By Richard J. Cherok
People and movements frequently search for pithy statements to encapsulate ideas they deem worthy of remembering. Within United States history, for instance, citizens were once called upon to “Remember the Alamo” or vote for “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Whatever the slogan or motto, it is meant to strike an emotional chord and evoke a precise belief or action.
One such statement within the Restoration Movement goes something like this: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Though often expressed with variant wording, this slogan has become one of the movement’s most enduring mottoes. Surprisingly, however, this long-standing statement of Restoration Movement principles did not originate within the Stone-Campbell tradition. Moreover, there are many other Christian groups—the Moravians, Quakers, and Evangelical Presbyterians, to name a few—who have also adopted this phrase as an expression of their convictions.
While this slogan predates the Restoration Movement by several centuries, its origin has been somewhat elusive. Many have attributed the motto to Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century theologian from North Africa, but it isn’t found in his writings and it certainly isn’t of Augustinian origin. Nineteenth-century historian Philip Schaff, in his eight-volume History of the Christian Church, relied on the research of German theologian Friedrich Lücke to identify Rupertus Meldenius as the famous dictum’s author. Meldenius, a German Lutheran who would later be identified as theologian Peter Meiderlin, produced a small pamphlet around 1626 admonishing the warring Protestant leaders of his day to show love and forbearance to one another amid the difficulties of the Thirty Years’ War. Toward the latter half of his writing, Meiderlin included the Latin phrase, “In necessariis unitem, in non-necessariis libertatem, in utrisque charitatem” as the plea for a greater spirit of unity and cooperation.1
For more than a century scholars agreed that the noteworthy statement emanated from the irenic pen and spirit of Meiderlin. In 1999, however, Dutch historian Henk J. M. Nellen revealed that Marco Antonio de Dominis, a rogue Jesuit priest who served for a brief time as the Archbishop of Spalato, produced the phrase in 1617—nearly a decade prior to Meiderlin’s implementation of it. De Dominis, a Roman Catholic apostate, wrote a book that was highly critical of the authority of the papacy. If the papal powers could be tempered, he suggested, it would allow all to embrace “unitatem in necessariis, in non necessariis libertatem, in omnibus caritatem” (“unity in things necessary; in things not necessary liberty; in all things charity”).2
The individual most responsible for translating the phrase into English and advancing it among English speakers was Richard Baxter, a 17th-century English Puritan. During the religious tensions of the Cromwellian period and its aftermath, Baxter put forth the maxim as a petition for tolerance among the embattled Christian factions. For Baxter, the phrase became something of a personal motto that he included in a number of his writings, as well as in his autobiography.3
While the spirit of the slogan was a pivotal aspect of the early Restoration Movement’s thought, it seems that the first publication of the motto did not appear until after the movement was well established.4 In an 1866 memorial sermon delivered upon the occasion of Alexander Campbell’s death, Joseph King used the famous statement to describe Campbell’s thought regarding human creeds and biblical truths. King, a friend and former student of Campbell, said his mentor “never had a controversy with any man about what is in the Bible,” but found his greatest difficulties with those who add human creeds to the demands of the Scripture. Thus, he summarized Campbell’s thought as, “In matters of faith, unity; in opinion, liberty; in all things charity.”5
Perhaps the true source for the slogan within the Stone-Campbell Movement, however, is Charles L. Loos, another student and associate of Alexander Campbell. Loos’s essay “Christian Union,” which appeared as a two-part article in the April and May 1866 editions of the Millennial Harbinger, put forth the celebrated slogan at the same time as King used it to memorialize Campbell. “We accept cordially as our motto in this respect,” Loos wrote, “the sentiment of a great Christian man in the past,—In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, (opinions,) liberty; in all things, charity.”6
Shortly thereafter, the slogan became a widely accepted statement among Stone-Campbell adherents when Isaac Errett, the editor of Christian Standard and a close friend of Loos, incorporated the motto into his pamphlet, Our Position. In his discussion of Christian unity, Errett wrote, “In essentials—in that which is plainly taught and ordained as the will of God, we must be one; in non-essentials—in all that Christ has not taught and enjoined—we must be left free, guided only by that law of love which will ever lead us to seek the things that make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”7
Throughout its history and the various forms in which it has been expressed, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity” has been a consistent denunciation of extremist positions and an appeal for the middle ground of restraint and acceptance.
1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7, Modern Christianity: The German Reformation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1910).
2 H.J.M. Nellen, “De Zinspreuk ‘In necessariis unitas, in non necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas,’” Nederlands archief voor Kerkgeschidenis 79, No. 1 (1999).
3 Hans Rollmann, “In Essentials Unity: The Pre-history of a Restoration Movement Slogan,” Restoration Quarterly 39, No. 2 (1997).
4 Because the corpus of Restoration Movement literature is extensively large, it is difficult to state with absolute certainty that this slogan did not appear at some earlier point in a magazine, book, or sermon. But, it most certainly was not widely used before the second generation of Stone-Campbell adherents.
5 Joseph King, “A Memorial Sermon on the Occasion of the Death of Alexander Campbell,” Millennial Harbinger, May 1866.
6 C.L. Loos, “Christian Union,” Millennial Harbinger, May 1866. In an 1868 essay in which he again used the famed motto, Loos made it clear that he erroneously thought “the great Christian man in the past” who developed this phrase was Augustine. See C.L. Loos, “Evils of Sectarianism,” Millennial Harbinger, February 1868.
7 Isaac Errett, Our Position: A Brief Statement of the Distinctive Features of the Plea for Reformation Urged by the People Known as the Disciples of Christ (1872); reprinted in Charles Alexander Young, Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union (Chicago: Christian Century, 1904).
Richard J. Cherok serves as professor of church history at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.