A story all their own

IT ALL DEPENDS how broad the evangelical tent is. What could have been more evangelical than the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801, called by some “America’s Pentecost”? And by nineteenth-century standards, “evangelical” was a sufficiently broad label to include many Protestant movements and churches devoted to the power and authority of the New Testament gospel, the proactive conversion of unbelievers, personal discipleship, and missionary work. Stone-Campbell folks fit right in. 

are we under this tent?

Yet, even then there were signs of uneasiness. Campbell and other leaders openly criticized what they saw as other churches undermining gospel simplicity—and Christian unity—by requiring confessions of theological creeds or principles for membership.

In particular, Campbell mounted significant assaults on the Reformed theology that would later form the mainstream of twentieth-century evangelicalism. He called the doctrine of the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture—the idea that every word in the Bible is there because God had moved the biblical authors to produce it—an “ultraism.”

While the movement remained devoted to many cherished pieces of Reformed teaching, it rebuked the Calvinist “order of salvation,” in which God elected those whom he wanted to redeem. In their judgment, this reversed the apostolic pattern by claiming that the Holy Spirit had to regenerate sinners before they could be converted. The Campbells insisted that faith was primarily belief in gospel facts and trust in the person of Christ. They also said its true climax was baptism by immersion in water.

Campbell was not alone. Frontier revivals and the preaching of Charles Finney were toning down the predestination emphasis within Calvinist groups. 

But it is important to note that Campbell saw his own positions not as “human opinions” but as simply the truth of the Scriptures. Therefore, he consistently claimed that his interest was not to side with any “sect” but to restore pure New Testament Christianity.

Fast forward a hundred years and many thousands of members. The movement experienced its first internal division as the Churches of Christ parted company with the Disciples of Christ to safeguard fidelity to the “restoration of the ancient order” (see “North and South,” p. 19).

By the 1920s, while more progressive and liberal Disciples sought to acquire status within the emerging mainline Protestant “establishment,” conservative Disciples, the forerunners of today’s Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, grew increasingly frustrated with that agenda (see “Climbing into the mainline boat,” pp. 20–21). 

American Protestantism just then was growing increasingly polarized between left and right—through the 1925 Scopes trial and larger fundamentalist-modernist conflicts of the 1920s and 30s (see CH issue 55, The Monkey Trial and the Rise of Fundamentalism). Conservative Disciples hoped to resist involvement, but they quickly came under cultural pressure to forge alliances against liberalism. Their Christian Standard’s coverage of the Scopes trial favored William Jennings Bryan’s defense against evolution. Hardliners held to the King James Version of the Bible as the only appropriate translation and rebuked critical approaches that undermined biblical authority.

Some, like Rupert C. Foster (1888–1970) of the Cincinnati Bible Seminary, even encouraged the establishment of Bible colleges, often in close proximity to large universities, to protect young people aspiring to ministry or mission work from the compromises and ill effects of a liberal university education.

By the 1930s and 40s, these Christian Churches (increasingly dropping the “Disciples” name) formed a fairly well-organized coalition with their own schools, their own “independent” missions (where missionaries were supported directly without the involvement, or interference, of missionary societies), their own journals, and even their own convention. As this coalition rode out the storms of twentieth-century culture, had it become “evangelical”? 

let’s look at the scorecard

Historian George Marsden identified a famous set of commitments as underlying fundamentalism, and by extension, modern evangelicalism. How did Stone-Campbell folks who had not followed the Disciples of Christ into the mainline measure up?

Commitment to biblical authority: Many Stone-Campbell believers continued to maintain the “common sense” way of reading the Bible they had learned in the nineteenth century (see “Reading the Bible to enjoy the God of the Bible,” pp. 16–18). They looked to the Bible as a book of facts, evidences, and commands—a platform for restoring New Testament Christianity. Here they maintained common cause with many twentieth-century fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Reformed “orthodoxy”: Though recognizing the movement’s Presbyterian heritage, these believers thoroughly opposed hardline Calvinism. They thought it had no serious scriptural warrant and that it denied the apostolic model of conversion and regeneration. Here, too, they had companions among the twentieth century’s more revivalistic churches.

Dispensationalism: The Christ-
ian Churches upheld Alexander Campbell’s threefold model of biblical dispensations—Patriarchal (before the
10 Commandments), Mosaic (from Moses to Christ), and Christian. But they adamantly resisted later developments of Dispensationalism like those of Cyrus Scofield, Arno Gaebelein, and Charles Ryrie—household names among some modern fundamentalists.

Premillennialism: The Churches of Christ witnessed a “premillennial” movement within their ranks as early as 1915—the idea that Christ would return, gather the righteous, and begin a 1,000-year reign. But, by and large, many in the movement distanced themselves from debates about the Second Coming, considering them distractions from New Testament Christianity.

Holiness: Many within the movement supported nineteenth-century moral crusades like temperance, but the “Holiness” theological tradition emerging from the Wesleyan heritage did not impact them as it did other evangelical churches. 

After the 1942 founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and World War II, American evangelicalism became a movement with a capital “E.” It had vigor, adaptability, diversity, and organizational imagination. It challenged the more liberal core of mainline Protestantism and worked to expand international missions. The Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, continuing to distance themselves from the Disciples’s re-invention of itself as a mainline denomination, followed suit. A key symbolic figure was James DeForest Murch (1892–1973), leader of the Christian Restoration Association (est. 1925) in Cincinnati.

Murch energetically sought to  merge his “neo-restorationist” emphasis on recovering New Testa-ment Christianity into the larger “neo-Evangelical” movement (Billy Graham–friendly Christians in the mold of Christianity Today and Fuller and Gordon-Conwell seminaries; see CH 92: America’s 20th-Century Evangelical Awakening). In fact, he lost a position with the Christian Standard for opening communication both with progressive Disciples and with neo-Evangelicals. Shortly thereafter, having joined the NAE, Murch edited its magazine for 13 years, and then became managing editor of Christianity Today (1958–62). With the possible exception of Donald McGavran, conservative Disciple pioneer of the church growth movement, Murch was the most conspicuous Stone-Campbell believer to have “crossed over.”

Murch’s career signaled a new urgency to find common cause with outsiders. In his judgment, the “restoration plea” was still compelling and would speak to a broader audience. Many congregations and officials followed his lead, getting involved in neo-evangelical groups like the Billy Graham Crusades, Campus Crusade for Christ, and InterVarsity.

That wasn’t all. They used Sunday school materials from evangelical publishing houses like Baker, sent their ministers to evangelical seminaries like Fuller, and engaged speakers from the broader tradition at meetings. They joined evangelicals in the pro-life movement and in opposing same-sex marriage. 

All the while, though, they kept some distance. They remained suspicious of approaches to conversion that focused on faith alone and not baptism. Some churches embraced inerrancy as a “restoration” principle, but others simply affirmed the Bible as “infallible” in revealing the way of salvation.

Evangelicalism also stood at a crossroads. Was it a clearly defined movement still bounded by the interests of the NAE, Christianity Today, and InterVarsity? Or had it become a much bigger tent, in which all variety of churches—from Reformed to Wesleyan to Anglican to emerging churches with no name at all—advanced the centrality of the cross under the authority of the Bible? Perhaps, once again, Stone-Campbell churches would fit right in.

Today, the convergence of the two movements is most visible practically in Stone-Campbell megachurches. Some have downplayed their identity for fear of putting off seekers or people from other traditions, and in doing so claim to be “restoring” the ideal of an “undenominational” Christianity. But they also embrace, like other megachurches, large staffs, multiple campuses, extensive programming and discipleship ministries, short-term missions, church-planting networks, and sophisticated technologies.

In the end, quite a few Stone-Campbell believers keep common cause with evangelicals in the twenty-first century, especially as “evangelicalism” has become more diversified and accommodating. But many insist that they have a unique history, a unique ethos, and a unique mission. The movement is still writing a story all its own. CH

By Paul M. Blowers

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

Paul M. Blowers is Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History at Emmanuel Christian Seminary (Johnson City, Tennessee).
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