by Michael D “Mike” Greene
All was not well in the United States in 1849. The issue of slavery was threatening the very existence of the union. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s incendiary book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was only three years away.
Henry Clay of Kentucky had been recently elected to the U. S. Senate. It was his proposed compromise of 1850, that helped stave off, at least for a short period of time, the inevitable division of the union. The dark cloud of division and war was on the horizon.
Among the Disciples, the situation was almost as ominous. The friction caused by the establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS) sowed the seeds of division in a movement that began with an effort to unite all believers on pure, simple, New Testament Christianity.
While many of the most influential among the brethren were in favor of the establishment of the ACMS, others were not and the opposition to the innovation, while not strong initially, soon grew into a firestorm that eventually helped to divide the once united brotherhood. What was the basis of the opposition?
Before we answer that question, we must wonder why such an organization was sought to begin with. The purpose of the ACMS was to facilitate mission work, both foreign and domestic, by means of cooperating to accomplish more than a single congregation could accomplish.
But phenomenal growth had been achieved over the years with no help from an extra congregational agency such as a missionary society. Congregations were found throughout the country. The influence of Campbell and others even extended to Campbell’s homeland, as his periodical “The Millennial Harbinger” enjoyed wide circulation in Great Britain.
The opposition to the Society followed four basic lines of argumentation. Many opposed the Society because membership in it was subject to the payment of money. The third article of the Societies’ constitution read in part:
“Any church may appoint a delegate for an annual contribution of ten dollars. Twenty dollars paid at one time shall be requisite to constitute a member for life, and one hundred dollars…shall be required to constitute a director for life.”/1
There was no stated requirement as to the Christian character of members of the ACMS, nor that one even had to be a Christian or part of a local church to be a member.
Others, remembering the oppressive nature of the ecclesiastical bodies of the denominations from which many had come, opposed the Society out of a fear it would soon become authoritative over the churches.
The churches of the Restoration Movement were fiercely independent. Over the years they had guarded their autonomy with great zeal. Many saw this innovation as a dangerous precedent that would lay the ground work for just those kinds of authoritative boards, councils and ecclesiastical tribunals that dominated the denominations around them.
History tells us that in a few short years the ACMS assumed just such a posture, when during the Civil War, it passed resolutions in favor of the Union war effort and labeled the south as “armed traitors,” who sought to overthrow the government./2
In later years, the opponents proved prophetic as the ACMS assumed the authority to censure both churches and ministers.
Others argued that such a society was not needed, as the church is the divinely ordained missionary society. If missionary zeal and evangelism was lacking, the solution was not to be found in human organizations, but in stirring up the church to do the work of the church.
It was observed that great success had been achieved in the years prior to the establishment of the ACMS, when the brethren took seriously the charge of Jesus in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
Finally, the most telling and effective opposition came from those who opposed the ACMS, on the basis that it violated the principles upon which the “current reformation,” as it was called, was begun and upon which it had been so successful.
The plea to go back to the Bible in all matters of faith and practice had led them in times past to seek authority for all matters of faith and practice. Where no authority was found, practices and beliefs were abandoned. There was, the opponents observed, no authority in the New Testament for a missionary society.
In Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address one basic principle upon which the movement was launched is clearly stated; nothing ought to be bound upon Christians “but what is expressly enjoined by the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles … in either express terms or approved precedent.”/3
Neither could be found for a missionary society. A missionary society was not part of the ancient order of things for which they had searched, and which many felt had been found and restored.
Discussions about the scripturalness of the society continued in the brotherhood papers. However, two Tennessee preachers, Tolbert Fanning and William Lipscomb were not satisfied with those efforts.
They established a monthly paper entitled the Gospel Advocate in hopes of giving the “subject of cooperation a thorough examination.”/4 In time the Advocate would became one of the most influential papers in the brotherhood, especially in its opposition to the ACMS.
While a full discussion of the matter is beyond the scope of this article, it must be noted that as far as practical results, the ACMS was not successful in its early years. The first missionary sent out, Dr. James Barclay, was sent to work among the Jews in Palestine in 1851. He returned home in 1854 under financial pressures, having made few converts.
1/West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, 1974, Gospel Advocate, Co. Nashville, TN., 177.
2/ Ibid., 225.
3/ Campbell, Thomas, Declaration and Address, (The Bethany Press, St. Louis, Mo., 1955), 45. See the previous Forthright articles on Thomas Campbell for more on the principles upon which the movement was based.
4/ West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, 1974, Gospel Advocate, Co. Nashville, TN., 205.