Division is Complicated

It wasn’t until recently that I even learned about the major split which occurred in the Stone-Campbell Movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The division was officially recognized by the United States Bureau of Census in 1906. The two resulting groups were the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ. In the 1906 census, there was a little less than 160,000 in Churches of Christ. The Disciples of Christ had nearly 924,000. The groups were largely delineated geographically. The majority of the Disciples of Christ were in the North while the Churches of Christ were primarily in the South.

The split left Churches of Christ wounded and battered. Not only were Churches of Christ the vast minority, but the Disciples of Christ had taken most of the church buildings and money with them when they departed. The 2,200 congregations which remained with Churches of Christ were mostly poor and rural. In 1940, J.N. Armstrong, President of Harding College from 1924-36, reflected on how Churches of Christ were basically decimated by the split:

Not only did the defection leave us without schools, but those who introduced the music carried with them, also, the best church property, most of the wealth, big businesses, banking, and so forth. All colleges, scholarships, church property, wealth, and big businesses became the inherited asset of the Christian Church. (“A Piece of History” Christian Leader 1940)

What was the cause of such a terribly painful division?

I don’t have many years of experience in the kingdom, but I have already been around long enough to observe one crucial fact about division: it is complicated. Usually, the factors which lead to division are not solely about differences in doctrine (although we might try to make it appear that way). There are often many unseen factors precipitating division such as divergent worldviews, socioeconomic issues, politics, and personality differences.

Civil War

Discussing the mid-1800s without mentioning the impact of the Civil War would be like talking about the 1940s without mentioning the impact of World War II. The Civil War divided families and an entire nation. While the Disciples of Christ did not have a formal division over the issue of slavery like other groups such as the Methodists and Baptists, we would be naive to think the Civil War did not cause friction among the churches. If we were to go back to the mid-1800s, we would find men who advocated both ends of the spectrum on slavery. For example, one would encounter radical abolitionists like Pardee Butler who preached abolitionism as strongly as he did the Gospel of Christ. On the other hand, one would find men like James Shannon, President of Bacon College, who maintained that the Bible and the Constitution supported slavery and infringing upon a property owners rights warranted war. If it wasn’t for Alexander Campbell’s moderate position on slavery, the Disciples of Christ may have divided more formally. Campbell did not believe that slavery was an issue for which the church ought to divide over. Campbell would say, “As American citizens, we may be Free Masons, Odd Fellows, Pro-Slavery men, or Abolitionists; but as Christians, we cannot be any one of these.” (Millennial Harbinger 1845, pg. 108)

Campbell believed that slavery was not prohibited in the Scriptures. Rather, it was regulated. He maintained that the duty of Christians was to make sure that both master and slave were performing their duties faithfully. He would say, “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting it, but many regulating it. It is not, then, we conclude, immoral.” (Millennial Harbinger 1845, pg. 193)  Campbell ultimately opposed the institution of slavery, though not on biblical grounds. He argued against the expediency of slavery because he believed that a free labor system would be more profitable for the country than a slave labor system. Campbell’s ultimate concern was the union of Christians. He said:

Every man who loves the American Union, as well as every man who desires a constitutional end of American slavery, is bound to prevent, as far as possible, any breach of communion between Christians at the South and at the North. (Millennial Harbinger 1845, pg. 196)

Many in the Disciples of Christ fought in the Civil War. In the North, future President of the United States, James Garfield, fought. In the South, Barton W. Stone Jr. was a colonel in the Confederate army. B.F. Hall headed the Sixth Texas Calvary which was primarily made up of members of the Christian Church in Grayson County, TX. Thomas A. Caskey was a soldier and Mississippi preacher. T.B. Larimore served as a scout for the Confederate army.

Although tensions were high among the Disciples during the years of the war, feelings grew more bitter during post-war Reconstruction in the South. You can read more about this era in American history here. The North had won the war. There was a sense of victory, pride, progress, and prosperity in the North. They felt it their duty to “rehabilitate” the South. In the North, the prosperity affected the churches. They could afford bigger, more beautiful church buildings. They could afford to staff highly paid preachers. In addition, churches were able to purchase elegant organs. One of the reasons that the instrumental music issue probably didn’t come up sooner in our history was that prior to post-war economic prosperity in the North, few could afford an organ for their church even if they wanted to have it. The Disciples of Christ were becoming part of mainstream society in the North. As proof, one of their members, James A. Garfield, was elected President of the United States. Meanwhile, their Southern counterparts were defeated. In many cases in the postbellum South, people were facing disease, starvation, and death.

David Lipscomb is an amazing example in the way that he cared for the poor and sick in the post-war South. In 1873, a cholera epidemic broke out in Nashville, TN. While everyone else fled the city for safety, Lipscomb stayed to tend to the sick. You can read about the incident here. When Southerners, like Lipscomb, looked and saw their Northern brethren reveling in their prosperity and cultural progress, they were dismayed. The thought went like this: “How could you spend hundreds of dollars on an organ for your church instead of sending the money to us to feed my children who are starving?!” In 1867, Lipscomb wrote to the President of a college in Missouri:

As highly as we appreciate the Bible, and its necessity to the temporal and spiritual well-being of man, a loaf of bread today, in the name of Christ, would do more in opening the hearts of our Southern people…than any number of Bibles, tracts or preachers. Send bread now, brethren, and afterward the Bibles and preachers.

Missionary Society

One distinguishing feature of the Disciples of Christ from the outset was that we did not have a formal denominational headquarters. Our congregations were and are autonomous. There are certainly strengths to this organizational model, but it also presents some unique challenges. Historically, congregations in Churches of Christ have been predominantly small, rural, and poor. How does a small, rural congregation with limited financial resources effectively do mission work?

In 1832, when the Stone-Campbell groups united, they had a combined membership of around 25,000. By 1861, the Disciples numbered around 200,000. We were larger, had more congregations, and had more money. One proposal for how to effectively do mission work was through a missionary society, which was a centralized parachurch organization which oversaw mission work for the churches. Initially, Alexander Campbell wrote articles in the Christian Baptist opposing the missionary society. He felt that mission work was the responsibility of the local church and not a separate institution. However, by 1840, Campbell had changed his mind. He believed that missionary societies were an effective way for churches to cooperate in missions.

From 1845-48 Campbell wrote a series of articles calling for church-wide cooperation in missions. The first missionary society in the Disciples of Christ was formed in 1845 by David Burnet. It was called the American Christian Bible Society. In 1849, Campbell called a general convention of Disciples of Christ. He encouraged each congregation to send delegates to the convention in Cincinnati, OH. It was from this convention that the American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS) was formed. Campbell, who previously had so strongly opposed the missionary society, was appointed as the first President of the ACMS. Before the Civil War, the ACMS sent missionaries to Jerusalem, Liberia, and Jamaica.

In 1860 as tensions were growing in America, the Union began to question the loyalty of the ACMS. At the 1861 meeting of the society, some members proposed adopting a resolution in support of the Union to allay suspicion. They officially decided it was outside the parameters of the ACMS to take sides in politics. A ten minute recess was called and a few went ahead and took a vote to approve a resolution in support of the Union. When word reached the South, they were appalled. Tolbert Fanning, founder of the Gospel Advocate, wrote from Nasvhille, “Unless those who passed the resolution repent, I can no longer regard them as brother.” In Fanning’s view, the ACMS was calling Northerners to take up arms against their Southern brethren and murder them.

In 1863, the ACMS officially passed a resolution:

Resolved, that we unqualifiedly declare our allegiance to the United States government, and repudiate as false and slanderous any statements to the contrary. That we tender our sympathies to our brave and noble soldiers in the field who are defending us from the attempts of armed traitors to overthrow our government.

David Lipscomb said that unless the ACMS repent of this, “it should not receive the confidence of the Christian brotherhood.” After ceasing publication during the Civil War, the Gospel Advocate resumed in 1866 because Lipscomb said that there were no papers that Southerners could read “without being constantly offended by political insinuations and slurs.” Another paper began in that same year, the Christian Standard. Isaac Errett served as the first editor. Coincidentally, he was the chairman of the ACMS in 1863 when the Society approved the resolution supporting the Union. The Gospel Advocate in the South would be anti-missionary society and anti-organ. The Christian Standard in the North would be pro-missionary society and would view the organ as an expedient to the singing (more about this will be said in later posts).

The issues which led to division were complicated. It is true that much of the initial opposition to missionary societies was doctrinal in nature. However, that only played a part. Southern Christians couldn’t believe that the ACMS would adopt a resolution to support the Union which in their minds meant that they were encouraging people to kill their Southern brethren. Unimaginable! If they were not opposed to missionary societies before 1863, they certainly were after. In the same way, much of the initial reaction to organs in the churches was not solely doctrinal in nature. Disciples in the post-war South were shocked that their Northern “brethren” would spend hundreds of dollars for an ornate organ rather than sending money to the South to take care of those diseased and starving. David Lipscomb is a good example of someone dismayed by the socioeconomic disparity between the North and South. It is clear from his writings that socioeconomics played a large part in determining his views on the issues.

When the two groups were finally divided by 1906, two-thirds of the Disciples of Christ were located in the North and two-thirds of Churches of Christ were located in the South. The fact that the officially recognized 1906 split occurred largely along geographical lines is too much coincidence for one to deny that the Civil War did in fact divide us. For example, when discussing the instrumental music question, Isaac Errett said in 1870:

There is little of it [instrumental music in worship] in the South. There is no controversy over it in the North. The real battlefield is in states which have been settled from all parts of the country, whose mixed populations cling to the ideas and habits in which they have been educated. (Christian Standard 1870 pg. 276)

Division is a complicated. Usually those who cause division claim that some important matter of doctrine is at stake. While usually any issue can be made into a doctrinal one, that is usually not the only cause of division. It is most often the case that there are other factors underneath the surface precipitating division. I think a study like this encourages us to reflect on the sources of division in our own day. What socioeconomic factors might be biasing me? Are my political views impacting the way I read the Bible? Do I find myself turning personality differences with others in my church into doctrinal differences?



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