A History of Lost Peace

The history of the church can be told as a process which starts with nonviolent peace as central and which is then lost. This is the historical reality of the church, not just in its first 400 years, but often repeated wherever the attempt has been made to restore New Testament Christianity. The pattern is one of return to the centrality of peace and nonviolence in the teachings of Jesus, an initial acceptance of this teaching and an attempt to live up to this reality, and then a gradual obfuscation, fudging, and loss of commitment to nonviolence. This can be demonstrated not only with the Restoration Movement (as I showed last week here), but with a host of restorationist movements in which restoration of the original church and the authentic teaching of Jesus entails focus on nonviolent peace, and then a weakening of this commitment. So, if the Constantinian shift and the acceptance of violence is the “fall of the church,” the church can be said to have fallen many times.

Of course, this is a conclusion Christian “realists” of every brand would resist. Violence and war loom too large, in this estimate, to be defeated publicly and corporately by the church and it is doubtful that even the private individual can make much headway in overcoming personal self-directed violence. Masochism, neurosis, sadism, violence, and war are the given reality, and not even the intervention of God in Christ can be expected to defeat this evil, except in some future estate wiped clean of the present reality. The problem is taken to be so intractable that there seems to be a relinquishing of peace as any sort of real possibility, corporately or individually. Realism, history as we know it, the muck and mess that is the human condition, all weigh too much. To call commitment to peace a rediscovery of the gospel (the depiction peace groups attribute to themselves) will, of course, irritate those weighed down by the heavy robes of tradition and institution. Everyone knows peace is there in the Bible, but some are savvy enough, world-wise enough, grounded enough in history and institutions, to have concluded to the inevitable nature of violence.

Which explains when and where there are renewals of commitment to the peace of the gospel. As John Howard Yoder has noted, “Pacifism arises where people are trying to be Christian without too much rootage in history.” The North American frontier provides a sample proof of the case that wherever there is a frontier culture (Yoder provides exhaustive proofs with worldwide peace movements) or wherever there is a fresh reading of scripture, there is a conclusion that pacifism is central to the gospel and then a commitment to live in this peace.[1]

There is no particular hermeneutic that is rediscovered, but simply an opening, a renewal, or what might be disparagingly referred to as naivety or ignorance. Some situations allow for a fresh start or at least a fresh reading. Maybe every child, like I did, encounters the nonviolence of the teachings of Jesus as raw datum. Then, through education, acquaintance with more sophisticated doctrine and history, one learns better. What is clear is that where a fresh reading is a possibility, the presumption is that violence and war are not part of the authentic Christian life.

In North America, this was not simply the conclusion of an anti-intellectualism, as the age of John Locke gave the sophisticated the sense that, being part of the age of reason, they certainly need not return to the dark ages of medieval theology or the encrusted obscurities of tradition. The Bible is clear and people can reason out its meaning without the aid of priest or church.

On the other hand, revivalism, pietism, Pentecostalism, and just the sense of being on the edges of a new frontier would foster the same confident approach to the biblical text. The United States afforded the rediscovery of nonviolence, or what, as part of a newly founded peace society Adin Ballou (1803-90) would call “nonresistance.” As I described it, part of the impetus for peace was combined with the drive to abolish slavery. David Lipscomb and Barton W. Stone, in their advocacy of nonviolence and the abolition of slavery were following the same course as William Lloyd Garrison, who founded both an abolitionist society and a peace society, each with their own journal.

However, as I also noted in regard to the Restoration Movement, this was not an enduring phenomenon. There was a rediscovery of the words of Jesus, but not usually a deep-seated willingness, as with the Anabaptists, to die for this cause. As Yoder notes, “they lacked a deep sense of the problem’s long history. They did not have an awareness of a suffering community through the ages or of a peace church tradition.”[2]

Maybe for that same reason, the fresh non-threatening condition, there was a mass rediscovery of peaceful nonviolence. The new world was so rife with peace movements, peace societies, peace churches, and utopian communities, that Ralph Waldo Emerson could forecast that “War is on its last legs: a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, of liberal governments over feudal forms. The question for us is only How soon.”[3]

Starting with the late developing Pentecostals and working our way backward, we find both those groups indigenous to the United States and those groups that started over in the United States initially embrace doctrines of nonviolence. Though Pentecostalism develops in the 20th century it is the culmination of 19th century Wesleyan revivalism, which had shown Pentecostal-like manifestations at the Cane Ridge Revival in the previous century. Where Cane Ridge, hosted by Presbyterian Barton Stone’s church (but including Methodists and Baptists), would feed into the headier movement of Stone and Campbell, 20th century Pentecostalism was free of the rationalizing tendency and was geared toward a literal interpretation and obedience inclusive of the obedience of pacifism. As Yoder describes it, “In the first generation it became rather directly and simply pacifist, for the simple reason that adherents took the whole Bible straight.”[4]

Though there was a strong sense of being against the world, the world was not anything as complicated as American Nationalism. In my experience in the Assemblies of God, I remember a Philippine national describing his encounters with demons among the headhunters. He gave me a name card in which he described his long list of spiritual gifts, including exorcism, discernment, and other means of dealing with the devil. The demons were always hovering nearby, it seemed. The preacher would sometimes preach, not from preparation but through a directly inspired message. It was more intense and entertaining than the worship at my Disciples church, if a bit confusing for a teenage boy. The reigniting of the gift of the Holy Spirit is a rebeginning of the church, so as with their restorationist cohorts, what happened between the first Pentecost and new Pentecost is irrelevant. History, theology, and Church structure are of little importance in light of the movement of the Spirit.

The story of the upward mobility, success with the implementation of Donald McGavran’s Church Growth theory, and a reversal of integration (Pentecostalism started with poor whites and blacks mixing freely), marks the demise of the commitment to peace. The website of the Assemblies of God, though it is not providing a sequence of this demise, captures an intense, initial focus on peace and then it is rendered irrelevant with provisos. Historically, the need for a seminary degree for qualified chaplains leads to greater focus on education and eventually to a quelling of the strong sentiment of peace. Then in 1967 they relinquished their formal opposition to Christian participation in war, and they gave up their status as a peace church. I assume it would be hard to reduplicate my teenage experiences with the Pentecostals. On my last visit to an Assemblies of God Church, they were indiscernible from other evangelicals.

Methodism in the United States follows a similar pattern of initial embrace of a strong pacifist stance and then a relinquishing of this position (as in the statement put out by the United Methodists allowing for participation in war). Methodism is in many ways the predominant cultural influence on the American frontier. The revivalism of Dwight L. Moody, and his pacifism (little talked about now), were typical of the ethos of the times and a by-product of a long history. Moody was fostered by the Chicago department store magnate, John Farwell, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Farwell would organize the largest corporate ranch in the world, the XIT ranch, and it was run along strict Methodist lines. No guns, no swearing, no drinking, and no private horse ownership for the cowboys on the ranch.

American Methodism, true or not to Wesley, came to emphasize a full-sanctification or ability to keep the ethical commands of Jesus, inclusive of nonviolence. The impetus behind temperance, abolition, and women’s rights was connected to an embodied notion of nonviolent peace. Moody’s description of himself would fit early American Methodism: “There has never been a time in my life when I felt that I could take a gun and shoot down a fellow being. In this respect I am a Quaker.” Instead of joining the Union to fight, Moody would spend the war preaching to both Union and Confederate troops.

Contemporary with Moody, Methodist General Ulysses S. Grant represents the versatility of Methodism in regard to violence. Ironically, Wesley’s most famous namesake in the United States is the most prolific killer of the West. The son of a Methodist minister, and himself a Sunday school teacher to his fellow inmates, John Wesley Hardin killed at least 21 men. The pacifism of American Methodism always contained an unstable element.

The restorationism of Churches of God closely resembles that of Christian Churches in their non-denominationalism and camp meetings in place of a denominational headquarters. They began with a strong pacifist stance and statement: “She [the Church] believes that all civil wars are unholy and sinful, and in which the saints of the Most High ought never to participate.” [5] This stance lasts through the Mexican War and the American Civil War but by WWI it had mostly relinquished nonviolence. The one Church of God minister I knew was also one of the most patriotic people I have ever met. During a tennis game, when the local high school played the National Anthem on a field we were well removed from, he halted the game to hold his hand over his heart.

So too Seventh Day Adventists, who maintained their pacifism through the Second World War and Korean War but now hold loosely to this stance. A Seventh Day Adventist minister and friend depicted to me a church in contention with its own history on both pacifism and the role of women.

My conclusion in this brief informal survey, is that no peace church with its roots in the United States has maintained its peace stance. I would be happy to hear that I am wrong and to hear of the exception. The closest exception, which my daughter pointed out, is the Catholic Worker. It is indigenous to this country and has maintained a strong pacifist ethic. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin may have generated suffering and persecution enough to mold their own unique culture, which survives in the Catholic Worker Movement. Peter, in his Easy Essays sounds very much like a restorationist, but of course they had the sense of simply being true to Catholic social teaching and never considered themselves a church.

Traditional Anabaptist groups and various groups of Brethren, perhaps due to their long history and persecution have been more faithful to pacifism. Their rootedness in history, the example held up of pacifist martyrs, their often distinctive culture, and their sense of long suffering, has surely played a role. Those Mennonite churches I have visited and the short time I spent at one of their seminaries confronted me with a distinctive sense of culture and mission. Though, even among these groups the North American experience has created a rift. The problem for Mennonites, for example, is no longer persecution but acceptance into mainstream culture, which has proven more corrosive than persecution. As long as the world demonstrably hated them there was no problem remaining separate from the world. Subsequent to WWII the peace stance has become not only accepted but admired, so that some Mennonites would now attempt to influence government and there has been a shift in the understanding of the church/world relationship. Meanwhile, some Mennonite churches have been lured by Church Growth Theory and evangelical like success.[6]

By the original standard of these groups, that violence is sin, peace groups indigenous to this country now meet their own criterion for fallenness. If violence is indeed sin, if it is the sin that that Christ came to defeat, then they demonstrate a Constantinian-like failure. The inaccessible nature of this reality, its implausibility, may be an effect of the temptation to violence. We could extrapolate from the notion that “the first casualty of war is truth” to conclusions about the inherent falsehood human violence entails. “Violence is our surest means of securing ourselves. Subduing, suppressing, oppressing, the other is the way in which we obtain safety.” The commitment to making things right through violence and war is already deceived. As in war, truth is already a casualty in commitment to violence. Those who turn to violence have come upon the scene too late, as the course is already determined and the path of violence is already set. Too much water under the bridge or roots already set have predetermined how things must be settled. This is a historical reality but also a psychological reality, which if drawn together can provide explanation as to why peace is a frontier condition – a place of supposed naiveté or a place outside the city gates – continually threatened with realism and settlement.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 269). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Yoder, 254-255.

[3] “War” by Ralph Waldo Emerson; quoted in Yoder, 275-276.

[4] Yoder, 262.

[5] Churches of God in North America [Winebrenner] From The Faith and Practice of the Church of God, 1829. http://www.pentecostalpacifism.com/home/services/holiness-pacifist-groups/church-of-god-gc/

[6] See the Mennonite publication Direction and the long lack of unity as regards nonresistance. https://directionjournal.org/47/2/complicated-history-of-anabaptist.html.

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 Emerging from a Failed Evangelicalism: The True Restoration Movement

In the 500-year cycles Phyllis Tickle locates in the history of the Judeo/Christian faith we are one year into the emergence of a new form of Christianity (501 years removed from Luther nailing the theses to the church door, 500 years prior to the Reformation takes us to the Great Schism, when Eastern and Western Christianity split, and 500 years from then takes us back to Gregory the Great and the so-called Dark Ages, etc.) We are well into what I would call the “Great Return,” giving rise to new forms of Christianity (emergent, new monasticism, missional, small church, cyber-church, deep church) most all of which are concerned with a return to forms of church which involve doing life together in some significant form.  While for many this return has meant a return to Rome, Canterbury, or Constantinople, for others it has meant a return to the economic practices of the first church (a shared purse) or a return to the land (sustainable living), or a return to community living (the new monasticism). The way of summing up the failure of evangelicalism and the emerging Great Return is in terms of ecclesiology or the doctrine of the Church: evangelicalism, according to Derek Tidball never had a developed theology of the church and, according to George Marsden, was characterized by a “general disregard of the institutional church;”[1] the Great Return is occurring in the wake of this abandonment of the centrality of the Church with a return to understanding the Church as the substance of salvation. Continue reading “The Church Emerging from a Failed Evangelicalism: The True Restoration Movement”