Vol. 2 - No. 6

June, 1983

No Picture

Baptist Pulpit In A Church of Christ

by Leon McBeth

(Editor's Note: The following article is indeed interesting as appearing in Baptist journals. All that is stated by Mr. McBeth, who is professor of church history at Southwestern Seminary, is not endorsed by this editor, but we thought it would be good to pass on to our readers for their consideration. As you read the last paragraph, remember that that statement is speaking of "harm" to the Baptist cause, not the Cause of Truth. The article is borrowed from The Louisiana Message.)

Baptist Pulpit In A Church of Christ

A funny thing happened when the historic First Baptist Church of Nashville celebrated its 150th anniversary back in 1970. The Baptists went down to the neighboring Church of Christ to borrow a pulpit.

A part of the centennial celebration was to gather objects and mementos from the early days of the church. It turned out that the original pulpit from the original First Baptist Church of Nashville now belongs to the Church of Christ.

How does it happen that the Church of Christ owns the Baptist pulpit? Because the old First Baptist Church of Nashville became a Church of Christ, that's why. Hundreds of other Baptist churches across Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee also joined in the "reforming movement" of the 1830s and became Churches of Christ. Because this was one of our major Baptist controversies, and has continuing impact to this day, it deserves to be better known.

IN THE EARLY 1800s, Alexander Campbell, along with his family, migrated to America from Ireland. Alexander was a promising young man, with some training at the University of Glasgow. He had left the Presbyterian church, of which his father was a minister, and for some years the Campbell group worshiped as independents.

In 1812, Campbell and his wife, Dorothy, welcomed their first baby. One question they had to face was whether to have the infant baptized. After a study of the New Testament, young Campbell became convinced that scripture not only does not allow the baptism of infants, but calls for the immersion of believers. That same year Alexander and his father, Thomas, were immersed along with several others. They formed a little church, and in 1813 joined the Redstone Baptist Association.

Thus the Campbells became Baptists, but they NEVER shared Baptist views. (Emphasis mine --RLC) They objected to several Baptist practices, such as the use of confessions of faith. In time it became obvious that Campbell had serious differences with the Baptists.

CAMPBELL believed the New Testament had so replaced the Old Testament as to render the old practically without authority. He also taught that faith is primarily a rational or mental response, and therefore conversion should rarely involve the emotions. He opposed missionary societies, not from any objection to missions as such, but because the Bible does not specifically authorize missionary societies. "Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent," became the Campbell motto.

In some ways the Campbell movement was ahead of its time. It was an effort, among other things, to abolish all denominational names and creeds and unite the various denominations on the basis of the Bible alone. Such views have had little enough success in the twentieth century; they had none at all in the nineteenth.

Campbell's withdrawal from the Baptists was gradual. For some years the differences simmered. The Campbells would allow no instrumental music in worship; the Baptists used music. The Campbells argued against a salaried clergy; the Baptists defended the right of pastors to financial support, though in practice they provided little enough.

PERHAPS the main reason for separation was a difference about baptism. Baptists taught that baptism is an outer sign of an inward change, a public testimony that one has been saved. Baptists do not believe that baptism saves anyone, but that saved people should be baptized to testify publicly to their salvation. Campbell taught that baptism completes the process of salvation, and in effect is essential to salvation.

Some called the Campbell movement the "Reformers." Other spoke of them as "Disciples of Christ." In an effort to avoid denominational names, most of them preferred to be known as Churches of Christ.

For about 15 years before the Disciples' group withdrew from the Baptists, controversy flared. Public debates, newspaper articles and continual strife marked the relationship of the two groups.

WHILE HE WAS still a Baptist, Alexander Campbell preached at Robert Semple's church in the Dover Association of Virginia. In a letter to Campbell, Semple wrote, "Your opinions on some other points are, I think, dangerous…In short your views are generally so contrary to those of the Baptists in general, that if a party was to go fully into the practice of your principles I should say a new sect had sprung up, radically different from the Baptists, as they now are."

These words proved prophetic. Campbell did separate and form a new group. Hundreds of Baptist churches followed him; thousands of former Baptists joined in with the new Church of Christ movement. Some historians estimate that in some states, perhaps 50 percent of the Baptists left their churches to join the new Disciples movement.

Strict biblical literalism was the main appeal of the Disciples. Campbell portrayed himself as the orthodox champion calling Baptists back to a true belief in the Bible. In vain Baptist leaders pointed out that "the Reformers" took verses out of context and misinterpreted the Bible.

BAPTISTS BELIEVE the Bible and always have. But we have always been vulnerable to people who misuse the Bible, while loudly affirming its infallible authority.

The Disciples controversy left gaping wounds in the Baptist body. Baptists lost hundreds of churches and thousands of members. They also lost the pulpit of one of their greatest churches.

Ponder that the next time you hear someone say that doctrinal controversy does not harm.