Vol. 48 No. 3 (2006): 129-42
 

IDENTITY AND NOSTALGIA AMONG THE CAMPBELLITES

JAMES MAVERICK COOK

Texas Tech University

Introduction

        What did it mean to be a Campbellite in the early nineteenth century? As derisive as the title may have been to Alexander Campbell and his Disciples of Christ movement, it came with a lot of “stuff” attached to it over which nineteenth-century restoration Christians had no control. In many ways, it is similar to the way Latter Day Saints endured the taunt “Mormons.” It thus seems appropriate to use the term now as non-pejorative to define the early Stone-Campbell movement’s diverse population and the social and political determinants that made them what they collectively were. In other words, the Campbellites were a group of Americans with preconceived ideas about culture that determined many of their responses to Campbell’s call for a restored first-century church. They could not have otherwise functioned. With that said, I will tell a couple of stories about the Campbellites.

Campbellite Identities

        The first story begins in 1832 with the merger of these two large Christian movements, both led by rogue Presbyterians who had split from their Scottish church roots to revive a purer form of Christianity in the United States. One leader was Barton Stone, one of the original preachers in the Second Great Awakening in the 1790s. The other was the famous preacher, debater, and theologian Alexander Campbell, who would become the leader of the merged movement known as the Disciples of Christ. By 1849 the movement had grown considerably so that about a hundred of its congregations met to form a missionary society. Despite the internal conflict over the role of such societies, there was a general feeling that something was needed to help them reach out to the rest of the world. The movement had been spreading west steadily and had already spread naturally to both Australia and England. Still, something was missing. Campbellites had a desire to reach out to “heathen” nations, and this seemed to be the main purpose for wanting to form the missionary society.

[130]   There was a distinction between mission work along the western frontier, Australia, and England as fundamentally different from mission work among “heathen” nations. No missionary society had been seen as necessary up to now. The movement had spread naturally across new western territory, especially after the land grabs following the Mexican-American war. By 1855 there was a Campbellite church in the California gold rush town of Stockton.1 The movement also spread naturally to Australia and England via a shared European cultural tradition. Even American Indians were not “distant” enough to warrant special missionary arrangements, although the efforts here were by comparison small. Only when dealing with what were seen as foreign cultures was a missionary society thought to be appropriate.

        Campbell was the president of what came to be known as the American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS), and his first choice for a foreign mission field was Jerusalem. Campbell said that Jerusalem’s “future rise and glory occupy a large space in the visions of the future.”2 The choice of Jerusalem was probably sentimental, based on the biblical precedence that it was where the gospel was first preached. Dr. James T. Barclay, a wealthy physician and slave owner from the South, offered his services regarding a mission to Jerusalem, and he and his family spent three years there, 1850–53, finally returning rather beaten and defensive after having had no success. Barclay commented on the venture: “They sell themselves to the highest bidder in the ecclesiastical market.”3 This seems odd to say after spending three years preaching in the ancient holy land of Christianity, now under Ottoman control and dominated by Islamic influence. Why would Barclay aim his complaints at an “ecclesiastical market,” which implies a crowded mission field, wrung dry of new opportunities? It makes sense only after we look at the facts of the situation. The Campbellites were not the only group of American Christians interested in Jerusalem. Others had gone before them, and the ecclesiastical market was indeed very crowded.

        The nineteenth-century Ottoman empire made a serious attempt to modernize at mid-century. Part of that had to do with an interest in promoting religious freedom; in edicts passed in 1836 and 1856, all subjects of the empire were treated as equal, regardless of their religious affiliations.4 Barclay actually belonged to a second generation of American missionaries who came to the Levant at mid-century, partly as a result of the loosening of restrictions by the Ottoman empire. However, although this may have been the reason Campbellites and other Protestant groups went to the holy lands, their own reasons for going

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1 Winfred E. Garrison and Alfred T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ: A History (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1948), 241.

2 Alexander Campbell, Popular Lectures and Addresses (Nashville: Harbinger Book Club, 1861), 525–26.

3 Garrett, 289.

4 Moshe Maoz, Ottoman Reform in Syria and Palestine 1840–1861: The Impact of the Tanzimat on Politics and Society (London: Clarendon, 1968).

 

[131] had more to do with their religious identity. In the case of the Campbellites, they were not just dedicated Christians; they were also dedicated Americans. Barclay probably found Jerusalem quite crowded with American missionaries like himself, all trying to take back the holy city.

        Ussama Makdisi has commented on this mid-nineteenth-century trend by pointing out that these American missionaries, although seeing themselves as part of a benevolent universal cause, were really in the middle of a clash between evangelism and secular imperialism at a time when European dominance was starting to increase around the world.5 In other words, they were caught in a global battle for economic and political control that not only dwarfed their well-meaning evangelical aims but made them inadvertent players in the game of imperialism. This was partly due to world politics at the time and partly due to the European-based culture of the missionaries, who took for granted the superiority of Western civilization and mixed that inexorably with their Christian message. Barlcay’s dour comments about the ecclesiastical market were the response of a Southern gentleman dismayed by the nakedly aggressive nature of missionary efforts in Jerusalem. No doubt he had gone there with a biblical picture of Jerusalem in his mind that would not have fit well with the reality of Ottoman-ruled Palestine. His longing for a biblical homeland got in the way of the realities of nineteenth-century Palestine.

        Makdisi also writes of this Ottoman attempt at modernization as an “Ottoman Orientalism” that embraced the West as “the home of progress” while the East was seen as a “theater of backwardness.”6 In this sense, American missionaries such as the Campbellites were entering into a familiar situation of unquestioned Western dominance. Yet they could not be at home in this situation, for Ottoman motives for embracing the West were far different from their own. Although Ottomans and American missionaries were both trying to “improve” Palestine, they each had very different understandings of improvement and very different power structures under which they worked. The American missionaries were crushed between all the opposing political forces with which they understood themselves to be in alliance. The universalist foundation of their message left them naive to the particularist political motives in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. In other words, they were not politically motivated themselves, but their politics were buried in their Christian message. All the other influences—the British, the French, the Ottomans—kept their politics front and center, as was their understanding of nineteenth-century imperial ideology. The Americans had the unfortunate disadvantage of playing by imperial rules without any clear understanding of their own imperialism embedded in their Christian message.

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5 Ussama Makdisi, “Reclaiming the Land of the Bible: Missionaries, Secularism, and Evangelical Modernity,” AHR 102.3 (June 1997): 681.

 

6 Ussama Makdisi, “Ottoman Orientalism,” AHR 107.3 (March 1998): 2.



 

[132]   How could a non-political group such as the Campbellites get caught in such a politically charged situation? How could their purely Christian message get so entwined with issues of political dominance and imperialism? A possible answer lies in the Western thinking of the times. John Stuart Mill, in his famous essay On Liberty, states his principle of exclusion upon which Western ideas about “backward” societies are founded: “Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage.”7 By “nonage” he means they lack a history of development and therefore are like children and are to be excluded from considerations of liberty. In other words, they are to be taken care of or enslaved for their own good. Barclay, a slave owner venturing into Palestine to spread the gospel, surely would have understood Mill’s principle of exclusion. It would have been enmeshed in his understanding of the Christian message he had gone to Jerusalem to convey. Although he certainly had no plan to enslave people for their own good, an understanding of difference that was racial as well as national and ethnic would have shaped all his perceptions of Jerusalem. Barclay saw the Palestinians as children in a candy store, unable to make sound decisions when faced with so many appealing choices. The “heathens” of Palestine needed the pure gospel, unadorned by the ministrations of men. They did not deserve the freedom to decide for themselves what flavor best suited them.

        This understanding of Barclay and his mission to Jerusalem reveals something about Christianity in general. Centuries of European dominance in Christianity had given it a completely white European worldview despite its origins as a Jewish sectarian movement that, through the inspired efforts of apostles Peter and Paul, had become a universal worldview. As Maurice Halbwachs points out, “Christianity, mainly through the preaching of the apostles and of the early Christians, early on took the form of a universalistic religion.”8 Halbwachs goes on to show how important holy sites such as Jerusalem were to the development of that universality. Nineteenth-century missionaries from America were in a hopelessly complicated situation where their universal message, derived from apostles Peter and Paul and imagined through images of a holy site, was tainted by global imperialistic politics and their own sense of national and racial destiny. As we shall see with our Campbellite example, the complications did not end with the failed Jerusalem effort.

        We have only to look at the name American Christian Missionary Society to understand the issue. The ACMS was an American society, not only geographically but also ideologically. Their message was not just a Christian message but

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7John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government (ed. Geraint Williams; London: J.M. Dent, 1993), 69.

 

8 Maurice Halbwachs, The Legendary Topography of the Gospels (trans. Francis J. Ditter Jr. and Vida Yazdi Ditter; New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 203.



 

[133] an American Christian message. The distinction was not apparent to the Campbellites because an American particularism had entered their universal message without their knowledge. In just two of many antebellum studies, Daniel Feller and Harry Watson point to a distinct American nationalist message that runs through every aspect of antebellum America, often without any apparent awareness to the participants.9 Feller in particular tries to show how religion was an integral part of the nineteenth-century march-of-human-progress via Western culture. Ideas of progress, science, Americanism, Enlightenment rationality, and Christianity were so intertwined that the message of Christian universality was hopelessly diluted or completely lost in the mix.

        This occurred despite the fact that groups such as the Campbellites were particularly attuned to biblical principles of universality. Theologically, they were a diverse group that practiced a very flexible attitude of forbearance in matters of opinion, thus allowing a wide range of personal choice to exist within a broadly structured Christian system, outlined in Campbell’s writing.10 Yet they allowed that message to be partially reconfigured toward a blatant Americanism and then tossed into the mix of British and French imperialistic aims in the Levant.

        Another factor in Barclay’s obvious frustration over the ecclesiastical market in Jerusalem is what Johannes Fabian calls the Enlightenment’s “shift” in our understanding of space and time. He distinguishes between “religious time” and “secular time,” with each focusing on different starting points.11 Religious time starts in some periphery and moves toward centers of religion (i.e., Jerusalem, the holy city). Secular time starts in some center of learning or power (i.e., the metropole) and moves toward peripheries (i.e., the colony). American mission­aries such as Barclay were operating in religious time, moving toward some perceived center of religion. Yet the Ottoman Empire in its shift toward modernization was operating in secular time, moving away from centers of power toward places such as Palestine where that power could be applied in modern ways. Barclay and others were operating in a sort of time warp. They were experiencing a cultural-political form of jet lag whereby their minds operated on a different clock from that of the outside world.

        In Ussama Makdisi’s work we see yet another factor involved in the plight of nineteenth-century American missionaries: the problem of “nominal Christians” who, although not a part of Western Christianity, had always been in Palestine and had Christian traditions older than those of the American

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9Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise: America 1815–1840 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), and Harry L. Watson, Libertyand Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990).

10Garrett, 192–94.

11Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Colombia University Press, 1983), 6.

  

[134] missionaries,12 most notably the Maronites, who were descended from a fifth-century Eastern Christian sect. Due to Ottoman modernization policies, the Maronites were thriving in Palestine at this time. Due, however, to the growing dominance of Europe in the region, the situation was highly politicized. The Maronites tended to patronize the Catholic-oriented French in the region while other groups such as the Druzes aligned with Protestant Britain. How did American missionaries deal with this political spiderweb of intriguing alliances? How did they deal with the idea that there were Christian traditions older than their own in a place they saw as their tradition’s birthplace? Mill’s principle of exclusion would necessarily place these ancient Christian groups in their nonage as undeveloped children to be taken care of by European and American missionaries. Campbellites would have taken this view for granted, whether they were slave owners like Barclay or anti-slavery proponents as many Campbellites were. American particularism guided both views toward Mill’s principle of exclusion applied as a form of American exceptionalism.

        Barclay’s sense of resignation and defeat upon returning to the United States must have been at least partly the result of seeing how complicated and illogical these applications of exclusion in Palestine were, and possibly they even made him uneasy about his own situation as slave master back in Virginia. Certainly, the Americanized Christian message with which he went to Jerusalem did not fare well in the political, cultural, and religious climate of Ottoman-ruled Palestine.

        Alexander Campbell believed that the Jerusalem mission was part of a glorious future for the restoration of true Christianity.13 This points to another factor in the blending of Americanism and Christianity as a universal-particularist message: millennialism. So perfectly did millennialist views fit into the antebellum march of progress that almost every Christian thinker had them in some form or another. The Campbellites had writers who expressed both premillennial and postmillennial views. A premillennial view taught that the “last days” talked about in the book of Revelation have not come yet, but are coming soon. Most postmillennial views taught that we are living in those “last days” and are coming close to the end of time, or Christ’s second coming. It became much more complicated as many groups during this time began to develop along millennial lines, such as the Millerites. For our purposes, however, those basic distinctions will do. Campbell was a postmillennialist, and in much of his later writing this is played out. He clearly saw his movement back to primitive Christianity as an indication that we are in the “last days.” For instance, in his speech to the ACMS in 1863 (just before Barclay’s ignoble return from Jerusalem), he said, “This missionary enterprise is, by universal concession, as well as by the oracles of God the grand work of the age—the grand duty,

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12Makdisi, 684.

13Campbell, Popular Lectures, 525–26.

 

[135] privilege and honor of the church of the nineteenth century.”14 There is no doubt that Campbell was talking about a distinctly American enterprise, a mixture of the biblical message of universality and the very specific American “grand duty” to spread Christianity, but they were so intertwined with Enlightenment modernity that even highly intelligent men such as Campbell could not see to what such entangle­ments between universality and nationality might lead.

        In another writing from the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell applies his millennial thinking to the Jews, showing a firm belief (much like what Martin Luther had espoused) that the Jews as a people would be brought back into the fold in these final times before the end of the world. “All who receive the word of God hold that Israel will be brought back to him from whom they have revolted.”15 Clearly Campbell is not interpreting the apostle Paul as having engulfed all nationalisms in a universal message. The Jews still exist as a whole people estranged from their God. Are they to be brought back in as a whole people? Campbell does not answer this. He leaves hanging a whole set of questions about the nature of Christianity. Does it transcend national boundaries or leave them somewhat intact? Clearly a theology of universality was severely compromised by the Americanism within which Campbell and his group operated. He could not possibly have provided an answer to this dilemma without stepping out of his time and space in history to view it from a safe distance. Just as Halbwachs suggests that the apostle Peter’s denial of Christ was a form of distancing himself from all the “pain and indignation” in order to later be a responsible witness to it, so might Campbell have stepped away from his “Americanness” in order to witness to its intrusion on Christian aims. Yet he did not. The American message was too strong.

        In Peter van der Veer’s study of religion and modernity in British India, he brings up the nineteenth-century science of phrenology as a way of discussing “nature versus nurture” among Western missionaries. This is applicable to a study of the Campbellites if for no other reason than Campbell himself had a casual interest in phrenology.16 As van der Veer points out, “It (phrenology) also expressed a somewhat more Calvinistic notion of the limitations of one’s own action, as given by the structure of one’s brain.”17 Phrenology offered to explain the differences between the races by scientifically studying the physical aspects of the brain. Phrenology was taken very seriously in the nineteenth century. It is debatable just how seriously Campbell took it, but even if he accepted it as merely part of the popular culture of the age, that it existed as such would lead missionaries going abroad to read more into the physical differences of other

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14Campbell, Popular Lectures, 522.

15Alexander Campbell, “Notices of the Jews, Their Land and Destiny.” Millennial Harbinger, series 3, vol. 7 (1850): 146.

16Garrett, 267.

17Peter van der Veer, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001), 147.

 

[136] races than they might otherwise have. As Reginald Horseman points out, race was so completely enmeshed in American and European thinking at the mid-point of the nineteenth century that it is almost not fair to call it racism as we know it today.18 It was too entrenched to be anything but common sense in an age in which white Americanism was synonymous with a universal message of progress via a millennial Christian restoration.

        How did such entanglements and entrenchments come about? How did the identity called Americanism become synonymous with an identity called Christianity in the minds of nineteenth-century Americans? As mentioned earlier, a common starting point for this is the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Primarily a defensive policy against European encroachment in the Americas after the fall of the Spanish empire, it underwent some extensions in meaning and purpose in the 1840s as the United States fought to expand its borders. Under presidents Tyler and Polk, fears of European and Mexican encroachment on United States territory, real or imagined, led to the use of the Monroe Doctrine for exactly what it was designed to combat.19 The United States greatly increased its territories in North America using a policy that protected all of the Americas from being taken over by unwanted imperial forces. It is the sort of sublime politics that have come to define much of the political relationships between the United States and Latin America over the past two hundred years. But for American Christian movements in the mid-nineteenth century, it became the reality of Americanism, to be nurtured and spread in the form of Christianity all over the world. Given the climate of expansionism, no matter how bitterly it was fought by anti-expansionist voices within the American political structure, it became endemic to groups such as the Campbellites, who clung to a Jacksonian view of freedom and progress based on grass-roots Americanism against old style European hierarchal structures such as kings, bishops, popes, and denominational centrality.

        Campbell especially was an anomaly in this respect in that he sided with the more libertarian Jacksonians against the Whig tendency to support old authoritarian structures. It was an imperialist snake eating its tail, in that Campbellite missionaries were against the old European authoritarianism because they had been freed of it as Americans. But they went to Jerusalem just as that old European authoritarianism was being applied on a global scale. It was easy for them to see their own Americanism, in many respects just as imperialistic, as being the very opposite of what Europe offered the world. In other words, it was easy for them to blend a Christian universal message with a nationalistic American message and not see how the two might be at odds in a foreign culture.

        After Dr. Barclay returned from Jerusalem with his tales of woe, the ACMS decided to take an optimistic view of the situation. Accepting at least temporary

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18Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism

(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 2–6.

19Fredrick Merk, The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansionism 1843–1849 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).

 

[137] defeat in Jerusalem, they turned to Liberia, which had just declared its independence. The idea was to preach among the freed blacks, some of whom had migrated from the United States. Strangely enough, little patriotism or blatant nationalism was involved in this mission attempt since the United States was one of the few significant powers at this point not to recognize Liberian independence.20 A slave named Alexander Cross, who had converted to the Campbellite cause, was bought from his master and trained for the Liberian venture. Unfortunately, Cross died soon after arriving in Liberia, and what might have happened evangelically or politically was lost. The Liberian mission effort was abandoned. Subsequently, not much was written about it. The ACMS moved on to other things.

        What can we make of this seeming reversal? The ACMS fails in the holy land, with a slave-owner as missionary, then turns around and sends a freed slave as missionary to Liberia. One point is the tremendous debate going on among the Campbellites on the slavery issue. Campbell himself was the ultimate fence-sitter, fighting for the rights of anti-slavery causes in his home state of Virginia, yet also fighting for the rights of slave-owning Disciples in the deep South who refused to bend to anti-slavery demands. So conflicted was the movement on the slavery issue that it could contain the likes of Pardee Butler, famous in Campbellite history as the founder of churches in “bloody Kansas.” Butler was the John Brown of the Campbellites, fighting the abolitionist cause on one of its most contested grounds.21 Yet in the South, where the Disciples of Christ were strongest, we see why Campbell worked so hard to keep the conflicting sides together. Statistics from the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society of 1851 record that Disciples owned 101,000 slaves, making them, per capita, the largest slave-owning religious body.22 Could there be a more conflicted group on the slavery question? It seems fair to say that the about-face on mission work that Liberia represented was due to this inner conflict within the movement.

        The next move by the ACMS was similar in nature. In 1858 a staunch abolitionist within the movement was sent to Jamaica. His name was J. O. Beardslee, and he had worked as a missionary in Jamaica earlier with a different group. This time there was some success at first, but it soon dwindled to nothing, and the mission was shut down. Thus ended the only three missionary efforts attempted by the ACMS even though it continued to exist in some form for another fifteen years after the Jamaica effort was ended.23

        What can we conclude about the ACMS and the Campbellites regarding the American urge toward foreign missions? First, it is clear that a dual identity existed among American missionaries in the nineteenth century. Their universal Christian message had been seamlessly blended with a very nationalistic Americanism. These two identities were conflicted enough to effectively cancel one another in a foreign mission field. Secondly, the political and cultural turmoil that

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20Winfred Ernest Garrison, An American Religious Movement: A Brief History of the Disciples of Christ (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1945), 111.

21Garrison and DeGroot, 320.

22Louis Cochran and Bess White Cochran, Captives of the Word (New York: Doubleday, 1969), 131.

23Garrison, 111–12.

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