By: Garrett Best
If I talk about the American Restoration Movement for more than a minute, odds are I will mention my admiration for Robert Richardson. I had never heard of Richardson before a year ago. As I engaged early Restoration Movement history, I discovered how important he was in the movement. It’s an unfortunate reality that many in Churches of Christ have never heard of him. What a shame!
Richardson (1806-1876) was influenced by Walter Scott and was baptized and joined the Disciples of Christ. In 1836, Alexander Campbell asked Richardson to move to Bethany to co-edit the Millennial Harbinger. He became a professor of chemistry at Bethany College at the invitation of Campbell in 1841. All the while, Richardson was a physician and ran a successful medical practice. He was very close to Campbell and at Campbell’s death in 1866, Richardson was asked by Campbell’s widow to deliver the funeral speech. He was also selected to write the Memoirs of Alexander Campbell. There were very few people who were closer to Campbell than Richardson. Richardson also authored multiple books including Principles and Objects of the Religious Reformation and Communings in the Sancturary, a devotional book for the Lord’s Supper. He was a very important personality in the nascent movement. Why don’t we know about this guy?!
The reason I bring up Richardson here is because in 1872, the first edition of A Scriptural View of the Office of the Holy Spirit was published. The book, at 324 pages, holds the honor of being one of the earliest, systematic attempts to lay out Biblical teaching on the Holy Spirit in the American Restoration Movement. Because of this, I believe this book deserves our attention. For the next several posts, I plan on sharing insights gained from Richardson’s book on the Holy Spirit. I believe that by looking back to Richardson’s views, it might help us chart a course forward for Churches of Christ.
Remember my thesis in Reflections on the Holy Spirit Pt. 1? There I presented my view that the rationalism of Alexander Campbell is one of the things that has kept many in the Restoration Movement from embracing an active belief in the work of the Spirit. Although close to Campbell, Richardson was not afraid to voice concern for Campbell’s rationalism.
Read these words from Robert Richardson in 1872: “The author has for many years contemplated, with much regret, the extremes into which men have fallen in relation to the subject of the Holy Spirit, nor has he failed to use his endeavors to correct these- especially those of them which rest on rationalism, a form of error to which certain religious reformers, who profess to take the “Bible alone,” seem to be peculiarly liable… How many who may amuse themselves with the idea that in possessing the word of truth, they possess also the truth! How many professed reformers may there be to whom the Gospel has truly come “in word only,” and who seem unable to make their way out of the cocoon of formalism, which enwraps them and their religion in perpetual immaturity! A true religious Reformation, however, will restore Christianity not only in letter but in spirit; not only in principle but in practice.” (note: the early Restoration Movement leaders conceived of their movement as a “reformation” of Christianity and you see them refer to themselves as “religious reformers” often) (III-IV, preface)
Richardson believed many reformers in the Disciples of Christ were especially susceptible to a lifeless, rational religion. He believed that many reformers were guilty of having the Bible, but following the Bible in letter only. The rest of his book is an attempt to provide an alternative vision. I will confess that in my early days as a Christian, my own conceptions of Christianity were largely based on what doctrinal propositions one believed or didn’t believe. I “decided” who was and wasn’t a Christian based on what they believed about the “letter” of the word. While I continue to believe the letter is important, I have come to have a renewed appreciation for the spirit. Whether one shows the fruit of the Spirit on Monday-Saturday is more important for defining who is a Christian than what pew one sits in on Sunday. A restored Christianity will involve both the letter and the spirit. Richardson reminds me of this and calls me to a deeper conception of Christianity.
Richardson was optimistic about the future of the Restoration Movement. He believed that if the Disciples of Christ would embrace and live out a Biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit then the movement would be able to achieve its goal to unite all believers in the truth of the gospel.
He said, “…there is now reason to hope that the important truths they affirm are beginning to pervade the Protestant world, and the hour is not distant when a successful effort may be made to unite all believers under one Divine Leader, and to extend the triumphs of the Gospel to the ends of the earth… In the swift changes now occurring, may the people of God be wisely guided, and may the Good Spirit of our God, through whose pervading presence alone unity can be established in the body of Christ, direct the hearts of all believers into the love of God and of each other, to the furtherance of the truth and the salvation of the world!” (VI, preface)
In Richardson’s view, a primarily rationalistic approach to faith would be unable to accomplish the great goals of the movement. If we want to be successful in uniting all believers and reaching the ends of the earth with the Gospel, we will need the guidance, power, and presence of “the Good Spirit of our God”. I hope you want to stay tuned for upcoming posts looking further at Richardson’s views of the Holy Spirit. His admonitions, although 150 years old, are still needed today.