The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History -- A Review

THE STONE-CAMPBELL MOVEMENT: A Global History.  D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, Paul Blowers, General Editors.  Scott D. Seay, Managing Editor.  St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2013.  X + 476 pages. 

At the beginning of the 19th century, as the newly minted nation of the United States of America was moving outward from its coastal roots, new religious movements began to erupt along the frontier.  Revival swept these frontier regions, upending the traditional religious boundaries.  Those faith communities that were flexible enough to adapt to these realities saw significant growth.  Some groups were essentially orthodox Christian, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Methodists to name a few.  Others were rather unorthodox, the Mormons and the Shakers.  It was in this mix of religious ferment that the Stone-Campbell Movement emerged. 

            This new movement that takes its name from two of its primary founders, Alexander Campbell (along with his father Thomas) and Barton Stone imbibed the democratic ethos of the day, borrowed heavily from the Christianized versions of the Enlightenment (Thomas Reid and John Locke) and sought to bring a sense of unity to the somewhat chaotic religious realities of the day.   Barton Stone would speak of Christian Unity being the movement’s polar star.  Thomas Campbell declared the church is constitutionally one and that division was sinful.  If unity is of great importance, how does one achieve unity among the fractious branches of American Protestantism?  They answer for some was a return to the earliest foundations of Christianity – the church as it’s revealed in the pages of the New Testament, with special emphasis on the Book of Acts.

            Over time this movement of unity has experienced significant fissures.  There are three primary branches, with other offshoots as well.  Each branch of this movement has developed its own traditions and identity.  They run the gamut of fundamentalism to the far left of the Christian faith.  All that binds them together is a common heritage, even if each understands this heritage differently.  With this being the case how might the story of the movement be told in a way that is fair to all parties, allows the story to be told with generosity and grace while at the same time being frank about the differences?  It’s not an easy exercise, but as the editors and contributors to this Global History have demonstrated, it is possible. 

            The Stone-Campbell Movement:  A Global History is an attempt to shape a narrative understanding of this diverse movement.  It is the companion volume to an earlier publication:  The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans, 2004), the editors of which included the three general editors of this narrative history, Douglas A. Foster (Church of Christ), Paul M. Blowers (Christian Churches/Churches of Christ), and D. Newell Williams, (Disciples of Christ).   They were joined in the earlier effort by Anthony L. Dunnavant, who died of cancer during the preparation of the earlier volume.   In the current effort Scott Seay, a Disciples of Christ historian, served as the managing editor.  That is, Scott was in charge of making sure that the contributors fulfilled their promises of delivering timely drafts of the story. 

The Global History is jointly written project.  Different historians were assigned parts of the project, for which they wrote original drafts.  As the editors note in the preface, once the drafts were presented, they were worked on by the group in writing conferences.  This is a multi-authored book, but it is offered as a single voice.  This is important because it keeps the book from moving into polemics.  It also means that those looking for a more narrow, partisan, or polemical interpretation will be disappointed.  For the rest of us, this will be a welcome contribution. 

The book begins with an introduction that explores the historiography of the movement, exploring the methodologies that are used in this volume, but also exploring earlier efforts at telling the story, most of which were written from a specific vantage point within the movement.  From there we are introduced to the manner in which the movement emerged, learning the stories of its earliest leaders, how the two streams of Campbell and Stone joined forces, and the early growth that the movement experienced.  From there the story moves forward through the era running through the Civil War, a war that may not have “divided” the movement in the way that other more institutional churches had been divided, but seeds of division had been planted.  We learn about the existence and growth of African Institutions.  Reading this section will prove difficult for many in the movement, for racism was rampant – including among liberal Disciples.  Then there is the story of the role of women, especially in support of mission ventures.

As I noted, the Stone-Campbell Movement sought to bring unity to the American Christian community, but instead it suffered deep divisions, and those are explored, first with the separation of the Churches of Christ from the Disciples (in 1906).  While musical instruments stood at the center of the debates, along with mission societies, there are clear signs that this was also influenced by socio-economic issues, especially the manner in which the Civil War undermined the economies of the border states of Tennessee and Kentucky. 

This is an American born tradition, but it quickly spread to the United Kingdom and its colonies – from Canada to New Zealand.  We also learn more about the development of World Mission in the years following the Civil War and on into the late 1920s – a period of expansion and ultimately the crux of another division. 

Each of the three traditions receives a chapter of its own, so we might learn the history of the separate development of each branch.  Reading through these sections is helpful because it underscores the complexity that defines each branch.  There’s no clear left, right, center demarcation (something James Murch had sought to do years earlier).  Yes, the Disciples tend to be more liberal and some parts of the Churches of Christ can be rather conservative.  What marks these groups is the different manner in which they approach the founding principles of the tradition.  Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ put emphasis on restoration as primary.  The goal is to get back as close to the New Testament order as possible (often with a rather rationalist foundation), where as Disciple have largely abandoned restoration in favor of unity, and a unity that is pursued through the ecumenical movement (a movement to which the Disciples have contributed significant leadership).

Once the story of the three branches is shared, then the authors turn to more recent developments.  Thus, they look at the way in which the movement has been influenced by social change and by theological developments.  Much of this conversation takes place within the borders of the United States.  But this is a global history, so the six of the remaining eight chapters explore how the three branches of the movement are present across the globe – the UK and the Commonwealth, Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe.  We learn of important mission work and the development of indigenous, self-governed faith communities.  Some of these efforts may be rather well known, including the rather successful work by Disciples in the Congo.

The final chapter is entitled “The Quest for Unity.”  This is a movement that has experienced profound division, and yet the need to pursue unity has remained strong.  There are those ecumenical efforts, but there have also been significant efforts at building bridges within the movement.  This has especially been true among Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.  Because both of these movements are theologically conservative (though that is an overly generalized assumption), they have found ways of exploring their similarities.  Conversations with the Disciples and the other two branches have been more difficult to create, and yet there have been successful ventures such as the “The Stone Campbell Dialogue” that began in the late 1990s.  The Disciples, for their part have been highly active in ecumenical ventures, both in the United States and abroad.  They’ve been party to the World Council of Churches, the Federal Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches.  But they’ve also joined with union churches in England, Africa, and India.  Unity, it appears continues to be the polar star of the movement, even if quite often the movement loses sight of the star. 

As a participant in one branch of this movement (the Disciples) I recognize the presence of historical amnesia in our midst.  Many in our churches have little understanding or even interest in the historical development of the movement.  Because of theological flexibility (we’re non-creedal), we sometimes feel like we don’t need to know our history.  And yet, this is proving problematic.  Without being traditionalist, there are important aspects of the tradition, like weekly communion and believer baptism, which need to be considered.   My hope is that this book will provide fodder for a conversation about history, tradition, and the future.  I’m hopeful that the book can help build bridges across the divides that have emerged over the years.  I don’t expect a grand reunion, but surely we can recognize the family resemblance and gather occasionally for worship and service.
Of course, a book like this has its drawbacks.  At times (as a historian I understand its inevitability) one is inundated with lists of names, dates, and places – many of which one will not know.  Of course, there will be those moments of discovery when the names of friends pop up (as with the mention of my friend Sara Barton for her efforts to make room for women preachers within the churches of Christ).  At the same time one may feel that a certain person or group didn’t make the cut, despite the importance you might attach to their lives and work.  But such is the realities of trying to tell a story that is both interesting and informative.  What is important, in my estimation, and why I believe this is an important contribution not only to the historiography of the movement but to the future of the movement itself, is that it reminds us of our heritage and the complex ways in which we have lived out that heritage.  All three branches claim the founders, and yet we live out their vision in very different ways. 

As one reads the book, if you’re part of the movement, you’ll find much to celebrate.  The movement has made significant contributions to the Christian community, both in the United States and around the world.  At the same time, there is a dark side to the movement, and the authors/editors have not shied away from revealing it.  This is especially true of the persistent presence of racism (and sexism) in the movement.  Perhaps by reengaging realities, we can commit ourselves to building a different future. 

I do believe that this is an especially important book, one that all clergy and church leaders from across the movement will be well served by reading.  And of course, it should be added to every church library – together with its companion volume, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  For this the editors and the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, which helped support the venture need to be commended.


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