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The American Restoration Movement (1)

During the late Middle Ages, dissenters such as John Wycliff and Johann Huss called for a restoration of a primitive form of Christianity, but they were driven underground. As a result, it is difficult to find any direct links between such early dissenters and the restoration movement. From the Renaissance, intellectual roots become easier to discern. At the heart of the Reformation was an emphasis on the principle of “Scripture alone” (Latin: sola scriptura). This, along with the related insistence on the right of individuals to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and a movement to reduce ritual in worship, formed part of the intellectual background of early Restoration Movement leaders. The branch of the Reformation movement represented by Huldrych Zwingli and Jean Calvin contributed an emphasis on “restoring biblical forms and patterns.”

The rationalism of John Locke provided another influence. Reacting to the deism of Lord Herbert, Locke sought a way to address religious division and persecution without abandoning Scripture. To do this, Locke argued against the right of government to enforce religious orthodoxy and turned to the Bible to supply a set of beliefs that all Christians could agree upon. The core teachings which he viewed as essential were the messiahship of Jesus and Jesus’ direct commands. Christians could be devoutly committed to other Biblical teachings but, in Locke’s view, these were non-essentials over which Christians should never fight or try to coerce each other. Unlike the Puritans and the later Restoration Movement, Locke did not call for a systematic restoration of the early church. One of the basic goals of the English Puritans was to restore a pure, “primitive” church that would be a true apostolic community. This conception was a critical influence in the development of the Puritans in Colonial America. It has been described as the “oldest ecumenical movement in America.” Both the great founding documents of the movement are authentically ecumenical. In the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery (1804), Barton W. Stone and his fellow revivalists dissolved their exclusive Presbyterian relationship, desiring to “sink into union with the Body of Christ at large.” Five years later Thomas Campbell wrote in The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (1809) “The church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one.”

During the First Great Awakening, a movement developed among those Baptists known as Separate Baptists. Two themes of this movement were the rejection of creeds and “freedom in the Spirit.” The Separate Baptists saw Scripture as the “perfect rule” for the church. However, while they turned to the Bible for a structural pattern for the church, they did not insist on complete agreement on the details of that pattern. This group originated in New England but was especially strong in the South where the emphasis on a biblical pattern for the church grew stronger. In the last half of the 18th century, Separate Baptists became more numerous on the western frontier of Kentucky and Tennessee, where the Stone and Campbell movements would later take root. The development of the Separate Baptists in the southern frontier helped prepare the ground for the Restoration Movement. The membership of both the Stone and Campbell groups drew heavily from the ranks of the Separate Baptists. The Separate Baptist restoration movement also contributed to the development of the Landmark Baptists in the same region as the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and at about the same time. Under the leadership of James Robinson Graves, this group wanted to define a precise blueprint for the primitive church, believing that any deviation from that blueprint would prevent a person from being part of the true church.

The ideal of restoring a “primitive” form of Christianity grew in popularity in the US after the American Revolution. This desire to restore a purer form of Christianity played a role in the development of many groups during this period, known as the Second Great Awakening. These included the Mormons, Baptists and Shakers. (Mormons look to the Book of Mormon and less-so to the Bible for the blueprint of the early church, rather than solely the Bible as other movements.) The Restoration Movement began during, and was greatly influenced by, this second Awakening. While the Campbell’s resisted what they saw as the spiritual manipulation of the camp meetings, the Southern phase of the Awakening “was an important matrix of Barton Stone’s reform movement” and shaped the evangelistic techniques used by both Stone and the Campbell’s.

James O’Kelly was an early advocate of seeking unity through a return to New Testament Christianity. In 1792, dissatisfied with the role of bishops in the Methodist Episcopal Church, he separated from that body. O’Kelly’s movement, centering in Virginia and North Carolina, was originally called Republican Methodists. In 1794 they adopted the name Christian Church. During the same period, Elias Smith of Vermont and Abner Jones of New Hampshire led a movement espousing views like those of O’Kelly. They believed that members could, by looking to scripture alone, simply be Christians without being bound to human traditions and the denominations brought by immigrants from Europe.

Barton W. Stone was born to John and Mary Warren Stone near Port Tobacco, Maryland on December 24, 1772. His immediate family was upper middle class, with connections to Maryland’s upper class. Barton’s father died in 1775, and his mother moved the family to Pittsylvania County, Virginia in 1779. Mary Stone was a member of the Church of England and Barton was christened by a priest named Thomas Thornton; after the move to Virginia she joined the Methodists. Barton was not himself notably religious as a young man; he found the competing claims of the Episcopalians, Baptists and Methodists confusing, and was much more interested in politics. (After the American Revolution the Church of England was disestablished and the Episcopal Church was organized.) Barton entered the Guilford Academy in North Carolina in 1790. While there, Stone heard James McGready (a Presbyterian minister) speak. A few years later, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. But, as Stone looked more deeply into the beliefs of the Presbyterians, especially the Westminster Confession of Faith, he doubted that some of the church beliefs were truly Bible-based. He was unable to accept the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, and predestination. He also believed that “Calvinism’s alleged theological sophistication had… been bought at the price of fomenting division” and “blamed it… for producing ten different sects within the Presbyterian tradition alone.”

(This series was edited and adapted from the Wikipedia Encyclopedia listing on Christian Restoration. Copies of portraits, photographs, references, sources, and sections on future issues along with some charts are not included. You are encouraged to read the full posting at Wikipedia.com.)