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Looking Back: Thomas Campbell

May 13, 2009

Thomas Campbell was born in Northern Ireland in 1763, and was raised in the Church of England. He studied at the University of Glasgow and at the Divinity School at Whitburn. Upon graduation he began preaching in the Presbyterian Church, known in that day as the”Church of the Secession” since it was formed in reaction against the state-sponsored Church of England. Health difficulties prompted him to seek a change of climate, and he moved to America in 1807, where he began preaching for the Presbyterian church in Washington, Pa.

In that place and time, Presbyterians were sharply divided over various doctrinal disputes, so much so that certain groups of Presbyterians would have no fellowship with each other. Campbell disapproved of the division, and attempted to bring various groups together to share communion. For doing so, he was brought to trial by the presbytery, where he was censured for his actions. As a result, Campbell withdrew from the Presbyterian synod, and began preaching for Christian believers from varying denominational backgrounds. Together with these believers, Campbell formed the Christian Association of Washington. One of their first activities was to develop a statement of purpose and direction for the group. Thus was born the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington. Campbell’s university education being a rare commodity in the New World, he naturally took the role of primary author.

From the very introduction, it is plain that the Association wanted a change from the sectarian spirit that prevailed in the surrounding religious world. A hundred words into the document, Campbell had already laid out the need for autonomy and for the authority of scripture alone. Then he asserted the right and responsibility of each individual to learn and follow the scriptures, free from the judgment of other men, and free from the rule of human opinions. He lamented the “bitter jarrings and janglings of a party spirit” and pleaded instead for a way of peace, guided by the scriptures alone. He wrote:

Our desire, therefore, for ourselves and our brethren would be, that rejecting human opinions and the inventions of men, as of any authority, or as having any place in the church of God, we might forever cease from farther contentions about such things; returning to, and holding fast by, the original standard…

Thus Campbell arrived at the central thesis of the Restoration Movement. Their original motivation was to “cease from farther contentions about such things.” Campbell and his friends were tired of the quarrelling. They longed to be at peace in the church. They hoped to accomplish this by returning to scripture, and by regarding the opinions and inventions of men as having no authority. The goal was not to win theological arguments. It was not to purify the church through division. Instead it was an appeal for peace.

Two hundred years later, churches of Christ are known for something quite different from that. We have an uncanny resemblance to the very Presbyterians Campbell left, those whose sectarian spirit he found so offensive, those with their separate factions who refused one another fellowship, and those with their “bitter jarrings and janglings of a party spirit.”

The noble experiment was never completed, and its goals were not reached. But that doesn’t make the experiment any less noble. And it doesn’t make those goals any less worthy. On the contrary, we need to make every effort to maintain unity in the church, in the bond of peace. We should try again, and again, and again, until either we get it right or the Lord returns.

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6 comments

  1. So who do you think bears the closest resemblance to the spirit of what he was trying to do today? I agree with you in saying we have strayed the message but where one would go?


  2. I think the independent Christian churches are closer than most. Although I would question the premise about “where one would go” if I understand your meaning. I think the right thing to do for most of us is to be the right kind of Christians right where we are, rather than to find the right group of Christians to join.


  3. Alan,I agree. But how do we get there? It seems to me there are so many fundamental differences and religious entrenchment between the different factions. Do you honestly think the gap can be bridged?I think this is not just a difference in beliefs but a difference a willingness to accept others’ beliefs. I have moved from ultra conservative to progressive. It seems to me that the more conservative the beliefs, it seems the more controlling and intolerant they become. Would you agree?


  4. It may take a generation or more, but I think it will eventually happen. After all, Jesus prayed would be one, and I think God will answer his son’s prayer! It’s certainly beyond my ability to make it happen.


  5. I was blessed to become a part of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ from my youth. I would that every free member of a sectarian Church of Christ would come join us. We need your help in seeking to advance the themes uttered clearly by Thomas Campbell. It can easily be seen that sectarian church of Christ congregations are not working for unity but rather against it. Here in Joplin, Missouri we have three healthy non-instrument churches “of Christ.” One is one-cup, and convinced sectarian. One is multi-cup and convinced sectarian. One has become a group seeking unity in Christ. They are a cappella, and loving about it. If their song leaders didn’t want to go so fast, it would be sheer pleasure to join in their services. It is great pleasure to have their fellowship in all ways that matter. Their strong loyalty to Jesus and the apostles teaching is exemplary. Thomas Campbell points the way. We should follow!


    • Ray, Thanks for your comment. There are indeed differences among churches of Christ — quite a wide spectrum in fact. Although my congregation wears the name “church of Christ” we may bear more resemblance to the independent Christian churches than to the conservative churches of Christ. In my view, a church that makes unity a high priority is being very conservative — holding fast to the 2000 year old teaching in John 17 and elsewhere.



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