John Young, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alabama, has penned a small volume for use in a small group or Bible class setting titled Visions of Restoration: The History of the Churches of Christ (111 pgs). There are thirteen chapters, each followed by questions for discussion. There is a useful appendix of suggested readings and an index. There is a Forward by Edward J. Robinson
John Young believes that church history is not a matter of trivia but plays a role in our spiritual formation as Christians. God’s people have both a “sacred” history that flows from the biblical writings. At the same time they also have a “profane” history that tells the story of how God’s people exist and live within any given time and culture. Affirming the latter does not negate the former.
Visions of Restoration is a brief tale of competing understandings of “restoration” flowing out of the Stone-Campbell Movement and how those visions have been expressed in 20th century Churches of Christ. Young moves the story forward chronologically but with a thematic framework. So we learn there were “Big Four” personalities that function sort of like a foundation to our profane history. We learn that arguments over doctrinal matters were often not mere matters of biblical exegesis but were exacerbated by political, economic and even racial tensions. The Civil War and the resulting national division along the Mason-Dixon Line was mirrored in the life of God’s people in the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Young introduces the reader, very briefly, to names like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, James A. Garfield, G. P. Bowser and Selina Holman. We learn that the movement was diverse and yet was able to remain united through much of the 19th century.
Within the 20th century controversies in Churches of Christ, Young rightly stresses how Foy Wallace set a pattern for how we fought and marked one another in divisions following the Boll controversy. And he is genuinely insightful when he notes that Black Churches of Christ have functioned like a “movement-within-the-movement” (p.92).
Visions of Restoration is concise and very readable. The new reader is not overwhelmed with details in the story of our profane history. Conciseness is a strength of the book.
The strength of Visions is also its weakness. The reader of the book learns very little of what the “Big Four” thought they were doing, when they did it. We learn nothing of how they were scandalized by the division among Christians. There is neither reference to, nor an echo of, the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery or the Declaration and Address. There is no discussion of what restoration meant: was it a way to rediscover the one true church that had been lost or was it a means to find common ground among those regarded as genuine Christians already. There are hints that Stone’s followers and Campbell’s differed but the reader that does not bring that knowledge to the story will not learn what those differences are in this book.
A few details are confusing. Why is the Jesse B. Ferguson episode told before John Thomas? Indeed in a book like Visions, the Ferguson episode could easily be left out. And is it accurate that women like Nancy Cram and Selina Holman would have justified their actions by “expressing the belief that no person had the right to prevent them from using their God-given talents” (p.98) or would they have given what they believed to be the biblical rational for their perspectives?
Apart from these minor caveats, I think John Young has accomplished the goal of showing that we do indeed have a profane history as God’s people. Knowing that history can cultivate many Spiritual blessings among us: notably humility before God and one another, patience and graciousness with one another; and recognizing that just like the giants of yesteryear we too operate in an unseen matrix of social forces that influence us even as we are unaware.