Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 29, 1971
NUMBER 50, PAGE 3,5a-6

The Process Of Campbell's Change — VI.

Colly Caldwell

Although Alexander Campbell had vigorously denounced evangelistic associations and all other church sponsored societies in The Christian Baptist, he completely reversed himself on the subject of church government and organization in the years between 1831 and 1849. The process of his change follows the classic pattern of digression.

Compromise And Inconsistency

Campbell defiantly denied all charges of inconsistency but was nevertheless constantly criticized during the latter half of the 1820's with compromising with that against which he had been preaching. Especially was this true when he publicly endorsed the work of the Mahoning Baptist Missionary Association in hiring Walter Scott to preach among the member churches for one year (1828).1 A number of brethren had questioned Campbell for several years about his participation in this association while at the same time he condemned all others. He answered by stating that he did not want to add to the catalogue of new sects but that he would remain with the Baptist communion as long as he could teach what he believed and point to that which he thought was wrong. The association in which he participated respected his views, he said, and functioned in little other than joint worship services.2 At one point he even said that he acted much as did Paul when he entered Jewish synagogues to preach.3 Evidently, while not soothing all minds, Campbell's explanation had calmed the protest until the very association of which he was a member turned itself into a missionary society. Among those writing to Campbell for an explanation was a Clinton County, Ohio, correspondent, who wrote that he was at a loss to understand Campbell:

"No man under the heavens has said more against the divine right of Associations, Synods, Councils, Conferences, &c., than Alexander Campbell, and no man has spoken to better purpose on the subject . I now ask, if they have no right, by what authority did they act when they made the above appointment, and how are you justifiable in styling the person so appointed the "Messenger of the Churches?" . . . You know, according to the best historical account we can get, that, for more than a century after Christ, the churches were perfectly independent of each other: neither were they joined together by association, confederacy, or any other bond than charity; and I know that I need not tell you that your association is an unscriptural institution; and how can an unscriptural association act according to the Gospel? 4

The pressure from these attacks became very pronounced. No doubt feeling the influence of the logic in Campbell's writings and straining under the pressure, the Mahoning Association decided to disband and unanimously agreed never to meet again as "an advisory council, as an ecclesiastical tribunal, exercising any supervision or jurisdiction over particular congregations." On September 6, 1830, Campbell announced the "death and burial" of "the Mahoning Association." Campbell evidently did not consider this move on their part essential and cited the good they had accomplished in causing "to wither almost every sectarianism" in their district. Their disbanding, however, with only a tentative agreement to meet once each year thereafter solely for worship provided a period of relief for the editor from the charges of inconsistency being hurled against him. 5 Campbell's inconsistencies and his compromise on the Mahoning Association project, did not at that time still his pen against the societies. In January, 1830, Campbell began publication of a periodical which he called the Millennial Harbinger. In this paper, which incidentally was not advocating premillennialism, Campbell continued to attack all inter-congregational organizations.

For example, in September, 1830, Campbell noted with considerable interest reports in a Philadelphia newspaper, of missionary failures in the Near East. Churches had tried to convert the world, he said, through missionary schemes and had thus become "apostate." 6 He also pointed to problems in several Virginia associations in which self-willed men had assumed control. Campbell suggested that these "councils" were "traps for honest men" and provided the perfect setting for such "tyranny" as was seen in the associations cited.7

Church "Cooperation"

It was in May, 1831, that Campbell began to write in defense of missionary associations. In the Harbinger, he began a series of articles entitled "The Cooperation of Churches." This astounded many of his devout followers. He affirmed a belief that churches had a right to meet jointly, elect officers, and co-sponsor evangelistic works. Campbell began the series by stressing the importance of the church fulfilling its mission as the agency for the conversion of the unsaved. To accomplish this, however, Campbell and Walter Scott, an associate editor of the Harbinger and the man supported by the Mahoning Association in 1828, suggested something quite different from that which they had taught earlier. These men wrote that "all the congregations in a given district" should "cooperate" by sending representatives to a meeting in which they would together decide upon and expedite joint evangelistic effort. "A church can do what an individual disciple cannot," Campbell wrote, "and so can a district of churches do what a single congregation cannot."8 Trying to establish some Biblical authority for these assertions, Campbell claimed that churches were "districted" in the age of the apostles. He said that when the New Testament writers spoke of "the churches of Galatia" or "the churches of Macedonia" they were referring to organized church districts which met to select messengers and gather contributions to send to the necessities of those in other districts.9 Walter Scott added that the representatives sent to the district meetings, once jointly chosen, acted as the agents of the congregations which had chosen them.10

Internal And External

Just here it is important to note that Campbell was very careful at this point to say that the churches could only function collectively in matters of inter-congregational concern. The boundary in determining which works could jointly be done through district agents or messengers was, according to Campbell, a line of distinction which he carefully drew between the internal and the external affairs of a congregation. Matters which concerned only the members of a congregation (such as discipline) were not subject to inter-congregational cooperation. Matters having to do with duties toward those of the unsaved world or those in other congregations who needed help in preaching the gospel were subject to cooperation.11

Means And Methods

The point on which Campbell accepted the "cooperation system" is seen in the fourth article of the series: "The only question is, how shall this be done to the best advantage? The New Testament furnishes the principles which call forth our energies, but suggests no plan.12 Campbell was arguing that cooperative associations were merely "means" or "methods." While he had discussed the "how" of accomplishing the evangelization of the world in previous articles, he failed to see at this time that his acceptance of associations was in fact a switch from "means" or "methods" to organization. Until now he had argued that the congregation was sufficient to choose the means and methods and to utilize them to the accomplishment of its mission. Now he was arguing that the congregation was insufficient to accomplish the mission Christ gave to the church and that another organization, "the cooperative meeting," must be formed in each district if the evangelization of the world were to be accomplished. This was not, however, means and methods but another form of organization instituted to select the expedient modes by which the work was to be accomplished. Campbell's foes later argued that the issue was not "how" the work should be done but which organization should be employed to do it, the church or the human society.13

Leaders of the supposedly defunct Mahoning Association, discussed earlier, were among the first to embrace the "new" Campbell. Accordingly, a meeting was called in August, 1831, at New Lisbon, Virginia, at which the Mahoning leaders, who had disbanded only a few months before, met to discuss reorganization along the lines of Campbell's "cooperation system." The editor gave them considerable publicity in the Harbinger. The "most important" proposition before them, he wrote, was their desire for cooperation among the churches in spreading the gospel. He urged them to have nothing to do with local church business but to "devise ways and means for giving greater publicity to the word in such places as may require their particular attention!"14 They also should meet periodically for worship and edification.

It may easily be seen that Campbell knew the difference between organization and the methods used by organizations. His statements that the meeting's purposes included efforts to "devise ways and means" for doing evangelistic work establishes this fact. The association was no more the "ways and means" than was the congregation. On this point hinged much of Campbell's argumentation. Failure to recognize the difference meant total acceptance of the editor's new positions.

The Progression Thus Far

Just here, let us stop and look at the development of Campbell's digression thus far. Until 1831, his preaching was sound but by 1828, he was compromising in action. He became inconsistent by fighting associations in the pulpit and then turning around to join them. Though he claimed to be trying to do good, avoid division, and divert any loss of his own influence, his compromising could not be hidden when that same association which he had now fully endorsed became a missionary society by hiring Walter Scott to preach for the churches which had joined it.

Next Campbell began to make his teaching consistent with his affection for the associations in which he had been involved. A compromising attitude coupled with association with men like Walter Scott led to this step. Assuming that New Testament churches had district organization, he left the Bible doctrine of congregational autonomy (at least in matters of evangelization and inter-congregational benevolence).

And then Campbell asserted that the whole question was just one of "expediency." He switched from organization to "means and methods."

How very like the present institutional controversy in the body of Christ that is! Compromise with and participation in human organization, concentrated effort to support unauthorized institutions with misapplied scriptural statements, abandonment of the principle of congregational independence, and assertion that it is all just a question of expediency (means and methods) anyway.

Footnotes 1 Christian Baptist, V (Oct. 1, 1827), 74.

2 CB, III (Feb. 6, 1826), 146.

3 Millennial Harbinger, I (Oct. 4, 1830), 441.

4 CB, V (Feb. 5, 1828), 170.

5 MH, I (Sept. 6, 1830), 414-15.

6 MH, I (Sept. 6, 1830), 429.

7 MH, I (Oct. 4, 1830), 439-43.

8 MH, II (May 4, 1831), 235-38.

9 Ibid.

10 MH, II (June 6, 1831), 241-42. MH, 11 (June 6, 1831), 243-46.

12 MH, II (Oct. 3, 1831), 435-38.

13 MH, II (Oct. 3, 1831), 435-38.

13 West, Search for the Ancient Order, pp. 203-05.

14 MH, II (Oct. 3, 1831), 445-46.