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Restoration and Division

Two wealthy brothers, Robert and James Alexander Haldane, laymen of the Church of Scotland, became alarmed at the state of religion in their country. It seemed to them that the church had become merely a respectable institution enjoying the patronage of the state, supporting a clergy chiefly concerned about their own professional dignity and privileges, and doing little to carry a vital gospel to those who needed it most. At their own expense, while still members of the Church of Scotland, they attempted to start a mission to India (which was frustrated by the East India Company), brought twenty-four native children from Africa to be educated in England and sent back to evangelize their own people (but the Anglican Church took them over), built tabernacles for evangelistic meetings, sent agents through Scotland to organize Sunday schools, and established institutes for the training of lay preachers. Beginning with no very definite theology or theory about the church, they gradually came to the belief that the chief trouble with the church was its departure from the primitive pattern as described in the New Testament.

In 1799 the Haldane brothers withdrew from the Church of Scotland and organized an independent church in Edinburgh. Acting on the advice of Greville Ewing, a minister who was in charge of their training school in Glasgow, they adopted the congregational form of organization and the weekly communion as being in accordance with the usage of the apostolic churches. Soon they became earnest advocates of the restoration of primitive Christianity by following in all respects the pattern of the New Testament churches. J. A. Haldane published, in 1805, a book 25 entitled, A View of the Social Worship and Ordinances of the First Christians, Drawn from the Scriptures alone; Being an Attempt to Enforce their Divine Obligation, and to Represent the Guilty and Evil Consequences of Neglecting them. This book contains an argument for infant baptism on the ground that it was the apostolic practice, but two years later the Haldanes decided that the evidence of Scripture was against this position, so they gave it up and were immersed.

Other Haldanean churches sprang up, both in Great Britain and in America. There were never many of them. No organization bound them together, they had no cooperative work, and they took no distinctive name. But they swelled the number of those scattered and independent “Churches of Christ” which were attempting, with somewhat differing results, to restore the primitive order. The tendency of all these churches was toward a rather literalistic and legalistic interpretation of Scripture, with special emphasis upon exact conformity to a pattern of ordinances, organization, and worship. A few years later, two of these churches, one in Edinburgh and the other in New York, engaged in an earnest but very courteous argument by correspondence as to whether the New Testament commanded that the worship service be opened with a hymn or with a prayer. Each quoted what seemed relevant and convincing texts: “First of all giving thanks” meant prayer first; “Enter into his courts with praise” meant hymn first.

The Sandemanian churches also, in their anxiety to do everything exactly as the first churches had done, took as binding commands for all time many texts generally considered mere descriptions of customs of the first century or instructions suitable to that time. 26 Thus they “saluted one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16); considered private wealth sinful (Acts 2:44, 45), though they did not actually practice community of goods; made a weekly collection for the poor (1 Cor. 16:2); partook of a common meal in connection with the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:46); and for a time practiced foot washing (John 13:14). They practiced close communion even to the extent of excluding those of their own number who opposed infant baptism.

None of these churches—Sandemanian, Haldanean and other—showed any special interest in Christian unity. Indeed, there was not much division in Scotland, where they originated, for almost everybody was Presbyterian. The restoration of primitive Christianity was, for them, a movement not toward unity but away from it. They were little interested in being united with other Christians, but were anxious to be right, let who would be wrong. Their insistence upon conformity to an exact pattern of supposedly primitive procedure, about which there were sure to be differences of opinion, tended toward division. This was doubtless one reason why their success was so small.

Many other small and independent groups of restorers of primitive Christianity arose in Great Britain in the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth. One writer claims to have listed forty, but the present author has not been able to find so many. They adopted names of confusing similarity, either “Church of Christ” or some name of which “Brethren” formed a part. They came and went, united and divided. Though most of the groups disappeared, the type persisted. It is now represented at its best, and with important modifications and additions, 27 in the British “Churches of Christ” which are in communion with the Disciples of Christ in America.

For three hundred years Protestantism had been based on the idea that the Scriptures were the only guide, and the restoration of the essential features of primitive Christianity the only method, for reforming the church. In the sixteenth century, after freedom from the Roman hierarchy and from bondage to ecclesiastical tradition had been won, the effort was chiefly to restore the pure doctrine of the apostles. In the seventeenth, attention was given to restoring a divinely authorized form of church polity, which some held to be episcopal, others presbyterial, others congregational. When the major divisions of Protestantism had crystallized around their respective bodies of doctrine and systems of polity, the restoration concept passed out of their minds. It was taken up by smaller groups of dissenters and irregulars who, in the eighteenth century, scarcely noticed by the larger bodies, bent their energies to restoring the ordinances and worship of the church, as well as its structure, according to what they conceived to be the original pattern.

When Thomas and Alexander Campbell adopted the familiar formula of restoration and combined it with a plea for union, they gave it a different application and produced a strikingly different result.

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