Throughout 2008 I spent part of my time reading through the major journals of Churches of Christ from 1897 to 1907: Gospel Advocate, Firm Foundation, Christian Leader, Octographic Review, The Way, and Christian Leader & the Way. I have shared some of my “findings” on this blog and will do more in the future.
Other than the increasing distance between the Christian Church and Churches of Christ (ranging on issues from instrumental music and missionary societies to ecumenical federation with denominational bodies and higher criticism), the most discussed question among Churches of Christ in the papers was rebaptism. I counted over 200 articles–not including notices of debates, books and pamphlets about the subject–from 1897-1907.
The specific question was whether Baptists (or other immersed persons) should be reimmersed in order to receive the “right hand of fellowship” for entrance into a congregation of the Church of Christ. On the one hand, David Lipscomb, James A. Harding, E. G. Sewell, J. C. McQuiddy, Daniel Sommer, and others (including all the editors of the Gospel Advocate) argued that anyone immersed upon a confession of faith in Jesus is a Christian. On the other hand, Austin McGary, J. D. Tant, J. W. Durst, and others (including all the editors of the Firm Foundation) argued that only those immersed with a specific knowledge their baptism was the appointed means of salvation are Christian. This is the most well known difference, perhaps, between the Tennessee and Texas Traditions within Churches of Christ.
This difference generated considerable friction. But where is the rub? Why was it contested so vehemently and passionately? What was at stake? Austin McGary, co-editor of the Firm Foundation, gives us a feel for how critical this debate was (1898, 284–emphasis mine):
We cheerfully admit that neither the society nor the organ has anything to do with this vile attack upon us by the Advocate. But the trouble between us is traceable to the very same presumptuous spirit that brings the society and the organ into the work and worship of the church. Bros. Lipscomb, Harding and their wicked confederates in this attack upon us claim to speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent. But, like Homon and his confederates in advocating the society and organ, they speak where the Bible does not speak, and are silent where the Bible does not speak, in their defense of Baptist baptism….these brethren are tenfold more palpably culpable in their effort to defend their practice of receiving Baptists on their baptism, because, in holding to this practice, they prove that they are willfully going beyond the authority of the Lord.
McGary believed the root was “going beyond the authority of the Lord” on the basic question of who is a Christian. This, to him, was more liberal, damaging and insidious than the society and the organ. McGary thought this would ultimately lead to a “divided brotherhood” just like the instrument and society (FF, 1901, 8). J. D. Tant, however, was more optimistic after a visit to Nashville and thought that in “fifteen years” churches would no longer receive members on their “sectarian baptism” because “the gospel,” he wrote, was having a “>leavening influence in Tennessee” (FF, 1899, 23). Tant assessed the trend correctly, though it took much longer than fifteen years.
The “rub” for the Texans was that it expanded the borders of the kingdom beyond those identified with the Churches of Christ. The critical issue was that congregations were receiving unsaved people into their fellowship. This was, as Tant revealed, a gospel issue. At root the Gospel Advocate “was teaching other ways that sinners may be forgiven and enter the kingdom of Christ” (McGary, FF, 1901, 8).
The “rub” for the Tennesseans was the sectarian attitude that undermined the obedient faith of others. Lipscomb stressed that simple obedience to Jesus through faith was all the motive required for effectual baptism (see his “What Constitutes Acceptable Obedience“). To require more is to undermine simple obedience itself because it is no longer faith but education, knowledge and doctrinal precision that determines acceptable obedience. Such a spiral ultimately destroys assurance because when knowledge becomes the ground rather than faith one can never be sure they know enough about their obedience for their obedience to be accepted. A faith in Jesus that moves one to obedience is sufficient faith no matter what else they know or don’t know or even falsely believe about their baptism.
The other part of the “rub” is the sectarianism itself. According to Daniel Sommer, rebaptists “adopt the sectarian plan of sitting in judgment on the fitness of persons for baptism” (OR, 1904, 3) According to the Tennessee tradition, the kingdom is broader than those who were immersed for the specific purpose of the remission of sins (or to be saved) and they did not believe that all those outside the borders of the “Churches of Christ” were lost (see Harding’s comments). This gracious attitude toward those who walk sincerely among the denominations is what the editors of the Firm Foundation feared because it enlarged the kingdom beyond the borders of their vision of the “Church of Christ.”
The rebaptism controversy was, I think, a struggle within Churches of Christ about the borders of the kingdom of God. It was part of movement toward more pronounced exclusivism within Churches of Christ. While the Tennessee perspective (which was also the view of Alexander Campbell, J. W. McGarvey and Daniel Sommer, which means it is not simply a Tennessee perspective) lost the struggle on this point, it did not die but remained alive in various places among Churches of Christ (e.g., Harding College).
Austin McGary, “Editorial,” Firm Foundation 14 (13 September 1898 ) 284.
Austin McGary, “The Firm Foundation—Its Aims and Principles,” Firm Foundation 16 (8 January 1901) 8.
Daniel Sommer, “A Letter with Comments,” Octographic Review 47 (2 Feb 1904) 3.
J. D. Tant, “Too Many Papers,” Firm Foundatoin 15 (10 January 1899) 23.