I am currently enjoying the book, “What Hath God Wrought?”–a book that covers a period in America commonly called “manifest destiny” or Jacksonian America, when America’s borders, resources, and prominence expanded in unprecedented fashion. Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Walker Howe does an excellent job covering every facet of life in the United States from 1815-1848. One facet to which he devotes a surprising amount of time is the first and second religious “awakening” movements on the frontier. I was very surprised that he devoted nearly an entire page to the Restoration Movement led by men he notes such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. He accurately writes, “These leaders reached the conclusion that all theological and creedal formulations must be wrong. Christians should confine themselves to the language of the New Testament and affirm or deny no religious doctrines beyond that” (181-182). As Howe astutely observes, this movement was about the “rebirth of the primitive church” with ‘no creed but the Bible’ (182). However, Howe found the restoration process itself flawed, writing, “The eventual outcome of the movement, however, renders a sobering judgment on human endeavors. The scriptures require interpretation, and restricting religious assertions to those of scripture proved no solution to the scandal of disagreement and division. In the end, the antidenominational Christian movement added to the number of denominations” (ibid.).
What Howe sees is the ultimate division, but his purpose is not to look more deeply into the “why.” Consider the premise of the movement, which he rightly portrays as rejecting creeds and following only what is found in Scripture. While humans choose to engage in that endeavor, it is an endeavor to honor and follow what God desires and commands. On what grounds would a professed believer in God and the Bible have for choosing something more, less, or different than the Word of God?
Where did this movement encounter difficulties? Howe would not reject the imperative of interpretation. Interpretation is necessary in any field of human existence. Was it restricting religious assertions to those of scripture that was the problem and flaw? Or was it the imposition of man’s will and desires as on a par with and, more accurately, set above Scripture?
Was it attempting to restrict religious assertions to those of scripture that led Addison Clark to say to the organist, Mrs. Mason, “Play on, Miss Bertha,” or was it not rather a compromise made to clamoring students at Add-Ran college (cf. Roy Deaver, Firm Foundation, 10/9/73)? Was it a desire to follow scripture that led L.L. Pinkerton to add the melodeon to the worship of the church in Midway, Kentucky, or not instead his estimation that the singing there was so bad that it would “scare even the rats from worship?” (Earl West, Search For The Ancient Order, I, 311).
Because the church will ever be filled with human beings, it will ever be subject to the carnal practice of division (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-13). That in no way undermines the rightness of our desire to follow only scripture, adding or subtracting nothing. It further proves how valiantly we must subject our will to His will, and focus solely on what pleases Him!