Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Sectional Origins of the Churches of Christ

I want you to know the name David Edwin Harrell, Jr. He is arguably the premier historian of the Stone-Campbell Movement. His work focuses on what Disciples thought and did on social subjects, unlike most Disciple histories which examine our theological convictions. In 1964, his article, The Sectional Origins of the Churches of Christ, appeared in The Journal of Southern History. An abridged version of the articles was subsequently published in Mission Journal in 1980. Here's how the latter begins:

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Churches of Christ from their beginning has been the marked sectional distribution of the membership. According to the 1906 religious census, 101,734 of the churches 159,658 members lived in the eleven former states of the Confederacy. Another 30,206 lived in the four border states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, and Oklahoma. The only state north of the Ohio River to have a membership of over 5,000 was Indiana. . . .

These statistics are even more striking when compared with the membership distribution of the more liberal wing of the movement, that listed in the 1906 census as the Disciples of Christ. Only 138,703 of the total Disciples' membership of nearly a million lived in the eleven southern states. Excluding Virginia and North Carolina, where the liberal Disciples won virtually all of the churches, the group had a total membership of only 99,233 in the remaining nine states. . . .

The sectional bifurcation of the Disciples of Christ - using the name to refer to the whole movement - is one of the most vivid American examples of the bending of the Christian ethos to fit the presuppositions of the community. All of the complex antagonisms in nineteenth-century America society - North and South, East and West, urban and rural, affluent and dispossessed - left their marks on the theology and institutional development of the group. Schism was a result of differences far more complex than doctrinal disagreement - far more than the simple statement that "the 'Christian Churches'. . . took their instruments and their missionary society and walked a new course.". . . The obvious fact that the Churches of Christ are sectional (and, for that matter, so is the Northern-oriented Disciples church) leads to the obvious question: What are the sectional origins of the group?

If denominational identity matters, Harrell's question is well worth pondering. We'll do that in our next post.

Note: A copy of Harrell's complete article can be obtained from JSTOR.

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