Forks in the Road – A Reflection on Schism in Detroit

Portrait of Isaac Errett - provided by Ionia First Christian Church

                The religious tradition of which I am part was founded on the vision of pursuing the unity of Christians. Thomas Campbell spoke of the divisions among Christians that marked the American frontier as a “horrid evil.” He called it “anti-christian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself.” Campbell goes on to call it anti-scriptural and anti-natural. Despite that vision of unity, the movement that emerged on the frontier and linked to the ministries of Thomas Campbell, as well as that of his son Alexander, and Barton Stone, has managed to divide several times. It seems we can’t agree on the basis of unity.

                My thoughts on this issue spring from a series of conversations that have taken place on a list-serve discussion group (yes email discussion groups still exist). The participants mostly come from the branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement known as the Churches of Christ, along with a healthy number from the group known as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (or Independents). I am one of the few participants that come from the third branch—the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Recently the name Isaac Errett came up. Errett has a direct link to my congregation as he was the pastor of the Disciples church in Detroit in the early 1860s. At the time, Errett, who was a second-generation Disciples leader, came under fire in certain quarters for embracing the so-called “pastor system.” That is, he referred to himself as pastor and even accepted the title Reverend, something Disciples were loath to do. Here’s why I bring up Errett: depending on which branch of the movement you might find yourself in, Errett is either hero of villain.

                In the course of my research (not too deep, but deep enough), both the Disciples churches and the Churches of Christ congregations in Metro-Detroit trace their ancestry to the same family – the family of Thomas Hawley, who gathered a group of like-minded people in his home in 1841. They formed the foundation of the Disciples communities in Detroit, ebbing and flowing with time. Then in around 1861, Errett arrived in Detroit, having planted churches in Muir and Ionia, two small communities near Lansing. Both churches still exist and are the oldest continuing Disciples churches in Michigan. It appears that not everyone in the Detroit church appreciated the vision that Errett brought to the church in Detroit, as a division emerged. Errett located the Detroit church at the corner of Jefferson and Beaubien. There seems to be evidence that Errett might have also introduced, among other things, instrumental music, but that is speculation.

                After his departure it appears that two congregations emerged, one of which was the foundation of what became Central Christian Church and later Central Woodward Christian Church. The other church came to be known as the Plum Street Church of Christ. This congregation no longer exists, but it gave birth to a number of other churches in the area.  I was able to find a history of the Plum Street Church, and the author, writing in 1906, at the time the Churches of Christ were listed separately from the Disciples, had little good to say about Errett’s ministry. He spoke of it as the “New Measures.” These included such things as instrumental music and the pastor system.

This factious movement was consummated under the direction and with the full concurrence of Isaac Errett, who became "the pastor" of the "New Interest" for the two succeeding years. Mr. Errett was in a measure responsible for introducing and inculcating these "New Interest" views -"new" indeed to all who derive their views from the New Testament Scriptures alone. But his responsibility was fearfully augmented by the encouragement which he gave to the division which followed.  [G.G. Taylor, A History of the Plum Street Church of Christ, Detroit, Michigan, (1906),p. 19].

By twenty-first century standards Errett wasn’t a liberal, but his views contrasted enough from a portion of that congregation that division ensued. By 1906, there were two very different streams existing within a movement founded on the premise that division is a horrid evil. These two streams were represented by two congregations, one Disciple and one Churches of Christ, both of which trace their origins to one family. The family of Thomas Hawley.

There are other interesting elements to the story. There would be Hawleys on both sides of this divide. The same would be true of other families. This includes the Gray family. John Gray was an elder of the Plum Street Church of Christ, and his father had been an elder of the earlier church. Gray would serve as the first president of the Ford Motor Company. His son, Philip Gray, who inherited a portion of his father’s largess from selling his shares of Ford, was a leader in Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Philip Gray would be the key to bringing Edgar DeWitt Jones to Detroit in 1920. Jones would lead Central into a merger with other Detroit area churches to form the congregation I now serve.
There is much more that I would like to know about that period in the 1860s when Isaac Errett came to town, even as I have already done some research about the coming of Edgar DeWitt Jones. In reflecting on all of this, I wonder whether division/schism is inevitable within religious communities. Might this be even more true of faith communities that invite people to interpret sacred text for themselves. Will we not differ in our interpretations, and might these differences lead to separation? As I wonder about all of this, I haven’t given up my commitment to unity within the Christian community. I am chastened by these realities, but I still want to talk!   


John said…
Just some thoughts. So I can see several inherent sources of division, even among the most sanguine of Believers, and these include pride, mission and comfort.

Pride comes into play when one lacks the humility to acknowledge that others may possess theological truths, even in areas where we feel most confident in our own beliefs. Pride in one's own theology gives rise to the certainty that in disagreement the other side has committed unacceptable error - maybe even in God's eyes - with respect to an essential of the faith. Even in the identification of "essentials" our pride is expressing itself.

Then there is the mission focus of the church. Children, Christian education, evangelization, outreach. This is also where one's conservative or liberal or progressive theology will exert itself. Where your missional heart is will have a strong influence where you join.

The third area (and maybe the most influential) is comfort. People like to worship in a manner and style, with respect to sermons, music, and ritual, with which they are comfortable. My guess is that people typically are most comfortable in worship styles which are most consistent with how they were initially raised in the faith.

And pastors can and should influence the evolution of congregations along each of these trajectories. And the more dramatic and rapid the evolution the more likely will the previously comfortable and now disaffected members leave. So too, if the congregation fails to evolve, so that it appears to be adrift and the members and leadership unconnected to one another, people will leave. So there is a tension, some healthy evolution is desirable, but not too much.

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