The Stone That the Builders Rejected
The Restoration movement, of which I am a part, is also known as the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement due to the early influence of Barton Stone (1772-1844) and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). Both men were ministers who sought to leave behind the divisive nature of the denominational scene. In striving for Christian unity they sought to reclaim and “restore” (hence the name) the early Christian Church, as established by the Holy Spirit’s work through the Apostles and Jesus’ earliest disciples.
The fact that Stone and Campbell were ever able to unite their different arms of the movement is simply an astounding feat in and of itself. In temperament and philosophy, these men often seemed to be polar opposites. You can read some of their heated dialogue here.
Campbell was, like many Americans both then and now, very confident in human potential and human progress. It was his belief that the spread of the Church would usher in the millennial reign of Christ. Perhaps it was due to this belief that Campbell himself was such an opinionated and sometimes harsh individual. According to historian, Richard Hughes, “Campbell not only fathered a sectarian spirit. He also fathered, in defense of his restoration, a hard, combative style that prized verbal assault on the positions of opponents and enemies (Hughes, 24).”
Stone was also a very passionate leader. You can read a short biographical sketch of his life here. He was known as a deeply spiritual, pious man who was convinced that only Divine intervention would be able to rescue humanity from its plight. This led him to emphasize a total dependence on the Spirit of God in all areas of life. Very different from the brash and powerful personality of the younger Alexander Campbell, Stone was known for his gentle and humble spirit. Though he was labeled by many as a “theological controversialist”, even Stone’s opponents recognized his saintliness. “Though he was a fine scholar–deeply learned in the Bible; and in consequence of his various learning, his deep piety, and popular manners, wielded an immense influence upon society, yet he was unconscious of his own strength, and seemed always disposed, modestly, to take the lowest seat (Williams., 701).”
According to Hughes, “the Campbell reform was primarily rational and cognitive, focusing on the forms and structures of primitive Christianity. Stone’s reform was primarily ethical and spiritual, focusing on inner piety and outward holiness (pg 92).”
Over the years, it has been Campbell’s emphasis on forms that has characterized much of the focus of the Churches of Christ. It seems that we have lost much of the tension that Stone provided to this approach. Stone was opposed to using believers’ immersion as the test of fellowship because it “steeled the breasts of our brethren of all denominations against us.” Stone, as late as 1841, was reported as saying “it is common with us that Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians commune with us, and we with them (Hughes, 104).” Since then we’ve often experienced the opposite extreme of refusing to acknowledge those in “the denominations” as brethren at all.
While Stone was a prolific writer and apologist, he was opposed to the spirit of debates as they “tend to strife, deaden piety–destroy the spirit of prayer–puff up the vain mind…and destroy the comforts of true, heavenly religion (Hughes, 105).” While he admitted that debates might in fact win some to the cause, he questioned the conviction of those converted in such a manner.
One thing is definitely true, by the middle of the 20th century, most of Stone’s influence was vastly overshadowed by the harder style of other early Restorationists. “Inner piety and outward holiness” took a backseat to inner doctrinal correctness and outward ability to debate it.
I wouldn’t want to see the Churches of Christ completely give up the distinctives we received from leaders like Alexander Campbell. We need a continued focus on our doctrine. However, I would love for us to simultaneously begin reclaiming that part of our tradition that the builders rejected: the total dependence on God and dedication to living a life characterized by compassion, humility, holiness and piety. One of Stone’s opponents–such a staunch opponent that he believed Stone not to even be Christian–was reported as saying, “Stone has done more harm by his good conduct than by all his preaching and writing: because…he has lived so much like a Christian, that the people take him to be one (Williams, 701).” I pray that such an accusation would be made by those who disagree with us today as well.