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ABILENE, Texas — Off an interstate in suburban Memphis, Tenn., Mac Ice stepped into a downpour in a shopping center parking lot. There he received a document with great historical significance to Churches of Christ.
Ice, director of special collections at Abilene Christian University, drove the box containing the document 642 miles to West Texas. Only then did he behold the artifact inside — an extremely rare, original Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington.
Minister Thomas Campbell wrote the Address in 1809, expressing his belief that “as the divine word is equally binding upon all, so all lie under an equal obligation to be bound by it, and it alone; and not by any human interpretation of it.”
Campbell and his son, Alexander, joined with followers of Barton W. Stone in 1832 in an effort to restore the New Testament church. The Declaration and Address is considered to be a “charter document” of their movement, which laid the foundation for today’s Churches of Christ, according to “The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement.”
The document — one of only a few still in existence — was the star attraction at a recent annual event hosted by ACU’s Center for Restoration Studies.
The center has organized Restoration Day annually since 2019 to commemorate and highlight the importance of the Stone-Campbell Movement within modern-day Churches of Christ.
Each year, ACU’s event has focused on different themes that specifically highlight the historical heritage of the movement, said Wes Crawford, director of the Center for Restoration Studies.
“We’ve done other things. We’ve done worship. We’ve done just a general Stone-Campbell history. We did a year on Alexander Campbell,” said Crawford, assistant professor of church history. “We’re excited about this one, particularly because the theme is centered on the Declaration and Address.”
Edward Robinson, associate professor of religion and history at Texas College, served as the keynote speaker for this year’s event, tying in the exhibition of the Declaration and Address and emphasizing how African American leaders in the early fellowship were greatly indebted to the movement.
“It’s something we should be very proud of,” said Robinson, who is also a minister for the North Tenneha Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas. Thomas Campbell “actually said that he was ‘tired and sick’ — today we would say ‘sick and tired’ — of all of the religious bickering that was going on. He just believed that believers in Christ should unite on the Bible alone, and that was his emphasis. Today we are heirs of the Campbells.”
Robinson, former faculty member at ACU, said it was fitting for the rare print of the Declaration to find its way to Abilene.
“That is very significant and so rare to have one of the original copies,” Robinson said. “ACU is actually one of the best places, not the only place but one the best places, if you’re going to do research on the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement. ACU has just a plethora of sources and resources.”
James Wiser, ACU’s dean of library sciences, honored two Tennesseans — Wesley Williams of Memphis and Bradley Williams of Nashville — for providing the document to the university. The Williamses’ copy of the Declaration and Address was passed down through their family.
Wesley Williams reached out to Carisse Berryhill, associate dean of the library, in summer 2021. Wesley then put the library in contact with a Lipscomb University professor who suggested the appropriate place for the document would be the ACU library.
“We’re kind of known for being the largest and most professionally sophisticated repository for Church of Christ-related materials,” Wiser said. So he and Ice contacted Wesley Williams.
“When he said, ‘This has the date on this as 1809,’ we kind of all sort of woke up and sat up in our chair and said, ‘Wait, this is a Declaration and Address of Thomas Campbell,’” Wiser said.
From there, the university began the process of purchasing the piece from the family and bringing it to Abilene. This included the transfer of endowment funds, tax considerations and finally, the not-so-auspicious handoff of the document to Ice in the shopping center parking lot.
“Before we could put it in its museum-grade display case, we wanted to be exceptionally careful with it,” Wiser said. “So we did it up in bubble wrap, and it stayed in a Tupperware container on the top of a dark closet in special collections for a year.
Periodically, I would go down there and open the closet and look at the Tupperware container just to make sure it was still there.”
The exhibition of the piece was unveiled during the Restoration Day event, making the copy of the declaration the only one publicly displayed in the United States. The exhibition is museum quality, according to Wiser and Ice, with a display case meant to maintain climate control for up to 500 years.
“Will there ever be another thing comparable?” Ice asked. “The more time passes, you never know. A Declaration of Independence, found in a picture frame at Goodwill? You never know what shows up. For all we know, it’s been generations since the last (Declaration and Address) came available. So that’s also pretty neat when you think this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
The Declaration and Address is on display in the Brown Library on ACU’s campus. To view more information on the ACU Special Collections and to view a digital version of the exhibition visit blogs.acu.edu/specialcollections.
SYDNEY VARNER is editor-in-chief of The Optimist, the student news outlet at Abilene Christian University. She is a senior majoring in journalism.
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