Reprint: 2009 to add new date to Restoration history
“Division among Christians is a horrid evil filled with many evils. All who are enabled through grace to make a profession of faith in Christ should consider each other the precious saints of God, and should love each other as children of the same family and father.”
For several intense weeks in late summer 1809, Thomas Campbell struggled to put into the above words his most deeply held beliefs about the church. He was still hurting from his expulsion a few months earlier from the Presbyterian body he had served for more than 11 years in Ireland and America. His trial by the Associate Synod of North America had dragged on for nearly a year and a half after he was accused of, among other things, allowing Presbyterians not part of his group to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
This was not the first time Thomas Campbell had been in trouble for promoting unity among Christians. A decade earlier he had been a founding member of the Evangelical Society of Ulster, an evangelistic effort by ministers of several denominations in northern Ireland. The leadership of Campbell’s church, however, soon condemned the society as “undermining the principles of the gospel.” Under pressure he withdrew from the Evangelical Society.
This time, however, he stood his ground, and it cost him his church and his ministry. Campbell and 20 others who sympathized with his ideas immediately formed another society dedicated to promoting Christian unity and the spread of the gospel — the Christian Association. The document he was working on with such intensity that August was titled The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association. When Campbell presented it to the group on Sept. 7, 1809, they approved it unanimously.
Now regarded as one of the founding documents of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the Declaration and Address was a declaration of independence from the sectarian attitudes that had caused countless divisions among followers of Christ. Campbell urged Christian leaders to act.
“The cause that we advocate is … the cause of Christ and our brethren of all denominations. Are we not all praying for that happy event, when there shall be but one fold, as there is but one chief Shepherd? What! Shall we pray for such a thing, and not strive to obtain it!”
Ending division among Christians was at the heart of the reform Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander
would soon begin. That call has too often been diverted or ignored in Churches of Christ over the past two centuries. Sadly, this movement that had unity as essential to its “reason for being” has itself been divided by the very attitudes Thomas Campbell and others sought to eradicate.
By 1909 one major division was largely complete — and the seeds of a second had been sown. That year the initial report of the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies listed Churches of Christ and Christian Churches (or Disciples of Christ) separately for the first time. In October the annual convention of the Christian Churches met in Pittsburgh to commemorate the centennial of the Declaration and Address. Yet few members of Churches of Christ participated in that meeting or the communion service of 25,000 Christians at Forbes Field on Sunday, Oct. 17, that culminated the week.
Almost two centuries have passed since Thomas Campbell’s call for unity in the Declaration and Address. A century has passed since the wrenching division that separated Churches of Christ from Christian Churches and Disciples, and more than half a century since the parting of Christian Churches and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Yet efforts to restore unity within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement began almost from the minute the divisions occurred. Since the 1980s the Restoration Forums (1984-2007) and the Stone-Campbell Dialogue (1999-present) have brought together members of all streams of the movement, finding mutual understanding, reconciliation and concrete ways to reflect the unity of Christ’s church.
Five years ago, members of the Stone-Campbell Dialogue and the board of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society began discussing ways to commemorate the bicentennial of the Declaration and Address. Under the leadership of the Historical Society, 20 leaders from the North American streams of the movement formed a “2009 Task Force.”
The group created a plan to call for a Great Communion service — this time in thousands of places around the world, on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. In preparation for the 2009 Great Communion, the Task Force edited a book titled “One Church” that brings Thomas Campbell’s principles in the Declaration and Address into the 21st century. The group also created a Web site with resources on how to organize a Great Communion service in your location.
Consider what makes Christians one. It is not intellectual uniformity. It is the grace of God embodied in the sacrifice of Christ. In 2009 we have an opportunity to honor in a small, but important, way the dying prayer of Jesus for the oneness of his followers and to reclaim the unity impulse that formed this movement. Begin now to plan for what Thomas Campbell called “that great ordinance of unity and love.
DOUGLAS A. FOSTER is professor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University.