While the various men we have written about in the past few weeks – O’Kelly, Smith, Jones, and Stone – were aspiring to be simply New Testament Christians in the United States, the principal figures of the fourth and final movement to examine were still in the British Isles. Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) was a Presbyterian minister in Ireland who became increasingly dissatisfied with the divisiveness of his denomination: he was not just a Presbyterian, but an Old Light, Anti-Burgher, Seceder Presbyterian—each one of those terms reflected a doctrinal split!
At the same time, through his studies at the University of Glasgow and ongoing contacts, Campbell became familiar with the Independent or Congregational churches in Scotland and Ireland. In contrast to the narrow concerns of his denomination, when he visited the Independent church nearby at Rich Hill, he heard appeals for fellowship, deeper piety, and a return to early Christianity. But his efforts to stir up reform in his group foundered, and he became unwelcome. Doctors had prescribed a sea voyage for a stomach ailment. So, at 45 years old, he packed up, left his family behind, and headed for America.
By chance, when he arrived in Philadelphia in May 1807, the Seceder synod was meeting there. He presented his credentials and was assigned to southwestern Pennsylvania, where he was soon a respected minister in Washington County. But that honeymoon period did not last long. One of Campbell’s duties was to administer the Lord’s Supper to scattered Seceders in his area. To his distress, he discovered there were Presbyterians from other sects who had not partaken literally for years. Communion with digressives—from the point of view of the Seceders—was strictly prohibited. Campbell, however, was overwhelmed with compassion for these people and decided to leave the matter up to the individual.
Another young minister was working with him. Campbell preached a sermon in preparation for the Lord’s Supper, lamenting the divisions in Christendom and expressing that all who considered themselves Christians should participate. His zealous colleague accused him of heresy, and he was brought up on official charges before his denomination. There was a trial, an expulsion, and appeal, but the upshot is that in September 1808, Thomas Campbell withdrew from the authority of the Seceder Presbyterians.
He then began a Bible study group: the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania. Now he was free to emphasize that the Bible alone should be the guide for Christians; as you might expect, given the success of similar calls around this time in other parts of the county, he soon gained the hearing of others. At the first meeting, he laid down the principle that should guide them: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
In expounding that principle, he set about preparing a formal statement of purpose for the group, which became the Declaration and Address, the most significant historical document for the history of the Restoration Movement. It continues to impact us today, even if you have never heard of it. Space precludes printing it in its entirety, but we can summarize a few of the points from its 13 propositions:
- A call to Christian unity and a condemnation of division. That the church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one. This is possibly the most significant sentence in the document, charting the course for the work. Conversely, division among Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. Thus, there should be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them.
- To combat division and foster unity, Scripture should be our only guide. Nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. More than 60 times, phrases like “expressly exhibited,” “plain,” “clear,” are used; neither opinions nor creeds should cause division. By returning to the purity of the early church, we can be what God intends.
- An appeal to love and understanding. All those who confess Christ should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren, children of the same family and Father, temples of the same Spirit, members of the same body…
These principles were not intended to be the basis of a new denomination, but a call for Christians to abandon denominationalism altogether. The cause that we advocate is not our own peculiar cause, nor the cause of any party, considered as such; it is a common cause, the cause of Christ and our brethren of all denominations. In the later history of the Restoration Movement, the liberal branch that became the Disciples of Christ abandoned the idea of looking to the restoration of the early church in favor of a vacuous unity embracing any sort of doctrine—and many today would follow suit. But we should note, too, that many in the conservative branch that came to be known as churches of Christ neglected the other side of this: unity. If we really want to be Biblical—if we want to restore the 1stcentury church, and we should!—we must take the call for unity, like Christ’s prayer in John 17, more seriously.