Thomas Campbell: advocate of Christian unity

Hans Rollmann
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Two hundred years ago, in late summer 1809, a man in his mid-40s looks out of the second-storey window of a farm house in southwestern Pennsylvania. His thoughts travel beyond the fruit orchards below the window to his home in Northern Ireland and the family he has left behind. The Rev. Thomas Campbell, only two years before, had come to America to serve Presbyterians in the Presbytery of Chartiers, in and near today's Pittsburgh. In front of him lie some neatly written pages of a manifesto, which that same year will be printed in Washington, Pa., under the title Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington.

Ecumenical classic

That slim 56-page volume is today heralded as a classic of modern ecumenism. It gave birth to a movement of religious reform, known as the "Restoration" or Stone-Campbell Movement, which numbers today about three million members in three church bodies, the Disciples of Christ, the Independent Christian Churches, and the Churches of Christ. Because of its origins and growth in the United States, the distinguished church historian Nathan Hatch referred to the Disciples of Christ as "that most American of denominations." Although American in origin, the Declaration and Address reflects Campbell's much longer and trying experience with his church, not only in America but also in Ireland.

The document, born on the American frontier, strikes two chords at once in recognizing that, according to the New Testament, Christ's church on earth is "essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one" and that human creeds and theological opinions should not divide Christians when expressing their faith in worship and service.

Ulster Presbyterians

Campbell belonged to a body of Ulster Presbyterians called Seceders, who had separated in early 18th-century Scotland from other Presbyterians over the issue of whether lay patrons could appoint ministers to church livings as well as on questions about how to understand the notion of divine grace.

Later, in the 1740s, Seceder Presbyterians divided once more over the issue whether church members should swear certain oaths administered by magistrates of Scottish communities, when so doing acknowledged dependence of the church on the state. Seceders opposing such oaths came to be known as Anti-Burgher and those complying with the practice Burghers. Campbell was an Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian.

These divisions had been transplanted to Ireland by Scottish immigrants. Yet in Ireland, the so-called Burghers' oath, the original cause for division among Seceders, was not a live issue since Presbyterians were not a state church. Seeing the harm of division over a cause that had little relevance in his present environment, Campbell sought to unite Burghers and Anti-Burghers in Ireland, but was opposed by the church's governing body. Church leaders also objected to Campbell's membership in an ecumenical missionary organization, the Evangelical Society of Ulster, where Presbyterians of various stripes met with Methodists and Anglicans to co-operate in evangelism.

American divisions

If Campbell had thought that in America a freer spirit moved among his fellow Seceder Presbyterians, he was quickly taught a lesson. His church in Pennsylvania had become even more exclusivist and divisive in adhering to its confessional standards. Campbell accepted and communed with different kinds of Presbyterians on the Pennsylvania frontier, which led a fellow minister to file formal charges before his presbytery. The Anti-Burgher synod sanctioned Campbell's censure by the presbytery and he was eventually expelled from his church.

Declaration and Address

In the meantime, however, Campbell and like-minded church members had formed a voluntary organization in aid of evangelization and mission, the Christian Association of Washington. This body commissioned Campbell to express its thought in a charter document, the eventual Declaration and Address. Campbell declared that Scripture alone ought to be the only standard on which Christian unity among the churches should be attempted, but his appeal fell on deaf ears among the denominations to which he appealed.

Stone-Campbell movement

Eventually, the voluntary evangelistic organization evolved into a church, and after futile attempts to establish lasting relations with other Presbyterians and then Baptists, a separate body of churches developed, whose members were called Disciples of Christ. In 1832, the Disciples, now under the leadership of Thomas Campbell's son Alexander, merged with similarly autonomous congregations that had developed in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio under the leadership of Barton W. Stone, a central figure in the Cane Ridge revival, producing a fellowship of independent churches. These churches organized themselves according to what they perceived to be the New Testament model, with weekly communion and believer's baptism for the forgiveness of sins as ecclesial identity markers.

New fractures

Although both Thomas Campbell's and Barton W. Stone's efforts were motivated strongly by a spirit of unity, the movement they produced eventually fractured into three major religious groups. Disciples of Christ have become a theologically accommodating Protestant body, engaging modernity and institutional ecumenism. Independent Christian Churches have resisted the spirit of modernity and have aligned themselves with evangelical forms and ideas. Churches of Christ have continued to seek in the New Testament a blueprint for organization and faith.

Newfoundland has remained remarkably resistant to churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement. While the movement established churches in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and the Canadian West, the only significant presence in Newfoundland occurred when American base personnel stationed in Argentia, St. John's, and Stephenville formed military congregations. More recently, however, a small Independent Christian Church was established in Harbour Grace.

Hans Rollmann is Professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail:

Organizations: Campbell's, Christian Association of Washington, Stone-Campbell Movement Anti-Burghers Independent Christian Churches Evangelical Society of Ulster Canadian West Christian Church

Geographic location: United States, Pennsylvania, Ireland Northern Ireland Chartiers Pittsburgh Washington, Pa. Scotland Newfoundland Kentucky Tennessee Ohio Atlantic Canada Ontario Argentia St. John's Harbour Grace

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