We in the Churches of Christ often claim to be part of or heirs of the Restoration Movement, founded by Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell. We like to recite various Restoration Movement slogans and give them very nearly the authority of scripture. When we say that we must be “silent where the Bible is silent,” no one questions the truth of the proposition, only its application. The Restoration Movement is very deeply ingrained in our corporate DNA.
And I’m actually quite a big fan of the Restoration Movement. I wished we’d study it even more. Indeed, I’m confident we’d be spiritually more healthy if we were more knowledgeable of our historical roots.
But then, we have to be honest scholars, and as much as I admire the founders of the Movement, I have to recognize that the principles of the Movement have changed–and changed radically–over the years. We pretend to honor Stone, and Campbell, and Lipscomb, and Sommer, and Boles, but we can’t. They disagree about too many things.
The earliest Restoration Movement document is the 1808 “Last Will & Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” Last Will & Testament. Barton W. Stone was a signatory and likely co-author. The gist of the document is to reject any delegation of power by a congregation to a higher authority (such as a presbytery or a denominational superstructure). The “Last Will & Testament” was preceded by “Observations on Church Government” generally considered to have been written by Richard McNemar. This document states,
Without this living spirit the most perfect form or set of rules which could be made, though it were even by God himself, could not cement them together in the bonds of love, nor make them one in heart. …
From this view of the matter would it not appear next to impossible, that persons so widely dispersed could be preserved in unity?
How were they fashioned alike? Upon what principle were they united? And by what rules were they obliged to walk? What confession of faith had they as a bond of union? What compendium of doctrines or definite code of laws to be universally subscribed? … We see here that from Christ the head, the living spirit flows to all the members, which fitly or exactly joins, compacts and knits them together in the bonds of love, builds or rears them up, worketh effectually, or exerts and exercises its energy according to the measure or size of every part and ministers proper nourishment to promote the proportionate growth of every member of the body of Christ. This is the sweet anointing oil, the unction from the holy One, the spirit of God, or it is Christ himself by his spirit shed abroad or diffused throughout the whole body, according to the capacity of every member.
The authors offer a dramatically spiritual view of Christianity. The Spirit, alive and living within each Christian, writes the laws of God on the Christians’ hearts. The authors consider the indwelling Spirit therefore to be the true word of God, as compared to the New Testament, which is merely a copy of the word.
The authors reject any notion that better rules or a constitution could ever bring unity to the church. Rather, the Spirit is sufficient, and nothing else is.
At this early stage of the Movement, baptism was uncontroversial. And all the churches were a cappella, as was standard for churches with a Calvinistic heritage in those days. Rather, the effort was to end denominationalism and instead find unity based solely on the New Testament, especially finding unity through the workings of the Spirit. The leaders insisted on congregational autonomy but maintained close contact and loving fellowship with other congregations and leaders.
However, the leaders rejected any notion that unity could be found through uniform rules. Rather, faith in Jesus and a shared indwelling of the Spirit was to be the basis for unity.