RENEWING CHRISTIAN UNITY: A Concise History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). By Mark G. Toulouse, Gary Holloway, and Douglas A. Foster. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2011. 208 pages.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is one of the three primary branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, a movement of reform and revival that took form early in the 19th century on what was then the American frontier. The first decade of the 19th century was a period of westward migration, as people pushed beyond the mountains into the wilderness to stake out new lives in places like western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It was also a period of social and political experimentation as the migrants from the east and from Europe sought to make new lives on the frontier, freed from traditional mores and expectations. This was accompanied by a religious revival, often known as the Second Great Awakening that helped shape the American religious landscape for much of the 19th century. One of the key contributors to this awakening was a revival held in 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky.
The Cane Ridge Revival, which drew thousands of participants from across denominational lines, was led by a Presbyterian pastor named Barton W. Stone. By the time of the revival, Stone was having difficulties with the Calvinist orthodoxy of his denomination and soon set off on his own gathering with others of similar mind under the moniker Christian. A few years later, a second similar movement got its start in western Pennsylvania, as a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian pastor, newly residing in the area, ran afoul of his authorities – essentially over who might receive the Lord’s Supper – and he too struck out on his own. Thomas Campbell, and later his son, Alexander gave leadership to a movement of reform and renewal and restoration with an eye toward the reunion of all Christians on the basis of a return to the primitive teachings of the New Testament. Later the Campbells were joined by another Scottish Presbyterian named Walter Scott, who provided the movement with its evangelistic voice. The message that both movements sought to proclaim was that it was time for Christians to come together along a simple gospel, one that was noncreedal but rooted in the New Testament. Eventually, in 1832, these two movements coalesced, creating the foundation for what would become a powerful new faith community that was American born and bred.
As the years passed the movement grew, evolved, and divided. It carried with it three primary emphases – unity, freedom of interpretation, and restorationism. Participants in the movement have emphasized different emphases, but to some extent these three ideals are present in the conversation. Although the movement was committed to unity, it has suffered its share of divisions, with three primary branches emerging. The stories of these three branches have been told in a series of concise histories published by Abilene Christian University Press. The first book in the series covers the Churches of Christ and was authored by Gary Holloway and Douglas Foster. In a second volume that covers the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, Dennis Helsabeck adds the story of his tradition to the narrative penned by Holloway and Foster. Finally, Mark Toulouse has taken the Holloway and Foster narrative and created a volume that deals with the Disciples of Christ.
This volume offers a brief, accessible, readable, chronological history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). With discussion questions and suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter and a comprehensive study guide at the end of the book, this is a volume intended for use by congregations. Being that the Disciples movement tends to be ahistorical – that is, we have had a tendency to jump from the present to the first century without taking into account the intervening years, and because the Disciples have a tendency to take their freedom to interpret scripture as license to believe whatever they want to believe, this book is a welcome gift to congregations.
Together with his coauthors, Mark weaves the story of this movement with circumspection and care. Each of the authors is committed to the ideals of the movement, so this is an insider’s look at the movement, but it’s not hagiographic. Because the book is written by a Disciples historian in tandem with two Churches of Christ scholars, we get a broader picture of the movement than we might have otherwise. Indeed, the first half of the book, which covers the 19th century developments, reminds us that Disciples share much with their cousins in the other two branches of the movement. We are reminded that even though there weren’t structures to divide during the Civil War, in the aftermath of the war social and cultural factors contributed to a slow dividing of the movement, with organs and differences of opinion on missionary societies being caught up in this social-cultural divide. There is a commitment here, at least in this volume, to tell the full story, and not just the good news. For instance, the authors remind us that one factor in the division between Churches of Christ and Disciples was the position taken by the nascent missionary societies during the Civil War (they supported the Union).
As the branches began to develop, with issues like open membership (admission to membership of people who were baptized as infants) and missions policy further divided the movement. Approaches to the Bible also contributed to the divisions, with the branch that became the Disciples tending to give greater credence to the findings of historical criticism. Thus, of the three branches, the Disciples are the most liberal. It is in this group, which Mark focuses his attention upon, that practices open membership, has women elders and ministers, and is the most likely to allow for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. That is not to say that there are not overlaps across the three branches. The Disciples may be the most “liberal,” branch, but that doesn’t mean that they have not struggled with changing times. In the sections specifically covering Disciples issues, Mark is the sole author, and he reminds the reader that for much of the denomination’s history (Disciples have, at least since restructure in the late 1960s, admitted to be a denomination) has been dominated by white males, with the voices of women and minorities being marginalized. Of course, not all of the dirty laundry is aired in the book, as Mark doesn’t tell the darkest story in the denomination’s history – the fact that Jim Jones was a Disciple minister and People’s Temple was a Disciple congregation. Of course, on the brighter side of things, Mark can report increased involvement by women and minorities, and even gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the election in 2005 of Sharon Watkins as General Minister and President, the highest office in the life of the church. Of course, the good news is tempered by the fact that, like most mainline Protestant churches, the Disciples have experienced a steep decline in membership in the last half century.
As noted earlier, this is a readable and accessible chronological history of the Disciples written by one of the pre-eminent Disciples historians of our day. Toulouse is currently Principal and Professor of the history of Christianity at Emmanuel College in Toronto, Canada. Before that he was Professor of the History of Christianity for many years at Brite Divinity School (Texas Christian University). This history provides an excellent companion to Mark’s more thematic history of the Disciples – Joined in Discipleship: The Shaping of Disciples Identity, 2nd edition, (Chalice Press, 1997). Taken together, these provide, in my estimation, the most up-to-date, comprehensive, and useful historical accounts of the Disciples. Start with this book and then, to if you wish to dig deeper into the intellectual and spiritual underpinnings of the movement read Joined in Discipleship.