Still ‘Declaring’ and ‘Addressing’: Thinking About Thomas Campbell 200 Years Later

 

by Paul M. Blowers

There are not a lot of ghost stories (that I know of) connected with the Stone-Campbell Movement. I am fairly certain, at any rate, that Thomas Campbell’s ghost won’t be attending the Great Communion on October 4 to celebrate the bicentennial of the movement and the legacies of its history and mission. Were we superstitious folks we might expect to see a “peeping Thomas” mysteriously haunting the numerous Communion services that are bringing together Stone-Campbell Christians in various locales across the world.

Even so, we can be assured Campbell is one prominent spectator in the grand heavenly cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) hovering over this historic event. The cloud surely is teeming with Stone-Campbell witnesses from the past—not only the movement’s founders and early visionaries, but scores of others who have faithfully paved the way for the rest of us: frontier evangelists, educators, missionaries, church planters, social reformers, pastors, congregational leaders, and servants—a wonderfully diverse array of Christian saints, some of whom you can read about in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans, 2005).

 

POINTING TO THE FUTURE

 

We can only speculate what Thomas Campbell might have wanted to say to us at this Great Communion. In all likelihood, being a characteristically humble and irenic man, he would not draw attention to himself or claim glory for his role in launching this movement 200 years ago. Perhaps, after the example of the apostle Paul, he would mention the names of some of his valued associates and coworkers who helped pioneer the movement, the many great souls whom later generations have all too easily forgotten.

On the other hand, I think Campbell would discourage us from dwelling on our frontier past and point us instead to the future, to our unfinished business in restoring New Testament Christianity and working for Christian unity, his passions. Once he had gotten over the initial shock of the differences in our music and other features of our worship, and novelties such as sound systems, PowerPoint, disposable Communion cups, and other “expedients,” he would still probably call us seriously to reconsider his 1809 Declaration and Address, and reiterate the items of timeless value in that document for the churches. Cultural contexts and the “signs of the times” may have changed, but the basic mission of the Stone-Campbell Movement remains the same in every time and place: to reconcile human beings to God and one another in Jesus Christ.

If you read the Declaration and Address, which you can now do online1 as well as in print, along with many interesting supporting studies,2 you could easily be taken back by its sometimes archaic language and occasionally stilted rhetoric, much like when you read other historic documents of that general era, such as the Declaration of Independence (1776) and George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796). Campbell would want us to see through all that to the heart of his appeal. “First things first,” he would say.

 

PRINCIPLES FOR TODAY

Since Thomas Campbell isn’t with us in person for the Great Communion, let me be so bold as to offer some timeless principles from the Declaration and Address that still hold power and inspiration for the Stone-Campbell churches as they move beyond this bicentennial celebration.

• The world is fragmented and alienated, crying out for the reconciling love and compassion of Christ; and the whole world (not just our corner of it) continues to be the great frontier of the gospel.

• The church is the one body of Christ and cannot be divided (1 Corinthians 1:13), though Christians have too long fallen out of fellowship with one another. The time is now, the place is here (no matter where “here” is) to work for Christian unity, since only a united body can hope to communicate Jesus Christ globally.

• Churches are too self-centered and myopic, crippled either by denominational self-interest or a self-serving mentality in local congregations. The spirit of Jesus alone can break those patterns and broaden the churches’ vision, enabling them to be instruments of the ministry of reconciliation.

• Though we may never be unanimous in our theological opinions, we can build a solid consensus and foundation on the gospel’s core appeal to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Theology is necessary and inevitable in the church, but theology must aspire to serve rather than to undermine the church’s unity and mission.

• Restoring New Testament Chris-tianity is not, and never has been, a mechanical process of duplicating a primitive pattern; it is a disciplined work of all the church to interpret and manifest the gospel’s standards of faith and practice in their spiritual as well material fullness.

• A spirit of discipleship, of being fellow learners or disciples in the school of Christ, must prevail among us if we hope to overcome our tragic divisions and achieve the unity of Christ’s body for the sake of effective mission in the world.

• Christians in the churches need to form good habits of mind and heart: integrity, humility, patience, graciousness, compassion, the urge to esteem others above ourselves, and the broad array of fruits of the Spirit. All of these are vital, right alongside fidelity to Scripture and soundness of doctrine.

• Our movement is not an end in itself. It is a movement within that greater movement which is the church. We are part of a cause greater than ourselves, a cause that only Jesus Christ himself, the Lord of the church, will bring fully to completion.

 

FRESH IMAGINATION

If I may be so bold as to speak for him, Thomas Campbell would encourage us to take risks in the name of Jesus and to use not only common sense but fresh imagination in projecting the vision of the Stone-Campbell Movement to the Christian world and beyond in the 21st century.

 If to some contemporary readers the Declaration and Address seems naïve, simplistic, or perhaps overly optimistic in its proposals, it is because Campbell did indeed leave some things to our imagination, knowing that the campaign for Christian unity and global mission would always require new blood, new ideas, new strategies, and the wherewithal and honesty to be self-critical when we fall short of our aspirations and goals. Certainly Campbell knew the job would never be finished in his own generation. Nor will it be finished in ours.

Meanwhile we can hopefully feel Campbell’s joy at the fact that the way we are both celebrating our history and projecting new vision for the future of the Stone-Campbell Movement is by gathering around the Lord’s table. One of the crucial, groundbreaking events in the background of the movement was the Cane Ridge Revival of August 1801 in northern Kentucky, an event hosted by Barton W. Stone and his little congregation there. The virtually pentecostal character of this event is what many remember, but at its core, the Cane Ridge Revival was actually a seasonal Communion service, which in the Presbyterian tradition of that time was like a full-scale religious festival.

Stone remarked at the end of the revival that while there were many strange and spontaneous phenomena accompanying the event, it had produced a marvelous but short-lived unity among the many Christians who attended. It would’ve lasted, he said, had not human self-interest ultimately won the day, leading everyone back to their old contentious ways.

May our Great Communion not meet the same fate. As Christians from across our movement—Christian churches/churches of Christ, churches of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—come together to commune, to remember, and to hope, may this not be just a fleeting gesture of goodwill; may it instead be the launching pad for renewed relationship and friendship in the spirit of Jesus. May it help to bring new integrity to the Stone-Campbell Movement as it aspires to be an agent of the reconciling love of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth in the 21st century.

________

1 www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/tcampbell/DA_REV1.HTM.

2 On a more popular level, see Glenn Carson, Douglas Foster, and Clinton Holloway, eds., One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Declaration and Address (Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2008). This book includes a marvelous paraphrase of the core propositions of the Declaration and Address by Douglas Foster (pp. 39-45). For more scholarly analysis of the document, consult the essays in Thomas Olbricht and Hans Rollmann, eds., The Quest for Christian Unity, Peace, and Purity in Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address: Texts and Studies (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000).


Paul M. Blowers is Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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