In the first post in this series we sketched a few of the utopian experiments that marked the earlier part of the 19th century. These efforts were expressions of the high expectations characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment and the Modern Era. This was an age of rapid advances in learning that had begun in the Renaissance period and had morphed into subsequently more optimistic periods and expectations. Along with the advances in learning and the discoveries that were coming through science plus the prosperity derived from the bustling industrial establishment there was a growing confidence in the ability of man to solve the problems of society.
There were, as it turned out, problems in identifying what those problems were and then problems in deciding what solution to apply to those problems. Humanism, whether of a secular or religious nature, is inherently flawed and thus incapable of delivering on the promises it makes. That problem is man himself. Man is flawed. Thousands of years of history testify to this fact. And certainly the Bible declares it to be true as the apostle Paul, in Romans 3:23 tersely states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From the original pair in Eden to the climax of history at the cross this is the unbroken pattern. Sure, there were good people – people with whom God was pleased – people whom God had saved, but even these were flawed and dependent on God. So how could man be relied upon to build an ideal civilization? How could God’s plans be contingent upon man’s accomplishments?
The solving of human problems isn’t as simple as just providing people with the truth and expecting everyone to gratefully accept it. Every nation, every empire, every regime that has attempted to build a better world has failed because every one of them has been built by men, often in open defiance of God’s will and purpose for man. From Cain who built a city away from God to Nimrod who built an empire (extending from Babel to Nineveh) to Egypt, Greece and Rome, all had been built upon the backs of slaves, exploited workers and the blood of the armies required to establish and maintain those nations. Even those efforts that have been made in the name of righteousness have failed. All those empires have similarly crumbled into dust, remembered only in moldy archives in musty museums and broken and buried artifacts.
Today one has but to drive an hour or two from where I live in Kentucky to see the unoccupied remains of two of the Shaker communes at South Union and Pleasant Hill, preserved now as historical sites, the people who occupied them and hoped in their promises, long since gone. Although the Shakers communities outlived many other ventures of their kind, they were doomed from the beginning largely as a result of their own teachings and beliefs as well as by a changing society. Mother Ann Lee taught that the sexual relationship even between husbands and wives was inherently evil. Their demand that members of their religion remain celibate certainly played a large role in their ultimate demise, not from mere abstinence, but from a schismatic element within the religion who turned to spiritualism and began to advocate the union of flesh and spirit which would do away with celibacy.1
During this period that spawned various utopian communal endeavors and fostered the flourishing of such dreams as Campbell’s Millenial Age there were powerful social forces at work which would have a definite dampening effect on these ventures. Slavery was, without doubt, the most significant of these forces. Of the many things that probably worked against the utopian settlements most, the Civil War would have had to be one of the greatest discouraging influences. The world wasn’t getting better and better. Two of the most horrendous atrocities man can impose upon himself – slavery and war – left the churches that had resulted from the Restoration Movement exposed and vulnerable, torn and broken. Certainly the idea that the world was moving toward a realization of Christ’s reign on earth suffered a severe blow. The nation that had suffered the rending of itself and the death of its ablest young men was left divided – North and South – with the churches mirroring this same division in many respects.
“…defined his Millenial Age as a political and religious order of society that would accomplish the ultimate improvement of humans and their world. Like Irenaeus and other ancient chiliasts, he saw the natural environment as undergoing a pronounced transformation with the fecundity of the earth and the pleasantness of the climates extremely enhanced during that time. Society also would be greatly improved, with no more war and with general peace and harmony in all human relationships.”2
Historian Leroy Garrett quotes Campbell as saying;
“Slavery is the largest and blackest blot upon our national escutcheon, that many-headed monster, that Pandora’s box, that bitter root, that blighting and blasting curse under which so far and so large a portion of our beloved country groans.”
Although the restoration churches did not divide over the issue of slavery, there were some individuals who were slave owners and others who pressed for abolition. Within the 19th century society and within the Restoration Movement itself there were divisions over this thorny social issue.
Generally, Disciples adopted the prevalent attitudes of the section in which they lived in their opinions on the question of slavery. Most Disciples in the South, many of them slaveholders, favored the institution of slavery, and defended it on a biblical basis. On the other hand, Northern Disciples opposed slavery, and a significant minority of them became passionate abolitionists, pressing for immediate emancipation.3
With the war approaching, many in the restoration churches remained neutral. These felt that the unity of the church was of paramount importance and so kept quiet about the mounting tension on the political and social issues dividing the country. Many of the leaders of this group were committed pacifists and were determined that the church not send its members to war, no matter what the cause.4 But this was not to be.
“…when the war came in 1861, thousands of Disciples on both sides put on their new uniforms and went to fight. Among them were Barton Stone, Jr. and Alexander Campbell, Jr., both officers in the Confederate Army. In the words of historian David Edwin Harrell, “In the heat of passion, Disciples killed their brethren.”5
Now, instead of the Restoration Movement ushering in a Millennial Age of peace and harmony in the rule of the Messiah established over all the earth it had become the victim of the division within the society it was seeking to reform. The vision was, for the most part, lost. Following the Civil War there were a few who held on to the concept of a coming era of peace and righteousness, but for the majority there was another vision, another dream.
2 Kevin James Gilbert, The Stone-Campbell Millennium: A Historical Theological Perspective; http://www.acu.edu/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/archives/2000s/vol_43_no_1_contents/gilbert.html
3 A Brief History of the Stone-Campbell Tradition; http://www.discipleshistory.org/history/brief-history-stone-campbell-tradition