The "Herald Of Gospel Liberty"
One characteristic of the Restoration Movement down through the years has been the profusion of independent periodicals published by its adherents. The absence of central power structures, during the early years, no doubt helped prevent the journalistic efforts of the brethren from being channeled into a few select and controlled publications. Any brother who could get subscribers was free to publish a paper and many took advantage of this freedom, with varying degrees of success. As early as the decade of the 1830's, no less than twenty-eight journals associated with the "restoration plea" made their appearance. This "freedom of the press" among the Restoration brethren established a tradition of free and independent gospel papers that has yet to run its course.
The first journal to advocate Restoration was Elias Smith's Herald of Gospel Liberty, which was born at Portsmouth, N. H., September 1, 1808. Some historians regard this as "the world's first real religious news paper." In fact, Smith himself made this claim in the first issue of the Herald. But be that as it may, the paper's chronological preeminence among periodicals identified with the Restoration is generally conceded.
Elias Smith does not occupy an outstanding place in Restoration history. His education was limited and he seems to have been a somewhat unstable character. He certainly never attained the stature of Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, or Walter Scott, either as a reformer or as a journalist. What influence he exerted was largely confined to New England. However, he was a true pioneer in the move to restore New Testament Christianity, and in the use of the printed page to advance his views. He not only published the first paper promoting a back-to-the-Bible message, but he also took the lead in organizing one of the first churches in America seeking to pattern itself, in some measure, after the New Testament order.
Liberty was the keynote of the teaching and practice of the "New England Christians" associated with Smith. The name he gave his paper reflects the spirit of his comrades. They wanted to be free from the creeds that bind men in blind allegiance to human laws and traditions, and they wanted to be free from centralized organizations over their religious lives. They found the liberty they longed for in the New Testament order of congregational independence.
The Herald at first was published twice monthly, each issue containing four nine by eleven pages. The subscription was $1.00 per year. There were only 275 subscribers when the first issue was printed, but within six years the circulation had grown to about 1500. However, financial problems plagued Smith before the paper had acquired much age. This difficulty, coupled with one of his occasional bouts with universalism, brought his editorial career to an end. The last issue edited by Smith is dated October I, 1817.
The Herald of Gospel Liberty, and its successors, lasted for many years after Smith's disassociation with it. But it soon departed from its original purpose and became an instrument of error, as have so many well-intentioned papers since. As for Smith, he overcame his universalism, returned to the New Testament order as he saw it, and died "in the faith" in 1846.
How much influence, if any in particular, Smith's paper had on other Restoration journals is not known. We do know that the freedom of any brother to publish a paper to advance his views, however "unorthodox," has been zealously preserved and exercised across the years. Generally speaking, this has provided a healthy climate for "the search for the ancient order of things," As long as brethren are free to publish their views, there is little danger of powerful combines, that tend to arise ever so often, from sweeping the whole church into apostasy. Though we may not agree with all that is published in any paper, or may even wish that some brethren didn't see fit to publish at all, nevertheless, the right of individuals to do so, and the widespread exercise of this right, has served well the cause of truth.
There is probably no greater danger to our liberty in Christ than for some paper to become the "official" (or "unofficial") voice of "the brotherhood," or for a few men to control the channels of journalism among us, as is the case in most denominations. So let the papers — large and small, strong and weak, polished and homespun — continue to flow from the presses and saturate the world. Let us guard well our individual right to herald forth the truth of God, as we understand it, without deference to any man.
— 707 S. Appletree St, Dothan, Ala. 36301