Late in his career, Alexander Campbell argued strenuously for a national missionary society. In many states, Restoration Movement churches had already organized societies (a 19th Century term for a nonprofit organization) to send out missionaries and to do other good works. Campbell thought the work of the church would be enhanced by a national effort.
As reported by one historian,
The First National Organization
In Cincinnati, O., during October 24-28, 1849, 156 representatives from 100 churches situated in 11 States met as the first National Convention. It was to have been a ‘delegate’ convention, but as many well-known Disciples were present without credentials the rules were waived and the convention became a mass meeting. … Alexander Campbell was named president, (and he held office until his death about 16 years later): vice-presidents were D. S. Burnet, John O’Kane, John T. Johnson, Walter Scott. James Challen was appointed secretary, but was soon succeeded by D. S. Burnet. The Society’s aim was to promote the gospel both at home and abroad. This occurred forty years after the issuing of the ‘Declaration and Address’.
The Society chose Jerusalem as their foreign objective and sent Dr. James T. Barclay, a classical scholar and physician, with his family to the place where the gospel was first preached. This was in 1850, and four years later they returned with the report that, under present conditions, nothing could be accomplished.
A second choice was the education of a purchased slave, Alexander Cross, who was sent to his native Africa to preach. He fell a victim to fever in Liberia on landing. These two families re-acted against the new policy. Mr. Campbell’s earlier criticism of 1823 of “modern missionary schemes” was resurrected and used against the Society of which he was president. Those who opposed were not anti-missionary, but merely anti-society.
In his early writings, Campbell had railed against “modern missionary schemes” and any organization not found in scripture. But then, we’ve already seen that the Mahoning Baptist Association, which included Campbell’s congregation, sponsored Walter Scott’s early missionary efforts. We shouldn’t be all that surprised that both Campbell and Scott were strong advocates for the society.
But soon many of Campbell’s disciples were using his own words against him. Many efforts were made to organize the ACMS in a way that satisfied the scruples of all the churches, but controversy was continual companion of the effort.
Perhaps the most significant event occurred during the Civil War. The Society met with no Southern churches represented, as church delegates couldn’t cross into Union territory. During their national meeting, the delegates voted to declare slavery a sin.
Now, Stone and Alexander Campbell were ardent abolitionists. Campbell served a term in the Virginia legislature opposing slavery (West Virginia, where Campbell lived, was a part of Virginia until West Virginia seceded from Virginia when Virginia seceded from the Union.) However, the ACMS had been formed on the principle that it would never be a doctrine-making body. The Southern churches were, predictably, incensed and considered this proof positive that the society was sinful in concept as well as in practice.
Of course, participation in the ACMS or any other state or national society was voluntary — and many churches chose not to participate as a matter of conscience, from the very beginning. The controversy became more pronounced after the Civil War, ultimately leading to Daniel Sommer’s “Sand Creek Address and Declaration” in 1889 disfellowshipping all churches participating in the society on in the instrument, located preachers, or fund raisers other than freewill offerings.
Sommer’s split was among the Northern churches, but the Southern churches were soon willing to leave the Restoration Movement’s majority position over the missionary society and over the instrument — as both were, they believed, unauthorized by scripture.
But how did they conclude that these errors were salvation issues? What happened? How did a unity movement divide over questions that are plainly inferences? Sommer would have been branded a heretic by Campbell. How did he come to see his divisiveness as Godly?