From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley – The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ (Part 2)

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These articles by Leonard Allen are essential reading for Churches of Christ and broader Christianity as well. If you haven’t read part 1 you can find it here. Thank you for reading! – Matt Dabbs

From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley

The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ

Part 2, Alexander Campbell and the Spirit’s Word

By Leonard Allen

Alexander Campbell and the Spirit’s Word

If Barton Stone supported revivals, Alexander Campbell abhorred them. If Stone was a “new light” Presbyterian, Alexander was an “old light.” He was disgusted by the emotionalism he witnessed and read about in revivals. Campbell’s Millennial Harbinger contains over 1600 pages on the Holy Spirit, much of it opposing what he termed “spiritual influences” in conversion. He believed that the dominant Protestant view of conversion ran roughshod over biblical teaching, opened the door to spiritual delusions, and discredited the gospel to people of reason. So he sought to minimize conversion and sanctification as “experiences” and to emphasize their intellectual, volitional character.

Facts, testimony, faith, feeling, and moral action, he insisted, constitute the strict order of the “ancient gospel,” and there could be “no exception, [any]more than against the universality of the laws of gravity.”[i] People caught up in the distress and uncertainty of the revivalist pattern of conversion could bypass all the emotional paraphernalia of revivalism and use their own common sense to examine the factual testimony of Scripture, believe it, promptly “obey the gospel” (be baptized), and immediately receive the full assurance of salvation. The “ancient gospel” did not require a person to become “a desponding, trembling infidel before he can become a believer.” No “insensible operation of the Holy Spirit” is needed; all that is needed is Scripture’s factual testimony to Jesus the Messiah.[ii]

This focus was effective with many people bypassed by the revival fires. Many thousands found relief in this simple, rational path to salvation.

In arguing this case, Alexander placed tight strictures on divine agency in the world. God’s power to affect people, he said many times, is “all contained in [revealed] words.” The Bible already “contains all the arguments which can be offered to reconcile man to God, and to purify them who are reconciled,” and therefore “all the power of the Holy Spirit which can operate on the human mind is spent.” To be filled with the Spirit thus meant little more than having the words and arguments of the Bible in one’s mind. Thus the basic difference between the “natural man” and the “spiritual man” was that the first possessed only the five senses as an avenue to knowledge, while the second possessed the Bible in addition. And in regard to prayer’s petitions, one must not expect that “the laws of nature are to be changed, suspended, or new-modified, or that we are to become the subjects of any supernatural aid in obtaining these things.”[iii]

Campbell’s theology quickly eclipsed Stone’s beginning in the 1820s and especially after the two movements united in 1832. Campbell didn’t mean to remove the Spirit entirely from the post-conversion life of Christians. But in the long trajectory he created that was a strong effect.

Crossroads: Robert Richardson and Tolbert Fanning

Beginning in the 1840s Campbell’s younger colleague and friend, Robert Richardson, expressed this very concern. Limiting the Spirit’s influence to the Bible alone, he said, “degrades the Bible by placing it in a false position, and ascribing to it exclusive power and attributes which it never claims for itself.” In 1843 he urged Mr. Campbell not to defend (in his upcoming debate with N. L. Rice) the proposition that “in conversion and sanctification the Spirit works only through the word of truth.” But Campbell did defend it.

Fourteen years later, after many years of mounting concern, Richardson took on Tolbert Fanning, editor of the Gospel Advocate, over the matter of the Spirit and the Christian life. Since Richardson could not or would not take on Campbell directly, he chose Fanning as a kind of stand-in since Fanning had embraced Campbell’s “Word only” stance with a vengeance. They went back and forth in a long series of articles. Such a view of the Spirit, Richardson stated, strikes at the heart of Christian faith, distorting its nature, sapping it power, and diminishing its enjoyment. Because it “constantly seeks to resolve everything into . . . mere words,” the effect of this doctrine is “to unfit men’s minds to receive anything that is not merely outward and formal,” and thus it is “naturally and directly antagonistic to everything spiritual in religion.”[iv] The practical effect is spiritual debilitation.

The issue at stake between Richardson and Fanning (and Campbell) was precisely this: Does the Spirit guide, comfort, empower, and sustain Christians through means other than biblical words? Fanning said no. Campbell said no most of the time. Richardson said yes and amen.

I have argued that this 1857 exchange represents a kind of crossroads in the history of Churches of Christ.[v] Fanning’s way became overwhelmingly dominant, especially in the early twentieth century. Richardson’s way became a minor path, soon mostly forgotten.

The Nashville Bible School Tradition

Before the Campbell-Fanning doctrine of the Spirit triumphed, however, there was the “Nashville Bible School tradition” led principally by James A. Harding and David Lipscomb. This school of thought in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century was centered around the Nashville Bible School and the Potter Bible School in Kentucky led by Lipscomb and Harding. Younger leaders included J. N. Armstrong, R. H. Boll, and J. W. Shepard. It was focused on a dynamic vision of God’s inbreaking kingdom which one day would fill the earth. It called for a countercultural lifestyle, for dependence upon God’s “miraculous” providence and indwelling Spirit, for the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and caring for the poor, and for disciples to back away from patriotism which was often idolatrous.[vi]

            James Harding believed that the Holy Spirit was a vital and active presence in the life of Christians. We hunger for intimacy with God and for deep transformation, and it is through the Spirit within us that we experience adoption as God’s beloved children and the new and transformed life. The Spirit helps our infirmities. “A book cannot pray or groan” on our behalf; only the Spirit can do that. ”I am as far as the East is from the West,” said Harding, “from believing that neither God, Christ, nor the Holy Spirit can help us except by talking to us.”[vii]

A man named J. C. Holloway, a physician, evangelist, and editor in Indiana, declared war on Harding’s view that the Spirit was a vital and active presence in the life of Christians. Holloway stood in the lineage of Campbell and Fanning. Holloway’s central proposition was that “no man today is led or influenced by the Holy Spirit” or “indwelled by the Holy Spirit as an entity.” “Since revelation was completed, the Spirit works through, in and by the Word as the only medium”; so to “quench the Spirit today is to sneer at the Holy Scriptures” by claiming that some other power beyond the written Word is needed.[viii]

Harding, in response, charged that Holloway was advocating a form of deism. He wrote: “I feel sorry for those who are afflicted by these dreadful, blighting, and semi-infidel materialistic notions, that leave God, Christ, the Holy Spirit . . . wholly out of the Christian’s life—for those who think all spiritual beings left us when the Bible was finished, and who think that we now have to fight the battle alone.” Harding thought Holloway’s was a deadly doctrine: “I do not know any doctrine taught by any of the Protestant sectarian bodies that is more flatly contradictory of the general tenor of Scripture, that is a more blighting, withering, deadly curse to those who believe it.”[ix]

Harding’s charisma combined with his passionate advocacy of a robust doctrine of God’s providence and God’s active Spirit exerted considerable influence, especially between 1890 and 1917. His health began failing in 1912 and he died in 1922. The NBS tradition was quickly eclipsed—and increasingly judged heretical by leaders in Churches of Christ. By 1930 or so Holloway’s (and Fanning’s and Campbell’s) view of the Spirit had triumphed—though Harding’s position remained an “underground” minority view. Next month I will focus on the triumph of the “Word only” view of the Spirit.

[i] Alexander Campbell, “The Confirmation of the Testimony,” Millennial Harbinger 1 (January 1830), 9.

[ii] Barton Stone, for whom Cane Ridge remained a high point of his life, believed that something was missing from Campbell’s pattern of conversion. After he had witnessed this rational, quick, and orderly pattern of conversion at work for fifteen or twenty years, Stone expressed concerns. He had no doubt that, for believers who languished under conviction of sin, the call simply to “obey the gospel” upon a profession of faith was a great balm. It had opened the door to gospel assurance and peace for them. But he believed that it also had short-circuited the process of repentance and swept people into the church who had not experienced deep sorrow for sin and true heart change. The result, he thought, was a widespread spirit of coldness and nominalism in the churches.

[iii] Alexander Campbell, “Dialogue on the Holy Spirit—Part 1,” Millennial Harbinger 2 (July 4, 1831): 295, 296; “Dialogue on the Holy Spirit—Part 2,” Millennial Harbinger 2 (August 1831): 369; “Incidents on a Tour to Nashville, TN. No. 1,” Millennial Harbinger 1 (December 6, 1830): 560; “Prayer—No. 1,” Millennial Harbinger 2 (October 1831): 471.

[iv] Richardson, “Faith vs Philosophy—No 5,” MH (1857), 329. For a full treatment of this episode, see Leonard Allen, “Unearthing the ‘Dirt Philosophy’: Baconianism, Faith, and the Spirit,” in Things Unseen: Churches of Christ in (and after) the Modern Age (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2004), 71-98.

[v] See Leonard Allen (with Danny Swick), Participating in God’s Life: Two Crossroads for Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2003).

[vi] See John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2006). Hicks should be credited with identifying and naming the Nashville Bible School tradition.

[vii] James Harding, “How Does God Help His People,” Christian Leader and the Way (February 6, 1906), 9.

[viii] J. C. Holloway, Christian Leader and the Way (May 1905), 1; Holloway, The Spirit and the Word (1905), 23. Cited by Hicks and Valentine, Kingdom Come,

[ix] Christian Leader and the Way (June 19, 1906), 9; CLW (January 1905), 8.

You can read Part 1 here

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