Earliest Stone-Campbell Missiology: Toward the Death and Germination of Restoration Movement Ecclesiology

Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone sparred frequently. Their differences have been the topic of extended discussion in Stone-Campbell historiography. A popular recent agenda has been to leverage the contrast between them in order to reclaim dimensions of Stone’s theology, especially among Churches of Christ historians. I have written elsewhere[1. I am in the process of transferring articles from another website. Pardon the disorganization.] that the contrast may be less theologically interesting than the synthesis—a truly Stone-Campbell tradition, which is what I take to be our de facto theological DNA in many cases. This conflictual synthesis may lend itself to the label inconsistent, but I’m increasingly convinced that, for those of us who find historical theology instructive, it is precisely in the tension between Stone and Campbell that we find the most generative possibilities that our tradition offers. Just so, I examine here what I will call, anachronistically, early Stone-Campbell missiology. Campbell’s thoroughly congregational understanding of mission combined with Stone’s deeply spiritual vision of God’s work are the seeds of a missional ecclesiology for the Restoration tradition.

Campbell’s Congregational Missiology

The usual narrative about Stone-Campbell missiology focuses on the disagreements over parachurch missions organizations that ultimately led to the first major split in the Movement. Paul Allen Williams, for examples, rightly begins his description of SCM missiology by focusing on the importance of ecclesiology: “The development of missiology in the Movement, then, must be understood in terms of its ecclesiology.”[1. Paul Allen Williams, “Missions, Missiology, in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 537.] By ecclesiology Williams refers to polity. For Campbell, however, ecclesiological concerns ran deeper than the later debates about missionary societies, to the way the nature of the church informs mission.

In September of 1823, Campbell penned an essay entitled “Remarks on Missionaries.” It begins provocatively with a recounting of the crusades, in order to create an analogy with the more recent but, for Campbell, equally misguided efforts of “various sectarian missions in our day.”[2. Alexander Campbell, “Remarks on Missionaries,” Christian Baptist 1, no. 2 (September 1823): 14.] His principal criticism of “the modern missionary schemes” is their complicity with denominational interests. They succeed only in “making a few proselytes to their systems.”[3. Ibid., 15.] This is a concern he fervently maintains across the divide some historians have perceived between the Christian Baptist Campbell and the Millennial Harbinger Campbell. In September of 1830, late in the first volume of the Millennial Harbinger, he reprinted from the National Gazette a description of confusing, ineffective mission work among Eastern peoples. The depiction served to confirm Campbell’s contention that denominationalism and division in Christianity ultimately undermined mission among pagans—meaning restoration of the church was prerequisite to mission. He prefaces the Gazette piece with these words: “The following excerpt exhibits one of the most serious objections we have felt to the proselyting schemes of an apostate church.”[4. Alexander Campbell, “Missionaries,” Millennial Harbinger 1, no. 9 (September 1830): 428.] Despite other missiological disagreements with Campbell, Stone was of the same mind: “If one half the zeal was expended to make christians, as is spent in proselyting to a party, infidelity and atheism would have hardly been known among us.”[5. Barton W. Stone, “The Editor’s Remarks,” Christian Messenger 9, no. 12 (December 1835): 281.]

In order to understand the next aspect of Campbell’s early missiology, it is important to recognize that he viewed the clergy as the chief culprits of sectarian Christianity. He did not criticize denominations abstractly but abhorred the interests and organizational structures that the clergy in particular sustained. He began a series on the clergy the month following “Remarks on Missionaries,” and the argument there is related to his understanding of missions in an essential way. It would not be necessary to point out the connection, because some of his comments in “Remarks on Missionaries” are sufficient to make the point, but I bring it up because Stone wrote a response to Campbell’s missiology in which he conflates the two articles—a fact that highlights the importance of the clergy for exploring the fundamental disagreement between Stone’s missiology and Campbell’s.

This is a particularly curious exchange, because Stone’s response, “Missionaries to Pagans,” was published posthumously many years after Campbell wrote these pieces.[6. Barton W. Stone, “Missionaries to Pagans,” Christian Messenger 14, no. 12 (April 1845): 362–67. The editor of the Christian Messenger wrote at the end of the article: “Father Stone prepared this article long since, and it was mislaid. Lately I found it, and having heard him often express his mind, that it should be published. I have therefore given it letter and point, as his last thoughts on that important subject.”] Furthermore, Stone’s article is ambiguous because, although he is primarily concerned with mission work, he cites only the page number of Campbell’s clergy article, which makes no mention of mission. And, to add to the confusion, two quotes appear in Stone’s article, neither of which can be found in either of Campbell’s articles. Nonetheless, the specific language and argument of Stone’s response make it clear that he has in mind the content of both “Remarks on Missionaries” and “The Clergy. No. 1.” Stone, in other words, perceived the essential connection between the two arguments.

Campbell’s basic contention was that

it is a capital mistake to suppose that missionaries in heathen lands, without the power of working miracles, can succeed in establishing the Christian religion. If it was necessary for the first missionaries to possess them, it is as necessary for those of our time who go to pagan lands, to possess them.[7. Campbell, “Remarks,” 15.]

For him, those rightly called missionaries were among the miraculously gifted messengers of the first century, whose testimony required affirmation by signs and wonders. These gifts had ceased, because

in the eyes of Omniscience, they were no longer necessary. The missionary work was done. The gospel had been preached to all nations before the end of the apostolic age. The bible, then, gives us no idea of a missionary without the power of working miracles. Miracles and missionaries are inseparably connected in the New Testament.[8. Ibid.]

If it seems mind-boggling to say that missionaries without miraculous gifts aren’t missionaries, or that the gospel had been preached to all nations before the end of the apostolic age, since both of these assertions are obviously false in the real world, then we must try to grasp what Campbell is actually saying—because he is not stubbornly clinging to a baldly idiotic claim. Nor is he playing a semantic game. Rather, he is espousing a doctrine of revelation and testimony. For Campbell, the indispensable epistemological criterion was sensible evidence. The apostolic message required signs and wonders because, without them, it was a claim without proof. “Thus all the missionaries, sent from heaven, were authorized and empowered to confirm their doctrine with signs and wonders sufficient to awe opposition, to subdue the deepest rooted prejudices, and to satisfy the most inquisitive of the origin of their doctrine.”[9. Ibid.] Miracles served not just to convince by shock and awe but to confirm the “origin” of the message. They were proofs that authenticated the missionaries’ preaching.

The belief that miraculous gifts are not operative after the apostolic age is, for Campbell, about the message being already authenticated. Because it is the same message, there is no further need to authenticate it. Scripture’s function in bearing witness to the unbeliever is not precisely to replace miracles as proof of the message but to record both the message and its authentication. Preaching the Bible to the unbeliever, then, effectively communicates that the message, once authenticated for all, has not changed; accordingly, since the preacher is saying nothing new, he has no need to authenticate his message, hence no need for miraculous signs.

At this point, the connection with the article on the clergy becomes evident. Campbell believes that the clergy, though not all bad, basically seek to exercise influence, authority, and dominion. His first article on the clergy, then, asks “how they came to invest themselves with such authority and dominion.”[10. Alexander Campbell, “The Clergy. No. 1,” Christian Baptist 1, no. 3 (October 1823): 19.] His answer is that they claim to have a divine calling. And, the “purpose” of this claim is the concrete, effective use of the authority the clergyman wields—his instruction. To this idea, Campbell replies:

Doubtless, then, it is necessary that the call be evidenced to those to whom he is sent. For if the instructions are the more to be regarded, because of the preachers call by the Holy Spirit, it is absolutely necessary that his call be well authenticated, that his instructions may be well received.[11. Ibid.]

How will it be evinced? By the same evidence the Holy Spirit used to authenticate the messengers of the New Testament who needed to prove the authority of their message:

Nothing short of divine attestations or miracles can evince that any man is especially called by the Spirit of God to instruct us in the christian religion. Can those who say they are moved by the Holy Spirit to teach the christian religion, produce this sort of evidence? No, no. It is then in vain to say they are so moved. Who is called to believe any thing without evidence? Does God command any man to believe without evidence? No, most assuredly. When, then, I hear a modern preacher, either with or without his diploma in his pocket saying that he is an ambassador of Christ, sent by God to preach the gospel, moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon him the work of the ministry; I ask him to work a miracle, or afford some divine attestation of his being such a character. If he cannot do this, I mark him down as a knave or an enthusiast; consequently, an impostor, either intentionally or unintentionally.[12. Ibid., 20.]

Underlying his suspicion and rejection of the clergy is the belief that their power plays ultimately serve the purpose of teaching something other than Scripture as the Christian religion. The claim to be a “specially called” messenger, in other words, underwrites extra-biblical instruction. Why else would they need authority predicated on the call of the Holy Spirit? That is, the point is not to say there is no such thing as a teacher or messenger—it is to say there is no longer such thing as a specially called messenger. All Christians alike are instead called to share what they have received, not on the basis of an authority that needs to be proven but on the basis of one that has already been authenticated:

A brother who is well instructed into the doctrine of the kingdom of heaven who has attained to the full assurance of understanding of what Paul, and Peter, and James, and John, and the other writers of the New Testament have taught concerning the way of life and salvation; when he finds persons ignorant or unbelieving, either in public or private, is called by the word of God, and the circumstances of the case, to teach and preach Christ, or to show the things that the ambassadors have taught and authenticated; these things he may urge on their authority who confirmed their testimony with signs and wonders. And as it would be absurd and vain for the rich man to say that he was specially called and sent by God, or moved by the Spirit of God to give alms; so it would be absurd and vain for the person possessed of the knowledge of the New Testament, to say that he was moved by the Holy Spirit, or specially called by its operations and sent by trod to preach.[13. Ibid., 21; emphasis added.]

Just as Campbell rejects denominational missionary schemes because, to his mind, their apostolic pretension was unprovable, so also he rejects clerical schemes because they were built on the same pretension. It is not surprising, therefore, that he states in a later discussion of his article on missionaries:

I am very sorry to think that any man should suppose that I am either regardless of the deplorable condition of the heathen world, or opposed to any means authorized by the New Testament for either the civilization or salvation of those infatuated pagans. But, my dear sir, how can I, with the New Testament before my face, approve the Catholic, the Episcopalian, the Presbyterian, &c. missionary schemes. Are they not evidently mere sectarian speculations, for enlarging their sects, and finding appointments for their supernumerary clergy.[14. Alexander Campbell, reply to a letter dated “April 22, 1824,” (June 1824): 71–72; emphasis added.]

In other words, he does not wish readers to think he is against mission among unbelievers in principle, but he cannot endorse efforts to convert members to denominations whose clerical ambitions make “missionary” to mean “self-authorized messenger of an extra-biblical message.” As Campbell surveyed his religious context, he found “clergy” and “missionary” to be synonymous, and both therefore seemed to undermine the church’s mission as God intended it.

Could Campbell have conceived of individual messengers of a non-clerical sort? Would he be willing to call those sent in such a way “missionaries”? He obviously went on to preside over an organization dedicated to just such a “missionary” endeavor. Perhaps this is another example of “early Campbell/late Campbell.” I propose, instead, that his later support of non-apostolic “missionaries” does not represent an inconsistency, or even a change of position—neither of which are particularly heinous but both of which might distract us from the logic of Campbell’s missiology, which is ultimately far richer than the mere rejection of denominational proselytization. His was a vision of a missional church—not just a select group called missionaries. Campbell believed the conversion of the world would be impossible without the church as the church assuming the responsibility normally relinquished to missionaries, whatever their motivations. Thus, his thesis was: “The association, called the church of Jesus Christ is, in propria forma, the only institution of God left on earth to illuminate and reform the world.”[15. Campbell, “Remarks,” 16.]

In the heat of his argument, Campbell already imagines a missionary “individual or two” in a foreign context, not interested in sectarian proselytizing but intent on bearing proper witness. Yet, they would still be unable to do what the church could:

The christian religion is a social religion, and cannot be exhibited to the full conviction of the world, only when it appears in this social character. An individual or two, in a pagan land, may talk about the christian religion, and may exhibit its morality as far as respects mankind in general; but it is impossible to give a clear, a satisfactory, a convincing exhibition of it, in any other way than by exhibiting a church, not on paper, but in actual existence and operation, as divinely appointed.[16. Ibid.]

The social embodiment of the gospel in the form of the local congregation is, for Campbell, what mission properly looks like. The church’s word-and-deed proclamation is “the most powerful mean left on earth to illuminate and reform the world.”[17. Campbell, reply, 70.] If this sounds very contemporary, as though I’m trying to force Campbell into a missional mold, consider these words:

If, in the present day, and amongst all those who talk so much of a missionary spirit, there could be found such a society, though it were composed of but twenty, willing to emigrate to some heathen land, where they would support themselves like the natives, wear the same garb, adopt the country as their own, and profess nothing like a missionary project; should such a society sit down and hold forth in word and deed the saving truth, not deriding the gods nor the religion of the natives, but allowing their own works and example to speak for their religion, and practicing as above hinted; we are persuaded that, in process of time a more solid foundation for the conversion of the natives would be laid, and more actual success resulting, than from all the missionaries employed for twenty-five years.[18. Campbell, “Remarks,” 16–17.]

The radically contextual, holistic, and congregational shape of Alexander Campbell’s earliest missiology is breathtaking. Predicated on his absolute advocacy of the priesthood of all believers, this missional vision was not only a corrective to clerical corruption but also a commitment to the whole church’s participation in God’s mission. Here, in the mission of God, we find the heart of the Restoration Movement—the motive of restoration beyond restoration itself. Unless the church became once more what it was meant to be, it could not participate effectively in God’s redemptive work. Campbell’s early view was exceedingly linear—so much so that foreign missions was not a possibility until restoration was complete[19. In Campbell, “Remarks,” 16, he states very succinctly that “nothing can be done worthy of admiration by the christians of this age, with any reference to the conversion of the pagan nations, until . . . they return to the ancient model delineated in the New Testament.” This unfortunately contributes both to a linear geographical sequence (see Alexander Campbell, “Co-operation of Churches—No. 4,” Millennial Harbinger 2, no. 10 (October 1831): 437) as well as a priority on relatives “at home.” (Alexander Campbell, “Missionary Success in India,” Millennial Harbinger 2, no. 7 (July 1831): 329).]—but it unmistakably characterizes restoration as a means to mission because the church is God’s missional agent. “When the christian church assumes such a character,” he concludes, “there will be no need of missionaries.”[20. Campbell, “Remarks,” 16.] Restoration, in short, is missional.

Stone’s Spiritual Missiology

Stone’s response to Campbell misses the point but hits a nerve nonetheless. He summarizes Campbell’s two alternatives for converting the heathen: “1st. By the divinely called and sent; or 2d, By colonizing christian societies among them.”[21. Stone, “Missionaries,” 362.] Every bit and more the biblicist that Campbell was, Stone recognizes the first option as a New Testament example, while the second is without biblical precedent. Campbell’s social, word-and-deed vision of mission seems unbiblical to Stone. Thus, Stone spends the majority of his article defending the continuance of miraculous powers.

He is not concerned with the authentication function that signs and wonders play for Campbell in relation to clerical authority. Nor does he think much of the whole church’s missionary role in the world in lieu of miraculously gifted messengers (though he does share a linear perspective that begins with “reform at home”[22. “O that the christian world would reform at home, and by their holiness, zeal and unity, convert their own infidels and atheists here, or at least stop their progress! If this were done, we should then be qualified to evangelize the heathen.” Stone, “Remarks,” 281.]). Stone’s view of miracles is far simpler: they are effective in a way that “the very slow, difficult and almost ineffectual” work of missionaries otherwise is not.[23. Stone, “Missionaries,” 362.]

Whatever one makes of Stone’s arguments in favor of miraculous gifts, or his failure to grasp the epistemological and sociological concerns that motivated Campbell, his response illuminates the deadly deficiency in Campbell’s missiology. Stone perceives Christian mission’s dependency on the Spirit’s power and insists upon the church’s need. He articulates this in term of providence: “It seems to me that the denying of miracles leads to the denying of divine Providence and interposition—and destroys the spirit of prayer and thanksgiving.”[24. Stone, “Missionaries,” 367.]

Stone calls Restoration missiology back to dependence on the Spirit, placing the church’s agency in a position of vulnerability. This move guards against the colonialist tendencies of the belief that the church is, in Campbell’s words, what God has “left on earth to illuminate and reform the world”—as if God had left the world. God’s providence in the context of mission is best expressed in terms of the missio of the Spirit: the mission is God’s, God is present before and beyond the church, and it is only in communion with God’s redemptive presence and by its power that the church, too, is sent. The church goes prayerfully and thankfully into mission because of what the Spirit of God does that the church cannot do on its own.

By contrast, Campbell’s missiology wrongly understood the missio Dei to be “the Father’s sending his own Son into the world as his great apostle or missionary, and the Son’s sending his missionaries to perfect this grand mission” [25. Campbell, “Remarks,” 15.] In Campbell’s mind, the Father’s sending of the Son did not issue in the sending of the Spirit but in the sending of the apostles, thereby precluding the church’s continued missional life in the power of the same Spirit by which the apostles worked wonders. Campbell saw the church as the replacement of first-century missionaries, not their continuance, and by emphasizing this discontinuity for the epistemological reasons I have discussed above, he severed the church from the Spirit’s sending.

Interestingly, Stone chose the word “colonize” to describe Campbell’s vision of a congregation that emigrates to live missionally in a foreign land. While he was not using that language critically from a postcolonial context, his sensitivity to the potentially detrimental effects of such a program without dependence on the Spirit makes his word choice provocative in retrospect.

In a later article, Stone critiques another missionary strategy that strikes the present day reader as classically colonialist. He refers to a missionary who has proposed:

a system of European education among the heathen to show the absurdity of their own. This he thinks indispensible. This plan has, on a narrow scale, been executed in Bengal. It had the effect indeed of convincing the young students of the absurdity of their system; but the consequence was, that they became universally infidels or atheists. To counteract this, the missionary proposes, that the system of education should be united and incorporated with religion. Yet this, he owns, itself will not do;—the language of the Hindoos is too poor to express the ideas of revelation; they therefore cannot understand Christianity, if taught in their own language. They must first be taught the English language, then they must be taught the school sciences of Europe, then with these sciences they must be taught the christian religion! What a routine is here proposed to make christians! and this too is a sine qua non. If the nation should consent to this course, how many teachers would be required for a million and a half of men, women, and children? How much money? Who can calculate? And how many years would be required to teach them all so accurately the English language that they could understand christianity? Indeed, a more romantic proposition to convert the heathen to christianity was never before proposed. I should despair of their salvation on this ground completely.[26. Stone, “Remarks,” 280–81; emphasis added.]

Stone’s implicit rejection of the idea of inferior languages, along with his perception of the sustainability problems such a plan entails, reveal the degree to which he understood the Holy Spirit to be the proper corrective to colonialist missions, for his counter proposal is much the same as his response to Campbell.

Is there no other plan of saving them but by the wisdom of man as proposed by the missionary? But one can I see and that is, by receiving again the gifts of the spirit, which would enable the evangelist to speak plninly[sic] the very language of the heathens he may visit, and confirm the truth delivered by signs, wonders and miracles, as was done in the primitive church.[27. Ibid., 281.]

Stone’s missiology does not move as far in the direction of cultural contextualization as Campbell’s does, and he remains narrowly focused on the miraculous. Yet, he deserves credit for understanding that the Spirit was not only a corrective to the ineffectual humanism that had infected Christian missions in the nineteenth century but also the proper response to the ethnocentrism that fueled colonialist missions. Restoring the primitive church’s dependence on the Spirit was, therefore, a vital aspect of Stone’s contribution to earliest Stone-Campbell missiology.

The seeds of a missional ecclesiology

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

Between Stone and Campbell there is plenty of tension. Missiologically, their differences are not superficial. In combination, though, they provide their theological heirs with a missiology that is both congregational and spiritual, both contextual and dependent. Moreover, for both men, mission is the heart of restoration, the meaning of the biblical church’s existence. I would make no claim that these elements of earliest Stone-Campbell missiology came to fruition historically or that, hidden away in old volumes, they guide the fractured remnants of their Movement. Still, as the Restoration tradition withers along with the rest of Western Christianity, I can’t help but hope that, if it dies, the seeds of a missional ecclesiology are truly there, in the Stone-Campbell impulse to put everything about Christianity on the table in order to rediscover what God intends the church to be, for the sake of God’s mission.

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