By Jim North
The understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit has often caused energetic discussion within the ranks of the Christian churches/churches of Christ. This is the case today, just as it was in the early days of our movement 200 years ago. As a result, it might do us well to look at the thinking of some of our early leaders about this much-debated topic. For simplicity, we will look particularly at the thinking of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell.
Stone and Campbell were two of the most important leaders of this frontier movement. They agreed on most matters of doctrine, yet were quite different in many ways.
Part of this was because of differences in their personal backgrounds. Stone was born in tidewater Maryland, but raised on the Virginia frontier. College educated, his initial ministry was in backwoods Kentucky in the 1790s.
When revivalism hit the frontier in 1800, Stone was an early and eager participant. Although some of his views moderated with the years, he never fully got away from his frontier context. As a Presbyterian, Stone was initiated into strict Calvinism, but he never absorbed it. From the very beginning he resisted its fatalistic tendencies and relished the independent spirit of the frontier.
Campbell, on the other hand, was born in Northern Ireland. He grew up in an even stricter brand of Presbyterianism, but he too soon rebelled against it. He had only one year as a student at the University of Glasgow, but was well read in a variety of subjects and widely regarded as an intellectual force. When he came to America in 1809, he too, like Stone, reveled in the open thinking of the frontier.
Stone embraced frontier revivalism; Campbell scorned it. This was indicative of their understandings of the work of the Holy Spirit. Stone’s involvement in revivalism forced him out of the Presbyterian organization and led him and others to start a new movement for Christian unity and simple biblical teaching, what would become the Christian churches of the West (often called the Stone Movement; Campbell in turn was considered the leader of the Campbell Movement).
Revivalist preaching was often quite emotional, and Stone records in his autobiography that even revivalist prayers forced some nonrevivalist Presbyterian clergy to exit quickly out the back windows! For years the Stone Movement used the “mourning bench,” where sinners would come down to the front of the church building and have believers pray for them to get them to experience salvation. There was a wide perception that the Holy Spirit would then lead the sinner into a heart-rending, emotionally traumatic conversion experience.
Campbell saw all this as so much nonsense. Coming from a background of Old World rationalism, Campbell did not trust the emotional upheavals of conversion experiences. He saw this as subjective emotionalism, lacking substance, and leaving people with no concrete foundation on which to base their confidence in salvation. He believed it was better simply to preach the Word, and the Holy Spirit would work through the Word to convert the mind and heart of the sinner.
Calvinism taught that faith was a gift of the Holy Spirit, and without this gift people could not even have faith in Christ. Campbell, influenced by the ideas of Robert Sandeman, was convinced faith was simply belief in testimony. Any person (no matter how “depraved,” according to Calvinism) could accept the evidence that Jesus was the Christ, could believe in this evidence, and find salvation. For Campbell, conversion was much more of an intellectual, rational process.
Later Walter Scott, strongly influenced by Campbell, would develop his famous “five-finger exercise.” This taught that conversion consists of faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, this appeared to merely be an intellectual process, devoid of any action of the Spirit. As Stone recorded, people of the “Spirit-emotional” persuasion concluded that this was “a spiritless, prayerless religion, dangerous to the souls of men.”
Because of this, Stone chastised some of the followers of Campbell for not being “sufficiently explicit on the influences of the Spirit,” even though he admitted the same accusations were made about his own group. Careless sentiments were both written and spoken that no influence was needed in conversion other than the written Word. This became the nub of the controversy.
A. T. DeGroot, a highly respected historian of the Christian church/church of Christ fellowship, states that the literature of the movement is more extensive on the subject of the Holy Spirit than even the topics of God or Christ. This is not because the Restoration Movement has no interest in God or Christ; rather it is because there was more controversy on the role of the Spirit. Most of the literature on the Holy Spirit came from the Campbell strand of the movement and was an effort to counter the popular view of Holy Spirit activity on the early frontier.
In his debate with N. L. Rice in 1843, Campbell affirmed this proposition: “In conversion and sanctification, the Spirit of God operates on persons only through the Word.” Campbell wanted to get away from any idea of a special working of the Spirit on the sinner’s mind through magical, spectral, or dreamlike influences. It is not that Campbell was denying the work of the Holy Spirit. He just wanted to focus on the mind-changing (and behavior-changing) activity of the words of Scripture having their effect on human thinking and awareness. Campbell believed that to allow a direct action of the Spirit upon a sinner without the cooperating activity of the impact of the written/spoken Word of Scripture was to open the floodgates of subjectivism and ultimately spiritual anarchy.
The result was that many people—particularly those outside the Restoration Movement—saw Campbell as not believing in the Holy Spirit. As one wag put it, “The followers of Campbell believe that when the last book of the New Testament was written, the Holy Spirit died, went to heaven, and has not been heard of since.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Campbell certainly believed in the indwelling presence of the Spirit in Christians—working in their lives and through their lives to accomplish God’s purposes. What he was opposed to was a special, immediate operation of the Spirit on the lives of sinners as a whimsical deus ex machina completely independent of the Word of God.
Most of the differences between Stone and Campbell were semantic and a difference in emphasis rather than substance. The similarities were certainly far greater than the differences. As a result, the followers of Stone and Campbell began to merge in Kentucky about 1832, and this merger soon spread throughout the country. Stone and Campbell did have some significant theological differences, but the work of the Holy Spirit was not one of them.
Toward the end of his life, when he was writing his autobiography, Stone acknowledged Campbell as “the greatest promoter of this Reformation of any man living.” In a loving phrase, Stone said, “I will not say there are no faults in brother Campbell; but that there are fewer, perhaps, in him, than any man I know on earth; and over these few my love would draw a veil, and hide them from view forever.” We can wish that our preachers, teachers, and theologians today would share that same selfless comradeship!
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.