By Victor Knowles
The unity of all believers was on the heart of Jesus when he fervently prayed to his Father, “I am not asking on behalf of these alone, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; just as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21, New American Standard Bible).
Kenny Boles, who studied Greek at Abilene Christian College and was a professor at Ozark Christian College for many years, said, “Unity is imperative, and it’s what Jesus prayed for. . . . It was the night before he died—this was his final wish! Even now my mother is dying of cancer. What kind of son would ignore her wishes? What kind of a person would ignore Christ’s dying wish?”
Our shared American Restoration Movement was born from this prayer. Thomas Campbell (1763–1854) traveled from Ireland to America in search of more fertile spiritual soil for this prayer to be answered. He earnestly sought to “restore unity, peace, and purity” in “the whole Church of God” by “taking the divine word alone for our rule; the Holy Spirit for our teacher and guide, to lead us into all truth; and Christ alone as exhibited in the word for our salvation . . .” (Declaration and Address, written 1809).
Campbell understood that the purpose of Christian unity was world evangelism. He asked the Lord “to put an end to our lamentable divisions, to heal and unite His people . . . that the Jews may be speedily converted, and the fullness of the Gentiles [be] brought in.” Bob Chambers, a retired minister living in Joplin, Missouri, said, “A unity which helps to ‘make disciples of all the nations’ has Heaven’s approval.”
Other concerned men such as Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, and “Raccoon” John Smith also believed the unity of all believers was necessary for the express purpose of helping win souls—“that they all may be one . . . that the world may believe” (John 17:21, King James Version; also quoted in the Declaration and Address). About 20 years after the writing of Declaration and Address, some concerned people put this prayer into practice at a New Year’s meeting in 1832 at the High Street Meeting House in Lexington, Kentucky.
Joel Solliday, minister with the Church of Christ in Lewiston, Idaho, and a graduate of Pepperdine University, posted on January 1, 2022, “We look forward to the future with hope because 190 years ago, ‘the great handshake’ took place when Barton W. Stone gave the right hand of fellowship to ‘Raccoon’ John Smith, bringing two strains of the Restoration Movement together.”
Stone had organized the famous Cane Ridge Revival of 1801, while Smith represented the Disciples who were rapidly growing under the teaching and influence of Alexander Campbell. Some have called it “the handshake that shook the frontier.” In his post, Solliday testified, “This impacted my life because as part of the Churches of Christ, I continue to claim the legacy of this unifying act of brotherly love.”
But, alas, brotherly love did not continue for long. Issues like missionary societies, paid ministers, instrumental music—and on a much greater scale, the Civil War—soon occurred, thus dividing a unity movement. On August 18, 1889, at an annual meeting held at Sand Creek, Illinois, Peter Warren and Daniel Sommer drew up the ill-advised Address and Declaration asserting that if those favoring innovations like church choirs and missionary societies did not give up their beliefs and practices, “we cannot and will not regard you any longer as brethren.” In 1906 J.W. Shepherd and David Libscomb, editor of the Gospel Advocate, acting unilaterally for Churches of Christ, compiled the first religious census on the numerical strength of the Churches of Christ; they asked for and received a separate listing from the Disciples of Christ in the 1906 U.S. Census of Religious Bodies.
Twenty years later, at a 1926 “rump convention” of the International Convention of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), a conservative group that would eventually become known as the Independent (or Conservative) Christian Churches/Churches of Christ was formed by conservative leaders W. E. Sweeney, P.H. Welshimer, and others to “defend, revive and further the restoration and extension of New Testament Christianity.” The conservatives announced they would become “independent” of the Disciple’s convention. Thus, in 1927, the first North American Christian Convention was held in Indianapolis. Russ Blowers once listed 14 major differences between the conservative Christian Churches and the liberal Disciples of Christ in The Lookout (July 19, 1994).
An early effort at rapprochement (a restoration of cordial relations) between separated members of the Restoration Movement were the Beam-Jessup “Unity Rallies” (1933–1957). The rallies were put together by Ernest Beam, a California judge and member of the Churches of Christ, and William Jessup, president of San Jose Bible College. The first meeting, held in the city auditorium at Visalia, California, drew about 1,000 people from both sides of the keyboard. The Murch-Witty “National Unity Meetings” (1937–1944) were directed by Ernest Beam and James DeForest Murch. The Ketcherside-Garrett “Wynnewood Chapel Unity Meetings” (1955–1960s) were directed by Leroy Garrett and W. Carl Ketcherside, both editors with the Churches of Christ. The “Hartford Forum” (1957–1972) was attended by folks from all three streams of the movement in Hartford, Illinois. The “Annual Unity Forum” (1966–1975) was a 10-year series of unity meetings put together by Leroy Garrett and Perry Gresham, president of Bethany College. Thomas Langford said this series “plowed the ground out of which, after an interval of 10 years, the Restoration Forums could grow in 1984.” I presented a 15-page paper reviewing these rapprochement efforts at the Pepperdine University Bible Lectures May 6-7, 2004.
Of all the “righteous efforts” toward unity, “none have had the longevity and widespread results” of the Restoration Forums (1984–2007), according to historian Douglas A. Foster. Of the first one, held at Ozark Bible College in Joplin, Missouri, then-president Ken Idleman said, “The closing prayer time on our knees was the closest I have been to the spirit of Pentecost.” Rubel Shelly said, “A beautiful spirit of love for God and one another as estranged brothers pervaded the discussion.” Attitudes were changed. Issues were discussed. Sin was confessed. Forgiveness was sought. (Read more about the Restoration Forums in Chris DeWelt’s article in this issue.)
At one of my 14 addresses at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, I listed 101 things we are now doing together! At the 2003 North American Christian Convention, Rick Atchley declared, “For a hundred years we have served God apart . . . only God knows what we can do the next hundred years serving him together.”
Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Those who have left their comfort zone and reached across the aisles have found this to be true.
PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH
In 2007, after the final Restoration Forum—attended by more than 1,000 people at Ozark Christian College—my wife, Evelyn, and I determined to practice what we had been preaching ever since we were married in 1967. We transferred our membership from the Villa Heights Christian Church in Joplin to the Mt. Hope Church of Christ in nearby Webb City, Missouri. Our first Sunday there we were greeted with a standing ovation from the then 450-member congregation.
For many years they had been blessed with strong and courageous leadership—especially the minister Gary Morrison—in reaching out and working together in unity with instrumental churches and institutions in Joplin. Dr. Karl Wendt, Mt. Hope’s counseling minister, teaches at Ozark Christian College. A good number of OCC students attend or are members at Mt. Hope. The church has hired several graduates from OCC to be youth ministers. One of them, Curtis Prunty, has also taught adjunct classes at the college. Several OCC professors, including president Matt Proctor, have taught classes or preached sermons at Mt. Hope.
Dr. Garland Bare, longtime missionary with Christian Churches, asked that his funeral be held at Mt. Hope because of his love for Christian unity and the wonderful way he was received when he preached a series of sermons there. I was privileged to preside at his funeral.
I serve on the four-man preaching team as a “teaching minister.” Mt. Hope generously supports our ministry, Peace on Earth Ministries, as well as Good News Productions, International. The Mt. Hope church gives us all hope that Christian unity efforts between churches, ministries, and colleges is eminently doable and spiritually profitable.
CHRISTIAN UNITY FOR THE SAKE OF WORLD EVANGELISM
Mike Schrage, executive director of Good News Productions, International, says, “Over the past 45 years, GNPI has collaborated with a good number of a cappella congregations, locally and internationally, as it serves the Restoration Movement.”
“GNPI founder Ziden Nutt labored alongside several a cappella missionary families to construct church buildings as a young missionary in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe),” Schrage continued. “Therefore, since the very beginning, several board members and staff from the a cappella fellowship have worked with GNPI.”
As examples, he said, both fellowships have combined human and financial resources for collaborative efforts in the United States, Kenya, and Uganda.
“Quaker Avenue Church of Christ, The Hills Church of Christ, Mt. Hope Church of Christ, and Holmes Road Church of Christ are just some a cappella congregations working in synergy with GNPI and other independent Christian Churches. Over the years, these two branches of the Restoration Movement have completed GNPI projects in Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan, and the Philippines.”
Livingstone International University in Mbale, Uganda, is another example of a valuable partnership, he said.
“LIU opened in 2012 and has graduated hundreds of students in the past decade. GNPI staff participate as adjunct professors, offer internships, and even hire some graduates.”
GNPI founder Ziden Nutt summarized: “Around the world, cooperative efforts are taking place in joint campgrounds, Christian schools, sharing of baptisteries, conferences, youth gatherings, retreats, lectureships, unity meetings, speaking, teaching, preaching among all groups, . . . relief work, Bible translation, . . . church growth studies, sharing of government registrations, and many others.”
A DUTY OF EVERY CHRISTIAN
We must not ignore our heritage and history. “The great handshake” must not be shaken off. To refuse the right hand of fellowship with fellow Christians is to deny a lost world the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ and be saved. Don’t fight the hand that needs you! It is, as Thomas Campbell said, “a duty equally belonging to every citizen of Zion. . . . What! Shall we pray for a thing, and not strive to obtain it! Not use the necessary means to have it accomplished!” I think not.
How about you? What will you do to help be the answer to Jesus’ prayer in our generation?
“We can’t do everything, but we can do something,” said the late Don DeWelt. “We can reach out to take at least one hand and say, ‘Brother, do you suppose we could do this work for the Lord . . . together?’”