By Douglas A. Foster
The year 2006 is an important anniversary in the history of the Restoration Movement—the centennial of the Census of Religious Bodies that listed Churches of Christ separately from Disciples and became the symbol of that first division.
For many, reexamining the story of the census has great potential for reconciliation between the heirs of that separation. Others see this year as a time to justify the separation as necessary for remaining faithful to Christ. Let’s take a brief look at the actual people and events involved. Then you can make up your own mind.
Simon Newton Dexter North
North was appointed first director of the Bureau of the Census when it became a permanent agency in 1902. As early as 1850, Congress had instructed census takers to gather certain “social statistics” as they numbered the population for congressional apportionment—including questions regarding religion. Questions covered number of churches, membership, and value of church property for all American religious bodies. In 1890 the list of questions was expanded to include information about Sunday schools and number of ministers.
When the Census Bureau became a permanent agency, however, specialized surveys distinct from the 10-year population count became possible. The first of four stand-alone religious censuses was begun in 1906, conducted by North.
North and his staff developed a four-stage strategy for gathering the religious data: (1) obtain contact information for every congregation from denominational officials, (2) mail questionnaires to the minister or clerk of each congregation to complete, (3) have ministers send their forms to the appropriate church official for “certification,” and finally (4) have church officials send the compiled data back to the Census Bureau.
This plan worked fairly well for about two-thirds of American churches—though there were some problems concerning who was authorized to use the bureau’s mail permit. For bodies with little or no general organization, however, the bureau was authorized to employ “special agents” to gather the statistics.
One of the most familiar characters in this story is David Lipscomb. Lipscomb was a Tennessee preacher, educator, and editor of the Gospel Advocate for 46 years. One of the most important shapers of Lipscomb’s theology was his experience of the Civil War. Before the war he had embraced American democracy as the “first fruits of Christianity.” But when he saw Christians slaughtering Christians on the battlefield, he came to believe Christians cannot participate in the kingdoms of this world.
He developed a strong belief that Christians live in another kingdom—the kingdom of God. He believed in living simply, and avoiding worldliness in every form—including the worldliness he believed was working its way into the church in the form of things like extra-congregational societies for missions and benevolence, fashionable instrumental music and choirs in worship, and professional preachers.
After the Civil War, Lipscomb joined Tolbert Fanning in reviving the Gospel Advocate, largely a paper serving the churches of the South. Through this journal, he became one of the most influential thought shapers in the movement at the end of the 19th century.
James Harvey Garrison
Garrison had been drawn to the movement’s plea while studying at Abingdon College in Illinois just after the Civil War. In 1868, he became coeditor of the Gospel Echo, beginning a career in religious journalism that would last the rest of his life. By 1872, Garrison had become sole editor of the paper, moved to Quincy, Illinois, changed it from a monthly to a weekly, and added the readership of a defunct paper named The Christian. Eventually he moved the paper to St. Louis and merged with yet another journal, The Evangelist, producing in 1882 the Christian-Evangelist, which he edited until 1912. It would become one of the most important journals among Disciples.
Garrison’s initial attraction to the Restoration Movement’s plea had been focused on the call to Christian unity through a restoration of New Testament Christianity. His understanding of that, however, was not exactly like Lipscomb’s. By all counts Garrison was conservative. Yet he strongly criticized the view that saw the Bible as primarily a book of propositions or prescriptions. For Garrison, one’s relationship to Christ was the key. For him, differences in methods of work, worship, and organization within the bounds of loyalty to Christ could not be legitimate causes for separation among Christians.
Garrison was concerned that the movement had become sidetracked by peripheral matters that threatened to destroy its plea for unity. He would strongly resist admitting to any division in the movement, and would oppose those who did.
Gustavus Adolphus Hoffmann
Hoffmann was an evangelist and church planter in Missouri. He served as Missouri state evangelist and state secretary for 20 years, had helped the government gather the movement’s religious data for the 1890 census, and had served as “statistical secretary” for the Disciples Yearbook. He was the logical person to help with the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies.
When the Census Bureau found it virtually impossible to collect data from the churches of the movement, an official from the Washington office visited Hoffmann in St. Louis, Missouri, in late 1907, and “importuned him to take the work off their hands.” They employed Hoffmann as a special agent to gather the data for the “disciples or churches of Christ.” He immediately began to do this through notices in the papers and his already-established, though less-than-perfect, network of state secretaries.
But census officials had noticed something in their monitoring of journals from the Restoration Movement. The Gospel Advocate, which they assumed was a Disciples paper based on 1890 data, seemed at times to distance itself from that body. In a letter to David Lipscomb published in the July 18, 1907, Gospel Advocate, census director North described his confusion.
He had started to write Lipscomb earlier, he said, but had received a letter from William J. Campbell of Marshalltown, Iowa, informing him that 3,000 “churches of Christ” formerly connected with Disciples of Christ no longer were. William Campbell enclosed a list of preachers published by McQuiddy Publishing Company (publisher of the Gospel Advocate) that included the names of the editors of the magazine. Assuming the problem solved, North checked the list of preachers from the Disciples Yearbook and found the Gospel Advocate editors were listed there too!
So North wrote:
I would like to know: 1. Whether there is a religious body called “Church of Christ,” not identified with the Disciples of Christ, or any other Baptist body? 2. If there is such a body, has it any general organization, with headquarters, officers, district or general conventions, associations or conferences? 3. How did it originate, and what are its distinctive principles? 4. How best can there be secured a complete list of the churches?
Lipscomb’s famous reply explained why he believed Churches of Christ were now separate. He gave a brief history of the origins of the movement, then said this:
As they increased in number and wealth, many desired to become popular also, and sought to adopt the very human inventions that in the beginning of the movement had been opposed—a general organization of the churches under a missionary society with a moneyed membership, and the adoption of instrumental music in the worship. This is a subversion of the fundamental principles on which the churches were based.
Then he made his famous statement:
There is a distinct people taking the word of God as their only and sufficient rule of faith, calling their churches “churches of Christ” or “churches of God,” distinct and separate in name, work, and rule of faith from all other bodies of people.
He offered to help North gather correct information about these churches for the census.
James Walton Shepherd
Sometime in fall 1907, census director North himself paid a visit to the Gospel Advocate offices in Nashville, undoubtedly to take Lipscomb up on his offer. Lipscomb, however, nominated his office manager, J. W. Shepherd, to serve as special census agent for “churches of Christ.”
As soon as Shepherd was duly authorized as a special agent to collect and return the information for Churches of Christ, Lipscomb wrote and published a strong appeal to the churches to send in the data—remarkable, given his strong belief in separation of church and state. He urged all who received forms from Shepherd to complete and return them. This was easier said than done.
Part of the problem was that G. A. Hoffmann was sending the same form to the same churches. Some had supplied the requested information to Hoffmann before receiving Shepherd’s material. Others had discarded Hoffmann’s request, regarding him as a “digressive.” When these churches received Shepherd’s forms, many assumed this was another mailing from Hoffmann. In repeated pleas, Hoffmann in CHRISTIAN STANDARD and Christian-Evangelist, and Shepherd in the Gospel Advocate, urged churches to send in their statistics.
In the mean time, Garrison reacted with disbelief when he read Lipscomb’s reply to North. This shows, Garrison exclaimed, “that the spirit of sectarianism . . . is alive and active in some who are seeking a following at the expense of the unity for which Christ prayed.”
Lipscomb responded that he had “done nothing to bring about the present condition of affairs.” He had not initiated the inquiry concerning a separate body. Census officials had seen the difference, asked, and Lipscomb gave them the facts.
A journalistic battle between Lipscomb and Garrison ensued through 1907 and 1908. Garrison accused Lipscomb of attempting to promote formal division in the churches, calling Lipscomb and his associates “blind guides” who were leading churches and Christians astray.
Lipscomb admitted there was no sin more fearful than promoting division, but that he could not see any way he was responsible for the rift. Garrison, increasingly frustrated with Lipscomb, pointed to 1 Corinthians 11:19: “There must be also factions among you, that they that are approved may be made manifest” (American Standard Version). Lipscomb asserted again that he had done nothing except try to be true to God and his Word.
When the census data was published, second in a chart of 17 “New Denominations and Denominational Families” was Churches of Christ, noted as formerly included with Disciples of Christ. The number of congregations listed for Churches of Christ was 2,642 with 159,123 members. Disciples of Christ reported 7,799 congregations with 923,698 members.
Here are the facts: The Census Bureau itself noticed what seemed to be a division between Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ in surveying the movement’s papers. In the interest of reliable data collection the bureau tried to ascertain if the division was fact. Lipscomb agreed it was accurate to list the bodies separately; Garrison did not.
The 1906 Census of Religious Bodies relied on data supplied by the churches themselves—it did not send census takers to gather the information directly. It organized, analyzed, and published the data in a 1909 bulletin and two volumes published in 1910. The data reflected what had already happened (and what continued to happen for at least another decade).
The division did not begin or happen in 1906—it was nearing its end. The government did not declare the division; the Census Bureau simply published data it received.
What is certain about the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies is that it made worse the antagonism between those already taking sides in the conflict—each blaming the other for division, sectarianism, and unfaithfulness to God. It became a symbol of the division that was almost complete, the event that would provide historians with a date to use when speaking of the painful and shameful division in this movement for Christian unity.
Douglas Foster is professor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University.