Two Centuries Later, Restoration Document Still Relevant

On Sept. 7, ACU‘s Center for Restoration Studies will host a Restoration Day observance 6-8 p.m. in the Chapel on the Hill. Dr. Wes Crawford, assistant professor of church history at ACU and director of the center. explains why 212 years later, Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address is still relevant to the church.

By WES CRAWFORD

September 7 marks the 212th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Campbell’s seminal work, Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington. Known more by its shortened name, Declaration and Address, the writing has been described as a landmark document in American ecumenism and has long been recognized as a charter document of the American Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement). Energized by boundless optimism and an unwavering dedication to the simple pattern of New Testament restorationism, Campbell believed it possible for all Christians from all tribes to unite into the one universal body of Christ. Campbell’s ecumenical vision collided with a new American republic fractured by Christian denominationalism, and judging by the rapid expansion of Campbell’s vision and the growth of his fledgling movement, one can safely deduce that other American Christians longed for unity as well.

Biography of Alexander Campbell by retired ACU professor Douglas A. Foster

In order to fully appreciate Campbell’s vision, one must consider his identity as both a Scottish Presbyterian and an American. In fact, to label Campbell a “Scottish Presbyterian” only begins to describe his religious heritage. More specifically, he was an Old Light, Antiburgher, Seceder Presbyterian. Each of these descriptors signified a formal division within the Scottish Presbyterian Church, and these divisions troubled Campbell greatly. An ordained minister within the Presbyterian Church, he spent much of his adult life seeking (unsuccessfully) to eradicate these and other sources of division within Scottish Presbyterianism. Those who have dedicated their lives to congregational ministry can attest to the stress and strain such a burden places upon individuals and families, and this burden eventually had an adverse effect on Campbell’s health, leading him to leave Scotland and head for greener grass on America’s shores. 

Upon arriving in America in 1807, Campbell caught the optimistic spirit so common among American revolutionaries. He, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, believed America represented the culmination of human achievement. Finally, a nation built upon the principles of freedom, liberty, and democracy! The new nation bore witness to the wondrous achievements attainable by human ingenuity and cooperation. Among those achievements, believed Campbell, was Christian unity.

Not long after his arrival in America, Campbell separated from the Presbyterian Church and organized the Christian Association of Washington (Pennsylvania) for the purpose of promoting Christian unity. In an age wherein ordinary Americans can create a society built upon the principles and liberty and justice for all, surely Christians can set aside their differences and unite for the cause of mission. So great was Campbell’s optimism that he and his son, Alexander, believed their efforts toward Christian unity, when finally achieved, would usher in the second coming of Christ! Now that is a high view of human potential!

Campbell’s Declaration and Address, written the same year in which the Christian Association of Washington came into being, outlined the purpose for the new organization, which centered on the promotion of Christian unity. In the document, Campbell makes bold claims. “The church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” He describes Christian division as a “horrid evil.” He writes, “The cause that we advocate is not our own peculiar, nor the cause of any party, considered as such; it is a common cause, the cause of Christ and our brethren in all denominations.” This last statement suggests Campbell sought not to create a new denomination; rather, he sought to invite all Christians of all denominations to cast aside their denominational labels in order to unite together in the one universal Church. Campbell’s clearly stated goal was Christian unity, and his method for achieving such unity centered on the restoration of New Testament Christian practices. He believed if Christians set aside denominational labels, creeds, or any other potential sources of division, focusing instead on the basic and simple practices of the church revealed in the pages of the New Testament, Christian unity was possible. 

Evidence suggests other early American Christians shared Campbell’s desire to come together. By the mid-19th century, this Christian unity movement boasted over 200,000 members, making it one of the ten largest Christian fellowships in America. Throughout the rest of his life, Campbell worked to make his dream outlined in the Declaration and Address a reality.  

Whatever one may think about Thomas Campbell, his theology, or the movement he launched in the early 19th century, surely, we can all appreciate his desire to bring a fractured world together. Not unlike the time in which Campbell lived, we too are tormented by divisions. We experience religious division: Churches of Christ vs. Baptist vs. Methodist vs. Catholic vs. Non-Denominational Christianity. We experience political division: Republican vs. Democrat. We experience other divisions brought about by our religion, politics, region and race. We have even proved ourselves capable of dividing over the question of whether or not to wear a mask to curb the spread of a pandemic! Additionally, we live in an age wherein division incites incivility. In such a time as this, Thomas Campbell’s appeal for unity seems especially attractive. 

Each year on the anniversary of the publication of the Declaration and Address, ACU’s Center for Restoration Studies hosts “Restoration Day.” This event, to be held this year in ACU’s Chapel on the Hill from 6:00-8:00 p.m. on September 7, seeks to honor the best parts of Campbell’s legacy. This year marks the centennial anniversary of the publication of Great Songs of the Church, a formative hymnal in the history of American Christianity. In commemoration of this anniversary and in keeping with the vision of all Restoration Day events, we will focus our attention on the impact of music within the history of Churches of Christ. Certainly, music has been the source of conflict within numerous Christian movements, but we believe Campbell would remind us that music also has the power to bring distinct voices into harmony. All are invited to join us for an evening of worship, remembrance, and fellowship.

Wes Crawford

Dr. Wes Crawford is an assistant professor of church history at ACU and director of the Center for Restoration Studies

One comment

  • I certainly appreciate Campbell’s desire for ecumenical unity among Christians. I actually would like to go a step further in stating my desire for interfaith appreciation and respect.

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