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W. Carl Ketcherside on Sand Creek

May 31, 2006

To a student of the Restoration Movement, the voice of W. Carl Ketcherside is impossible to ignore. He has been loved and he has been hated. He had unique insights about the church and the movement and he was not timid nor subtle about expressing his views. Perhaps he was a man before his time. But any discussion of the movement begun at Sand Creek must deal with the man WCK.

I will quote liberally from Ketcherside’s own writing to give not only the facts but also the style and heart of the man. I cannot say it better than he.

As a young man he was a great debator and defender of the “ancient faith” from the point of view of the most conservative wing of the Restoration Movement. Writing in his autobiography about this period, Ketcherside said:

I sometimes wish I could omit this chapter but to do so would leave a void and create a distorted picture. I will deal with a division and my part in it, although division in the family of God has come to be so abhorrent to me I would like to forget my own unfortunate participation in it.

Ketcherside was born in 1908, and was baptized at age 12. Almost immediately he became a phenomenon as a boy preacher. Writing of the church into which he was baptized, he said:

Although I did not realize it at the time I was baptized, this historical movement was already fractured into fragments because of the legalistic concept which had captured the minds of its adherents. Divisions do not happen. They are caused. Parties form around men who promote the separation and insist upon the segregation of their adherents. In the movement growing out of the ideal of restoration as enunciated by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, most of the divisions centered around men of prominence. In almost every instance they were editors of journals. They could use their journals as propaganda media and the United States mails as a distribution method. No party could long endure without an editor and a “loyal paper.”

Isaac Errett wielded influence through Christian Standard. David Lipscomb edited Gospel Advocate. Austin McGary edited Firm Foundation. Daniel Sommer edited American Christian Review. The name of this paper was changed at various times to Octographic Review, Apostolic Review, and back again to American Christian Review. It was into the segment of “the disciple brotherhood” represented by the Apostolic Review I was introduced when baptized. At the time I did not know there were others. I supposed, in my childhood idealism, that all Christians were together, united in a common bond of faith, and that wherever you saw a meetinghouse with “Church of Christ” over the door you would find a welcome and a hand of fellowship to cheer you.

So Carl Ketcherside was brought up in Daniel Sommer’s extreme right wing of the churches of Christ. As discussed in the preceding article, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, a rift formed in the Octographic Review family. Writing of these things, Ketcherside said:

I was twenty-four years old when the storm broke and in my partisan enthusiasm was the one who accepted the challenge of the 82 year old Daniel to debate the issue. Fortunately, the debate did not materialize, but in our correspondence he expressed his sadness that I manifested so much zeal with so little knowledge. He also told me he had hoped his mantle would fall on my shoulders, and that he had earlier thought of Austen as his successor, but was disappointed that he had proven himself to be “a splinter off the butt-cut of humanity.”

Almost 20 years later, Ketcherside was in Belfast, Ireland, hoping to visit the old church where Thomas Campbell had once preached. There Carl Ketcherside came face to face with his sins. He came to a realization that he had been fighting against unity rather than for it. He wrote:

It came home to me with force that I had never really labored for the unity of all who believed in Jesus. I had actually, in mistaken zeal, contributed to the fragmentation of the very movement which Thomas Campbell had launched with such high hopes and great promise. Instead of furthering the noble “project to unite the Christians in all of the sects,” I had absorbed and sometimes even gloried in a sectarian spirit.

As I stumbled along through the deepening snow, alone in a foreign city, I found myself weeping and praying and making promises to God of what I would do if my life was spared through His grace. The word grace came like a ray of hope and I rolled it on my tongue like a juicy morsel. What I needed to make life worth living, to overcome my frustration, to rise above the futility of my own efforts was grace. In all of my forty-three years no other thought had ever struck me with such force.

From that day forward he was a changed man. Instead of a defender of doctrinal precision (in the opinion of his party), he became a voice crying out for unity and toleration. Like Daniel Sommer, he had come to see that the narrow partisan defense of opinion and technicalities was an enemy to unity. Contrary to the characterization by many, he came to that conviction without abandoning his convictions about the technical truths of the Bible. Fortunately in his case, Ketcherside came to that understanding while he still had a almost four decades of life remaining to work for unity.

In 1962, Ketcherside wrote about Sand Creek in the Mission Messenger:

Now, from more mature years and judgment, I would like to re-examine the decisions made at Sand Creek in 1889. I do this in full recognition of the price that must be paid by any person who questions the traditions of his fathers. I am aware of the fact that one must bear the stigma of “traitor” or “heretic” who dares to challenge the partisan concepts of his associates. But I am committed to an honest search for truth regardless of personal consequences. I cannot live with myself nor be prepared to meet my Lord if I compromise my conviction in a matter so important as this. I have resolved that I will shield no part of my thinking from examination and that I will accept nothing simply because it has been taught by men in the past. My faith must stand, if it stands at all, “in the power of God and not in the wisdom of men.

In my analysis of the rise of factionalism I have come to believe that the philosophy embodied in the Sand Creek Declaration laid the foundation for the subsequent disintegration of the restoration movement.

In our review of the Sand Creek Declaration there is no attempt to condone those things which it condemned. We do not deny that they were innovations and it is evident that they were without scriptural warrant. But there is a difference between those things and the division which resulted from agitation of them. The factional spirit is sinful. The party spirit is a work of the flesh. To oppose evil from a factional standpoint is as wrong as to uphold evil from any standpoint. It is not opposition to evil but the factional spirit which is wrong. It is subversive of the divine government to create a party to oppose wrong. This is a species of doing evil with the hope that good may come.

It is our opinion based upon research into the factors leading to the adoption of the policy of attempting to preserve purity by division, and upon observation of the consequences resulting from application of that policy, that it is factional in nature and essence. It is our further opinion that this policy pursued regularly as a course of action can only culminate in more divisions, and ultimately will counteract and destroy any real spiritual gains made by those who adopt it. We hold the view that this philosophy is without sanction in the sacred scriptures, that it is contrary to the examples given of the primitive ekklesia, and it is in contravention of the purpose of God. It originates in human wisdom prompted by fear. It proposes to maintain what has been gained by regimentation of thought.

There is little to be gained in any final analysis if, in an attempt to keep innovations from destroying the church of God, we adopt those methods which will eventually achieve the same end.

This is not all. Other divisions must follow in the future. Every time a truth is discovered, every time honest investigation forces a change of mind, there will be another division. This philosophy bars the door to further scriptural research, makes real unbiased study a crime, and places a premium on mediocrity. It throws a dam across the channel of thought, freezes the acquisition of knowledge, and constitutes an unwritten creed. It makes blind conformity a blessing and enthrones orthodoxy as the ideal. If a system, like a tree, is known by its fruits, we should eliminate this one immediately.

Ketcherside spoke inspirationally as he identified the folly of the Address and Declaration. However, he was not interested in establishing blame for the actions. He wrote:

Let us not indulge precious time or waste our efforts in an attempt to establish guilt for what occurred three-quarters of a century in the past. Our brethren were faced with grave and serious problems. They were frightened by an oncoming wave of innovations which would destroy all they held sacred. They had to make a decision as to the best means to withstand the onslaught. Perhaps the choice was exactly the one we would have made at the time and under the circumstances. We have the privilege of looking backward upon the outworking of their method.

There is much more of great value in the Mission Messenger article. Though I would like to quote it all, you can easily read it by following the link so I will not. But indulge me one more quote, as Ketcherside concludes the article:

I want it known that I love God and I love every word in the sacred oracles. But I renounce the traditional twentieth century “Church of Christ” factionalism as a means for achieving God’s purpose in this age. I shall continue to oppose everything that I believe to be out of harmony with God’s plan but I shall not allow these things to interfere with my love or regard for any of my brothers who sincerely and conscientiously disagree with me about the implementation of that plan. In short, I shall make nothing a test of fellowship which God has not made a condition of salvation. I shall not seek to establish brotherhood by definition of a human document, nor by conformity in matters of opinion. I shall be a brother to all who have been begotten by my Father. Brotherhood based upon fatherhood, fraternity based upon paternity, this shall be my standard because it is scriptural. I will free myself from all partisan traditions, schemes and ideas which men have adopted to offset unity of the Spirit. I intend to be a free man in Christ, bound only by His word. “You are bought with a price, do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:23).

The unity of the Spirit is one of community, not conformity; of diversity, not uniformity. It is rooted in mutual love, not dogmatism; in freedom, not in slavery. Our peace is a person, not a plan or a program!

Well said, Carl!

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek

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One comment

  1. Ketcherside is the most quotable person I have read recently. If doesn’t hurt that he is right. My spiritual journey was much like his. In my view the Campbells provided the most useful framework in the declaration and address. The authors, who rightly saw the party spirit as the enemy of unity,would be shocked at how the movement was hi jacked to become the poster child for that same spirit. Love this material. Who is the author?



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