Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Baptism, Primitivism, and Heresy, Part 1

passioncartoonThe Restoration Movement was not begun with baptism in mind. Indeed, Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, and Alexander Campbell had all begun their ministries and had written some of their most famous documents long before baptism became an issue. You see, early on, the Movement was about unity and a rejection of the strict version of Calvinism that taught you could not be saved until you had a saving experience.

Unity was to be built on the foundation of faith in Jesus and the rejection of inferences as tests of fellowship. Salvation came from a free will decision based on an awareness of one’s lost condition and acceptance of the “gospel facts” — that Jesus is the Messiah crucified and resurrected for our sins.

At the same time, there was a strain of thought that some call “primitivism,” that is, a desire to return to First Century practices. The scriptures were scoured for lessons on how to worship, how to organize the church, and such. However, these conclusions were not tests of fellowship. Alexander Campbell himself made it clear that he didn’t consider the pattern of worship that he taught a salvation issue, as noted recently by John Mark Hicks.

The interesting question, however, is whether [Campbell] thought the “order” he discerned within the New Testament was a test of fellowship among believers. Did he believe that conformity to this order was necessary to salvation? Was it his intent to identify the marks of the church that defined the true church so that every other body of believers who did not conform to those marks was apostate and thus outside the fellowship of God?

This was implicitly raised in the Christian Baptist by one of Campbell’s critics. Spencer Clack, the editor of the Baptist Recorder, wondered whether Campbell’s “ancient order” functioned similarly to the written creeds to which Campbell mightily objected (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 359-360). Campbell’s response is illuminating. He maintained that his “ancient order” was no creed precisely because he had “never made them, hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (CB 5 [3 September 1827] 369-370,

(emphasis Hicks’).

However, over time Campbell came to see that baptism is properly administered by immersion to a believer — rejecting the infant baptism of his Presbyterian heritage. And so he asked a Baptist minister to immerse him. However, at this point, Campbell did not consider baptism to be for the remission of sins. His teaching wasn’t greatly different from what the Southern Baptists teach today. Baptism quickly became a distinctive feature of his movement.

Campbell’s congregation was part of the Mahoning Baptist Association. The churches were concerned about their lack of growth, and so they met and agreed to hire Walter Scott as a missionary. As explained at the Christian Chronicler

During his years in Pittsburgh, Scott concluded that the confession that “Jesus is the Christ” was important. He decided this proposition stood at the very center of the entire Christian faith. Everything else, he believed, flowed from that confession. In time Scott developed a “plan of salvation” which he held to be the “gospel restored.” He demonstrated this “plan” using a “five finger” exercise and he used it to great advantage. Scott’s exercise is not the usual “five finger” exercise used today. As Scott went throug his fingers he explained it was:

Faith to change the heart.

Repentance to change the life.

Baptism to change the state.

Remission of sins to cleanse the guilt.

The gift of the Holy Spirit to make one a participant in the Divine Nature.

Scott experienced little initial success when he began his efforts. New Lisbon, Ohio, marks the site of his first successful meeting. The New Lisbon Baptist Church extended the invitation to him, and when he arose to preach the people filled every seat and they even occupied all the standing room. He preached on Matthew 16:16, emphasizing Peter’s confession. He then moved to Peter’s Pentecost sermon leading his hearers to the cry voiced by those addressed, “What must we do?” Scott gave Peter’s answer. William Amend, a good solid God-fearing Presbyterian, presented himself for baptism. Amend, who his neighbors regarded as a sincere Christian, felt that “all the churches — his own among the number — had departed from the plain teachings of the Word of God.” Baxter says that “Mr. Amend was, beyond all question, the first person in modern times who received the ordinance of baptism in perfect accordance with apostolic teaching and usage.” After Amend responded things began to happen. Before the next Lord’s Day, 15 more responded to the invitation. In the years that followed reports of huge successes came to the Campbells.

The return of Scott on several occasions within a brief period, added to the prevailing interest, and in five months the membership at Warren (Pennsylvania) was doubled, the additions amounting to one hundred and seventeen.

They met again on the following day, and a new congregation was organized, consisting of seventeen or eighteen persons, who had been members of the Baptist Church, and of the new converts baptized by Scott at his first visit — in all, making nearly thirty. To these, additions were made rapidly, so that in a very short time the new church had a membership of one hundred.

When Scott concluded 35 years of ministry, he had traveled nearly 90,000 miles, preached over 9,000 sermons, and had, himself, immersed 1,207 converts. The churches continued to grow even faster. In 1827-1828 alone, churches reported over 1,000 converts to the churches of the Mahoning Baptist Association.

Scott seems to have been the leader within the Movement gifted to explain its principles in a way the common man could follow. Campbell’s writings could be difficult, but Scott had a gift for clear and concise communication — and he was likely the author of some of the Movement’s defining slogans, such as, “We are Christians only but not the only Christians.”

But even in these early years, while baptism was taught as part of the “apostolic teaching and usage,” it was not considered essential to remission of sins. Barton W. Stone was particularly opposed to such an interpretation, seeing the regeneration of a convert by the Spirit as stronger evidence of salvation than even baptism — although Stone taught believer baptism by immersion.

However, some years later, in preparation for a debate, Campbell concluded that baptism is indeed for the remission of sins, but he was never re-baptized. In fact, when John Thomas began requiring converts from among the Baptists to be re-baptized, Alexander Campbell declared him a heretic. As quoted by Bobby Valentine,

Let me once more say, that the only thing which can justify reimmersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is a confession on the part of the candidate that he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God — that he died for our sins, was buried, and rose on the third day, at that time of the first immersion — that he now BELIEVES the testimony of the apostles concerning him . . . The instant that rebaptism is preached and practised on any other ground than now stated — such as deficient knowledge, weak faith, change of views — then have we contradicted in some way and made void the word of the Lord, “He who believes and be immersed shall be saved” — then have we abandoned the principles of the present reformation.

Millennial Harbinger, 1836, p. 63.

Now, it’s critical to realize that Campbell did not easily declare someone a heretic. Two others declared heretical by Campbell were Sidney Rigdon, when he joined the Mormons, and Jesse Ferguson, who taught a doctrine of second chance — that Jesus would preach the gospel to the lost after they die — and spiritualism. Disagreeing on baptism, the Trinity, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, the work of the Spirit were all matters where Campbell had his own opinions, but to Campbell, disagreement was not heresy.

You see, in Campbell’s teaching, heresy is limited to those things that strike at the core of the gospel. To deny the salvation of those immersed as Baptists would be to deny the sufficiency of faith in Jesus by adding faith in baptism as required for salvation. And certainly Campbell would not divide over a question such as instrumental music — an inference — or the like. In fact, he would have considered someone who divided over such an issue a heretic — for having divided God’s church based on an opinion.

Campbell’s view of heresy can be found in such statements as —

We will acknowledge all as Christians who acknowledge the gospel facts, and obey Jesus Christ.

If he will dogmatize and become a factionist, we reject him — not because of his opinions, but because of his attempting to make a faction, or to lord it over God’s heritage.

(quoted in the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement). Thus, Campbell also declared Walter S. Russell and I. N. Carmen heretics, not because they taught that the Holy Spirit worked outside and beyond the Bible, but because they divided the church over the issue. Russell actually seems to have been close to the opinions of Barton W. Stone. Robert Richardson, who wrote the first biography of Campbell, concluded that their opinions were in fact the same as many in the Restoration Movement. Their sin was in forcing division over them.

Some today would divide over such issues and blame those who disagree with causing the division — but this is to blame the victim. The person insisting on division is the divider, not the person disagreed with over some other issue.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Baptism, Primitivism, and Heresy, Part 1

  1. Ken says:

    I think modern day CoC historians are much too nice to Campbell. The fact is that Campbell and his followers wreaked havoc among Baptist congregations in the 1820s by trying to "restore" the "ancient order".

  2. adam davis says:

    Amen. I believe God has been guiding me through the Campbell writings on what is deemed heresy. My observation in the Protestant/ Evangelical world is that the word heresy is something tossed around to create division [or maintain that division which already exists] and to give a boost to one's own position. This observation has lead me to think of heresies in a different way, I just didn't know where to go.

    I wrote at the end of my comment on "Backgrounds….Baptism, Primitivism, and Heresy, Pt. 2" that it was ironic that those who almost worship Alexander Campbell are the ones Campbell himself would deem heretics because of the factions they have created over everything from baptism, to instrumental music, taking the Lord's Supper on Sunday and only on Sunday, and the list could go on and on.

    I share with what another brother said before me on that forum that he feared for those whose sectarianism was so deep that their faith was not in Christ alone, but on church affiliation and baptism [I would also add a capella singing and taking the Lord's Supper every Sunday and only on Sunday]. If Campbell's definition of heresy is correct, I too fear for such as these.

    One must also take into account the Calvinism in which the Restoration movement leaders were coming out of. Calvinism breeds a dogmatic, factious/divisive, elitist attitude. No doubt Campbell's definition of heresy applied to the Calvinists of his day too, not because they believed in Calvinism, but because of the dogmatism, division, and elitism that comes from this system of theology.

  3. Randall says:

    I think I read: "Calvinism breeds a dogmatic, factious/divisive, elitist attitude."

    Do you find the Presbyterians to be more dogmatic, factious and elitist than the rest of the denominations in the USA?

    I am not sure the CofC gets top honors in that category but they at least come close and they are about as unCalvinistic as any group I am familiar with.


  4. adam davis says:

    "Calvinism breeds a dogmatic, factious/divisive, elitist attitude."

    CofC legalism also breeds a dogmatic, factious/divisive, elitist attitude.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    It seems to me that the conservative Churches of Christ unconsciously define "heresy" as necessarily including the doctrines that distinguish our tribe from others. Therefore, as you say, a cappella singing and weekly communion become salvation issues. I'm persuaded that the apostasy doctrine of the conservative Churches is found much more in the effort to define "others" as damned than any serious study of the scriptures.

  6. Joe Hegyi III says:

    Following your convictions and convincing others of the same is hardly wreaking havoc.

  7. Ken says:


    I don't see why convincing others of your convictions couldn't also lead to wreaking havoc. Especially when one's convictions are in a state of flux, as were Campbell's. And not in minor ways either.

    In fact, its obvious that Campbell's whole restoration was a work in progress. He went from a typical Presbyterian to a typical Baptist understanding of baptism to " believer's baptism for the remission of sins" to "I'm not going to hold it against people if they were never baptized" .He went from screeds against the "hireling clergy" yet started his own seminary, from anti-church association to the American Missionary Society. He went from "no creed but Christ", except the fact that Jesus was the Son of God to six facts at the end of his career.

    His positions changed so much that it is common lore in CoCs that Campbell went senile at the end of his life and was unduly influenced by others.

    And that was just one man. Multiply that over the many big name preachers: Scott, Fanning, Stone, and others.

    So, yeah, wreaking havoc is a good description.


  8. Donald Raby says:

    I have studied Campbell. I follow Christ. This discussion of what Stone or Campbell or Scott said or did seems to miss the point of following Jesus as Lord and Saviour. I learn from RC Sproul, Chuck Swindoll and Charles Spurgeon, AT Robertson and multitudes more. BUT they are all men with ideas. The final answer is found in Scripture. Did Jesus command immersion in water for his followers? YES. Can anyone follow him and reject that essential?
    The same test applies to any question. Love above all does not sanction error. Love demands compliance in unity to fulfil the prayer of Jesus in John 17.
    Thanks, Donald Raby

  9. Doug Fiscus says:

    Great to read all the comments. My father enjoyed reading about the movement. He often talked about it with whoever would listen. That is the key! Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father for and about US! That is the point of John 17. The form is not what the founders of the reformation agreed on. They removed barriers of practice, thoughts, convention, social, politcal, economic, Worldly! Unity a Christian follows his name sake. The Christ! Where ever you find a follower of Christ you have a Christian. Not a sect, denomination. All other discussions miss the point that only followers of Christ are saved! God chooses who he accepts and in the prayer for us that is defined. We are not the world. We are Christians!

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