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What really happened in 1906? A trek through history reveals role of Census

The Constitution mandates a census be taken every 10 years to determine each state’s number of representatives in the House. As early as 1850, however, Congress instructed census takers to gather social statistics including religious data. When the Census Bureau became a permanent agency in 1902, specialized surveys distinct from the population count became possible. The first of four stand-alone religious censuses was begun in 1906. Statistician Simon Newton Dexter North, the first Director of the permanent Bureau, developed a process for gathering data that worked fairly well for about two-thirds of American churches. For bodies with little organization, however, the Bureau employed “special agents” to gather statistics. The annual meeting of many of the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement had established a yearbook committee to gather and publish data in the late 1880s. In 1895 the committee appointed Gustavus Adolphus Hoffmann to the position of Statistical Secretary. Hoffmann had helped gather data on the Movement for the 1890 census and was a logical person to help with the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies. The Bureau employed him as a special agent to gather data for the “disciples or churches of Christ.”

Census officials hadnoticed in monitoring Movement journals that the Gospel Advocate, which theyassumed was a Disciples paper based on 1890 data, seemed at times to distanceitself from that body. In a letter to David Lipscomb published in the July 18,1907 Gospel Advocate, Census Director North told of receiving a letter fromWilliam J. Campbell of Marshalltown, Iowa, asserting that three thousand“churches of Christ” formerly connected with Disciples no longer were. Anaccompanying list of preachers included the names of the Gospel Advocateeditors. Yet when North checked the Disciples Yearbook, he found Lipscomb andE. A. Elam in that list too.
North asked, “Is(there) a religious body called ‘church of Christ,’ notidentified with the Disciples of Christ?”
Lipscomb’s reply was:“There is a distinct people taking the word of God as their only and sufficientrule of faith, calling their churches ‘churches of Christ’ or ‘churches ofGod,’ distinct and separate in name, work and rule of faith from all otherbodies of people.” He concluded with an offer to help North gather correctinformation about these churches.
When North visitedLipscomb’s Nashvilleoffice in 1907, Lipscomb suggested that his office manager, James WaltonShepherd, serve as special agent for “churches of Christ.” Soon afterward,Lipscomb wrote and published a strong appeal to the churches — remarkable givenhis strong belief in separation of church and state.

While he had neverput any stress on numbers, Lipscomb said, “when the government requests suchthings at our hand for its own use, we think they ought to be furnished.” Heurged all who received forms from Shepherd to complete and return them.
The problem was thatG. A. Hoffmann was sending the form to the same churches Shepherd wascontacting. Some churches had supplied information to Hoffmann before receivingShepherd’s material. Others had discarded Hoffmann’s request, regarding him asa “digressive.” These churches often assumed Shepherd’s mailings were fromHoffmann.
When the data waspublished, the number of congregations listed for Churches of Christ was 2,642with 159,123 members. Disciples of Christ reported 7,799 congregations with923,698 members. Listed second in a chart of 17 “New Denominations andDenominational Families” was Churches of Christ, noted as formerly includedwith Disciples of Christ.
James HarveyGarrison, editor of the Christian-Evangelist, reacted with incredulity when heread Lipscomb’s reply to North. This shows, he exclaimed, “that the spirit ofsectarianism … is alive and active in some who are seeking a following at theexpense of the unity for which Christ prayed.”
Lipscomb respondedthat he had “done nothing to bring about the present condition of affairs.” Hehad not initiated the inquiry concerning a separate body. Census officials hadseen the difference, asked and Lipscomb had given them the facts.
“We have done nothingsave try to be true to God and his word,” Lipscomb insisted.
The 1906 Census ofReligious Bodies reported data supplied by the churches — it did not sendcensus takers to gather information directly. The Census Bureau published thedata in a 1909 bulletin and two 1910 volumes.
The data reflectedwhat had already happened (and what continued to happen for at least anotherdecade). The Census Bureau itself had noticed a rift between Churches of Christand Disciples of Christ, and in the interest of reliable data collection triedto ascertain if that was true.
Lipscomb agreed thatit was accurate to list the two separately; Garrison did not. The division didnot begin or happen in 1906 — it was nearing its end. The government did notdeclare the division, the Census Bureau simply published data it received.
What is certain aboutthe 1906 Census of Religious Bodies is that it worsened the antagonism betweenthose already taking sides. Garrison wrote in the Christian-Evangelist inDecember 1907, “We and our readers have been so busily engaged in seeking topromote the kingdom of God … that we have failed to take notice of thedivisive work … by those who are willing to make their differences of opiniontests of Christian fellowship and bars of division — the very evil our movementwas intended to remedy.”
David Lipscombreplied in January 1908, “If you will be true to (God), you shall not separatefrom me. If you are not faithful and true to him, you will separate from allthat are true to God.”

DOUG FOSTER isprofessor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studiesat Abilene ChristianUniversity, Abilene, Texas.He is one of four editors of The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

April 1, 2006

Filed under: Staff Reports Views

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