The Non-Violent Epistemological Premise of the Declaration and Address

The following is a guest blog by Jonathan Totty.

Are the churches of the Stone Campbell Movement peace churches? A survey of the modern reality of the Stone Campbell Movement’s position on the issues of pacifism, violence, the state would answer, no. However, many of the founders of the movement were pacifists, and at times wrote and preached about Christian pacifism. Barton Warren Stone, Alexander Campbell, Raccoon John Smith, and Benjamin Franklin were all advocates of Christian pacifism, and yet the Stone Campbell Movement does not bear the marks of these early leaders teaching on peace. If many early leaders of the movement were pacifist, then why did the loose association of churches they ministered in not become peace churches? Is there any remaining evidence of the pacifistic heritage in the Stone Campbell Movement?

If violence is characterized by division and agonistic struggle, then unity is attributed to peace. In the thought of Alexander Campbell, unity and peace are connected in direct opposition to violence. If the church of Christ on earth was to achieve unity in mission and communion, then violence amongst Christians could have no place. Yet ironically, Campbell often refrained from making Christian pacifism a key element of restored New Testament Christianity, because he feared that pacifism would be an issue of division. However, I argue that the plea for unity uttered by Thomas and Alexander Campbell is implicitly peaceable, and though Alexander Campbell often refrained from preaching on pacifism for fear of division, the plea for church unity is a key element Christian pacifism. To demonstrate my thesis, first, I will show how peaceableness is implicit in the plea for unity exemplified by Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, and second, examine Alexander Campbell’s reflections on his silence about pacifism in times of war.

Thomas Campbell wrote the Declaration and Address to define the principles of the Christian Association of Washington, he presented the document on September 7, 1809. At this time, Alexander Campbell, along with the rest of the Campbell family, was still travelling from Scotland to the United States. On October 19, 1809, Thomas met with his family on the road to Washington, Pennsylvania. Thomas and Alexander quickly discovered that each had departed from the Seceder Presbyterian Church to which they belonged, and both for reasons of anti-sectarianism. Alexander Campbell could engage his father’s ideas about unity in the printed form of the “Declaration and Address.”

The “Declaration and Address” begins by describing the unity of the church given in Christ:

That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.1

For Thomas Campbell, unity was not something to be established or even reestablished, but something given in Christ. For, Christ is the guarantor of the unity of the church, and Christians exist within that unity through faith and obedience. Campbell explains that the proof of unity in Christ is manifest by the “tempers and conduct” of Christians. Therefore, unity is not passive existence but a practice. The practice of unity is best characterized by peacemaking; that is, Christians remain in the unity of the church by being at peace with one another.

Furthermore, though admitting “the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another,” Campbell says, “there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them.”2 Campbell lived not long after schisms and divisions were often accompanied by violence and war amongst Christians. To forbid schisms and divisions obviously denies the use of violence by Christians, but also, forbids violence in the form of destructive antagonism.

For Thomas Campbell, “division among the Christians is a horrid evil… as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself.”3 Division among Christians is pictured as a violent affront to the church. Peace is not a mere absence of violence, but the presence of the love of God in the life Christian. For the Apostle Paul says, that Jesus is our peace.4 Thus, we have peace with one another and with God as we abide in the body of Christ, the church. Thomas Campbell asserts that when damage is done to the unity of the body of Christ, then violence among Christians ensues. Campbell says, a state of violence is unnatural and anti-Christian, because Christians are “bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them.”5 Therefore, Christians relate to God and each other in the one body of Christ in peace, and a failure to be peaceable results in division and sin against humanity and God.

So far, I have shown that Christian pacifism was implicit in the plea for Christian unity issued by Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address.” Alexander Campbell excitedly received his father’s ideas, and expounded them for the rest of his life; that is, for Alexander Campbell, the plea for unity among Christians would continue to be central his preaching and writing. Also, Alexander Campbell was pacifist, and realized the connection between Christian unity and Christian pacifism. However, he was often reluctant to make pacifism a key element of restoring early Christianity, because he thought the issue might lead to division. Thus, the question arises, are Christian unity and Christian pacifism really in accord? To answer this question, I turn to Campbell’s own reflections on the prominence of pacifism in his preaching and teaching.

For Alexander Campbell, violence and particularly violence in the form of war was detrimental to the Christian mission, because rather than being engaged in up-building love, Christians engaged in war are engaged in destroying the unity of the Church. Craig Watts, commenting on Campbell’s beliefs says, “Campbell’s opposition to war was in part an expression of his abiding passion for the unity of the church.”6 Yet, in some ways, Campbell thought he had to privilege Christian unity above Christian pacifism.

For several reasons, Campbell was reluctant to teach pacifism during times of conflict. First, Campbell did not want to show partisan bias. Second, during the wars of nineteenth century America, there were many pacifist agendas, and Campbell did not want his own theological reasons for abstaining from war to be confused with other reasons. And third, he thought politics proved divisive when preached from the pulpit.7

Nonetheless, after witnessing the effects of Christians participating in war, Campbell expressed regret at having not been more vocal about Christian pacifism. Watts says, “One of his few expressions of regret took place shortly after the Mexican-American War. He declared he was ‘ashamed’ that he had not expressed more fully his opposition to war and support for nonviolence just prior to the outbreak of hostilities.”8 For Campbell realized, if only too late, that Mexican-American War and the Civil War proved to be more divisive than addressing the issue of Christian pacifism ever could be.

Therefore, in conclusion, I have argued that the plea for unity of Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” implicitly included a plea for Christian pacifism. Also, in the thought and reflections of Alexander Campbell, Christian unity and Christian pacifism are linked. Thus, inasmuch as modern Christians are commit themselves to Christian unity, they also are oriented toward Christian pacifism. However, the present reality seems to tell a different story. Ecumenism is in vogue, yet Christian pacifism is a topic of derision. With this said, I remain by my first assertion, as both historically and theologically proven, a plea for Christian unity necessarily entails Christian pacifism. In strong but poignant words Watts says,

I believe the memory of the church’s pacifist past should not be suppressed but rather be brought to the surface. If some choose to reject it for themselves, let them do so without claiming it is not a legitimate part of who we are as the churches that grew from the reform movement of which the pacifist Alexander Campbell was at the forefront.9

1 DA, Article 1.

2 DA, Article 2.

3 DA, Article 10.

4 Ephesians 2:14

5 DA, Article 10.

6 Craig Watts, Disciples of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Indianapolis: Doulos Christou Press, 2005), 33.

7 Ibid, 12.

8 Ibid, 12.

9 Ibid, 14.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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