Reflecting on “Restoration”: Barton W. Stone

restorationI have been a part of the Restoration Movement (RM, hereafter) for most of my life. As far back as I can remember, my family attended a Christian Church or Church of Christ. Although I never attended many (if any) of the RM’s annual conventions (the North American Christian Convention, a.k.a. NACC), I grew up reading the popular weekly publications Christian Standard and the Lookout. I went to some revivals and attended as much church camp every summer as I could. I heard the stories about the glory days of the burgeoning RM that began in the early nineteenth century–about how many came to the same conclusion in early America that the shackles of “denominationalism” needed to be cast aside and how the Cane Ridge Revival set a fire in people’s hearts to pursue “New Testament Christianity.” My youthful mind was enamored with the “plea” (as it came to be known) to restore the church’s faith and practice of the first century as revealed in the New Testament. I was a dyed-in-the wool RM kind of guy.

I continued to be starry-eyed about the RM as I grew older and went off to college. It was not until the mid to late ’90s that I came across The Restoration Herald and began to become somewhat familiar with the Christian Restoration Association. I eventually went off to one of the RM’s very well known seminaries and graduated with an MDiv. As I went on to pursue my PhD I even wrote my dissertation on the RM’s “founder,” Alexander Campbell.

I mention all this basically to make one point: I owe a lot to the RM. I first heard the Gospel in a Christian Church and eventually came to faith in Christ and was baptized in a Christian Church. I have  many wonderful and very good friends in this fellowship of churches. My experience at church camp was especially influential. I know for certain that if it had not been for camp I would not be where I am today. There have been and still are some good things about the RM.

That the RM has had and still has some good aspects to it, however, does not discount the fact that it is not perfect. This is probably an obvious statement, considering there is probably no Christian fellowship or denomination that is perfect. But when are these more unpleasant parts ever openly discussed? Probably not as often as they could or ought to be.

My aim for this and subsequent posts can be summarized in a nutshell: I want to discuss some of the conclusions I have arrived at concerning the Restoration Movement. These conclusions have not been made lightly or simply from browsing magazines or other publications. My conclusions have come from years of deep, reflective, and researched thought–you could call it a “journey” if you wish–from the last fifteen years.

I know that many will take what I write as just another diatribe (i.e., being “negative”), but this is not my intention. Rather, I believe there are some things about the RM that should concern us all: where the RM has been and where it is today (in fact, as I will discuss later, the RM’s history has much to blame for where it is today). Perhaps I will not make anyone happy–the more progressive or the more conservative. The more liberal leaning will possibly view this series as a traditional fundamentalist rant while the more conservative may view it as “another good man gone liberal.” Be that as it may. This is the risk one takes when writing.

My hope, however, is to challenge the current RM in what it believes and practices by considering my personal thought journey. No one should fear honestly critiquing one’s owns views, denomination, fellowship, or past. Truth is what is to be sought and found. Is this not to be the desire of all Bible-believing Christians? Ultimately, I hope that my critique will lead to something better and more biblical. Without further delay, then, I turn to my first post: Barton W. Stone.

Barton W. Stone, Barking Dogs, and an Old Heresy

BWStoneI went to Seminary in 2000. By then I had spent approximately twenty years in the RM, and so I was quite excited to take a course in Restoration history. I had heard all about the Cane Ridge Revival and how it was one of the most significant contributions to the history of the RM. I had seen pictures of the little church house that Barton W. Stone had preached in where this revival had taken place. One always got the impression that some kind of heavenly light was shining in that picture of the old church house.

But as with anyone who picks up a book learns a lot more than just listening to hear-say, I began to learn that the history of the RM was not as glorious as the visions that had been planted in my mind as a youth. This is probably the case with any historical movement, whether Christian or otherwise. The one thing that disturbed me the most as I began to learn about the history of the RM was how some of its “stains” (shall we call them “skeletons in the closet?”) were never disclosed during my childhood. Its history had always been painted as God’s handiwork–God bringing together several groups of Christians from four corners of early America (the North, South, East, and western frontier) to bring Christians “back to the Bible.” What I found, however, was something very different, especially in the case of Barton W. Stone. It seemed to me that Stone ran away from the Bible rather than embracing it.

Cane RidgeBarking Dogs. One of the most popular events in the history of the RM was the Cane Ridge Revival. It took place on the grounds of Barton Stone’s church which was located in Bourbon county, Kentucky. This revival is celebrated very much among Restorationists, so much so that the NACC frequently organizes bus trips from the convention to the old church house which is now preserved in Paris, KY. Even individual RM churches frequently schedule field trips to this old Cane Ridge church house.

What was it about this revival that makes it so popular with the RM? Evidently, it was the largest revival meeting to ever take place on the American frontier that brought together Christians from a number of different denominations. James North, in his book Union In Truth, records that it is estimated to have drawn anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people.[1] These folks were Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and many others. It was presumably the largest gathering of bitter theological enemies that Christianity had ever seen. It was ecumenical to the core. Denominational barriers were being torn down as the “simple Gospel” was preached and lives were changed and souls saved. Moreover, the Gospel was being preached in a very non-Calvinistic manner, a manner which assumed that the hearers of the Word could actually respond through repentance and faith in Christ.

Although the Cane Ridge Revival should be commended for its ecumenicism and (evidently) preaching that led to the salvation of some, it is difficult to fathom that very many in the RM today would actually have attended the revival, especially the more conservative Restorationists (and perhaps the more liberal, considering they may possibly think that many of the attendees had lost their minds). Why do I say this? Precisely because of what erupted at Cane Ridge: “religious exercises.” People barked like dogs, fell to the ground in fits of non-stop laughter, sang songs that came from their chest, and danced and ran in such a manner that caused many to fall to the ground and cease in the ability to get up. Some people went into jerking motions, keeping both feet flat on the ground while their forehead would hit the ground in one motion and then the back of their head hitting the ground when jerking in the the opposite direction. Others would cry out in loud screams and fall to the ground unconscious. Oddly, it was even said that women got pregnant. (If there is any doubt that these “exercises” occurred, one need to look no further than Stone’s autobiography in which he testifies to them.)[2]

When I first learned that these “exercises” occurred at Cane Ridge, I was quite shocked. My initial response was, “What happened to the ‘great Cane Ridge Revival’ that I had learned about growing up? Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?” My next reaction was one of horror. What was supposed to have been a kind of “founding” revival of my beloved RM resembled, in my view, a gathering of people demonically possessed. In fact, it was not much later that I learned that such “exercises” are very common among those who are demon possessed. It was very disappointing to me to have been given a very partial picture of Cane Ridge while I was growing up.

I have come to the conclusion that it is highly questionable whether such a revival should be celebrated and put in one’s trophy case. Why does the RM celebrate such a chaotic, unbiblical, and quite possibly demonic event? I would not have been there, and I certainly cannot honor such a revival today. Sure, a field trip to the old church house may be beneficial for historical study, but not for reminiscing about the “good old Restoration days.” It seems to me that the whole story of Cane Ridge ought to be told, and just maybe we ought to disown it through repentance, dust cloth and ashes–the whole nine yards.

AriusAn Old HeresyBesides barking dogs, Stone had another issue which concerned me–a more serious and theological one. I came across this particular issue when I took the Restoration history course. For whatever reason, it did not leave much of an impression on me until several years later when I began studying early church history more thoroughly. (Perhaps it was because, traditionally, the RM has despised church history? I will speak more to this later.) What was this concern? The fact that Stone affirmed the third and fourth century heresy of Arianism.

Arianism was a heresy named after Arius (ca. 250-336), bishop of Alexandria. Arius taught that Jesus was not God. One of his famous dictums was “there once was as a time when the Son was not,” i.e., there was a time when Jesus did not exist. The Council of Nicea convened specifically to condemn this heresy (the result of this council was the Nicene Creed of AD 325 which affirmed the deity of Christ).

Although Stone denied being an Arian, it was clear that he affirmed the heresy.[3] In a logic chopping manner, very much like Arius, Stone spoke of Jesus as “divine” but not actually “God.” For Stone, Jesus is “divine” in the sense that the “Father dwells in him” and that the “fullness of God was in him.” This is similar to how water fills a bucket–the bucket itself is not water, but is filled with water. Only the “divinity in him . . . was eternal” according to Stone.[4] More plainly, Stone expressed his view thus:

My own views of the Son of God, are, that he did not begin to exist 1820 years ago; nor did he exist from eternity; but was the first begotten of the Father before time or creation began–that he was sent by the Father 1820 years ago into the world, and united with a body, prepared for him; and that in him dwelt all the fullness of Godhead bodily.[5]

For Stone, Jesus was not “equal in essence, being or eternity” with the Father. As the quote above clearly implies, there was a time when the Son was not. Despite Stone’s denials, this is Arianism. But how would Stone know? He never read Arius’ position, as he even admits! “I know not what the real sentiments of Arius were,” commented Stone, “having never seen his writings; nor have I seen his sentiments, but through the coloring of his enemies.”[6] If Stone had ever read Arius, he would have seen how closely all his arguments resembled Arius’ very own views.

To me, Stone’s Arianism is a problem. (It may be difficult for some to swallow, but Arianism for me is akin to blasphemy.) One of the so-called “founding fathers” of the RM was a heretic, one who rejected the true nature of the Savior. When I finally came to realize this fact, I could no longer hold Stone in high esteem. The very movement which prided itself on being “people of the Book” (i.e., the Bible) respected and honored a man who rejected one of the essential and foundational teachings of “the Book.” “How could this be?” I thought. “Why was this never mentioned in my years growing up in the RM?” More importantly, why does this man continue to be cherished in the RM (I can see why his views would be by the more liberal)? Why are buses being packed to take a field trip to see a church house preserved in Paris, KY to honor a heretic?

Interestingly, Stone denied not only the deity of Christ, but also the substitutionary atonement. The atonement, again, is one the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, stating that Christ took the place of sinners to atone for their sins. Stone was very emphatic that Jesus did not take the place of sinners on the cross. In a very lengthy discussion with Alexander Campbell in the Millennial Harbinger, Stone wrote,

The doctrine of vicarious, or substituted punishment, is the fundamental of orthodox divinity. Where, brother Campbell, shall we find the term substitute with application to Christ? Did he, as such, satisfy the demands of law and justice against the sinner, and reconcile or propitiate God to a sinful world? Does law or justice admit of such substituted punishment? Where is it required, or found in the Bible? [7]

Rather than Jesus’ sacrifice serving as a substitutionary atonement, Stone believed in what is called today “the moral influence theory” of the cross. This theory states that Jesus’ death was simply an expression of divine love, accomplished to “woo” sinners to repentance by observing the kind of sacrifice God’s Son made. It has nothing to do with the punishment of sin as such, but everything to do with just inducing repentance. Alexander Campbell even correctly noted this. He replied to Stone that the “only necessity for the death of Christ to have occurred [in this view], is its superior fitness to produce repentance” [8]. (Unfortunately, Campbell was aware of Stone’s view here as well as others but still decided to extend a hand fellowship to him by uniting his followers with Stone’s. This is an indictment against Campbell, not something to be celebrated.)

The more I thought about Stone’s heresy and denial of the substitutionary atonement, the more I began to see a connection to some other problems that had arisen throughout the history of the RM. Take, for example, the liberal controversy of the early to mid twentieth century. Liberals, who denied many of the essential Christian teachings, had taken over many of the RM Bible colleges and seminaries, and conservatives were outraged (and I would have been also). But surely the least observant reader can detect the irony: on what grounds could the conservatives cry foul when liberals were among them? The RM had been liberal from the beginning with the acceptance of Stone’s Arianism and moral influence theory of the cross (and by implication anti-Trinitarian views)!

Fast forward to today: it seems to me that conservatives in the RM really have no grounds to get upset with liberals who exist among them (or even if some were to choose to practice barking in a worship service for that matter). If Stone was accepted early on with his heretical and unbiblical views and practices, then liberals ought to be accepted today. Of course, this can be avoided by conservatives if they jettison Stone and his views, rejecting him as a man who represents their view of Christ, God, and conversion by acting demon possessed. The best way to get rid of a tumor is to expose it and then remove it. The best way to dispose of theological error is the same. The question is, who has the theological fortitude to do it?

Notes:

[1] James B. North, Union In Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 1994), 47.

[2] See Barton Stone’s autobiography. All the info here is summarized and taken from North’s book Union In Truth, 47.

[3]See North, Union In Truth, 163 for a discussion on this. It should be noted that North does not pass judgment on whether Stone affirmed Arianism.

[4] Barton W. Stone, “Section II. Of The Son of God” in An Address to the Christian Churches (1821) from http://www.piney.com/Barton.W.Stone.Address.Christian.Churches.html; emphasis mine.

[5] Stone, “Section II. Of the Son of God.”

[6] Barton W. Stone, “Section I. Of the Trinity” in An Address to the Christian Churches (1821) from http://www.piney.com/Barton.W.Stone.Address.Christian.Churches.html#Sec2

[7] See “LETTER V.-To. B. W. STONE” in Alexander Campbell, ed., The Millennial Harbinger, New Series, vol. 5 (Bethany, VA: N.p., 1841), 62-63. Stone expresses it clearly in his An Address to the Christian Churches and shows that he is aware that such a doctrine is viewed to be foundational to the Christian faith: “I am not ignorant that men have attached other ideas to the blood of Jesus besides those I have mentioned; as, that it satisfied law and justice–reconciled and propitiated God to sinners–took away original sin–purchased grace, salvation, and the holy spirit–opened the door of mercy, &c. These doctrines have been of long standing in the church, and for a long time it has been thought blasphemy to call them in question. So long and so constantly have they been proclaimed from the pulpit and from the press, that the real ends of the blood of Jesus have been partially overlooked and neglected. Indeed I have tho’t that people, unacquainted with the bible, by attending to a great part of the preaching and systems of religion in the present day, would almost conclude that Christ died only to satisfy justice–appease the vengeance of God, and purchase grace. These things I do not believe to be contained in the bible; and for not believing them, we are considered as having denied the blood of Christ, and rejected the foundation stone of christianity.” See Stone, “On the Sacrifice of Christ Jesus” from http://www.piney.com/Barton.W.Stone.Address.Christian.Churches.html#Sec3.

[8] “LETTER V.-To. B. W. STONE” in Alexander Campbell, ed., The Millennial Harbinger, New Series, vol. 5 (Bethany, VA: N.p., 1841), 62-63

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