Most churchgoers know very little about the history of their church or denomination. Yet, that history often plays an enormous role in how the leaders of their church conduct themselves, accepted orthodoxy within the church, and, if they have been in the church’s midst for very long, whether they know it or not, the churchgoer’s own theology.
The concept of studying church history at church typically faces several problems. Perhaps as a holdover from high-school, history as a subject for study in general has a reputation among many as uninteresting, dense, time-consuming, and largely useless. Church history can also seem inaccessible to the typical churchgoer, in that church history texts are often expensive, multi-volume treatises written in complicated prose pitched at the graduate-school level. Plus, there is often no one qualified to teach the subject and no materials that can quickly prepare a teacher otherwise unversed in the subject.
John Young solves all of these problems for the Churches of Christ with Visions of Restoration: The History of Churches of Christ, Florence, AL: Cypress Publications / Heritage Christian University (2019) ($12.99).
Visions of Restoration is an easy-to-read overview of the history of the Churches of Christ presented in 13 short chapters, perfect for a Sunday School or Wednesday-night class quarter or for self-study and a resource.
Bible Class Teachers Will Love It
Teachers will love the book. Each chapter is in close-to-outline format, making it easy from which to teach. And the text is lively and entertaining. The chapters are written in story-telling mode, rather than facts-and-figures mode, which helps with classroom discussion. The book consistently reminds the reader at the beginning of each chapter what was covered in the last, and it includes thought-provoking questions on the material at the end of each chapter. Each chapter is no more than 8 small pages, and the text is highly structured and easy to follow. It seems written at roughly a 9th grade level and speaks plainly and clearly, suitable for any audience.
Most helpful, the book is written such that the teacher would not need to have prior knowledge of the subject. It is written in a descriptive, conversational format. Additional resources are discussed throughout and in a concluding section for the teacher or student who wants to know more.
And Nicely Done for Self-Study
It is a perfect volume for a quick and thorough introduction to Churches of Christ history. For self-study and reflection, what I like most about Visions of Restoration is that I can almost see the author’s highly organized outline as I read. The topical sentences flow and connect smoothly, referencing the important people, events, periodicals, and places and their significance, giving me grist for the further-study mill, without bogging me down as I continue on my journey through the history of the Churches of Christ.
Somehow, the pages are both densely packed with information and easy to read.
Opening Material: Stone, Campbell, …
The book begins by discussing why studying the history of the Churches of Christ is important, both from the perspective of the view that the church is the original that began on the Day of Pentecost around 33 AD and the from the perspective of the view that it is best understood as a modern movement seeking to restore Christianity to the teachings and practices of the 1st century church.
It then introduces us to what the book calls the “Big Four”: Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, his son Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott. These men were four of the early restorers active in the late 1700s and early-to-mid-1800s who were particularly important to the history of the Churches of Christ. Interestingly enough, at least Stone and Thomas Campbell had been (separately) expelled and suspended, respectively, from their Presbyterian Synods because of their beliefs before going on to form groups that developed into movements that eventually combined into groups that formed the Restoration Movement and developed into what is identified today as the Churches of Christ, distinct from other religious groups.
Growing Movement and Through the Years
Visions of Restoration goes on to explain how the movement grows, challenges it faced, including related to the Civil War and into the 20th century. Issues like contact with the spirits of the deceased, slavery, instrumental music, and missionary societies all came into play, as did north-south and other geographic-based challenges. It takes us through the major split with the Disciples of Christ and many of the people that played a role.
The book introduces us, too, to major doctrinal debates that roiled the Churches of Christ, such as the conflict over premillennialism and the Institutionalism debate, one that caused a major fissure. I learned for the first time of Campus Evangelism, a highly successful campus ministry in the late 1960s and early 1970s that trained thousands of students and cut across doctrinal, race, political and other spectrums that was shut down by conservative criticism. An especially nice job is done explaining these disputes in a clear and concise way, including defining terms like postmillennialism and premillennialism. Throughout, we are introduced to many of the fellowship’s many periodicals and personalities, movements and controversies, and facts and figures.
It also describes the so-called “Boston Movement” that developed in the late 1970s and the 1980s eventually into the International Churches of Christ.
The closing two chapters focus on the history of the black church experience within the Churches of Christ and the history of women within the Churches of Christ.
A Rich “For Further Study” Chapter
Those interested in more will like the closing chapter, as it describes a plethora of resources for further research on Churches of Christ history.
Very Little to Criticize in Such an Excellent Work
I found little to criticize. My main criticism is that David Lipscomb’s importance to the history of the Churches of Christ does not stand out as much as I would expect. It seems to fade into the background. He is mentioned, but the extent of his half-a-century influence does not come across as clearly as I expected.
Other criticisms include that the segregationist history of the Churches of Christ colleges could have been described with some more detail to give a better picture without taking up much more space. This could have been done in a few sentences or a paragraph and would have given churchgoers much to discuss. The church’s and its associated periodicals’ and universities’ action and inaction on slavery, segregation, and other civil rights issues might have received more attention (though this was touched on tangentially). This, too, deserves considerable attention within our tradition and an unblinking discussion of history is a critical vehicle.
More distant criticisms include that the Firm Foundation had more of an influence than is apparent in the book and the impact on the church of the fundamentalism movement (regarding evolution, textual criticism, …) might have received additional attention, too. The First Amendment’s lack of early applicability to the states is not manifest in an opening theme. Perhaps a conclusion with some themes observed or some theological questions might be in order. The cover photograph is a bit dark.
It feels nit-picky to complain about anything when so much has been packed into a 111 page book while maintaining a clear picture. Many of these criticisms are more applicable to a longer work. I know John personally, though, and since my review of his book is so genuinely glowing I have gone a bit out of my way to criticize a few points I might not have otherwise (what do I know about cover art?).
These criticisms should not take away from the fact that this book is an excellent piece of scholarship, one that can benefit not just the history buff but everyone in the church.
In short, Visions of Restoration is a bargain — in money, time, and effort — for anyone who could benefit from learning of the history of the Churches of Christ. John Young has done the hard work for you. He has provided a concise, thorough history of the Churches of Christ that is easy to read and that can be read very quickly.
For individual study, it serves as both an excellent overview and a guide to the main resources for further study. And the book is great for Sunday School classes and Wednesday night classes—each chapter is short and light, it moves along well, and it is student- and teacher-friendly.
I highly recommend Visions of Restoration to anyone interested in the Churches of Christ.
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Sources and Notes
Visions of Restoration: The History of Churches of Christ, Florence, AL: Cypress Publications (2019).
Link to the book page at Heritage Christian University site is here: Visions of Restoration.
As somewhat of a disclaimer, I know John Young personally. We met through some Churches of Christ theology online groups and through the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference group. On top of being a good writer and very smart, John is a nice guy.
John cites one of my articles from 2018 in his book.
Here is a few sources on reading lists / bibliographies for Churches of Christ history:
The picture is of my copy of Visions of Restoration: The History of Churches of Christ, Florence, AL: Cypress Publications (2019).