(Part two in a three-part series)
By Steve Carr
In our digital society, postage stamps seem archaic. But in Alexander Campbell’s day, they symbolized wealth. And as postmaster at Buffaloe, Virginia, he was able to wield this wealth to benefit the Restoration Movement.
During the colonial era, postal service was sketchy. It was so costly and inconsistent that the United States made it an official government institution after the Revolutionary War. As the country expanded westward, mail became essential in providing access to critical information, thoughts, and ideas.
As a result, postmasters became among America’s most important citizens. Campbell was appointed postmaster in 1827 and it gave him the leverage to rename Buffaloe after the biblical town of Bethany. But it wasn’t renaming towns and handling other people’s mail that motivated Campbell to take the position. In those days, postmasters could use franking privilege—the right to send as much mail as they desired without having to pay for the postage.
Why was this important? Just two years after becoming postmaster, Campbell began to publish the Millennial Harbinger magazine, arguably the most influential publication in Restoration Movement history. Campbell took advantage of his franking privilege to spread movement ideals all over the country. Interestingly, once the government began to limit this privilege, Campbell published the Harbinger less often.
So how did a man like Campbell—a preacher (and the son of a preacher) who was not politically connected—get a postmaster’s appointment? It can be traced back to a friendship that his father, Thomas, maintained with a wealthy farmer and landowner in Buffaloe. Alexander eventually courted the farmer’s daughter and they ultimately married. Alexander gained the advantages of wealth through his wife’s family. With these connections, his subsequent appointment as postmaster made perfect sense. But take away the influential in-laws and the postage stamp, and it’s possible our movement never would have become what it is today.
This affirms an unpopular truth: Finance drives movements to success.
That statement sounds offensive; we don’t want to admit that good ideas are beholden to affluence and power in order to succeed. But nearly every successful grassroots movement thrived because of robust financial backing—whether from benefactors supporting key leaders or powerful media outlets amplifying the cause.
For us in the Stone-Campbell tradition, we must admit that our movement is no different: One of the reasons independent Christian churches exist today is because there were individuals and groups that financed it during its earliest years. Accepting the influence of finance as part of our past will help us better understand how we must face our future.
TWO PERSPECTIVES OF WEALTH
Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, namesakes of our movement, provide a polarity of perspectives about finance. With regard to personal finances, they were ships passing in the night. Campbell started at the bottom and ended up wealthy while Stone was born into affluence but passed away in poverty.
As mentioned earlier, Campbell was the son of an immigrant preacher, so he already knew what it was like to scrape by. But access to resources through his in-laws permitted Campbell the freedom to fully devote himself to the work of restoration. Stone, however, was part of the Southern aristocracy; one of his ancestors was a governor of Maryland. Stone’s father died when he was young, which forced his mother to make some challenging financial decisions; she decided to spend a portion of the family inheritance on Barton’s education so he could pursue a career in law. Unfortunately for the family’s fortunes (but fortunately for us), Stone chose the path of ministry, a decision that did not make him wealthy.
While Campbell lived in comfort, Stone felt financial stress throughout his career. Stone was bivocational, and would work at his Kentucky farm late into the evening to provide for his family. He preached for decades all while toiling in hard labor, a regimen that contributed to his poor health later in life.
This is notable because our movement’s historians consistently mention that Stone wasn’t the intellectual equal of Campbell. While this may be true, the financial picture forces us to ask if it was a reflection of finances. Would the ideals of the movement have spread if Campbell had to operate bivocationally? Could Stone have been as prolific as Campbell if he had the financial backing to fully devote himself to the work of the movement?
OUR MOVEMENT’S THEOLOGY OF FINANCE
If we’re going to analyze the financial situations of Stone and Campbell, we should also examine their theological views of wealth and poverty, as those perspectives influenced our movement during its formative years.
In his later years of ministry, Stone articulated a more primitive approach to financial issues. His frontier attitude was on display as he preached a path to biblical obedience that emphasized modest living. In The Christian Messenger, Stone wrote that “the eternal happiness or misery of the human family . . . brought Jesus from heaven to earth, brought him to poverty; this led him to the cross; to the grave.” Stone’s more humble view of stewardship matched his lifestyle.
Campbell, however, seemingly was influenced by his access to wealth. He did not think that Christ’s path of poverty was to be emulated. In an issue of the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell attacked the monastic habits of Catholic priests, specifically that they forsook “all the business and enjoyment of society.” Campbell felt that financial resources could be stewarded for greater kingdom gains.
There were so many competing theological issues in our movement’s early years that the issue of finance was rarely discussed. But when the rift between the instrumental and noninstrumental churches widened, finance became a key point of contention. David Lipscomb, a key movement leader in the South during and after the Civil War, was influenced by Stone’s view on stewardship. When articulating why the Southern churches were theologically correct, one of Lipscomb’s arguments was their obedience to the financially humble way of Christ. Of course, Southern churches still reeling in the aftermath of the Civil War had little choice but to live in poverty, but they viewed it as a higher calling. Since the 1906 split, there’s been little conversation about scriptural views of wealth and poverty in our movement.
MONEY MOVES THE MOVEMENT
Yet while there was never intense argument over the theology of finance, the issue emerged in the 20th century as our movement used finance to guard theology.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, our movement’s parachurch organizations grew significantly, benefitting from the financial support of faithful believers. Missionary societies and ministry schools built robust financial reserves and large endowments. Simultaneously, liberal theology began to infiltrate some of these institutions. There were critiques from churches and ministers, demanding that these organizations change course from their eroding biblical beliefs. But since these parachurch organizations were already well financed, the critics lacked leverage, and the liberal parachurch organizations continued to operate as they wished. As many of us know, this led to the split with the Disciples and then a wave of new colleges and ministries to counter the theologically liberal institutions.
Not only did this usher in the era of fundamentalism to our movement, it altered the way we funded parachurch organizations. Individuals and churches were no longer willing to invest in the long-term viability of these ministries, since theological liberalism revealed it was difficult to hold a well-financed college or mission organization accountable. As a result, giving patterns shifted; donors strategically rationed out their giving in smaller but consistent increments. This way, institutions would be reliant on regular giving, they would not be able to build large endowments and reserves, and if they “went liberal,” they could be held accountable by shutting off financial support. Hence, finance became a means of enforcing biblical faithfulness.
FINANCING OUR FUTURE TODAY
Examining this part of our past is compelling as we try to interpret the current landscape of our movement. One reason people offer as evidence that our movement is in decline is that many of our parachurch organizations and colleges are experiencing financial difficulties. It’s convenient to blame these struggles on poor institutional money management, but we must at least acknowledge the complexity of our movement’s view of financial accountability. When these ministries became dependent on incremental giving, they were encouraged to plan for today, not the future. This worked as long as the churches kept their commitment to financially support these ministries. But ask any movement development/advancement officer and they’ll tell you their support continues to decline. Our most successful organizations are those that built strong financial reserves decades ago.
Was it wrong for us to use finance as a theological safeguard? Not necessarily. The more critical question is, how will we steward our movement’s resources in the 21st century to ensure our ideals can continue to thrive? Finances will continue to be a great influencer in the future, even as lack of financial resources will signal the end of many ministries in the years to come. Since stewardship is a spiritual discipline, we shouldn’t feel obligated to continue to support a ministry just because we share historical roots. Yet we mustn’t forget that our thriving churches and institutions today have benefitted from those who came before us; it’s a symbiotic relationship.
One final thought. As someone who has spent his entire professional career in the movement, I’m contacted weekly by missionaries trying to raise support for their work. It might be anecdotal, but it seems we have more workers than ever eager to enter the mission field. Yet with churches reducing (and sometimes completely eliminating) missions support, it’s difficult to raise the funds necessary to support the ministry. As much as the Lord has blessed our movement to influence nondenominational Christianity in the United States, we are obligated to support the work of restoration around the globe.
We need to recognize that we, like Campbell, are living in the land of plenty. This demands that we continually reexamine our stewardship. Jesus taught that where our treasure is, our heart will be also. So where is our heart?
Steve Carr is vice president of ministry development with CDF Capital. His thoughts on the Restoration Movement and ministry can be found at houseofcarr.com.