FROM THE BANKING HOUSES of New York to the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the cotton fields of Alabama, the one-horse farms of Indiana, the gold fields of California—nineteenth-century America was a titan in adolescence. In the sixty-five years from 1800 to 1865 the United States increased in area by three times and increased in population by eight times, the frontier was rolled back well beyond the Mississippi River, a significant exodus into urban centers began, the national struggle for political democracy was consummated, and the groundwork for an economic revolution was laid. Such a metamorphosis was not accomplished without growing pains. Sectional frictions and the struggle of the common man against class interests generated persistent and perplexing internal problems. Gaudy growth and bitter and bloody discord—such is the antebellum American saga.1
The story of American religion during these years is of the same cloth as the story of the American nation.2 Organized religion in the United States shared the growth of the nation, was embued with its youthful vitality, and was jolted by the same internal quakes which divided and redivided the country over sectional and economic issues.
The religious history of the United States has been marked by recurrent cycles of decline and revival. The early religious interest which played such a major part in the founding of several of the colonies declined in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. After 1740 this decline was followed by a second period of enthusiasm, the Great Awakening, which worked its way through all the colonies by the 1770’s. Although the vitality of American religion never quite died in the years before and after the Revolutionary War, there was a marked decline and “there was probably never a time when there was as large a percentage not only of religious indifference, but of active hostility to religion, as during the last two decades of the eighteenth century.”3 Around the turn of the century a second awakening stirred the American religious scene. A significant revival had erupted in the East as early as the 1740’s in the universities, but more spectacular was the religious outbreak all along the American frontier known as the Great Revival in the West. This new evangelical surge caused a significant revamping of several religious bodies and the establishment of several new sects. It culminated in an unprecedented growth of those sects most suited to meet the religious needs of the ebullient and individualistic society of the frontier; the Baptists, the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, and the Cumberland Presbyterians.4 The frontier was also “a natural breeding ground for bizarre cults and utopian societies” and the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of the Mormons, the Shakers, the Rappites, the Adventists, and other similar groups.5
While the development of the evangelistic sects of the West is one of the dominant themes in ante-bellum American religious history, the urban churches continued to play a significant part in the molding of the religious thought of the nation. The intellectual leadership of American religion remained unalterably connected with the names of the great Eastern preachers such as Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing, who pushed toward a more liberal understanding of the Christian tradition. Nor was evangelical religion confined to the West. In the East, especially in the cities, a long list of revivalists, beginning with Charles G. Finney, and including clergymen from most major American churches, adopted the fervor and techniques of the frontier camp meetings and roused the growing masses of city population with their Christian message.
In short, the history of American religion in the nineteenth century was a story of challenge and response. The challenge of bringing religious order out of the chaos of the frontier and the challenge of rampant immorality and irreligion in the restless young cities were met by new bursts of vital religion. Sometimes the older churches remodeled to meet the new demands; sometimes new ones emerged; but whatever the institutional form might be, in the first half of the nineteenth century organized religion made large gains toward reasserting its dominance of American life.
The eruption of fervent and revivalistic religion in the West and the urban centers of the East produced an extraordinary shuffling of the American religious census. In 1800 the largest American denomination was the Congregationalist, the Presbyterians were second, and Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Reformed, Quakers, German Sectaries, and Methodists followed in that order. By 1850, the Methodists were first with 1,324,000 members; Baptists second with 315,000; Presbyterians third with 487,000; Congregationalists fourth with 197,000; Lutherans fifth with 163,000; the Disciples of Christ, after only about twenty years of independent existence, sixth with 118,000 members; and the Episcopalians seventh with only about 90,000 members. William Warren Sweet emphasizes the tremendous impact these developments had on the continuing pattern of American religion; “The proportional numerical strength of the American Protestant churches today may largely be explained by the relative effectiveness with which they followed the population westward in the years after independence had been achieved.”6
American religion again responded to the pressures in American society by the multiplication of organized churches during the great slavery crisis. Almost unanimously churches became deeply enmeshed in the North-South frictions which plagued the nation in the decades before 1861. When the nation divided in 1861, American religion also divided—in some cases the churches preceded the nation in the action, the Baptists and Methodists by as much as fifteen years, and in other cases religion followed, but every major intersectional Protestant church divided.
The evangelical religion of the country before 1865 was active, optimistic, and free. The variety of manifestations it took was shocking to European observers, but in it all there was a common Christian tradition in the nation as there was a common mind shared by all Americans. If American organized religion repeatedly crumbled under pressure from American society, there was an enduring unity in its fervor, evangelicalism, and moral seriousness. As Richard Niebuhr puts it, the common objective which permeated all of the evangelical tradition was the Christian dream of the establishment of “the Kingdom of Christ” in America.7
During the period of religious enthusiasm and ferment around the turn of the nineteenth century, numerous protest and reform movements broke out in the restless young American nation. The central theme of several was an embattled plea for the restoration of New Testament Christianity as a basis of Christian union. In such diverse places as New Hampshire, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania new prophets of the ancient order began seeking the elusive dream of many Christian reformers— the rebirth of the primitive church. They generally conceived that this would be possible if all would wear the name “Christian” or “Disciples of Christ” and return to the pattern of the first-century church in doctrine, worship, and practice. The two largest of these reforming streams united in 1832—one led by Barton Warren Stone and the other by Alexander Campbell.8 The American religious movement which had its source in these two streams has never had an exclusive name; Alexander Campbell preferred “Disciples of Christ,” Barton Stone’s followers preserved the popularity of the name “Christian Church,” while in many localities the name “Church of Christ” was most widely used.9
Barton Warren Stone was born in Maryland in 1772 and soon moved with his family to the frontier in western Virginia where he received a back-country academy education about as good as the frontier had to offer. While still a young man, he had a moving conversion experience and became an ordained Presbyterian clergyman. In 1796 the young preacher migrated westward, finally settling in southern Kentucky, where, around the turn of the century, he was one of the leaders in the revival which swept that area. Stone had always had reservations about the traditional Calvinistic doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election and during his revivalistic campaigns he became convinced of the error of these doctrines. He began to preach that the love of God opened salvation to all men who would accept Him. This action led to the expulsion of Stone and his followers, along with several other preachers, by the Synod of Kentucky in 1803. After uniting in an outlaw presbytery of their own creation—the Springfield Presbytery—for about a year, the group in 1804 announced the dissolution of the presbytery in one of the basic documents of Disciples history, “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” In this document the bolters announced their intention to call themselves simply “Christians,” renounced the rite of ordination, and agreed that the Bible was the only source of authority in religion. Soon afterward they began to practice baptism by immersion. The young Christian church’s growth was rapid in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee and by 1830 it numbered about 15,000 members.10
Thomas Campbell, until he moved to America in 1807, was a Presbyterian minister in northern Ireland. Campbell was thoroughly familiar with the distressingly divided state of his own church in Ireland and had been an active leader of church-union sentiment before his decision to come to America. His contact with the radical reform movement led by Robert and James Alexander Haldane in Scotland had also introduced him to the idea of “restoration” before he came to the United States. Immediately upon his arrival Campbell was given a charge in western Pennsylvania by the Synod of North America of the Seceder Presbyterian Church, one of the many minority wings of the Scottish church. His desire for unity led him to admit nonmembers of the church to communion services and this brought him into immediate conflict with the church authorities. In 1808 he was suspended by the synod and the next year he and his followers formed “The Christian Association of Washington” (Pennsylvania) which was a religious society composed of members of all denominations. They did not consider themselves a “church” until four years later. Campbell summarized their views at the formation of the society in a phrase which became the battle cry of the movement: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” In 1809 Thomas Campbell wrote a document of fifty-six pages for the Association which was called the Declaration and Address. The Declaration and Address enumerated the shortcomings of contemporary religion and outlined the steps necessary for the restoration of primitive Christianity.
In 1809, just as the Declaration and Address was completed, Thomas Campbell was joined by his son, Alexander, who, with the remainder of the Campbell family, had delayed his coming to America until called by his father. The younger Campbell had spent his last months before his departure for America in Scotland where he was considerably influenced by the Haldane movement and another small religious group known as the Sandemanians, which, founded by John Glas and under the leadership of Robert Sandeman, had reached startlingly similar conclusions to those emerging among the various “Christian" groups in the United States.
Alexander Campbell was concerned that his newly formed religious convictions might be offensive to his father. When his father greeted him with the Declaration and Address, he was overjoyed. He immediately threw the vigor of his youthful zeal (he was twenty-one years old upon his arrival in America) and profound and expanding intellectual powers behind the new movement and soon assumed its leadership. In 1812 infant baptism was renounced by Campbell and his followers and immersion began to be practiced as the only correct form of baptism. Largely because of their adoption of immersion, in 1815 the Campbells found fellowship in the Baptist Church but the partnership proved to be an uneasy and unsatisfactory working agreement and ended in the early 1830’s.
During his years as a Baptist, Campbell founded his first paper, the Christian Baptist, which he used from 1823 to 1830 with devastating proficiency in gaining followers among the Baptists of western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. The fundamentals of the restoration plea, as well as the basis of separation from the Baptist church, appeared in the pages of the Christian Baptist. Campbell mercilessly attacked the clergy, creeds, and authoritative councils and pled for a “restoration of the ancient order of things.” By 1830 the Campbell movement was rapidly crystallizing and thousands of converts were being gained yearly.
The acquaintance of Stone and Alexander Campbell began in 1824. Their differences were slight and as the two streams converged upon each other in Kentucky in the late 1820’s, the two leaders, after some negotiations, agreed in 1832 to unite. The actual process of union took place in an amazingly successful merging of local congregations at the grassroots level, or by simply agreeing to fellowship one another, that is, to accept one another as true “Churches of Christ." Although the union was imperfect (many of the Stone “Christians” refused to accept the “Campbellite” union and rather remained with the James O'Kelly “Christian” group in North Carolina which was called the Christian Connection Church), it was tremendously significant in increasing the membership and the range of the newly formed church.
The years following the Stone-Campbell union were marked by a solidification of doctrine and organization along with an impressive growth. Alexander Campbell’s influence until his death in 1866 was enormous. A series of debates, including one with the renowned atheist Robert Owen in Cincinnati in 1829, spread his reputation and accelerated the progress of the movement.
A growing troop of rough-and-ready pioneer preachers scattered the vital message of the Disciples of Christ from Ohio to Texas and from the Carolinas to Missouri. But these fiery backwoods exhorters were only a part of the Disciples story. Although it is true that the movement made great gains among the common folk of the West during the ante-bellum period, it is also true that the Disciples made considerable progress among the people of culture, wealth, and social position as the crudest stages of frontier life moved farther west. Many of the early preachers in the church were men of real social standing and distinction—and often of wealth. They often addressed and converted the most stable elements in the rapidly developing society of the West. The Disciples sold their gospel in all segments of society, in all sections of middle-America. Their leaders were as diverse as the society they worked in—some were rich and some were poor; some were illiterate and some were university graduates; most were farmers, but a few lived in the mushrooming Western cities such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Louisville; some were known throughout the church and others never preached outside their native county—they were united only in their determination to “restore the ancient order.”
One early historian of the Disciples of Christ has suggested that one of the two most important events in the history of the church was “the organization of the American Christian Missionary Society.”11 The significance of the founding of the society in 1849 is difficult to overestimate for it not only marked the weak beginnings of national organization within the group but it also initiated rumblings of discontent which were the first signs of an internal difference in interpretation of the restoration plea. Half a century later, when the movement finally accomplished a practical division, the missionary society was to be one of the “issues."12 The society was the herald of greater union and of ultimate division.
The establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society was the result of growing agitation by many for more co-operation; a result which was foreshadowed in the thirties and forties by increasing numbers of local and state organizations which were themselves the successors of the old “conferences” and “co-operative meetings” of the early years of both the Stone and Campbell movements. Although the annual conventions of the society had no authoritative powers in the church, and generally avoided discussion of any controversial theme, they acted throughout the years as a unifying force as well as a means of furthering missionary activity. The society had the hopeful beginning of receiving widespread support from the most influential leaders in the group. Especially important was the blessing received from the aging Alexander Campbell, who in his earlier years had been quite disrespectful of such organizations. But there was by no means solid approval of the new venture even at this early date. During the decade of the fifties important figures like the Kentucky evangelist, Jacob Creath, Jr., and the Nashville educator and preacher, Tolbert Fanning, began to give vocal leadership to the anti-society faction within the church.
As the controversy over the missionary society and other “issues” progressed in the years following the Civil War, it became more and more obvious that a basic dilemma which faces all ideological movements was involved in the strife. The basic theological issue which ultimately caused a division of the Disciples was the question of a “liberal” or “conservative”—"loose” or “strict”—interpretation of the restoration plea of Thomas Campbell: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” The question of whether the silence of the Scriptures was “binding” or “loosing” was a fundamental one which was to disturb the Disciples for fifty years. The absence of scriptural precedent for the missionary society and, later, other “innovations,” brought this question slowly into focus.
The division which began to spread through the ranks of the church in these early years also found expression in the point of emphasis of the two-fold ideal of the original reformers. Their desire was for “Christian union” through the “restoration of the ancient order of things.” While the two goals seemed perfectly compatible, indeed, inseparable, in the minds of the early reformers, in later years the dividing parties began to feel a closer kinship to one or the other of the two—the liberals, “Christian union” and the conservatives, “the restoration of the ancient order of things.”
Underneath this theological facade deep and turbulent undercurrents had long troubled the waters of peace within the sect. The sectional, economic, cultural, and psychological diversities within the movement from its beginning were blurred in the early years by fervor and lack of organization. National organization and increased brotherhood communication in the decade of the 1850’s, along with a long series of national crises, slowly brought the antagonistic elements into focus. A significant part of this study deals with the formative impact of these sociological forces on the course of Disciples history.
By 1865 the Disciples of Christ had over 200,000 members.13 The church apparently had passed through the bloody national ordeal without a division and in 1866 Moses E. Lard, widely known Kentucky editor and preacher, confidently boasted, "we can never divide.”14 The new and vigorous leaders who directed the movement in the years following the Civil War (by 1866 such names as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, and John T. Johnson were no longer on the church rolls) found out that Lard was wrong in his church division prophecy. The church could divide and did divide. In fact, it was already dividing when Lard made his prophecy. One of the foremost intellectual preoccupations of the post-Civil War Disciples’ leaders was to explain theologically how the church could divide; one of the primary aims of this study is to examine the sociological process by which it did divide.
The recurrent outbursts of active, vital religion in American history have left deep imprints on the nation’s thought. In his introduction to a study of American religion made by the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Ray Abrams comments that “religion is quite obviously one of the most powerful and persistent of all the social forces.”15 The social historian Ralph Gabriel also emphasizes the impact of American religion on the nation’s social thought: “The twentieth-century student is often astonished at the extent to which supernaturalism permeated American thought of the nineteenth century.”16 But the relationship between religion and society in America has by no means been one-sided. One of the most persistent patterns in American religious history has been the “Americanization” of religious expression in this country. Abrams also notes this influence: “On the other hand, in the pattern of the interrelationship of our social institutions, organized religion has been greatly influenced by the political, economic, and educational system. . . . Social change has deeply affected church life.”17
Since the pioneering studies of Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and Richard Tawney early in the twentieth century, religious historians and sociologists have done a good deal to clarify the complex relationship between religious and social thought.18 The historic expressions of Christianity have been sorted into categories, each of which represents a describable mixture of the Christian “ethos” and a particular socio-economic tradition. While nomenclature often differs, the broad divisions generally used are: 1. The church, ecclesia, or ecclesiastical body, which includes such European national churches as the Lutherans and Anglicans—groups growing out of the right wing of the Protestant Reformation. 2. The independent body or denomination, including most of the American religious groups which have the established sociological characteristics of European ecclesiastical bodies without their unique relationship to the state. 3. The sect, which includes the left wing of the Christian movement both in Europe and America.19
The three-fold sociological division which includes the ecclesiastical body is less meaningful in a study of American Christianity than in the European scene where the established church type is prominent. Recent students of American religion have emphasized that denominationalism is the natural state of religion in America; the denominational expression of the Christian tradition is final in this country and does not represent, as it often does in Europe, a transitional stage between sect and ecclesiastical body. Pluralism in religion is considered normal and even desirable by most Americans, and denominationalism is the natural and final expression of this philosophy.20
Sects and denominations are defined in terms of both theological and sociological common denominators. A denomination, while it considers itself the “true religious community,” is “less exclusive, owing to a less institutional and more spiritual notion of Christian fellowship.”21 Such a group is not only inclined to be more tolerant of other religious bodies it is also more tolerant of the society in which it exists. The denomination is a “culture-centered religion” and, in effect, becomes the religious expression of the leading element in the social order.22
On the other hand, sects are “characterized by a rigid exclusiveness" which distinguishes than from denominations.23 The sect is also “indifferent towards the authority of the State and the ruling classes” and quite critical of the cultural norms of the society in which it exists.24 It is an expression of the Christian message in terms of protest against society and is “connected with the lower classes, or at least with those elements in Society which are opposed to the State and to Society.”25 In sum, sect and denomination are different expressions of the Christian message designed to meet the needs of the socially contented and the disinherited.
While these sociological divisions are useful in tracing the development of, and relating religious groups, they do not give a clear-cut picture of the status of all religious bodies. As a matter of fact, many churches do not fit snugly into any one of the divisions; some churches have the characteristics of more than one of them; and there is a persistent tendency among sectarian groups to evolve into denominations. The sects, originating among the lower classes, are communities formed on “a genuine religious basis” and from them “all great religious movements based on Divine revelation which have created large communities have always issued.” But the very vitality and creativity of the sect holds within itself the seeds of denominationalism because “inevitably, as the movement develops, the early naive vital religious content always fuses with all the higher religious forces of the intellectual culture of the day; apart from this fusion faith would be broken by the impact of the cultural environment.”26
Although many sects evolve into denominations, others have shown a remarkable ability to preserve their sectarian characteristics for generations. Other radical groups develop in such a distinctive way that some recent students have seen the need for a new classification—the “established sect” or the “institutionalized sect.”27 The evolution of the sect is often determined by the character of its peculiar protest. Sometimes the protest of the group is too radical, too incompatible with the social milieu, to be accommodated within the broad mainstream of socially established religion. Such a sect may develop organizationally and institutionally in the same manner as other groups which evolve into denominations but its unique plea keeps it out of the mainstream of the denominational movement. It remains a halfway stopping place between anarchic sectarianism and acculturated denominationalism.
In studying the social thought of a religious body many of the most intriguing problems are questions of why the Christian message was expressed in the way that it was and why the particular form in which it was molded attracted the group of people it did. What was the tenuous complex of motivations which prompted some to formulate and others to accept the unique social philosophy of a particular sect? What were the sociological motivations which prompted an evolution from sect to denomination or which preserved the sectarian emphasis? The answers to these questions are neither simple nor subject to comprehensive generalization. The motivation for the social philosophy (as well as the theology) of each religious group is an intricate mixture of sociological and spiritual forces.
One sociological factor which has influenced the social thought of many religious groups is the ethnic composition of the body. Many churches within the Christian system have evolved primarily as the religious expression of an ethnic group. H. Richard Niebuhr has emphasized the importance of the immigrant church in the explosive development of denominationalism in America.28 Often, as the second and third generations of immigrant children began to lose their peculiar national status in the American melting pot, they continued to use the ethnic church as the preeminent connection with their immigrant heritage.29
Generally an isolated ethnic group also forms a congruous economic unit in society and the immigrant church in America is sometimes better understood as an economic expression than an ethnic one. It has long been apparent that the vital and emotional religious expression of sectarianism met the needs of the lower classes. Through the sect the dispossessed found an avenue for their simple and ebullient spiritual expressions. The sect also supplied the vehicle for the propagation of their economic and social philosophies within the Christian tradition.
H. Richard Niebuhr, in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, relates the history of American religion as the story of churches being formed and torn apart, stagnating and growing, in cadence with the violent sectional economic struggles which racked the American nation in the nineteenth century. Dividing the nation into economic and cultural units of East and West and North and South, Niebuhr pictures the rise of new sects and the development of new denominations as basically responses to sectional religious needs. He writes:
The part which the sectional conflict between North and South has played in the history of church schism in America is well-known. Less obviously but not less effectively the constantly recurring strife between East and West has left its mark on religious life in the United States and has been responsible for the divergent development of a number of denominations.30
While the American pattern of sect creation and development has basically followed in the European tradition, the history of “churches of the disinherited” in this country has been influenced by the peculiar sectional flavor of American economic struggles. American religion in the nineteenth century rent first into religious groups which satisfied the needs of the East and the West and later divided again into groups which represented the economic and cultural interests of the North and the South.
As the economic and cultural climate of the American sections changed with the development of the nation in the nineteenth century, the religious groups which had been generated by the sectional needs also changed. As the American frontier passed, the sectarian groups which had flourished in its atmosphere became “rural churches” in which the sectarian emphases were “modified by the influence of social habit.”31 The “rural church” was a transitional stage for the great evangelical churches of the West in which they were less fervent and vigorous than in their radically sectarian stage but in which they were only slightly less suspicious of the virtues of urban communities and urban churches. It was not until the late nineteenth century that these frontier groups developed a close interrelationship with the new industrialized and urbanized America and concurrently passed into the status of religious denominations. William Warren Sweet notes that as this evolution took place within the great Western evangelical groups, there were recurrent resurgences of sectarianism. He accounts for the widespread generation of new sects in the 1880’s by the “cultural metamorphosis” which had “taken place in these great evangelical bodies, transforming them into upper middle-class churches.”32
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the development of religious bodies and the motivation of their social thought can be understood simply in terms of the relation of a church to an economic group. If Christian thought has been shaped historically to fit the economic presuppositions of certain sociological groups, it is no less true that the economic and cultural philosophy of Western man has been cast in the mold of the Christian tradition. It would be ridiculous to say that the force of the religious stream in American history has never flooded over the embankments of class dictates. In his 1937 study, The Kingdom of God in America, Niebuhr stated that he was dissatisfied with the unbalanced picture he had presented in The Social Sources of Denominationalism:
Though the sociological approach helped to explain why the religious stream flowed in these particular channels it did not account for the force of the stream itself; . . . while it could deal with the religion which was dependent on culture, it left unexplained the faith which is independent, which is aggressive, rather than passive, and which molds culture instead of being molded by it.33
Nor have social historians been oblivious to this truism. Ralph Gabriel writes:
But social beliefs are affected by other forces than economic change. If a man on earth must eat, so also must he adjust his life and thought to the mysteries surrounding him. . . . For this reason the reigning cosmic philosophy is as fundamental to a particular climate of opinion as are its economic foundations to a selected social scene.34
The persistent force of the vital, creative Christian message has unquestionably been a powerful influence in the development of American social thought.
Finally, religion is born of and molded by deep-seated psychological needs. The “individual psychology” of the members of any religious group must be considered in order to understand the peculiar characteristics of that group. Joachim Wach asks the intriguing question: “Are there, generally speaking, types of personality roughly corresponding to the sociological types of fellowship which have been outlined?”35 Elmer T. Clark has also suggested that the sectarian impulse in America has psychological undertones: “That so many persons attach moral meaning to what most people regard as trivial details is a psychological problem in itself.”36 Dilemmas in the thought of a religious group which defy explanation simply in terms of economic, ethnic, and religious factors often may be resolved in terms of the common mind which drew the group together. The psychological character of the leader, especially in sectarian bodies, acts as a magnet which draws around him people of like mind and leaves a permanent imprint on the thought of the church.
All of these complex and tenuous factors are involved in understanding the social thought of a religious movement. Perhaps more than in any other ideological area, the convictions of men in the name of religion are rooted in the innermost subsoil of his mystical, spiritual, practical, socio-conditioned, and sometimes twisted experience.
Very little work of any significance has been done in the history of social thought of the Disciples of Christ in the nineteenth century;37 in fact, Winfred Garrison, the outstanding historian of the church, prefaced his three-page summary of this area of the movement’s history with an explanation of why the Disciples had been almost totally unconcerned with social problems:
It was in the early years of the twentieth century that the Disciples began to have a new sense of the ethical and social responsibility of the churches. . . . Disciples in the earlier period had special reasons for aloofness from social problems, and even for hesitating to make positive pronouncements on disputable questions of personal conduct. The primary reason for this was their concentration on restoring the unity and the apostolic order of the church and on the conversion of individuals according to the spiritual “plan of salvation.”38
The history of the Disciples of Christ, as that of most other religious groups, has been written largely in terms of theological and organizational development.
It is true that Disciples were first concerned with establishing the kingdom of Christ on earth, but this spiritual preoccupation had tremendous social implications. They thought and wrote a great deal about what society ought to be like. While divided on the question of whether they ought to become involved in political attempts to regenerate American society, as were most American Protestant leaders, they were consistently vocal in expressing their views on social questions, even while insisting that the only way to accomplish the needed reform was through spiritual revolution. Disciples vocalized their social ideologies, they intricately connected them with their theological concepts and, perhaps even more significant, there was often a striking and significant diversity of viewpoints—but they were not “aloof.”
Aside from the lack of interest in social history, two other erroneous basic assumptions have plagued Disciples historiography. They are both vividly illustrated in Oliver Read Whitley’s Trumpet Call of Reformation. Although Whitley repeatedly states that he has based his conclusions on “an extensive research in the most important source material of Disciples [sic],”39 his documentation, as far as primary materials are concerned, is taken almost completely from the periodicals edited by Alexander Campbell and from twentieth-century publications. Whitley supports that portion of his study dealing with the period to 1870 solely with citations to the Christian Baptist and the Millennial Harbinger (with the exception of one reference to Lard’s Quarterly) and then skips to the publications of the twentieth century—for the most part articles written after 1930.40 Whitley’s book is not a unique example in Disciples historiography. Assumptions that the early history of the Disciples is synonymous with the story of Alexander Campbell and that the period from 1865 to 1900 was an era when the church was without competent leaders and in which very little was achieved have often distorted the history of the movement.41
Unquestionably the influence of Alexander Campbell on the early history of the Disciples of Christ was enormous. But to attempt to understand the broad scope of the movement simply on the basis of the material in the Christian Baptist and the Millennial Harbinger is absurd. There was tremendous diversity in the body from the beginning, and a meaningful explanation of the tensions which developed in the church in the latter half of the nineteenth century without an understanding of these diversities is impossible. If Alexander Campbell was the uncrowned monarch of the church before 1860, he reigned over a turbulent and unruly kingdom. Other important ante-bellum leaders left deep and permanent imprints on Disciples thought. Noel L. Keith’s work, The Story of D. S. Burnet: Undeserved Obscurity42 is typical of what needs to be done with other early leaders.
Within the framework of this understanding of Disciples history this study develops as a three-part story. The first is a narrative of what the Disciples thought and did on social issues. Not only has the variety of thought on social questions often gone unnoticed and many unique and significant individuals been ignored by the students of the church, but the actual course of the social thought of the movement has often been misjudged, or, more frequently, misguessed. Interpretation without the aid of information has too often been the case and it is to the correction of this problem that a considerable portion of this work is directed.
But the most intriguing facet of this study involves interpretations of impact and motivation. The hard facts which tell the story of what men did and thought on a specific social issue are coherent and meaningful in terms of Disciples history and American history only if they are put into the context of people being molded by a vital, creative Christian message and in turn being shaped by the turbulent society of nineteenth-century America. In short, the problem of interpretation is two-fold: a study of the contribution of Disciples to the social consciousness of the nation and an analysis of the sociological impact on the church’s social thought.
The first of these questions has important implications in American social and religious history. If the social crusades of the early nineteenth century had their most famous leaders among the religious dignitaries of the established churches of the East, revivalistic and evangelical religion in both East and West supplied religious fervor and the mass of the storm troopers. Ralph Gabriel comments: “Evangelical Protestantism dominated the social thought of Trans-Appalachia and ultimately captured the Atlantic States of the cotton kingdom. . . . Religion was the most powerful drive behind the humanitarian movements of the age.”43
Timothy L. Smith, in his recent book, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America, forcefully demonstrated the fact that revivalistic religion continued to flourish in the period from 1840 to 1870 and that it had a tremendous impact on American social thought. Smith also shows, as Richard Niebuhr had earlier, that the evangelical sects during these years not only nurtured the practical reform movements which led to the alleviation of many of the major social injustices in the nation, but that they also displayed an “ethical seriousness” and social concern for sinful men which later proved a solid foundation for the social gospel movement in the last decades of the nineteenth century. While no serious student of social and religious history would contend that the social gospel movement was an inevitable development of the evangelical tradition, neither is it any longer tenable to stereotype the vital religious emphasis of midnineteenth-century American Protestantism as the seed ground of social reaction. It remains true that the social gospelers of the 1890’s were the peculiar children of their peculiar environment but they inherited a humanitarian and socially concerned birthright from the evangelical tradition in which they had deep roots.
Smith’s book is essentially an effort to rescue the “holiness” movement of the Northeast from an undeserved reputation as social reactionaries. This study demonstrates that another of the vital sectarian streams in American religious life shared this concern over the social ills of the nation. The truth of the matter is that the sectarian Christian expression, the churches of the dispossessed, had several different emphases (of which the “holiness” craving for Christian perfection was one and the legalistic “search for the ancient order” of the Disciples was another), but whatever the emphasis and wherever the location, the sect has been an active and creative force in American society. All through the nation midnineteenth-century evangelical religion throbbed with the socially significant anticipation of the coming of the “kingdom of Christ.”44
This study, then, is designed to trace the strivings of one group of religious people to deal with the complexities of their social environment within the framework of Christian principles. The Disciples of Christ were Biblical literalists with a gigantic faith and again and again they gave their views of the social mold in which Christian America should be cast. The Disciples furnish vivid evidence that the humanitarian impulse in American Christianity was generated neither in Eastern or Western, nor urban or rural, religion but in the sectarian Christian expression of the dispossessed—whatever the peculiar emphasis of the movement might be. Vital religion, as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has suggested of vital politics, was not the possession of any section; it was the fervent birthright of the common man.
The antitypic question to that of the importance of the Disciples of Christ in the forming of the social thought of the nation is the problem of how much the thought of the church was molded by sociological forces. It is absurd to try to departmentalize the complex reactions of men to the challenges of their environment into neat packages of ideological, economic, and psychological responses. And yet, even if the historian cannot account for every individual’s conduct, he can suggest any number of motivating forces which were at work and which influenced the thought of a religious group to flow in the channels which it did. In addition to the theological presuppositions and the sectarian vitality which unquestionably influenced the course of Disciples social thought, there were powerful economic, ethnic, and psychological motivations which directed the flow of the movement.
Thirty years ago Winfred Ernest Garrison, in what remains the most meaningful study of the church, Religion Follows the Frontier, brilliantly interpreted the Disciples as the Christian expression of American frontier society.45 Since that time the Disciples have consistently been interpreted within this context by social and religious historians.46 No serious student of the movement can ignore its frontier heritage.
And yet the interpretation of the Disciples as an American frontier religion is inadequate. The group has never fit snugly into such a simple package without some untidy remnants hanging over the sides. With the passing of the frontier the Disciples were increasingly faced with the problem of adjusting and readjusting to a changing socio-economic environment. Garrison, in his re-evaluation of the history of the movement in 1945, significantly changed the title of his work to An American Religious Movements.47 The evolution of the church’s social thought can be understood only in the context of the changing economic and social structure of middle-America.
The reactions of Disciples to the economic and social pressures of changing America were as varied as the almost incredible diversity of the nation. Richard Niebuhr’s description of the socio-economic process through which most of the frontier evangelical sects passed from sect to rural church to denomination is clearly applicable to Disciples history.48 But this is not the whole story of Disciples thought. The Disciples are preeminently typical of the phenomenon which Herbert Schneider calls a “religious movement.” They were not a “body” in the early years of the nineteenth century but simply a vital religious movement united around sometimes vague poles of emphasis.49 A denomination does emerge out of the movement in the last half of the nineteenth century but the sectarian emphasis flowed on in the same old channels still united around the same loose but fertile ideas. In the process of the nineteenth century this movement demonstrated the fertility common to all sectarian emphases— there were in it the seeds of sectarianism, of institutionalized sectarianism, and of denominationalism. The whole spectrum of the possibilities of sociological expressions of Christianity slowly comes into focus in nineteenth-century Disciples history. The variety of expressions which emerged out of the church’s objectivistic and legalistic emphasis under the economic and cultural pressures of American society are not in general any different from those which developed within other sectarian expressions, although there are specific peculiarities due to the uniqueness of their plea. In short, all of the divisive elements in the complex American economic and cultural life of the nineteenth century were at work molding the Disciples emphasis—East and West, North and South, rural and urban, dispossessed and middle-class, all of these sociological forces forged their own Christian message out of the Disciples plea.
The sociological approach to an understanding of Disciples social thought also raises other significant questions of interpretation. Ethnic presuppositions unquestionably influenced their social thought. It is apparent to the casual observer of nineteenth-century Disciples history that the church was the ethnic religious expression of Anglo-Saxon middle America. In some areas of Disciples social thought the group’s version of the Christian message was profoundly influenced by this fact.
Finally, when all is said and done, this is the story of the Disciples of Christ. While Disciples shared the economic and cultural heritage of most of middle America and the ethnic heritage of much of it, they had their own sectarian emphasis and their own religious psychology, similar to that of others but never quite the same. They had their own powerful personalities who left deep marks on the movement; they had their own eccentrics and their own prophets. The story of what they thought is as broad as the American nation and as narrow as the small clique of devotees bound to a unique leader; it is a story in which exciting interrelationships are everywhere apparent and in which sweeping generalizations are never quite true.
1The three volumes of the History of American Life Series which cover the years 1790-1865 provide a good survey of general developments during this period. John Allen Krout and Dixon Ryan Fox, The Completion of Independence 1790-1830 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944); Carl Russell Fish, The Rise of the Common Man 1830-1830 (11th ed.; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950); Arthur Charles Cole, The Irrepressible Conflict 1830-1863 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934).
2For general treatments of American religion from 1800 to 1865, see Clifton E. Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960), pp. 238-398; William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (rev. ed.; New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950), pp. 189-326.
3Winfred Ernest Garrison, Religion Follows the Frontier (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931), p. 53. See, also, Will Herberg, Protestant—Catholic—Jew (rev. ed.; Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1960), p. 103. Mary Alice Baldwin presents a different point of view in The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 1928).
4William Warren Sweet, “The Protestant Churches," in Organized Religion in the United States, ed., Ray Abrams, Annals of the American Academy, CCLVI (March, 1948), 47.
5Olmstead, Religion in the United States, p. 335.
6Sweet, “Protestant Churches,” Annals, CCLVI, 45. See, also, Olmstead, History of Religion, p. 242.
7H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Torchbook ed.; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959).
8The most useful general accounts of Disciples history are: Winfred Ernest Garrison and Alfred T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1948); Winfred Ernest Garrison, Religion Follows the Frontier (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931); Earl Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order (2 vols.; Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1953); James DeForest Murch, Christians Only (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1962). The first two of these works are by liberal Disciples historians; the third is by a Church of Christ minister; while the last is by an independent Disciple.
9Throughout most of the nineteenth century all of the divergent elements within the church accepted all three of the names as permissible. As the conservative-liberal rift became clear in the decades following the Civil War, however, the conservatives more and more adopted the name “Church of Christ” while “Disciples of Christ" and “Christian Church” were generally associated with the liberal wing. In the course of time these distinctive names have become quasi-official for each group, although they are still not exclusive. The title “Disciples of Christ” is used in this work to describe the movement as a whole as it is probably the most widely accepted all-inclusive name at the present time. A good discussion of the early differences between Campbell and Stone on this question may be found in William Garrett West, Barton Warren Stone (Nashville: The Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1954), pp. 153-157. See, also, Garrison and DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ, pp. 14-16. Several other early nineteenth-century religious reform movements used the name “Christian." Two of these groups, one initiated by Abner Jones and Elias Smith in New England and the other started by James O’Kelly in North Carolina, formed the “Christian Connection” church shortly after the turn of the century.
10Garrison and DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ, p. 115.
11Frederick D. Power, Life of William Kimbrough Pendleton (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1902), p. 128.
12The first official major division among the Disciples of Christ came in 1906 when the United States census for the first time made separate entries for the Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ. Actually the twentieth-century date is unimportant since the two factions had been vocally and institutionally represented in the church since the 1850's and had clearly understood that a division was in progress for several decades before 1900. There was simply no “official” organization within the movement with the power to authoritatively announce a separation. The motives for the division were complex: they were a combination of theological, economic, social, and psychological forces; they reached far back into the basic conceptions of the restoration plea and the sociological complexion of the church’s membership; they involved fundamental differences in personality and attitudes. Divisive forces worked within the movement from its inception and the early manifestations of these forces are discussed in this work. The ingredients necessary for actual division at the local level were the development of some basic “issues” which were clear enough and important enough for congregations and individuals to break “fellowship”—to cease to recognize one another as “true churches of Christ"—and the development of institutions to act as brotherhood-wide propagators of the divergent views and to serve as tangible power concentrations for the factions to imite around. In short, what constituted division among the Disciples of Christ was simply the rupturing of the tenuous union which existed—a union which consisted of “fellowship” and common institutional loyalties. In the Disciples-Church of Christ division the support of or opposition to the use of instrumental music in worship and organized missionary societies supplied the major “issues.” In the absence of extra-congregational organization, the factions developed a nebulous sort of group consciousness by identifying with the outstanding institutions supporting their position. The “antis” were "Advocate men” while the “progressives" were “society men” or "Standard men,” The process of division took place at the local level where congregations, parts of congregations, and individuals eventually drifted into the orbit of one of the power concentrations. Actually the schism of the nineteenth century was not a clear-cut halving. There remained for several decades a strong “middle-of-the-road” group which refused to “disfellowship” either of the two factions. Although these moderates eventually accepted the liberal position on the “issues," they remained a conservative complex within the Disciples which in the twentieth century generated a new division with new “issues” and new power concentrations. Within the Churches of Christ today the same complex theological and sociological partitioning is slowly becoming clear. “Antis,” “liberals,” and “middle-of-the-roaders" are slowly dividing the local congregations into three distinct factions which are definable only in terms of “issues” and institutional loyalties. For a discussion of the sociological origins of the Disciples-Churches of Christ schism, see David E. Harrell, Jr., “The Sectional Origins of the Churches of Christ,” Journal of Southern History, XXX (August, 1964), 261-277.
13Garrison and DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ, pp. 328-329.
14"Can We Divide?” Lard’s Quarterly, III (April, 1866), 336.
15Ray Abrams, Introduction, in Organized Religion in the United States, ed., Ray Abrams, Annals of the American Academy, CCLVI (March, 1948), vii.
16Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought (2d ed.; New York: Ronald Press Co., 1956), p. 14. Also see pp. 26-38; and Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), pp. 34-44; William Warren Sweet, Revivalism in America (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945), pp. 140-161; Olmstead, Religion in the United States, pp. 347-361.
17Abrams, “Introduction,” Annals, CCLVI, vii.
18Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans., Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958); Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, trans., Olive Wyon (2 vols.; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960); R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (10th ed.; a Mentor book; New York: published by the New American Library, 1960).
19Often other subdivisions are made but these three remain the basic types. See J. Milton Yinger, Religion, Society and the Individual (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), pp. 142-155.
20Herberg, Protestant, pp. 85-86; Herbert Wallace Schneider, Religion in 20tb Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952), pp. 22-23.
21Joachim Wach, Types of Religious Experience Christian and Non-Christian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 194.
22A very useful description of differences between sects and denominations may be found in Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), pp. 122-124. See, alio, Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 331; Wach, Religious Experience, p. 201; H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (5th ed.; New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1960), pp. 30-32.
23Wach, Religious Experience, p. 195.
24Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 336. See, also, Pope, Milibands and Preachers, pp. 122-124. There are, of course, many different types of sects. A good discussion of this problem may be found in Elmer T. Clark, The Small Sects in America (rev. ed.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1949), pp. 20-24.
25Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 331.
26Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 44-45.
27Yinger, Religion, Society, pp. 150-152; Harold W. Pfautz, “The Sociology of Secularization: Religious Groups,” American Journal of Sociology, LXI (September, 1955), 121-128.
28Social Sources, pp. 106-134; 200-235.
29Herberg, Protestant, pp. 7-45. See, also, Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951), pp. 117-143.
30Social Sources, p. 136.
31Ibid., p. 182.
32Sweet, “Protestant Churches,” Annals, CCLVI, 47. See, also, William Warren Sweet, American Culture and Religion (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1951), pp. 89-92; Clark, Small Sects, pp. 18-20.
33H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Torchbook ed.; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), pp. ix-x.
34Gabriel, Democratic Thought, p. 26.
35Wach, Religious Experience, p. 204.
36Clark, Small Sects, p. 16.
37Harold Lunger’s excellent book, The Political Ethics of Alexander Campbell (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1954), is the outstanding exception to this statement. A number of useful works have been written in specialized areas but for the most part the few studies which have appeared in the field of social thought have been woefully lacking in a sound research foundation and totally ignorant of the larger implications of the social views of Disciples leaders. Oliver Read Whitley’s recent book, Trumpet Call of Reformation (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1959), is an important attempt to trace the sociological development of the movement. However useful Whitley's book might be, it is seriously marred by the author's failure to delve deeply into the primary sources and by his uncritical acceptance of several stereotyped interpretations of Disciples history.
38Garrison and DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ, p. 421. Historians of American religion have generally accepted this interpretation of the Disciples. Clifton Olmstead writes: “The Disciples of Christ eschewed social reform in favor of personal evangelization.” Religion in the United States, p. 383.
39Whitley, Trumpet Call, pp. 9, 68, 159.
40Ibid., see footnotes, pp. 239-250.
41Only the first of these assumptions is significant for the period included in this volume. It is perhaps less glaring, however, than the second. A cursory examination of the space-allotment in the major general studies of the movement is a simple illustration of the disproportionate significance assigned to the early and recent periods of the movement’s history by most of its students. Winfred E. Garrison has called the post-Civil War period “the Dark Ages of the Disciples,” Religion Follows the Frontier, p. 223. See, also, W. E. Garrison, "1896-1946," The Scroll, XLIII (September, 1945), 1-3. William E. Tucker’s recent book, J. H. Garrison and Disciples of Christ (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1964) is a splendid and important addition to the literature on the “middle period of Disciples.”
42(St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1954).
43Gabriel, Democratic Thought, p. 161. See, also, Herberg, Protestant, pp. 106-107; Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists 1826-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), pp. 96-131; and Whitney R. Cross's study of enthusiastic religion in western New York, The Burned-Over District (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1950).
44Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God, pp. 150-163.
45For an even earlier sociological interpretation see, Rodney L. McQuary, “The Social Background of the Disciples of Christ,” The College of the Bible Quarterly, XIII (March, 1924), 3-16.
46See Niebuhr, Social Sources, p. 178; Herberg, Protestant, pp. 104-105.
47(St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1945), pp. 5-6. See, also, Royal Humbert, “Convention Resolutions: A Case History,” The Scroll, XLIII (October, 1950), 54-59. Actually Garrison showed real insight into the evolving character of the sociological pressures on the Disciples in his earlier work. See Religion Follows the Frontier, pp. 224-227.
48Social Sources, pp. 181-187. See, also, Herberg, Protestant, pp. 108-110. This, of course, is the theme of Oliver Read Whitley’s Trumpet Call of Reformation.
49Herberg, Protestant, pp. 107-108; Schneider, Religion in 20th Century America, pp. 22-23.