“Dearly beloved brethren, why should we deem it a thing incredible that the Church of Christ, in this highly favored country, should resume that original unity, peace, and purity which belongs to its constitution, and constitutes its glory?”
The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington was intended as a statement of the purpose and beliefs of the Christian Association of Washington, located in the small town of Washington in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Christian Association was made up of people who had come to agree with Thomas Campbell and his arguments concerning the need for Christian unity. This group was not intended to be a new church or Christian denomination; rather, it was devoted to working for the unity of all Christians. In this document, Thomas Campbell describes the divided state of Christianity and the evils resulting from these divisions, and he proposes that all sincere Christians should be able to unite by moving beyond denominational creeds and statements of faith and agreeing on the foundational teachings of the New Testament. Thus, two themes are central to this document: the goal of unity among all Christians and the restoration of the teachings and practices of the New Testament as the means for achieving that unity.
Thomas Campbell, an Irish Protestant minister, had come to the United States in 1807, hoping to send for his family to join him if circumstances worked out favorably in the new land. In Ireland, he had been a minister of the Associate Reformed Synod of the Presbyterian Church, and he affiliated with the same group in the United States. He was sent to work in the frontier region of southwestern Pennsylvania. Campbell had strong feelings about the divisions among various Christian denominations and the need for unity among all Christian believers. When other Presbyterian ministers accused him of being too open to accepting and fellowshipping with Christians from other bodies, Campbell eventually ended his association with that denomination. He continued preaching in southwestern Pennsylvania, however, in homes or wherever else he might be invited.
Eventually a group of like-minded people coalesced around Campbell, and in the summer of 1809, they organized the Christian Association of Washington, named for the small town in Pennsylvania near which Campbell lived. The Declaration and Address was published in September 1809 in order to publicize the goals and principles of this group. In this document, Campbell surveys the divided state of Christendom in his day and describes the many problems caused by division among Christians. He also proposes a remedy: all Christians who accept the Bible as authoritative should return to the simple, clear teachings of the New Testament. As Campbell saw it, people might not be able to agree on traditional interpretations of Christian beliefs, as described in the various creeds or statements of faith of the different Christian denominations. But he believed they should be able to agree on what is taught in the New Testament and thus could build a basis for unity on a return to New Testament teachings and practices. Like many church leaders in his day, Campbell may have been overly optimistic in his perception of how likely this was to be accomplished. He seemed to underestimate how difficult it would be for all Christian groups to agree on what exactly were the simple, clear teachings of the New Testament. Although the Christian Association of Washington was not intended to be a new religious denomination, eventually the Disciples of Christ movement evolved in part out of Campbell’s ideas.
One of eight children, Thomas Campbell was born near Newry in county Down, Ireland (now Northern Ireland), on February 1, 1763. His family belonged to the Anglican Church, but Campbell embraced Presbyterianism as a young man. For a short time, he taught school at Sheepbridge, a village near Newry. He later attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland, graduating in 1786, and then studied at the theological school operated by the Antiburgher branch of the Seceder Presbyterian Church, completing his degree in 1791. The Antiburghers were a sect within the Seceder Presbyterians, who had split over the question of whether or not a Presbyterian Church member could serve as a burgher or magistrate, which would require swearing to uphold the established Anglican Church; the Antiburghers held that a Presbyterian could not take that oath. After graduating from the theological school, Campbell became the pastor of a small Seceder congregation at Ahorey in 1798, and he and his family moved to a farm near Richhill, a neighboring village. He preached there and also established a small private school.
In 1807, Campbell immigrated to the United States by himself, planning to have his family join him later. In Pennsylvania, he became connected with the Associate Reformed Synod of the Presbyterian Church and was sent to preach in southwestern Pennsylvania. On the frontier, he ministered to many people who did not have a church of their own denomination nearby. This ecumenical spirit soon led to trouble with other ministers within his own denomination, and after several months of contention, Campbell withdrew his connection to the Associate Reformed Synod. He still found many opportunities to preach, and eventually people who agreed with his emphasis on Christian unity founded the Christian Association of Washington in the summer of 1809.
Shortly before the Declaration and Address was published, Campbell’s family joined him. His eldest son, Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), enthusiastically embraced the ideas he was promoting. Alexander Campbell became a prominent leader in the new movement, while his father continued to be influential as a kind of revered elder. Thomas Campbell continued to preach and teach in small private schools for the remainder of his life. He died on January 4, 1854, in Bethany, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Thomas Campbell had experienced the evils of division among Christian denominations in his youth, during the early years of his ministry in Ireland, and in the time since he had come to the United States. His separation from the ministry of the Associate Reformed Synod of the Presbyterian Church was due in part to his willingness to fellowship with Christians who were not part of his own denomination. The Christian Association was a small group of people who agreed with Campbell’s views on Christian unity and joined together to promote the goals of unity and a return to the practices of the early church. The association was not intended to be a separate denomination, merely a group in which people from any denomination who were concerned about the divisions among Christians could come together to promote unity. The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington, published in September 1809, was intended as a kind of statement of purpose for this organization.
The Declaration and Address is a long, closely reasoned document of some fifty-six pages, made up of four distinct parts. Part 1, “Declaration,” states the purpose and organizational principles of the Christian Association. Following this is “Address,” which is directed toward other Christians and calls them to join in the work of unifying Christians and restoring the church to what Campbell sees as its original New Testament form. The excerpt printed here is from the opening pages of the “Address” section. The last sections include a long appendix, in which answers are given to objections that might be made to the document’s argument for unity and restoration, and a postscript detailing plans for immediate action. The major emphasis in the Declaration and Address is on the desirability of Christian union and, concomitant with that, an abhorrence of division among Christians and all the troubles that these divisions have caused.
Campbell believed there were two major causes for division among Christians. The first was the neglect of the scriptures among some Christians, who either were ignorant of what scripture taught or simply disregarded the authority of the Bible. The second reason was churches seeking to replace or augment the authority of the scriptures with creeds or statements of faith or human origin. Although these statements of belief were simply meant to summarize Christian doctrine, there often was an element of interpretation involved in summarizing or explaining certain beliefs. Over time, Campbell believed, different denominations had become so attached to their own understandings of scripture that they fought and divided over the meaning of these creeds rather than what the Bible actually says. Campbell believed that when these extrabiblical statements of faith were used as tests of fellowship—that is, whether a person would be accepted as a member of a church—they became a major hindrance to Christian unity.
This excerpt begins with a statement about why the Declaration and Address was written. Campbell suggests that the “grand design” of the Christian religion is to reconcile people to God and to one another. He believed that this was so evident that few would deny it. With that in mind, the Christian Association believed they should not withhold “the mite of our sincere and humble endeavors” to bring about unity and a healing of divisions among Christians. “The mite” is an allusion to a story in the gospels in the New Testament (Mark 12:42 and Luke 21:2) in which Jesus points out a poor widow who gives two mites, or small coins, in the temple offering, while many rich people give more. (In the King James Version of the Bible, two mites are said to equal a farthing, an old British currency worth one-quarter of a penny.) Yet since she has given all she has to live on, Jesus explains, the widow’s gift is actually greater. Here, Campbell suggests that, similarly, the contribution the Christian Association can make to unity might not be great, but they feel compelled to offer it regardless.
Campbell then goes on to illustrate some of effects of divisions among Christians. Such divisions obviously produce a spirit of argumentation and contention. But they also produce behaviors such as reproaching others for their beliefs or practices, “backbitings” (criticisms of others), and “evil surmisings,” which suggests that one might attribute evil motives or actions to those with whom one has theological differences. These divisions even lead to “excommunications, and even persecution.” While only a few churches had a formal process of excommunicating members, other churches did disfellowship, or exclude, those who disagreed with significant beliefs or practices. “Persecution” refers to situations in which legal force was often used by those who opposed the practices of a state-sponsored established religion, such as was the case in many nations in Europe and had been the situation in several of the British colonies in North America. Campbell believes that no one should be surprised at of these evil effects of division, for the apostle James had written, “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (James 3:16). In Campbell’s day, scholars generally believed that the epistle of James in the New Testament was written by James, the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the original twelve disciples but had become a leader of the early church in Jerusalem and was therefore often considered an apostle.
Campbell notes that these “accursed divisions” are seen even in the United States, “where the sword of the civil magistrate has not as yet learned to serve at the altar.” Here he means that in the United States, because of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, the civil government did not enforce religious conformity. Despite this freedom, contention between religious groups continued, and this infighting sometimes led to whole communities having no church and the people being “entirely deprived of Gospel ordinances.” By this Campbell means that without a church in the community, the people have no ready access to hearing the gospel and to church ordinances (or sacraments in some churches) such as baptism and communion. Campbell notes that large areas of America, probably meaning the frontier, had no “Gospel ministry” present. As churches tried to keep up with the movement of people to the frontier, the denominations were so weakened by division that they could not send enough ministers to serve in new frontier settlements. Or, alternatively, the communities on the frontier were made up of so many different religious parties that they would not receive the ministry of any one church that might be set up among them. Some people did live near a church, Campbell notes, but did not dare go to it because, according to their own denomination, that church may not have been teaching the correct beliefs and practices. In a situation such as this, the people would seldom “enjoy the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper, that great ordinance of unity and love.” This particular example was no doubt dear to Campbell’s heart, because one of the causes of his separation from the ministry of the Associate Reformed Synod was the charge made by a fellow minister that Campbell had offered communion to people who were not members of his particular Presbyterian denomination. Besides keeping Christians from meeting together in formal worship settings, these divisions also interfered with “spiritual intercourse,” or fellowship, among Christian individuals, which is an important element in spiritual growth and nurture. When only a few people of each different denomination of the churches live in a certain community, there are not enough of them to assemble together regularly or to have frequent access to preaching or other “ministerial attentions.”
Since the United States has no established church, Campbell suggests it might be the special responsibility of the nation to work for Christian unity. Campbell argues that all Christians have this duty, but it belongs “peculiarly” to the Gospel ministers. There is no “civil establishment” of religion in the United States, so this provides favorable opportunities to work for Christian unity. Nor do American churches have to contend with the “influence of the anti-Christian hierarchy,” meaning that the US government, while not supporting an established religion, does not stand in the way of the work of the churches. Christians in America are also exempt, Campbell says, from “any formal connection with the devoted nations that have given their strength and power unto the beast.” Here, he is referring to the monstrous “beast” depicted in chapter 13 of the New Testament book of Revelation. Biblical scholars differ on exactly what the beast in Revelation is thought to represent, but Campbell here is picturing it as a kind of coalition of powers that stands in opposition to God’s kingdom and the work of the church.
Campbell argues that American Christians have been furnished with everything needed for “a thorough reformation in all things, civil and religious.” There were many American thinkers in the period after the American Revolution who made this kind of connection between civil and religious freedom. Campbell is suggesting that just as the United States created a new nation with great potential in the political and social realms, so too might there be occasion for great progress in creating Christian unity in this environment.
Despite the divided nature of Christendom in his era, Campbell saw several “Grounds for Hope of Union,” and he reminds his audience that “Zion shall be built in troublous times.” Zion, in the Old Testament, was the name for ancient Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, but was often used more generally to stand for the kingdom of Israel as a whole. In Christian thinking, Zion often came to be used to refer to the church or the kingdom of God on earth. Campbell refers to the great efforts being made in “promulgation of the Gospel,” meaning the spreading of Christianity through missionary work. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a great upsurge in the involvement of Christians in worldwide missions. He also refers to churches in both America and Europe discovering a concern for the “removal of contentions.” While there was little movement in this era toward formal union between various Christian denominations, there was in America what has often been referred to as an emerging evangelical consensus, in which many evangelical Protestant groups recognized the many beliefs they shared and cooperated across denominational lines to form missionary societies, establish organizations for the printing of Bibles and other religious literature, and promote social reforms. Campbell acknowledges that previous efforts to build unity among Christians have failed, but this should not deter Christians from continuing to pursue this goal. Campbell rhetorically asks whether the “Captain of Salvation,” meaning Jesus Christ, has commanded Christians to desist from pursuing the goal or make a truce with the divisions that Campbell characterizes as a “deadly enemy” of the church. Rather than be discouraged from previous failures, Campbell believed the Christians of his day could take “sage experience” from previous efforts—they could learn from the mistakes that caused previous unity efforts to fail.
Campbell assumes that Christian unity is a “common cause” for all Christians and notes that he believes it is the cause of “our brethren of all denominations,” suggesting that he did not consider only his fellow members in his own group to be the “true” Christians. Campbell believed that the basis for Christian unity would be a return to a model of the church described in the New Testament. He believed that all Christians could agree that they should follow whatever the New Testament teaches, and in his day this was probably generally true: all churches and ministers would have agreed that they should preach and practice what is taught in the New Testament. Where Campbell was possibly too optimistic, however, was in believing it would be a relatively straightforward task for all the different denominations to agree on exactly what is taught in the New Testament. Campbell believed that if all groups would agree to go back to the New Testament model, then any changes needed in any church’s teachings or practice would be “for the better, and not for the worse.” He argues that if Christians believe the New Testament is not faulty or defective in what it prescribes for the church, then a return to that model would lead to the church being “as perfect as Christ intended we should be,” and that should be a sufficient goal for all Christians.
Considering the advantages of the times in which he lived and the freedom present in America, Campbell believed the time was ripe for a movement toward Christian unity, arguing that it was “reasonable and timely” to pursue this goal at that point. He did not believe any more favorable time would be forthcoming. Even if some denominations may have been more similar in beliefs and in practices than others, Campbell did not believe this similarity would guarantee unity, for, he notes, people tend to magnify small differences between groups even when they agree on more major issues. Also, while “bigotry” (that is, religious prejudice) seems to be in decline, he says, this cannot be taken as a sign of coming unity, because there will always be “weak persons” within the churches who might be swayed by bigotry. So Campbell argues that no partial measures aiming toward unity would be successful. What was needed was a broad, general reformation, achieved by going back to the model of the church pictured in the New Testament. This excerpt ends with Campbell expressing his belief that true unity is possible, for it is the will of God, expressed in scripture, that Christian believers should be united. Christians could hardly believe that the commands and prayers of Jesus for unity would be ineffectual, Campbell suggests. It is a desirable and attainable goal, and having sketched out a method to achieve the goal, Campbell concludes, “We believe then it is as practicable as it is eligible.” Nothing remained but for Christians to move ahead in pursing this goal.
Although the Christian Association was not intended to be a new denomination, eventually a new religious group grew out of the efforts of Thomas Campbell and others who agreed with his thinking. The Declaration and Address is considered one of the foundational documents of this movement. This group became known as the Disciples of Christ or simply the Christian movement, so called because they rejected the use of any name but Christian for the church or its members. Because of their emphasis on restoring the teachings and practices of the early church, this group is sometimes called the restoration movement, and scholars often refer to it as the Stone-Campbell movement because of its leaders of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Kentucky preacher Barton W. Stone. Today, there are three broad fellowships of churches that flow out of this movement: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, the Undenominational Fellowship of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (or Independent Christian Churches), and a group of nondenominational churches called the Churches of Christ, which are strong in the upper South and the Midwest. Some scholars have argued that the divisions within this movement can, to some extent, be traced to how much each group emphasizes the two key themes of the Declaration and Address—that is, whether the emphasis is on unity or on restoring the early church. An emphasis on unity might engender a broad tolerance of differences on items considered nonessential, while an emphasis on restoration might lead to an exacting demand for precise adherence to what are understood to be the commands and examples of the New Testament. Some have noted the tragic irony inherent in the fact that a group that began as a movement to unite all Christians eventually experienced division itself. Even among the groups that are heirs of Thomas Campbell’s movement, there is an awareness today that for all his insights and intellectual strengths, Campbell may well have underestimated how easily all Christians could agree on precisely what is taught by the New Testament.
The first major theme that emerges from Campbell’s Declaration and Address is Christian unity. Campbell makes a strong, heartfelt plea for the unity of all Christian believers. He argues the scriptural and theological basis for union and notes some of the practical reasons why the era in which he lived might be conducive to advancing Christian unity, including the American republic’s free institutions and absence of a state-established religion. As part of his argument for unity, he also surveys many of the detrimental effects of sectarianism and religious division. Division naturally creates contention and feelings of enmity between people who are of different religious backgrounds. It also leads to situations such as that found on the frontier in America, where people were deprived of ready access to a church and a minister to preach and administer the sacraments or ordinances of the church. Campbell’s own experience as a Presbyterian minister on the western Pennsylvania frontier had given him firsthand experience of these problems.
The second major theme is a restoration of New Testament teachings and practices. Campbell believed that Christians were divided because of creeds and written statements of faith that had been created by church leaders throughout the long history of Christianity. Over time, people came to identify with these creedal statements rather than the original teachings of the New Testament. Campbell believed the New Testament teachings to be clear and easily understandable on the major issues involved in Christian faith. Therefore, he argued that if believers could go back to following only what the New Testament teaches, unity could be achieved. This ideal of going back to the teachings and examples of the New Testament and the early church is sometimes referred to as Christian primitivism or restorationism. Campbell sought a restoration of New Testament teachings and practices as a means for achieving unity.
In Campbell’s day, most evangelical Christians would probably have agreed with much of the basic argument he was advancing. Most would have agreed that the teachings of the New Testament should be normative for the church. But historical experience has shown that it is not always easy to determine what exactly are the meanings of the doctrinal teachings and examples contained in the New Testament. Campbell recognized that perfect agreement might never be achieved, but he believed people could unite on the essential teachings of the New Testament. But, of course, even the question of what is essential is a theological judgment call over which serious, devout Christians might differ. The two goals—unity and restoration—are in tension and naturally produce questions and debate. If unity is emphasized, one might have to compromise on the exact restoration of some New Testament practices. On the other hand, an emphasis on restoration might lead to drawing theological lines that will exclude those who do not agree on what is to be restored, thus creating division. The movement that grew out of Campbell’s work has struggled with this tension in its own history of controversy and division.
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