Alexander Campbell: A Prophet of Peace

This is a guest blog by David Rawls

In 1988 I was baptized in a little pond in Central Ohio.  Shortly after this event, I decided to go to a Bible College to be trained in the Bible so I could help young people who were struggling with life.  When I entered Bible College, I was introduced to a Christian movement that I had never heard of before.  It was called the “Restoration Movement.” This Movement was a result of 19th century reformers who saw how denominational churches in America had drifted away from God’s word and teaching.  The focus of the Movement was a return to the primitive New Testament church.  The Restoration Church had two major themes: biblical authority and the unity of all believers.  Men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, Racoon John Smith and others led this Movement.  By 1860 Restoration Churches had nearly 200,000 members.  These reformers emphasized such things as believer’s baptism by immersion, regular communion, and local church autonomy.  It was the teachings of these reformers which began to shape my life.

Meanwhile, over the last 10 years or so, I have come to the realization that Jesus taught a gospel that was focused on nonviolence or peace.  When we look to the gospels we see, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and not to do harm to them.  For Jesus, this was not simply words but this is how he lived his life, even to the point of death.  Nonviolence was how the church, in its first 300 years, interpreted Jesus’ teaching.  It was only after the church was influenced by Constantine that there was a shift in thought concerning peace and violence.  In the last 10 years, in my pursuit to understand the peaceful gospel, I have been digging into the early church fathers and the works of Anabaptists.  Yet, it is only recently that I was shocked to find out that the early Restoration Movement leaders also taught nonviolence.  They believed that nonviolence was part of the primitive gospel of the New Testament. I was shocked, because I had taken classes both in undergrad and graduate school on the history and thought of the Restoration Movement. I don’t remember any discussion of Restoration leaders focus on nonviolence as part of the gospel.  Yet, leaders like Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb had a rich theology of nonviolence.  In this blog I want to look at some of Alexander Campbells arguments for a peaceful gospel.  I will be using Campbells “Address on War” as well as the work from historian Craig M. Watts, which will show that Campbell had a well-developed theology of nonviolence.

When it came to war, Campbell believed that Christians could not participate in war, as to do so would mean killing other Christians in other nations.  He believed that no nation was Christian except the church.  The church was the “one nation composed of all the Christian communities and individuals in the whole earth.”  For Campbell, this meant that Christians could not take up arms because they would be killing other Christians.  Campbell asked the question, “Can Christ’s Kingdom in one nation wage war against his kingdom or church in another nation?”  His answer was an emphatic, “No.”   War for the Christian was not an option.  His problem was not so much nation against nation as it was a theological problem of church against church.  Campbell had a high view of unity and the church could not have unity if Christians were killing other Christians. 

To understand Campbells gospel of peace, one must first understand his postmillennialism.  He believed that the best way to usher in God’s reign on Earth was for the church to recover the original gospel, which included the gospel of peace.  Craig Watts claims Campbell “had no intention of passively waiting for the millennium.” He believed that one had to enact, in the present, his understanding of the future millennium.  Campbell maintains that for man, “the principles of his government” are “to give them a taste of, and a taste for, heavenly things.” This meant that the Christian could not participate in war and violence because the millennium would be a time when the earthly powers would, according to Isaiah, “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and learn war no more.” This view had an evangelistic appeal to it as well, because people could get a picture of what the future would look like as they observed the church in the present.  This probably explains why Campbell thought unity was so essential. If the church could not be united, why would anyone want to be a part of it in some future state. If the church killed people now, why would people desire to be a part of a future death and dying. 

Much of evangelical Christianity is a hodge-podge of thought which tries to tie together a belief in God which separates itself from the ethics of Jesus.  Campbell, however, believed that faith and works go together.  He believed that the ethics of Jesus are not simply to be admired but are to be practiced.  Jesus pacifist ways were to be lived out by the church.  Campbell believed that Jesus was at war but his war was not waged like the wars of the World.  The World uses swords to subdue its enemy.  The World uses violence to beat people into submission.  Campbell, though, rejected this coercive method.  He said, “To conqueror an enemy is to convert him into a friend.”  As he explained, “All arms and modes of warfare are impotent, save the arms and munitions of everlasting love.” This is a courageous contrast to the view of Luther and Calvin, who believed violence was a tool of God.  Campbell would have none of this, believing that if one cannot support war by appeal to the life of Jesus, then the Christian has no business in being a part of or supporting any type of violence or warfare.  Christian ethics mattered to Alexander Campbell.

Campbell was a deep and systematic thinker.  If Christians could not go to war with Christians of other countries, if Christians were to live in such a way as to promote a heavenly new millennium which was free of violence, and if the ethics of Jesus did not promote violence, then the conclusion for Campbell was that Christians had no business in fighting at all.  Campbell sums this up in the idea that, “A Christian man can never of right be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, that which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights.”  He goes on to say, “No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself.”  In other words, if a Christian cannot go to war for himself, he also is forbidden to go to war for his country.  Many Christians have conceded that we are not commanded to go to war as individuals but have made the argument that we could go to war for our country for a good cause.  Campbell rejects this dualistic approach. If one cannot kill for a personal cause, then one cannot kill for the state, no matter how noble the cause.  For Campbell, this is a matter of witness for the Kingdom of Heaven.  The church must refrain from any violence.

When Jesus was being arrested in the garden, and Peter used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those seeking to arrest Jesus, he told Peter to put away his sword. Jesus famous line, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” was the very line upon which the early church based its commitment to nonviolence.  Campbell also saw this as an important ground for his non-violence.  He would ask, “Have not all nations created by the sword finally fallen by it?”  Although Campbell would not necessarily appeal to the inherent pragmatism of nonviolence, it is a practical witness to the Kingdom of Heaven. Campbell’s observation was that in the moment nonviolence will not necessarily work but over the long haul of history violence has arrived at the same point: failure. Violence has never proven effective.  It certainly has momentary victories but all nations have failed or will fail at some point.  Jesus teaches us, according to Campbell, that ultimately victory will come by laying down the sword.  It will be the slain lamb that will win the day.  This is critical to understanding Campbell.

This is a brief overview of some of Campbell’s views on nonviolence and the way of peace.  Hopefully, the reader recognizes that within the 19th century Restoration Movement, the belief that restoring the ancient church of the New Testament required commitment to nonviolence.  For those, like myself, who presumed examples of peace must be sought outside of the Restoration Movement, the good news is that we no longer need look beyond our Movement.  Certainly, we can learn a lot from other tribes of Christians but we can also know that these reformers took the gospel of peace seriously.  It is now up to the spiritual descendants of Campbell to once again raise the banner of peace.  Nonviolence is not simply a secondary issue for the church but is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus.  It is time to make the Restoration Movement great again by lifting high the name of Jesus.  We do this by living out the peaceful ways of Jesus. 

The Restoration Movement: The Failed Peace Movement

Faith and I both have deep roots in the Restoration Movement, with her family going back some five generations to the founding of the Movement and mine going back at least to my grandparents. But as far as I can remember, I never heard anyone in our realm of family and friends in the church explain the nonviolence of the gospel and, so far as I am aware, I never met a pacifist before I became one. Yet, the Restoration Movement was, in the beginning and for several generations, theologically Anabaptist. The key leaders in the original Movement held to a nonviolent reading of the New Testament, and this at a time when it caused them a great deal of trouble. But it may be that the same attitudes that gave rise to the Movement, and the recognition of the inherent peace of the gospel, also contributed to its virtual disappearance as a distinct group.

While the group repeated the theological turn to adult baptism, separation from government institutions, the recognition of the Church as the Kingdom (other than baptism this may sound strange to contemporary ears), which seems to be the shared understanding of peace churches, this gradual innovation was based on their own reading of the New Testament in the circumstance in whey they found themselves. The shared theology was not due to any historical connection to other peace churches but was due to, what might now be perceived as a naïve presumption, that the original text of Scripture can be understood through reason. Revelation and reason are not contradictory and one only has to set aside traditions, councils, and creeds, which divided the early church, and return to the text of the Bible. Given John Locke’s rationalism, one needs to simply clear out all of the misguided attempts of the church fathers to understand the Bible and take it for what it is obviously saying.

This was partly aided by a clear demarcation between Testaments, so that one need not be overly concerned with reconciling the Old and New Testaments. The same method was applied to post-Constantinian Christianity. It was presumed the church had fallen and it would only take a clearing of the decks and then a restoring of the original church, as it is described in the New Testament – thus the name “Restoration Movement.” The combination of being on the frontier in a new country in which the old country, with its “backward” traditions and hierarchy, was actively repudiated, and being part of an intellectual shift that no longer relied on authority and tradition, the early innovators in the Restoration Movement came to many of the same conclusions as other peace churches, both prior to and subsequent to the Protestant Reformation. Unlike previous peace churches, the Restorationists were figuring out their relationship to the world with a clean slate, absent the old world weighing down upon them. As the situation of slavery, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War, impinged upon them, they would adjust accordingly. This flexibility would be both the strength that gave rise to a repudiation of slavery and violence, but perhaps this same flexibility would eventually wipe out much of the distinctiveness of the original effort.  

This is to make it all sound too naïve and simple, as the Campbell’s and Stone were true intellectuals. John Howard Yoder, a neutral judge in the matter and no lightweight himself, concludes: “Other people were doing intellectually brilliant things in the nineteenth century, but in the realm of critical perspective on Christian social ethics, rooted in any kind of theological and scriptural accountability, these nonresistant Christian thinkers were the most serious intellectual phenomenon of the century.”[1] Alexander Campbell would engage key intellectuals and thinkers of his day in debate and proved himself to be a formidable intellect in several arenas, which partly explains the exponential growth of the Movement he more or less fostered.

In the first issue of the Christian Baptist (theological journals were key in the Movement) Campbell wrote of the vulgar contradiction of Christians creating orphans and widows in war so that they might manifest their purity of religion by providing for them:

Christian General, with his ten thousand soldiers, and his Chaplain at his elbow, preaching, as he says the gospel of good will among men; and…praying that the Lord would cause them to fight valiantly and render their efforts successful in making as many widows and orphans, as will afford sufficient opportunity for others, to manifest the purity of their religion by taking care of them!

In his “Address on War” he asks whether one Christian nation (defined as any nation with a Christian in it) has a right to wage war on another Christian nation (rendering the notion of “Christian nation” absurd). Then he asks whether one part of the Christian Church in one nation should wage war on another part of the Church in another nation? His answer is clear:

With this simple view of the subject, where is the man so ignorant of the letter and spirit of Christianity as to answer this question in the affirmative? Is there a man of ordinary Bible education in this city or commonwealth who will affirm that Christ’s church in England may of right wage war against Christ’s church in America?

Campbell also suggests there is no such thing as a just war as those being killed are not those who are guilty and those who fight are not responsible for declaring the war. He concludes,

War is not now, nor was it ever, a process of justice.  It never was a test of truth-a criterion of right.  It is either a mere game of chance or a violent outrage of the strong upon the weak.  Need we any other proof that a Christian people can in no way whatever countenance a war as a proper means of redressing wrongs, of deciding justice, or of settling controversies among nations?

Like Campbell, Barton Stone would come slowly to nonviolence, but the tipping point came when he first encountered the extreme cruelties of slavery. He describes visiting with some professed Christians in South Carolina and being repulsed at their treatment of their slaves.

But in the midst of all this glory, my soul sickened at the sight of slavery in more horrid forms than I had ever seen it before; poor negroes! Some chained to their work— some wearing iron collars— all half naked, and followed and driven by the merciless lash of a gentleman overseer— distress appeared scowling in every face.[2]

The impact slavery would have for Stone and many in the Restoration Movement is paralleled in the depiction of Frederick Douglas, who describes the repulsiveness of a faith that could tolerate this sort of violence.

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. . . . It is . . . a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there, and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation— a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.[3]

Douglas claimed there was a difference so wide between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of this land “that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.”  What was absolutely clear to a run-away slave was also clear to Stone who was inundated with the same images, such that he too came to conclusions like those of Douglas. The “slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land,” was precisely the impetus for Stone’s participation in reform.

Stone not only turned against slavery but against the laws and values of the United States and it would be the beginning of his theological journey toward an apocalyptic reading of Christianity.

We must return to the government, laws, and ordinances of our rightful king, the Lord Jesus, before we shall be ever gathered together and become worthy subjects of his kingdom. We must unite our energies, advance the government and kingdom of our Lord, and meddle not with the government of this world, whether human, ecclesiastical, or political, or civil; all others aside from that of heaven will be put down by a firm decree of our Lord before the end come.[4]

Stone would hold true to this ultimate conviction of non-participation in the affairs of this world (at great personal cost), as Christians must focus on the government, laws and ordinances of Jesus in order to obtain unity, and they must not meddle in the government of this world.

David Lipscomb, also due to the institution of slavery, developed an even clearer demarcation between the church and the world. He compared all human government to the Babylon of revelation. What marks this universal Babylon of human government is that it always rests “upon the power of the sword.” This authority of the sword and its “mission” of “strife and bloodshed” marks all government, other than that of Christ. “The fall of Babylon is the down fall of all human governments” and the establishment of the Kingdom of God will entail “the destruction of human institutions and authority, and the reinstation of God’s rule and authority on earth.” One can either serve God’s rule or the principalities and powers of this world, but each realm is controlled by its “own peculiar spirit that abides in it and animates each of its members.”  The government one participates in and supports is determinative of what one worships.

God, through his gentle, meek, loving, self-sacrificing Son established the Church of Christ, and imparted to it his spirit to dwell in, animate, guide, and control that body and every member thereof. Whoever puts himself under the guidance or control of a different spirit ceases to be a member of the Church or body of Christ.[5]

As with the book of Revelation, Lipscomb pictures the final judgment as involving “the complete and final destruction, the utter consuming of the last vestige of human governments and institutions.”[6] Though located in Nashville, which would be consumed by the Civil War, Lipscomb wrote to both sides in the conflagration outlining his and his churches position, so that Churches of Christ in the South were the largest group recognized as neutral conscientious objectors. As Lipscomb explained,

In the beginning of the late strife that so fearfully desolated our country, much was said about “our enemies.” I protested constantly that I had not a single enemy, and was not an enemy to a single man North of the Ohio river. I have never been brought into collision with one— but very few knew such a person as myself existed. . . . Yet, these thousands and hundreds of thousands who knew not each other . . . were made enemies to each other and thrown into fierce and bloody strife, were imbued with the spirit of destruction one toward the other, through the instrumentality of human governments.[7]

The mission of Christ’s kingdom “is to put down and destroy all these kingdoms” built on the shedding of blood and “to destroy everything that exercises rule, authority, or power on earth” other than Christ. Christ’s servants cannot enter into league with the very kingdoms which he is set against and set to destroy. Christians should have no role in government and need only submit to the degree allowed by the first and highest obligation to obey God.

The question arises as to what happened to this core belief of the early Restorationists? For the most part, the contemporary majority have succumbed to evangelical beliefs and the gnostic tendencies of a privatized religion. Some would link the problem to Campbell’s and Stone’s rationalistic approach to Scripture and the succumbing to the shifting sands of “common sense.” The contextual nature of their nonviolence shifted with the context, and with their heirs was contextualized into oblivion. The feeling of antagonism with the world would soon diminish, with one Restoration preacher even serving as President of the United States. With the ending of slavery, perhaps the repulsion of the world was not so obvious (a strange conclusion in these racist times). The two world wars would impact all three branches of the movement, with peace churches disappearing and a theology of peace hanging on mainly in a few key academic institutions of the Churches of Christ. Clearly, the theology was inadequate. Perhaps the intense focus on the form and structure of the church failed to preserve the unique content. Whatever the cause or causes, the sense of restoring the peaceable Kingdom of the New Testament Church, the thing which defined early Restorationists, has been mostly abandoned by the Restoration Movement.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 268). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Thanks to Tom Evans for his lecture notes and the Campbell references.

[2] Barton W. Stone, “A Short History of the Life of Barton W. Stone, Written by Himself ” (Cincinnati: J. A. & U. P. James, 1847), in The Cane Ridge Reader, ed. Hoke S. Dickinson (Cane Ridge, KY: Cane Ridge Preservation Project, 1972), 27– 28. In John Mark Hicks, Resisting Babel: Allegiance to God and the Problem of Government (Kindle Locations 442-444). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Frederick Douglass, “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” in Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787– 1900, ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 262– 63. Quoted in Hicks 447-449.

[4] Quoted in Hicks, 152-155.

[5] Lipscomb, Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation to It (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913). 23 quoted in Hicks 778-779

[6] Lipscomb, 27

[7] Lipscomb, “Babylon,” Gospel Advocate 33, no. 22 (June 2, 1881): 340. Quoted in Hicks, 433.

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The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence

One of the key moments in Alexander Campbell’s break with Presbyterianism and denominationalism came when he returned his communion token, unused, to the coffers of the Presbyterians. The token, issued by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches, was a ticket of entry showing that the bearer had been duly tested and approved by the clergy to gain access to the Lord’s Table. The tokens were a form of “salvation currency” as the bearer was declared a bone fide Christian (to be denied a token was to lose access to body of Christ). The tokens became sacred objects, some even requested they be put in their coffins at death, and they were a means for clergy (who came to view them as their personal possession) to accumulate power and insure their own station. The system originated with John Calvin and spread to Protestant churches all over the world, including the U. S. The particular thing which may have plagued Campbell, as he purposely put himself at the end of a line of 800 some communicants, was that he realized that his new friends among the Scottish reformers would not qualify for the Lord’s table as they were not of the right party.[1] Continue reading “The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence”