‘The Missionary who Stayed Home’
With unbridled enthusiasm, Olan Hicks launched into the first front-page…
To echo Edward J. Robinson in the foreword, John Young has written a clear, concise and instructive account of the history of Churches of Christ in America.
In “Visions of Restoration: The History of Churches of Christ,” Young does a remarkable job of sketching the large contours of this story in a way accessible even to those with no prior knowledge of it — or who never thought about our churches having a history.
Young, an adjunct instructor at Amridge University and a doctoral student in history at the University of Alabama, starts with a helpful explanation of how members of this body have seen themselves — either as the ones who have always embodied the true church or as a relatively recent movement to return Christianity to first-century purity.
He hints at another idea — that Christ’s church established at Pentecost has, as Christ promised, never ceased to exist, but in diverse times, cultures and languages, it has looked very different.
Young’s personal stance is that Churches of Christ are “perhaps the most thorough” of the movements to return to the pattern of the first century church, apparently assuming readers understand “pattern” alike. Later, however, Young subtly challenges the blueprint pattern theology common in Churches of Christ, pointing out that “restorers often came to very different conclusions about how to interpret scripture” even though using the same rational approach to restore the ancient order. He cites Puritan leader John Cotton and Barton W. Stone as examples.
Young describes Churches of Christ as having made great strides toward restoring that first century pattern, yet not having completed the work, “if it ever can be completed.” This acknowledgement reflects a godly level of humility. Still, in my opinion it fails to focus on the primacy of God’s action in restoration. Though human response is involved, ultimately restoration is not our work: It is God’s.
There are a few factual errors, such as that Alexander Campbell arrived in America in 1808, when he actually arrived the following year. A more substantial problem is that concise studies like this simply cannot tell “the rest of the story.” Nuances and complexities inevitably get lost. One example is Young’s description of Barton Stone’s preaching in favor of adult immersion and against infant baptism. While true, that was not his chief message. In fact, Stone’s refusal to insist on adult immersion was a major source of friction between Stone and Alexander Campbell.
Some of the strongest parts of Young’s study for me are his discussions of divisions. After his treatment of the rift between Disciples and Churches of Christ, he presents the example of T.B. Larimore as an alternative to separation. In the premillennial controversy, he shows how Foy E. Wallace Jr.’s vicious tactics of character assassination set the tone for the later battle over institutions. He then chronicles the rise of resistance to hateful, exclusivist attitudes by more grace-oriented approaches to scripture and the church and describes the gradual drifting apart of Churches of Christ due to different understandings of what scripture is and how we understand it.
In his final chapters Young discusses International Churches of Christ, predominantly black congregations and the role of women in churches. He provides discussion questions for each chapter that skillfully direct readers to deeper reflection on the material’s implications.
In one of those questions — “Have you ever thought of historical study as part of a healthy spiritual life?” — he gently prods readers to see learning history as a spiritual discipline that humbles us and enables us to see the church more like God sees it.
Young’s brief volume can help us do just that.
DOUGlas a. FOSTER is a professor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He has authored books on the history of the Stone-Campbell (or Restoration) Movement including the forthcoming “The Life of Alexander Campbell,” scheduled for release in July 2020.
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