By James B. North
The tension between serving God and serving one’s country has been a source of dispute in Christian circles for a long time—going at least as far back as the conversion of Constantine, Roman Emperor in the fourth century.
Even within the fellowship of the Restoration Movement, or the Christian churches/churches of Christ, this tension has been evident. David Lipscomb, longtime editor of the Gospel Advocate in Nashville, was not only a pacifist; he was opposed to Christians serving in the government, and even for Christian citizens to vote in political elections. Yet his has certainly been the minority view within the movement.
Alexander Campbell, probably our best-known early leader, served as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-30 when that state was redrafting its government. While in Richmond for the convention, he spoke in several of the churches, earning the favorable notice of several important politicians, most notably former President James Monroe. Campbell possibly could have had a career in politics, but he felt his energies could be better used for the kingdom of God in preaching and editing religious magazines.
Others, however, have taken up the political responsibilities that Campbell declined. From the highest political offices in the nation to the lowest, individuals from the Restoration Movement have stepped forward to occupy positions of public service. Tracing all this is a bit awkward because the original movement led by Campbell and Barton W. Stone later broke into three fairly distinct groups—the Disciples of Christ, the churches of Christ, and the Christian churches/churches of Christ. Originally they were all one fellowship, and therefore it is not unrealistic to consider all of their contributions to public office.
Three presidents of the United States stand in this honor. James A. Garfield was the first. A lay preacher within the movement, he later gained fame as a general in the Civil War, and then served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1864 until his inauguration as president in 1881. Unfortunately, his term was cut short by assassination that same year.
Lyndon Baines Johnson served the U.S. government 12 years as a representative from Texas, another 12 as a senator, then as vice president for three years before becoming president in 1963.
Ronald Reagan was raised among the Disciples of Christ in Illinois though he later became a Presbyterian. He served two terms as governor of California and became president in 1981, serving two full terms.
Outside this country, David Lloyd George was from the British churches of Christ and served the United Kingdom as prime minister from 1916 to 1922, having significant influence on the Versailles Peace Treaty at the conclusion of World War I.
But it is not just the highest office that has called individuals from the Restoration Movement into the government. Those who have served in the U.S. Senate include church of Christ members John Cornyn from Texas and former Sen. Fred Thompson from Tennessee, who later made an unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination in 2008.
J. William Fulbright was a Disciples of Christ senator from Arkansas who served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and then 30 years as senator. He established the famous Fulbright Program for international studies in 1946. Since then literally thousands of American faculty have served as Fulbright Scholars, teaching classes abroad. In the summer of 1967 a young college senior named Bill Clinton served as an intern to Senator Fulbright.
Judges and Representatives
Judges on the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court have included Joseph R. Lamar, a minister’s son from Georgia appointed by President Taft, and James C. McReynolds, born in Kentucky. McReynolds served for one year as attorney general under President Wilson, and then served 27 years on the Supreme Court. He consistently voted against President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, helping strike down the National Industrial Recovery Act, and voting against both the Tennessee Valley Authority and Social Security. Nominated to the bench in 2005 by President Bush, but not confirmed, was Harriet Miers, Dallas attorney and member of a Christian church there.
There have been a large number of individuals who have served in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Several who went on to serve in other public offices have already been mentioned).
Perhaps most significant was Champ Clark. He was born in Kentucky, graduated from Bethany College, and then the Cincinnati Law School. He moved to Missouri as a young adult. Elected to the U.S. House in 1892, he served one term, was defeated in 1894, but returned to office in 1896 and served until 1919. From 1911 to 1919 he was the Speaker of the House, through most of President Wilson’s term.
John T. Johnson was an early follower of Alexander Campbell in Kentucky, but he also served as a colleague with Barton W. Stone. Johnson was a successful lawyer who served three terms in the state legislature in Kentucky and then two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before he retired to private life, which soon included preaching for the church at Great Crossing, just outside Georgetown, Kentucky.
Numerous other individuals have served in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Dan Burton from Indiana. Burton attended Cincinnati Bible Seminary for one year.
Serving Their States
Another Civil War general, Lew Wallace from Indiana, served throughout the war, and afterward served as governor of New Mexico Territory for three years. During that time he finished his famous novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, considered by some the best-selling novel of the 19th century.
Also a Civil War general turned governor was Francis C. Drake, born in Illinois but later moved to Iowa. He served one term as governor of Iowa and provided significant financial resources for Drake University in Des Moines.
Literally dozens of others have served in state governments in their respective house and senate chambers. David Purviance, another colleague of Barton W. Stone, and a signer of the seminal Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery in 1804, served in the Kentucky legislature. Soon after he moved to Ohio in 1810 he was also elected to the Ohio legislature. Another Purviance relative, Lewis W. Purviance, was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, moved to Indiana and served one term in the state house of representatives.
An Effective Calling
A Web site called adherents.com lists notable politicians in each of the three religious segments that make up the Restoration Movement, citing as its source another site interestingly enough called Political Graveyard (politicalgraveyard.com), which lists politicians by religious affiliation. According to these sources, the Christian churches/churches of Christ have provided 197 notable politicians, the Disciples of Christ have provided 183, and the churches of Christ have provided 40, for a whopping aggregate of 420 politicians!
What all this represents is that numerous individuals from the Restoration Movement have found an effective calling not only in serving churches dedicated to Restoration ideals, but also in serving the government in dedicated lives of public service.
The motto of the U.S. Army chaplaincy is pro deo et patria—for God and country. Literally hundreds of individuals from Christian churches have done just that—serving God in the church, and serving country in governmental office.
James B. North is professor of church history at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University and the author of Union in Truth, a popular Restoration history textbook available from Standard Publishing.