By: Garrett Best
In part one of this series on the Holy Spirit, I began reflecting on why those of us in Churches of Christ have tended to be gun-shy about teaching on the Holy Spirit. I believe we continue to be unconsciously affected by events in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement. The more and more I study the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the more and more I realize just how influenced we are by the past. Not only are we ignorant of our past, but many in Churches of Christ even deny that we have a past. “Who cares what Alexander Campbell said?! I just care what the Bible says.” The irony of making that statement is that in denying being influenced by the past, one is showing just how much they are actually influenced by the past. It was Thomas and Alexander Campbell that influenced us to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” and to go back to the Bible for religious knowledge rather than creedal statements or denominational dogmas.
I realize that anytime I start talking about Stone or Campbell or any other event that occurred 175 years ago, half the people who actually started reading this blog have already exited the post and resumed scrolling the newsfeed on Facebook. I continue to engage our past because I believe it’s important for the present. Reflecting on the Holy Spirit in our modern context in Churches of Christ must begin by reflecting on how Churches of Christ have historically thought about the Spirit. In the first post, I suggested that one of the main reasons we have been gun-shy about the Holy Spirit is because of our inherited Campbellian DNA which prefers the rational to the mysterious.
In this second reflection, I want to share with you an event that happened in the 1850s that sent shock waves through the developing movement. One of our brightest, up-and-coming preachers in Churches of Christ defected to spiritualism.
Jesse B. Ferguson was a rising star in the Disciples of Christ. He was young, energetic, and that boy could preach! He wrote for a popular Disciples of Christ journal, the Heretic Detector. In 1842, he established several churches in Kentucky which gained him a national reputation in the DoC. In that same year he debated a Methodist minister. He so successfully debated this minister that he converted to the DoC after the debate concluded. Ferguson was the talk of the movement. One of the most prestigious churches, the Church of Christ in Nasvhille, TN eagerly sought out Ferguson to preach for them. In 1846, Ferguson accepted the pulpit preaching position at the Nasvhille church. H. Leo Boles said that Ferugson “enjoyed the fame of being the greatest and most eloquent pulpit orator in the South.” His popularity continued to spread. He became the editor of the Christian Magazine in 1848.
In 1852, everything changed. Ferguson wrote an article entitled “The Spirits in Prison” in which he gave his interpretation of 1 Peter 3:17-19. He believed these verses taught that Jesus would go into the Hadean realm and preach the gospel to all those who had already died. Those who had not obeyed the gospel on earth would be offered a second opportunity to be saved.
Many were concerned by his interpretation of these verses including Alexander Campbell who believed that Ferguson was dangerously close to teaching Universalism. The two men, Ferguson and Campbell, became embroiled in a controversy. In the end, this controversy would take up 100 pages of the Millennial Harbinger (Campbell’s journal) and 180 pages of the Christian Magazine (Ferguson’s journal). In 1853, Ferguson had to cease publication of his journal because Campbell had been so severe in his denunciation of Ferguson that dozens of subscriptions were quickly dropped.
In 1854, Ferguson addressed the Nashville church about the controversy with Campbell. In a sermon to the church, he confirmed that he and his wife had been influenced by Universalism and Unitarianism. In fact, he told the church that the couple had been communicating with the dead. When news reached Campbell of Ferguson’s Spiritualism, Campbell traveled to Nashville to meet with him in person; however, Ferguson refused to meet with Campbell. Ferguson claimed to have been warned in a vision from William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian divine who had been dead for several years.
In 1857, Ferguson was fired from the Nashville church. Some of the members had to file a lawsuit against him to gain the rights to the church property. In 1858, Ferguson turned the building over to the remaining members of the church. The Nashville church had experienced a split, lost their famous preacher, and had to sue him to gain the rights to their own building. A few days later, the building burned down and of course, people speculated that Ferguson and/or some of his supporters had burned it down. Can you imagine how traumatic this was for the Disciples of Christ, especially in the South?!
In the 1850s, everyone was talking about Jesse B. Ferguson. And weirdos like me are still talking about him. The movement’s most talented up-and-coming preacher had defected to Spiritualism. He had engaged in mystical experiences with the dead and held Universalist beliefs. How had all this started? With one article published in his magazine wrongly interpreting 1 Peter 3:17-19. The shock waves of this event would put leaders in the Disciples of Christ on high alert for anything that even smelt like Spiritualism or mysticism. If the movement’s greatest young orator could fall so hard, so could anyone.
I believe that major traumatic events like this have forced many in Churches of Christ to think twice before talking about the Holy Spirit. One wrong interpretation of a Scripture could lead to Spiritualism. I certainly am not suggesting we should start talking to the dead. I am suggesting that many were so scared by this high profile defection that for years, they threw out the baby with the bathwater. In order to avoid going over the cliff toward Spiritualism, the Spirit was avoided altogether.
I began this series by telling of a woman in my church class who said she has never heard anyone talk about the Holy Spirit in the Churches of Christ she’s attended. I am suggested that is the case because we are still affected by events like this in our past. In the third post, I will talk about how Pentecostalism in the 20th century affected Churches of Christ.