he wanted no part of such a failure. The truth of the matter will probably never be known. See: Ibid, 172.
7/Alexander Campbell, “The Christian Missionary Society,” Millennial Harbinger, Third Series, Vol. VII, No. 2 (February, 1850), p. 76 as quoted in Ibid, 180.