Early-American Restoration Movements

Early-American Restoration Movements

For the last few weeks, we have had a series of articles covering the roots of the Restoration Movement. We looked at its spiritual predecessors in the Middle Ages; we saw more direct influences in the Reformed tradition, especially as delivered through the Puritans, as well as the Anabaptists. All of these factors were present in Europe, of course. But certain features peculiar to the American experience, particularly in the aftermath of the Revolution, made it ripe for the Restoration Movement to arise.

The main difference in America compared to Europe regarding religion was its sheer diversity. In Europe, every nation had its established, state church. Religious toleration was extremely limited where it even existed – that’s why so many Puritans fled to America, after all. Most of these upstart groups did not value “freedom of religion” per se; they simply wanted to establish themselves as the true church. But because there were so many of them, no one was able to become dominant.

Consequently, a new view of religious freedom emerged in America, a freedom from any sort of church or clerical authority. The Revolution intensified this feeling, as the rejection of the old monarchical paradigm for a new democratic one fostered a similar desire to be liberated from creeds, clergy, and tradition.  People were encouraged to read the Bible and think for themselves. Thousands, therefore, renounced their old religious allegiances, claiming to follow only Scripture and the example of the early church.

The primitive faith was even more appealing due to the denominational diversity of America. The ability to choose instead of being forced into the state church caused despair for many: which one was the true church? We are used to a weak ecumenicalism in the modern religious world, where the claims of any one Christian group are as good as another. In the early US, however, each denomination claimed to have The Truth as opposed to the others. Accordingly, many on the frontier began to rethink the shape of the church, looking back to the New Testament as the best hope for a faithful, unified church in America.

Thus a return to primitive Christianity was a powerful idea in the early days of the young nation: it promised an antidote to creeds and councils as well as an assurance of faithfulness in the midst of sectarianism. Barton W. Stone and the Campbells are names familiar to some of you who are obvious examples of this mindset. But it is important to note they were not alone; they were not even the first.

James O’Kelly (1735-1826) was a North Carolina farmer who became a Methodist preacher during the Revolution. At the time, Methodism was still a “society” within the Church of England. After the war, John Wesley suggested Methodists in America form an independent denomination. Thus, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1784.

O’Kelly and some others, however, objected that the episcopal form of government was unscriptural and advocated for an organization where each local congregation was responsible for itself. In 1793, he organized the “Republican Methodist Church,” with several former Methodist preachers and 1,000 members in a short time. The next year, they dropped that name, agreeing to call themselves simply Christians. They took the Bible as their only creed and adopted a congregational form of government, with elders in each church.

The question of baptism was debated in the O’Kelly movement in 1810; he refused to be convinced of believer’s immersion, and those who favored it refused to remain in the Christian Church. Many of these who adopted believer’s immersion joined fellowship either with Stone’s movement in the next decade or else another movement that arose around the same time in New England.

Abner Jones (1772-1849), a physician and preacher, rejected Calvinism, joining with other like-minded Baptists in taking the name Christian and organizing a church in Lyndon, Vermont in 1801. Jones became a traveling evangelist, preaching non-creedal Christianity. In 1803, he met another former Baptist minister, Elias Smith (1769-1846), who had also formed an independent Christian church on similar grounds. The two agreed to combine efforts, and by 1807, there were 14 churches and 12 ministers in the movement. Smith began publishing the Herald of Gospel Liberty in 1808, the first religious periodical in the US and, as a result, came to the attention of the O’Kelly Christians in the South, who extended to him the right hand of fellowship at a meeting.

Ultimately, the Smith-Jones movement was so insistent on doctrinal freedom – the name of the paper is telling – that it splintered. The majority joined with O’Kelly’s Christians in the South, who for a time were linked to Stone’s Christians in the West. When Stone united his efforts with Campbell, however, many originally from the New England and O’Kelly movements did not. Over the course of the 19th century, they ironically pushed to become part of the mainstream again and, through a series of denominational mergers, are today part of the United Church of Christ.

Churches of Christ, then, do not share any direct ancestry with either of these 2 movements. But the point is that various, independent movements arose simultaneously, from different denominational backgrounds, with the same impetus: to reject creeds and unite on the basis of Scripture alone. All of these were prior to and independent of Campbell (for those of us who may have been called “Campbellites”). This was a common impulse. But one we have mentioned repeatedly that is in our DNA is the movement of Barton W. Stone, to which we will turn next week.


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