The nineteenth-century religious revival known variously as the Restoration Movement or Campbellism was ostensibly an effort to reunite an increasingly divided Christianity. The goal of the reform was the re-establishment of New Testament Christianity in its primitive state, free from what was perceived as a multitude of extrabiblical accretions. By abandoning these denominational and creedal restrictions, which were believed to have been forced on the Church by history and tradition, Christianity would inevitably end its sinful state of division.
The intellectual and spiritual force behind this flawed movement was Alexander Campbell, born in Ireland on September 12, 1788. His father Thomas, a Presbyterian minister, sailed for America in 1807 on the advice of a physician. Alexander finished his studies in philosophy, logic, and New Testament Greek at the University of Glasgow and then joined his father.
Upon arrival in Pennsylvania in 1809, Alexander found his father had split with the Presbyterians after having been censured for his disagreements with Calvinist doctrine. He had started his own fellowship, the members of which believed in the necessity of baptism by immersion as well as the sufficiency of the Bible as the only standard of doctrine.
After various affiliations and subsequent divisions with other Protestant bodies, the Campbellites merged with several like-minded groups to form the “Disciples of Christ,” with Alexander assuming the leadership of the movement.
An attraction to the simplicity of the early Church as found in Scripture led Campbell to repudiate any doctrine he thought extrabiblical in origin. His belief in the principle of sola scriptura is evidenced by the Campbellite motto: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Failing to recognize the irony that Scripture nowhere supports the belief that it alone is the depository of all truth, Campbell spoke when he should have remained silent.
Alexander Campbell was nonetheless a man of intellect and accomplishment. He gained notoriety from his debates with Catholics and with Protestants. He was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829. In 1840 he chartered Bethany College as a training center for his ministers.
By the time of his death on March 4,1866, his followers had increased from a few hundred to well over 300,00. Today, membership in churches the ancestry of which can be traced back to Alexander Campbell, most notably the various Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ, numbers in the millions.
Begun as an effort to rescue a pure, undivided Christianity from the clutches of parasitic denominationalism, Campbellism failed to reunite even Protestantism, and it ended up contributed new divisions of its own.