Book Review: Visions of Restoration by John Young

John Young, an adjunct instructor at Amridge University and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Alabama, has written a brief history of Churches of Christ entitled Visions of Restoration (Cypress Publications, 2019; 111 pages).  Brevity sacrifices detail and nuance, but that is acceptable when the purpose is to offer something easily digestible for the reader. Young, I believe, accomplishes his purpose and provides readers with an accessible introductory volume.

At the outset, he recognizes that restorationists live in the tension between primitivism (e.g., we are the church of the New Testament) and historical tradition (e.g., our history has defined contours). This is complicated by the fact that the restorationist tradition finds other expressions in Puritanism (e.g., John Owen) and other 19th century movements in New England (Elias Smith) and Virginia (James O’Kelly). Consequently, it is difficult to navigate both the historical tradition of Churches of Christ and its restorationist claims. Young, it seems to me, rightly sees the tension, and he addresses the historical tradition (“present day Churches of Christ are…a modern movement which seeks to restore” the New Testament church, p. 5) without discounting the theological claim itself (he does not argue whether the theological claim is true or not but recognizes the intent and judges that perhaps it is the “most thorough” of restorationist attempts). As such, Young’s book is a history of a modern movement, a historical tradition deeply connected with places, events, people, and ideas.

Young introduces readers to the “Big Four”: Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott. Recognizing the revivalist context of Stone’s early beginning and the move out of sectarianism by the Campbells, and Scott’s five finger exercise, Young’s brief summaries are helpful.

Young recognizes that the 1832 union between the Stone and Campbell groups was neither simple nor easy. Many in Stone’s group were uneasy with Campbell and some united with the Smith and O’Kelly groups rather than Campbell. Campbell himself, which Young does not note, was not enthusiastic about this union because he was rather suspicious of Stone’s lack of evangelical Orthodoxy (with good reason, especially Stone’s Trinitarianism and Christology). Nevertheless, the united movement became the 5th largest Christian group in the U.S. by 1870.

Though union propelled the movement from the 1820s to the 1870s, “some cracks in the foundation” emerged just prior to the Civil War and exploded after the Civil War. I think Young is correct that the division is both theological (a difference over the application of the received hermeneutic) and sectional (the aftermath of the Civil War—both in terms of politics and sociology). One of the more helpful points Young makes about this division between the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ—formally expressed in 1906—is the role political thought played in the separation, especially as southern congregations were skeptical of government and northern congregations were more nationalistic. The election of James A. Garfield was heralded as a great moment by northern Disciples but lamented by many southerners (notably David Lipscomb).

I do appreciate how Young recognizes both the theological and sociological dimensions of the division. There was a significant hermeneutical chasm between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ, which resulted in different views on instrumental music and the missionary societies. And there was also a deep sectional, sociological, political, and economic divide as well. Young correctly gives weight to both. By the 1880s, congregations were dividing over the instrument, and by 1906 the Churches of Christ were primarily located in the Confederate states and the Disciples of Christ were located in the Union states. Sectionalism as well as theology had an impact.

Young offers an interesting interpretation of the history of Churches of Christ after their separation from the Disciples.

On the one hand, the one-cup congregations and the non-Sunday School congregations separated themselves from the primary trajectory of Churches of Christ as independent movements.  This happened in the 1900s-1920s. Another group separated itself in the 1990s, and Young helpfully devotes a chapter to the rise of the International Church of Christ  (with its roots in the Campus Evangelism of the 1960s-1970s among Churches of Christ).

On the other hand, other divisions were exclusions rather than separations, and the exclusions mitigated damage to the church’s perceived uniformity, though this was accomplished not only through theological argument but also by personal attacks and political maneuvers (e.g., quarantines and exclusion from places of power in the schools and platforms at the lectureships). In this way, dispensational premillennial congregations were marginalized and excluded as were non-institutional congregations.

Another typically excluded group, to which Young devotes a chapter, are African American congregations. He identifies key figures, and assesses similarities and differences. But they all shared the same problem: Jim Crow culture. In this way, African American congregations were also excluded, though not for theological but racial reasons. Hopefully, that is changing.

Another group, to which Young devotes a chapter, is the history of women among Churches of Christ whose voices have been excluded. There is some diversity in the beginning and among the Disciples of Christ, but Churches of Christ muted female voices in the assembly. There was some pushback from women Selina Holman of Tennessee and—Young does not discuss this—leaders like Daniel Sommer. In assemblies in Sommer’s circles, the female voice was heard in prayer, exhortation, reading Scripture, and leading singing. Generally, women were excluded on the theological grounds: their sex demanded their public silence in both church and society (until suffrage changed the social landscape). Hopefully, that is changing.

The 1960s saw the emergence more educated, socially conscious, and pneumatically open thinkers and congregations who expressed themselves through publications like the Restoration Quarterly, Mission, and Integrity. This was countered by the rise of publications like the Spiritual Sword and Contending for the Faith. This was the beginning of a hermeneutical struggle as the former increasingly rejected the received hermeneutic for what their critics called a “new hermeneutic,” and the latter became increasingly involved in the politics of the evangelical right (which is a reversal of what characterized much of the Churches of Christ in the late 19th century). These two groups within Churches of Christ, as Young puts it, are increasingly “drifting apart.”

Young leaves us with two groups “drifting apart.” The unity movement did not bear the fruit of unity. And this is because, as the title of the book suggests, there were competing “visions of restoration.”

In some ways, this is a sad story. In other ways, there is a freedom that gives birth to the hope of renewing life in God’s redemptive work rather than in our theological opinions. Let us hope, pray, and struggle for that renewal.

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