The Religion of Early America
When people came to America from Europe, in the seventeen, and eighteen hundreds, protestant denominations, and religious societies were common-place, just like they are today. However, in the late 1700’s, and the early 1800’s, many men became skeptical about denominations in general. And at about the same time, they also began to question religious societies. Men were trying to restore new testament Christianity, by leaving man-made creeds and doctrines, and hand-books, and relying on only the bible as their complete guide in religion. After all, since the bible is the very word of God, why would anyone want the word of man?
It became obvious to many men of that day, just like it is obvious to many people today, that the new testament spoke out clearly AGAINST religious divisions, and man-made doctrines. I would consider a couple of scriptures as being “famous” for their clear teachings against these things.
A classic example of this is 1 Cor 1, verse 10, which says; “Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be NO divisions among you. But you be made complete, in the same mind, and in the same judgment.”
This is really the only verse needed to show God’s condemnation of religious divisions. And when it comes to “denominating” ourselves with different “names”, all we need to do is read verses 11 thru 13; “For I have been informed concerning you my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this; That each one of you is saying; I am of Paul, and I am of Apollos, and I am of Cephas, and I am of Christ. Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
The problem here is clear; Man’s tendency is to give glory to other men, by saying; “I am of Paul, or of Apollos, or of Cephas”. It’s no different than to say; “I am of Martin Luther, or I am of John Wesley, or I am of John the Baptist. If anyone is a Christian, that person is of Christ, and Christ alone! Therefore, “I am of Christ”. I am a CHRISTian !
In the bible, there’s no such thing as a “Lutheran” Christian, or a “Baptist” Christian, or a “Methodist” Christian, or any other kind of Christian, except for simply a “Christian”. If we claim to be a Christian, then we are “married” to Christ, and we need to wear HIS name, and not the name of some “man”. The bible clearly condemns the practice of assuming a man’s name in our religion. Jesus Christ will share His name with NO man!
The scriptures say, in Philippians 2, verse 9; “Therefore also, God highly exalted Him (Jesus) and bestowed on Him, the name which is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.”
There are only two categories of people on this earth; Christians, and non-Christians. If you believe that you’re a Christian, then you had better leave a man’s name out of it. If you are not of Christ, and Christ alone, then you’re not a Christian, because Christ is NOT divided! You can be of Paul if you want to be. And you can be of Apollos, or Cephas, or Luther, or Wesley, or whoever. But the fact is, “There is salvation in NO one else. For there is NO other name under heaven, that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
If you want salvation, then you would be wise to wear the name of Christ alone.
Doctrine = Teaching
What about doctrine? Is the bible just as clear about doctrine as it is about divisions and about names? I’ll give you two scriptures, that answer that question, but really, either one will do, even by itself.
First; 2 John verses 8 thru 11; “Watch yourselves, that you do not LOSE what you have accomplished, but that you receive a full reward.”
“Anyone who goes too far, and does not abide in the teachings of Christ, does not have God! The one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.”
“If anyone comes to you, and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not bid him God-speed. For the one who bids him God-speed, is a partaker in his evil deeds.”
Obviously, abiding in the teachings of Christ, and NO other teachings, is pretty serious business. To ascribe to teachings other than Christ’s, means that you “DO NOT HAVE GOD”!
Here’s another passage on this subject; Mathew 15, verses 8 & 9; “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. But in VAIN do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the precepts of men.”
Do you want to just give “lip service” to God? Do you want your worship to God to be completely vain? Simply ascribe to the teachings of men, and your worship will be vain, and so will your life!
So then the people who were striving to “restore” the Christianity of the bible, and who were advocating that we “Do bible things in bible ways”, and who urged everyone to “Call bible things by bible names”, and who were adamant, that we should “Speak where the bible speaks, and be silent where the bible is silent”, and those who advocated that in “Faith (in other words in doctrine) there should be unity, and in opinion (in other words, in things NOT regulated by God) there should be liberty, and in ALL things, there should be love; Those people were definitely on the right track, when it comes to pleasing God, and when it comes to being saved.
Religious Societies Are Not Authorized by God
As I said, many of the religious men who came to America in the late 1700’s, and the early 1800’s, became convinced that the bible alone was the only book that was needed, and the bible’s instructions, were the only instructions needed, and the name of Christ was the only name that was needed. As a matter of fact, they came to realize, that anything OTHER than what’s found in the bible, is not allowed by God, and is even condemned by God!
So where do religious societies fit in with the teachings of the bible? I think it would be safe to say, that the formation of societies has always been, for the most part, done with good intentions. Societies in general have been formed with the intent, to help spread the gospel, and to enable various congregations to “pool their resources” for greater effectiveness. The problem is; We find no authorization in the bible, for the existence of any societies or organizations, separate and apart from the local congregations of Christians.
There’s a very old saying, some call it a proverb, and that proverb says; “The road to hell, is paved with good intentions”. Some people attribute that saying to a man who lived between the years, 1091 and 1153. So it’s an old saying. And you know the meaning of that saying; Good intentions, don’t make something right in God’s eyes. And of course to do what’s “wrong” in God’s eyes, will lead us to hell. So if we’re “fooled” into thinking we can do what God has not authorized, just because our intentions were good, we’re “paving our own way to hell”.
It’s kind of like what I just talked about concerning divisions, and doctrines of men. Someone might very well have good intentions, in changing some command of God, or in dividing themselves into various kinds of Christians, like those who are of Paul, as compared to those who are of Apollos. But whether you have good intentions or not, some things are simply condemned by God. It doesn’t matter if you “MEAN well”, if you don’t “DO well”.
That’s exactly the way it is with religious societies. They’re formed with good intentions, like evangelizing the world more effectively, but they have no authorization in the bible, and so they fall into the category of NOT abiding in the teachings of Jesus Christ. And as we’ve just read earlier; “Anyone who goes too far, and does NOT abide in the teachings of Christ, does NOT have God!”
Abiding in the teachings of Christ, not only means to do everything that Christ has commanded us to do, but it also means to LIMIT ourselves, to ONLY what He has authorized us to do. That’s why the scripture says; “Anyone who goes TOO FAR..” By “going too far”, we’ve failed to LIMIT ourselves to what the bible instructs us to do, and what it authorizes us to do. Obviously then, if we don’t limit ourselves, but instead, “go too far”, we end up ADDING something to God’s plan, that He hasn’t authorized.
The governing principle of God, concerning “adding to His word”, is found clearly in Deuteronomy 4, verse 2; “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you.”
Of course this principle isn’t ONLY an old testament principle. It’s reiterated again in Revelation 22, verse 18, which says; “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book; If anyone adds to them, God shall add to him, the plagues which are written in this book.”
And pertaining to this, we need to understand that the plagues that are written about in the book of Revelation, are not meant to be taken literally, but rather, they are symbolic representations of the judgment of God, upon those who live in opposition to Him. Therefore when God says that if anyone adds to His words, that He will add to that person, the plagues that are written about, He means that He will add judgment to that person. Remember that the only way to escape judgment, is to be saved by Christ, through complete obedience to His words. “He is the author of salvation to all those who OBEY Him.” (Hebrews 5:9)
Alexander Campbell’s Vision
Alexander Campbell was very powerful in his day, in his influence over other people’s thinking. He had many “convincing” arguments, and a powerful way of presenting them, and so many people followed his leadership. And Campbell was a strong proponent of societies, because he was a strong believer in evangelizing the world. And Campbell didn’t think that America was being evangelized properly, and so he took it upon himself to do something about it.
Campbell’s main objective was “church co-operation”, which meant that individual congregations should work together for the common good of spreading the gospel. And that in itself sounds like a pretty good concept. It would be just like one person alone, trying to evangelize an entire town. The job could get done much quicker and more efficiently, if that person had several good helpers.
There were already co-operation meetings taking place to discuss the idea of church co-operation, and these meetings were what you could call, the “forerunners” of official organizations and societies.
Campbell felt a sense of urgency in this matter, because as I said, he didn’t feel that America was being evangelized like it should be, and so people were remaining lost, without the gospel. Campbell had a lot of followers for his ideas, but there were still some brethren who were very skeptical about his suggestions, and so they weren’t willing to go along with these suggested organizations, and societies.
In addressing these skeptics, Campbell said one time; “I have found a large number of men, and professors too, who will sit for a year, rather than rise up crooked. They are conscientious men, but they do nothing right, lest they do something wrong”.
So in other words, Campbell’s idea was that something needed to be done now, for greater evangelization. So instead of criticizing the method, let’s just get the job done.
To lay out clearly his thinking on this subject, Campbell presented a series of five essays in his Christian publication called the “Millennial Harbinger”. Campbell was a type of a “millennialist” because he believed that the Christian age they were now living in, would eventually drive everyone to being Christ-like and peace-loving, and this would usher in the thousand year period of peace that the bible speaks of in Revelation chapter 20, and when the “lion will sleep with the lamb”, as described in Isaiah chapter 11.
Campbell believed that the evangelization of the world, would be the “harbinger”, or the “forerunner” of this millennial period, which would then end with the end of time, when the judgment would occur, and when heaven could finally be realized. So you can see why his publication was called the “Millennial Harbinger”, and why he felt such an urgency for evangelization. He felt that the sooner we could get the world evangelized, the sooner this millennial period would come.
Next week, I’ll lay out Campbell’s fundamental train of thought, which he believed authorized the existence of societies in general, whether they were missionary societies, or bible societies, or any other organization that congregations would belong to, that would enable them to better evangelize their area of the country, or even the whole world.
Then we’ll look at the bible pattern laid out by God, in evangelizing the world. And we’ll see the differences in the two patterns.. God’s pattern, and then a pattern that tries to improve upon that pattern.