Spiritual Writing in the Stone-Campbell Movement

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If the Bible is the devotional book of Protestants, it was especially the sole devotional literature of the early Stone-Campbell Movement. The four founders—Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton W. Stone—all shared the typical piety of a Puritan and Presbyterian background as shaped by the Enlightenment emphasis on reason. For example, on the one hand Alexander Campbell could praise the Bible as a book of facts, but in his personal and family devotions also rhapsodized concerning the pleasures of worship and prayer.

Since the Bible was the book of devotion, none of the four founders wrote or used other devotional literature. However, the articles Barton W. Stone wrote in the Christian Messenger during the last ten years of his life come close to devotional literature. In them, he displays a warm piety concerned with the direct presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.

If not Stone, then the first early leader to produce devotional writings was Robert Richardson. His communion meditations published first in the Millennial Harbinger were later collected in book form as Communings in the Sanctuary, the first devotional classic in the Stone-Campbell Movement. Although he speaks of contemplating the mystery of God, a theme common in mystical theology, Richardson does not reveal the sources of his thought, whether he was influenced by earlier Christian devotional works or by Scripture alone.

More typical of second generation leaders is another series of articles written for the Millennial Harbinger, later published as Treatise on Prayer by Robert Milligan. Milligan relies on Scripture as his only source of meditation on prayer. That sole reliance on the Bible is reflected in a series of sermons on prayer in book form, The Life of Trust by Ashley S. Johnson, and in Benjamin Franklin’s sermon on prayer in The Gospel Preacher, Volume II.

In 2008, I undertook a project to gather devotional thoughts from leaders in the first hundred years of the Stone-Campbell Movement. This resulted in Daily Disciple: A One-Year Devotional Guide (Leafwood Press, 2008).

Perhaps the first writer in the Movement who explicitly uses devotional literature from earlier sources is James H. Garrison (1842-1931) in his book Alone With God. In that work, he quotes or adapts the writings of Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), the Book of Common Prayer, and his contemporaries Lyman Abbott (1835-1922), Austin Phelps (1820-1890), William Landels (1823-1899), and Elizabeth Sewell (1815-1906). Scripture and hymns are his favorite sources.

About the time of the division between Disciples and Churches of Christ, Disciple writers began to reflect their liberal theology in their approach to devotion writing. W.E. Garrison (1874-1969) and Edward Scribner Ames (1870-1955) agree that Christianity is based on experience, but not on a mystical experience that brings knowledge of God. They have a pragmatic spirituality, not a mystical one.

By contrast, Peter Ainslie in his book, God and Me, quotes from Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, Ambrose, and Lancelot Andrews to make the case for Bible study that leads to a deeper experience of fellowship with the Divine. Frederick Kershner, in a series of article in the Christian Evangelist goes farther by saying it is the neglect of mysticism that has been the greatest weakness in Disciple theology and practice. He calls for a direct consciousness of the reality of the spiritual world. During the twentieth century, most devotional writing among the Disciples was published in the Christian-Evangelist, that later became the Christian and then the Disciple. Daily devotion guides, such as The Secret Place and recent publications like Partners in Prayer and Fellowship of Prayer from the Christian Board of Publication find use among the Disciples.

Among Churches of Christ, there were no book-length devotional works published in the first half of the twentieth century, although there were articles on prayer and family devotions in the Gospel Advocate and in the Firm Foundation. From 1950 to 1990, there were a few devotional books such as The Minister’s Spiritual Life by E.W. McMillan (1959), Prayer and Fasting by Albert Lemmons (1978), along with a series of books from Leroy Brownlow, whose publishing company (founded in 1959) has been the most prolific source of devotional material in Churches of Christ.

As with the Disciples, most devotional material among Churches of Christ has appeared in periodicals such as Twentieth Century Christian (Twenty-first Century Christian since 1990), Christian Woman, Christian Bible Teacher, Image, and Wineskins (New Wineskins since 2001). Of particular importance is the daily devotional guide, Power for Today, published since 1955 with almost 47,000 subscribers by 2002. Until recently, Church of Christ devotional material used the Bible as its only source and reflected the early Disciple rejection of mystical theology.

Among Christian Churches and Churches of Christ the story is similar. There are a few book-length volumes on prayer, but most devotional writing is published in periodicals, particularly the Christian Standard.

Why has there been so little devotional literature published by the Movement? Primarily because of our theological rationalism that caused us to judge the larger Christian spiritual tradition solely by its excesses. The liberalism and pragmatism of the Disciples fed that prejudice against mysticism. The rational biblical conservatism among Churches of Christ and Christian Churches led them to do the same. Ironically, what all three branches have in common is a willingness to use devotional literature from contemporary Christians outside the movement. The ecumenical impulse led Disciples to those sources. Among Churches of Christ, it has been common to accept “denominational” devotional literature as valuable, since it does not contain “doctrine.”

All three branches of the movement now are more aware of the importance of spiritual formation and open to the rich resources available in the devotional writings of Christians throughout the ages. Those writings as well as a continued emphasis on the devotional power of the Bible serve as the foundation of recent works by Disciples such as William O. Paulsell and Bonnie Bowman Thurston. By contrast, the best-selling works of Church of Christ minister Max Lucado are almost exclusively reflections on Scripture. Recent publications on spirituality by members of Churches of Christ include the Meditative Commentary series and Living God’s Love: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (2004) by Gary Holloway and Earl Lavender, Pilgrim Heart (2006) by Darryl Tippens, and several works by Randy Harris and Greg Taylor (all from Leafwood Publishers).

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