North and South

THE FOUNDERS of the Stone-Campbell Movement pursued the vision of restoring Christianity to its primitive form and uniting the Christian world. But deep irony plagued the movement when that agenda broke apart. It went two ways—the Disciples of Christ, who nurtured the ecumenical vision of unity, and the Churches of Christ, for whom the restoration ideal stood front and center. Both groups explained the rupture differently. 

On the one hand, the Disciples argued that they had remained faithful to the ecumenical objectives of Stone and Campbell and that the Churches of Christ had turned their backs on Christian unity and busied themselves with narrow-minded, sectarian concerns.

For years, historians of definitive books on the history of American religion parroted the Disciples’s explanation. For instance, Winthrop Hudson wrote: “By 1906, the rigidly biblicistic wing of the Disciples—the ‘Churches of Christ’ of the middle South—had gone its separate way.”  

Who left whom?

On the other hand, the Churches of Christ thought the Disciples were the wandering ones. They agreed with David Lipscomb of the Gospel Advocate (see “New woman, same gospel,” p. 33). 

Pointing to the musical instruments and missionary societies that the Disciples now embraced, Lipscomb announced that the Disciples had turned their backs on a conservative reading of the biblical text: “The evidence is clear that it [the use of musical instruments in worship] was dropped out by Christ and his apostles, and was not introduced into the church for six hundred years—then among the Catholics, who claim the right to change the appointments of God.”

But these dueling interpretations met their match in the 1960s, when a young historian from the Churches of Christ, David Edwin Harrell, offered an entirely new take on the controversy. 

Theology mattered, Harrell argued, but so did the Mason-Dixon Line. The Civil War, and the economic gaps and hostilities between Northern and Southern ways of life that it created, brought about many divisions. 

The facts and the map bear this out. Since the Civil War, Disciples of Christ have been mainly middle-class Christians in the Midwest. The population center of the Churches of Christ is in the mid-South where, for the century following the Civil War, they chiefly appealed to a far less prosperous following. Harrell described them as “the religious rednecks of the post-bellum South.” 

Geography complicated these theological disputes. Benjamin Franklin of Cincinnati launched the instrumental music fight in the 1860s, objecting to instruments in terms full of disdain for upward mobility. 

Instruments might be appropriate, he wrote, “if a church only intends being a fashionable society [or] a mere place of amusement and secular entertainment.” And of instruments’ supporters, Franklin wrote, “These refined gentlemen have refined ears, [and] enjoy fine music manufactured for French theatres, interspersed with short prayers and very short sermons.” 

But a Northern supporter of instruments, Robert Richardson, noted their connection with upward mobility gladly: “The musical talent of the present generation is a hundred percent above that of the past; and as we receive into our churches new converts, they naturally expect to hear what will not offend their good taste. . . . The only remedy is to bring the popular taste of our congregations up to the required standard.”

Refined heresy or necessary improvement in taste? So much depended on where you were sitting. CH

By Richard Hughes

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #106 in 2013]

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