By Tom Ellsworth
In 1856, postal authorities accepted a new name for a little community in southern Indiana: Santa Claus. Then, in the 1920s, the Postal Service decided there would never be another Santa Claus Post Office in the United States. Consequently, every December, more than 400,000 pieces of mail are routed through the town because of its Christmas-themed postmark. I suspect the community’s founders never anticipated the full impact of the unique name.
On a little knoll just a mile or so south of Santa Claus stands quaint, white-framed Mt. Zion Christian Church, the oldest church building in Spencer County. The original “church house” was built in 1835, but the church family had been meeting together in various homes since 1820 . . . only 11 years after Thomas Campbell penned his Declaration and Address—what many consider the birth of the Restoration Movement—and four years before Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell first met!
Is this connection to Restoration Movement history important? Has this heritage run its course? Are certain issues yet to be resolved? For those who serve as elders, these questions deserve thoughtful answers.
The Importance of Our Movement’s History
I believe all history is important. When we as God’s people do not remember who we have been in the past, we cannot know who we are today nor what we are trying to accomplish for the future. I fear when we as inheritors of this Stone-Campbell Movement forget the history of our spiritual heritage, we will lose something priceless.
It’s generally agreed that the Restoration Movement’s four central founding figures were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Walter Scott. We could also add “Racoon” John Smith and John Rodgers, two men who were instrumental in uniting the Stone and Campbell movements. Together, over time, these leaders—and many others—embraced spiritual ideals that I believe are still relevant today:
• The Scriptures alone are the source of Christian teaching.
• Churches should function in congregational freedom, not under denominational authority.
• Evangelism should be a major emphasis.
• Faith in Christ and obedience to him are all that is necessary to become a Christian.
• Baptism by immersion unites the believer with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.
• A weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is central to congregational worship.
• Local churches are under the oversight of a plurality of elders.
• The name “Christian” identifies the church with the person of Jesus Christ.
These principles rest upon the foundation of unity based on New Testament authority. Unity at the expense of New Testament authority tends to accept any doctrinal belief so long as it results in unity. One’s interpretation of New Testament authority to the exclusion of unity tends to breed sectarianism because others who don’t agree are excluded. In 1626, Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius wrote, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Other slogans captured the essence of this simple, yet profound, approach:
• “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.”
• “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no law but love”
• “Not the only Christians, but Christians only.”
Patterns Worth Following Today
Are these principles, birthed two centuries ago, still relevant? Some, it seems, are seeking to distance themselves from the Stone-Campbell heritage by minimizing the Lord’s Supper, compromising doctrinal positions, and emphasizing personal experience over Scripture’s authority. Is it time to move on from the past? After all, the Restoration Movement hasn’t solved all church-related issues. And, unfortunately, this movement designed to restore unity has divided more than once.
Just as the U.S. Constitution remains indispensable after 234 years, I would contend the ideals espoused by Campbell and Stone also represent timeless wisdom.
The plea for unity on the Bible’s authority is vital; I don’t have to agree with another’s opinions to work and serve together for the good of the kingdom. Campbell and Stone didn’t see eye-to-eye on some major theological issues, but they united despite their differences. That seems a pattern worth following today.
One need not look far to discover the drawbacks of a denominational structure, the danger of devaluing Scripture’s authority, or the selfishness of focusing inward at the cost of evangelism. I have yet to witness an immersion that didn’t result in hugs and tears of joy. And the Lord’s Supper has never become routine to me; to the contrary, even after years of weekly Communion, it is central to my worship.
Does this heritage speak into our polarized society? I believe it does. Since the Restoration Movement is nondenominational, there is no collective national voice to speak on political matters. When folks of one political persuasion feel unwelcomed in any congregation because of political views espoused by the leadership, doesn’t that miss the point of “in nonessentials, liberty?” The church certainly must stand firm on moral issues that political parties tend to hijack. But should the church make people feel excluded based on political opinions and personalities? That’s not our heritage.
Mt. Zion Christian Church continues to worship weekly, and while it may not be as famous as the Santa Claus Post Office just up the road, its impact through the years has been far more amazing. At least five generations of my family worshipped there and are buried in that cemetery. The preachers who served there were the evangelistic, church-planting kind that established the congregation where I became a Christian. I owe those men my life in Christ. I owe this Restoration Movement heritage my understanding of simple New Testament Christianity. I owe my ancestors (many of whom were preachers there) my faith as their legacy of faithfulness lives on 200 years later. Who knows how many others can claim the same indebtedness to the Mt. Zion congregation? I’m confident the founders of that church family never envisioned the impact of that singular distinction.
Will perfect unity ever be achieved? Not in this life. Does the Restoration Movement heritage answer all the issues? Probably not, but it is a great place to start. Of this I am certain—I wouldn’t want to be part of any other heritage.
(More information about Restoration Movement pioneers is available in such books as Union in Truth by James North; The Great Awakenings and the Restoration Movement by Max Ward Randall; The Church: A Trilogy by Robert C. Shannon. John W. Wade, and Enos E. Dowling; and The Stone-Campbell Movement by Leroy Garrett, among others.)