Skip to content

My Peace I leave with you (I): The Restoration Movement

A Pacifist Cambellite?  Contradicting the Contradiction

A guest-post by Thom Stark

I am a pacifist.

I was born and raised in what’s called the “Restoration Movement” (RM), a “non-denominational” movement for Christian unity born primarily out of Anglicanism and Presbyterianism, originally headed by Alexander Campbell, his father Thomas Campbell, and Barton Stone. Over time the movement split off into three branches–the more conservative Churches of Christ (non-instrumental), the theologically liberal Disciples of Christ (which among other things adopted a kind of hierarchical ecclesiology over against the ostensible congregationalism of the others), and the increasingly evangelical Independent Christian Churches (from which tribe I hail). The RM was born in the 19th Century and arose out of a widespread frustration with the endless doctrinal disputes that plagued and divided the denominations. The Campbells, Stone and others sought to build Christian unity by systematically refusing to make any “man-made” doctrine a test of fellowship. Its mottos were “No creed but Christ” and “No book but the Bible.” The RM ideal (as implied in the name “Restoration”) was the retrieval of apostolic Christianity. Only what the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, expressly forbids should be forbidden. Only what it expressly commands should be commanded. The principle was an old one: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

Yet charity did not always mark the inevitable disputes over what was “essential” and “non-essential.” Indeed, there are a host of problems with the RM’s vision. Its principles were heavily indebted to Enlightenment philosophy, especially Baconian “common sense,” and the scientific worldview, in which light the Bible is read as a textbook and the meaning of the text is its “plain sense.” The RM vision was rooted in the myth of objectivism in which the only right reading of the text is the reading not shaped by any man-made tradition or human interpretation. Stanley Hauerwas once quipped to me that a “non-denomination” was just a denomination-in-denial. Nonetheless, for all its philosophical flaws, the RM rightly taught me to see denominations as a threat to the unity of the catholic body of Christ (cultural diversity of course is another question). Granted, I also learned that Baptists were going to hell because they didn’t believe Baptism was necessary for salvation, and that Roman Catholics weren’t really Christians even if there could be a real Christian or two hiding inside a Roman Catholic Church. Still, parochialisms and inconsistencies aside, the RM made me an ecumenist. Unfortunately, the RM did not make me a pacifist. That I learned (like many people in the past three generations) from Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder.

While Hauerwas opened my eyes to a world of cultural and political criticism I never knew existed, and in which I now live and move and have my being, it was Yoder who sealed the deal for me, of course with The Politics of Jesus (which I read right after Resident Aliens back in the Summer of 2004). I quickly followed Politics with He Came Preaching Peace, The Christian Witness to the State, What Would You Do?, The Priestly Kingdom, and others. What was the most important thing for me was Yoder’s commitment to making primarily biblical arguments. This is due in part of course to Yoder’s occasionalism. He often reasoned from the Scriptures because he was speaking to audiences who thought it important to reason from the Scriptures. But it is also due to his own deep commitment to the Scriptures. One could call this his “Barthianism,” of course, because his commitment to the Scriptures is probably better defined as a commitment to making Christology primary in theology and ethics. (We are of course talking about narrative Christologies and not the so-called “high-Christologies” of the Nicene and Post-Nicene councils. Of course, Yoder argued that even the “high-Christologies” served a narrative function and were only later abstracted from those narratives.) That is something that resonated with me, as a product of the RM. If the Scriptures give it to us as part of the “grammar” of being Christian, then we ought to have no other practice. I discovered I was able to take RM principles and turn them against the widespread commendation of “just-war” theory in the RM.

Yoder also taught me, however, that to be committed to the Scriptures does not mean one has to be opposed to tradition as such. The question is not whether tradition should or should not guide our faith and practice, but whether our traditions are faithful or unfaithful. According to Yoder, if it makes sense to talk about tradition that is faithful to the Apostolic teaching, then it must make sense to talk about tradition that is not faithful. Primarily in The Politics of Jesus but really in various ways throughout his entire corpus, Yoder has convinced me that to be a faithful participant in the so-called Restoration Movement, I cannot be anything other than nonviolent. (Whether I have been thus faithful since I proclaimed myself “nonviolent” is another question, and an irksome one.)

Little did I know, however, that I was not the first Restoration hound down the pacifist trail. Actually, I was delighted and mortified this year when I discovered that every single significant early leader in the Restoration Movement was not only pacifist, but taught that Christian nonviolence was part of what needed to be “Restored” after the fall of the church. I was delighted, of course, because now I had traditional pacifist precedent on my side whenever I found myself in debate with the (majority) non-pacifists in my little non-tradition. (I find myself in such debates frequently, and so my delight has grown exponentially.) But I was mortified because I felt betrayed–betrayed that I had been born and raised in the RM, trained for more than four years in an RM Bible College, without once having heard that our movement at its inception was practically a pacifist movement.

It all fell into place, especially after I read Craig Watts’s Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence, and the State. I discovered that the call to Christian unity upon which our movement was founded was also in part a call to do away with war. As Alexander Campbell himself put it, when Christians go to war they are in fact dividing in the name of America or Britain, North or South, what God has joined together in the name of Christ. The rejection of the doctrine of the invisible body of Christ in favor of the pursuit of actual Christian unity was seen by the Campbells, by Stone and by over a dozen other RM leaders in the first two generations as (certainly more but no less than) the renunciation of all violence. What’s more, Alexander Campbell called patriotism a “pagan’s virtue” and taught that Christians can have only one allegiance, that to the kingdom of God. I saw all the connections. Our rejection of infant baptism and our adoption of adult immersion. Our rejection of denominationalism and our adoption of what might be called “biblical catholicity.” These two staples of the RM which have been sustained were in fact once indistinguishable from a renunciation of war and violence, and a commitment to the separation of church and state. Turns out that the RM isn’t Evangelical after all. It’s the kid sister of the Radical Reformation. (Just don’t tell the RM!)

That reminds me. I once heard George Lindbeck say that the best way to be ecumenical is to be radically committed to one’s own tradition. That’s a very Wittgensteinian thing to say. That’s why, as a Wittgensteinian myself, I’ve decided to study for the next few years at Eastern Mennonite University, in order to become a more committed Campbellite. . . in order to become a better servant to my non-tradition.


  1. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    While I agree that nationalism is incompatible with Christianity, I am not sure that all forms of patriotism are. Wasn’t Bonhoeffer more genuinely a German patriot than those who blindly followed Hitler? Wasn’t MLK, Jr. more of an American patriot than the “my country right or wrong” crowd?
    A critical, chastened, and humble love of one’s own country seems to be quite compatible with the universalism and nonviolence of the gospel. It’s only jingoistic, militaristic national chauvenism which is a “pagan virtue,” in my view.

    Also, I would argue that the mainstream of the Radical Reformation was the first place the term “evangelical” was used. So, if the Restorationists are kin to the Radical Reformation (as even James Wm. McClendon argues), then that would make them more authentically evangelical, wouldn’t it?

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Aric Clark wrote:

    Very nice piece Thom. Having a number of friends among the Disciples of Christ, I have definite sympathies with with RM. Indeed, if the PCUSA boots me out that is where I will likely end up. It is good to know that my own pacifism can possibly find a home there.


    I respect your continual efforts to reclaim words like ‘evangelical’ and ‘patriotism’. You’re not wrong, but generally I think it is an uphill battle and they are just words. It doesn’t really matter what one calls it – what passes under the name of patriotism in this country is inimical to the gospel.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    It WAS a good essay, Thom. I should have said that first. I have always enjoyed my Disciples friends and a few from the more conservative forms of Restorationism. Alexander Campbell’s pacifism was especially heroic since it was forged just prior to the Civil War.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Mark wrote:

    The pacifism streak in the RM extends even to the 20th century. Perhaps the greatest of all RM theologians, William Robinson, wrote a book called, “Christianity is Pacifism.”

    I’m not sure I buy the notion that the roots of the RM lie in the radical reformation, but perhaps that’s another conversion.

    Good essay! Thanks.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  5. Thom Stark wrote:

    Thanks, everyone, for the critique and the complements. I wasn’t setting out to write a “good essay,” just one that got the point across and fitted the assignment.

    Michael is right that patriotism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like most words, it depends on how we use it. I know that Alexander Campbell was certainly referring to what is now called nationalism when he rejected patriotism. Yet Aric is right, also, to point out that most of what passes for patriotism in everyday speech is inimical to the gospel.

    Michael is also right about the term “evangelical.” I of course was just using it as is commonly done these days as a blanket term for mainstream fundamentalist, and/or Reformed protestantism in America. In other contexts I could easily use “evangelical” in a much more favorable light.

    Mark is absolutely right that pacifism in the RM extends even to the 20th century, mainly of course in the Disciples, but also somewhat in the more conservative Churches of Christ. Click here for “A Brief History of Pacifism in the Stone-Campbell Churches” by Craig Watts, a 5 or 6 page essay.


    I wasn’t claiming that “the roots of the RM lie in the Radical Reformation,” but that the RM, because of the overwhelming similarities, should see itself as more akin to the Radical Reformation than to mainstream protestantism in America. Campbell himself expressly denied dependence on the Anabaptists, but I am convinced that his denial was due more to the stigma that surrounded the Anabaptists than to any substantive theological divergence between them. Not to say that there are no differences, but the similarities are so many and so substantial as to make the differences, in my view, rather insignificant.

    Thanks again.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    As the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. said about the various Believers Church groups that make up the family of small “b” baptists (including the Restorationists), it is not as if all these groups are organically linked to each other historically (although some are), but that they share commonalities by rediscovering anew a way to read to the Biblical Story that is different from the establishment (Constantinian) ways around them. The pattern is more often “caught” anew than taught from parent group to child group through the ages.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  7. Rick Atchly wrote:

    I thought this sermon on Church Unity might be of interest to all of you:

    Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  8. Ted Edouard wrote:

    The only thing that bothers me is that Campbell, Stone and other pioneers are stated as head of the RM.
    One of my instructors enabled me to reflect on that new way of thinking. He asked me one question: Why are the RM modern day Christians rely so much on Campbell and Stone???
    He often tells me this: these were men, These were men! They made great changes in society at that time, but They also made mistakes (doctrinally).

    He often tells me: speak where the the Bible speak, silent where the Bible is silent (to summarize)…But remember Campbell was not Jesus Christ and that’s not a Bible statement!
    He shakes me every time he states it.

    Of course both persons were pacifists,
    But today the schisms between the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Christian churches and other denominations has turned into a big battle field (especially here in Québec Canada).

    I am afraid the brethren has forgotten the genuine founder of the RM…’Sorry it was not Campbell neither Stone.


    Monday, July 28, 2008 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Gary wrote:

    Dear Folks,

    Jesus did not found the Restoration Movement/DOC, it was a combination of many men and some women. The most important two were Stone and Campbell, both of whom were Presbyterians.
    Part of the problem is that the “original” RM was hi-jacked by the sect which calls itself the “churches of Christ” or “Church of Christ”. From the lae 1890′s to 1906, the COC appropriated and reinterpreted much of the RM teachings with some new twists. Daniel Somer was a rationalist cult-minded leader who set the mold for the COC. David Lipscomb, a great man in many ways, reluctantly fell in step with Sommer as the Southern leader of the COC. Unfortunately Sommer, a theological non-thinker, rather than Lipscomb was the shining star in the COC. Sommer attracted like minded people which set the sectarian mind-set of the COC in concrete and devoid of the Holy Spirit. From 1906 till the 60′s, the COC was a prowar, white-racist sect.

    Peace anyway,

    Sunday, August 10, 2008 at 6:05 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site