By Mike Willis
The apostasy of the Christian Church can be studied from the standpoint of the American Christian Missionary Society and the use of mechanical instruments of music in the worship of the church. These were but symptoms of a liberal mindset that had developed in the people. This mindset is reflected in the papers that were circulated among brethren.
Among the conservatives of that day, the American Christian Review, edited by Benjamin Franklin, was the most popular. To the liberals, this paper was unacceptable. The following two accounts of the founding of the Christian Standard, a paper that still has wide circulation among the Christian Church, reflect the change in mindsets that developed among brethren. It is instructive for us to read this material so that we can identify the development of a liberal mindset among us today. The two accounts are taken from two different authors and persepectives. The first is from J.S. Lamar’s two volume work entitled Memoirs of Isaac Errett, a sympathetic account of his life’s work. Errett was the first editor of the Christian Standard. The second account of the midset that called for the creation of the Christian Standard is taken from Earl West’s Search For the Ancient Order, reflecting a more conservative assessment of the changes occurring among brethren. Later, a third description of the liberal mindset from the pen of Moses E. Lard, editor of Lard’s Quarterly, is given.
Note the description of the need for a new paper by J.S. Lamar:
The story of the founding of the Christian Standard is known to very few, and it will be read with interest. It became such a power for good; its influence was so conservative and so elevating; in matter, in tone, in spirit, it was so admirable; and continuing to this day to be recognized as one of the ablest and most influential of the religious journals of America every one will be glad to know its origin and early history. Moreover, it was through this great channel that, for the rest of his life, Mr. Errett poured forth the fullness of his vast intellectual and spiritual resources — gladdening and blessing hundreds of thousands wherever the English language is spoken.
As we have more than once pointed out, such a paper was repeatedly called for. The best, the wisest, the purest Disciples, all over the land, deeply felt the need of it. It is true, the Millennial Harbinger, now edited by Prof. Pendleton, was most ably conducted, and was always freighted with matter that commanded the thoughtful attention of the more intelligent and influential brethren. But it was a monthly, and most of its contents were of a character that would have graced a quarterly — deep, learned, weighty — and hence not well suited to the popular taste. There were several weeklies also, among them the Review and the Gospel Advocate, but these were not satisfactory. They were regarded as being narrow in their views on Scriptural truth, essentially sectarian in spirit, and, in many respects, hurtful rather than helpful to the great cause which they assumed to represent. I would say nothing here derogatory of the editors of these papers. They represented and fostered that unfortunate type of discipleship to which allusion was made in, a previous chapter — a type with which the leading minds among the brotherhood could have no sympathy. We may credit these writers with sincerity and honesty, but we can not read many of their productions without feeling that we are breathing an unwholesome religious atmosphere. They seem to infuse an unlovely and earth-born spirit, which they clothe, nevertheless, in the garb of the divine letter, and enforce with cold, legalistic and crushing power. The great truth for whose defense the disciples are set, demanded a wiser, sweeter, better advocacy — an advocacy that should exhibit the apostolic spirit as well as the apostolic letter (I:299-301).
The Christian Standard went through some difficult times in its beginning. Lamar explained these difficulties as follows:
The “Standard” had not yet, in 1867, become self- supporting. Certainly it had, for a new enterprise, a fair circulation, and its subscribers were more than pleased with it. In every sense of the word, it was an excellent periodical — strong, versatile, wide-awake, abreast with the times, its editor thoroughly well informed, not only in theology and religious literature, but in the current questions of the day. His corps of correspondents and contributors were intelligent and able, adding largely to the interest and variety of every issue. In short, it was a paper that gave pride and pleasure to its patrons. They felt that it represented all that best and worthiest in the great cause of restoration, advocating and defending the doctrine of the Disciples with dignity and courtesy, and setting forth their great plea with delightful clearness of statement and uniform strength of argument.
Still, the brotherhood as a whole had not, at this time, been educated up to this high standard. Their leading weekly, before the appearance of Mr. Errett’s paper, was the “American Christian Review,” edited by B. Franklin, of Cincinnati — which, though in some respects strong and influential, was run on a lower plane, and catered to a lower taste. Its readers, therefore, missed in the “Standard” the tone to which they had become accustomed, and that slugging sort of belligerency which had been weekly exhibited for their delectation and applause. Many, consequently, who most needed the blessed influence of Mr. Errett’s gentler and sweeter spirit, had to be trained and schooled to appreciate it. This was necessarily a slow work. It required time and patience. Men had to grow to a loftier stature; their finer sensibilities had to be cultivated, and their “senses exercised,” before they were capable of discerning the essential excellence and incomparable superiority of the “Standard.” When we add the influence of secret and unworthy efforts of rivals and others to forestall its popularity, and to prejudice the public mind against it, we are not surprised to learn that, though its patronage increased steadily, it increased slowly (I:333-334).
The liberal mindset was also reflected in what was wanted in the pulpit. Lamar continues:
. . . Among the more spiritually minded there had grown up longings for the attainment of a higher life, and ear- nest desires that the work and worship of the church might be so directed as to be more helpful towards this end. It was felt that a new era had dawned: the past was not to be reproduced; the old time sermons, so valuable and necessary in their day, had lost their original flavor, and had ceased to be interesting. All the ordering and exercises of the Lord’s house called for a change, at least in tone and spirit; and yet it was not readily apparent in what particulars this change was called for. Something was wanting — in almost every phase and aspect of the general subject, there was room for improvement; and Mr. Errett’s wise and well-considered presentation and discussion of these points were welcomed everywhere, and were productive of much good (I:356-357).
The liberal mindset that called for a gentler gospel and more loving presentation reserved its bitterest words to describe those who opposed their innovations. Here was Lamar’s assessment of the Gospel Advocate and American Christian Review’s work:
. . . To enable the reader to appreciate the situation, it should be stated here that the Disciples were a free people. They called no man master. They were bound by no dictum that could not be clearly supported by the Word of God. Even the utterances of the greatest names among them, their chosen and honored leaders, were freely brought to the standard and test of the Scriptures. These alone were authoritative, and these were final. But it is easy to see that, with such postulata, men who were imperfectly equipped, or who were ambitious for place and power, might plausibly, and sometimes unintentionally, pervert the Scriptures from their legitimate purpose, using them as a sort of compelling force, as though man were to be driven rather than drawn to Christ. This, in fact, was done, it could not fail to lead to harshness and bigotry in the advocacy of truth itself, degrading it into a mere partisan badge, and exciting intense and bitter opposition. Those who caught this dogmatic (not to say Pharisaic) spirit began to assume that they were par excellence the friends of the truth and the representatives of the cause; and if any man failed to fall into line and follow this lead, he was looked upon with suspicion, and perhaps held up before the public as being tired of “the good old way.” Now this evil and ruinous perversion of the Disciples’ true position was as yet just beginning to manifest. It was in the bud — it might possibly be nipped. While the great masses of the brotherhood felt that something was wrong, they were not able to detect it. They were faithful in heart to God and his Word, and yet somehow that Word had seemed of late to lose it loveliness to them. As it came from many pulpits, the gospel itself appeared to be clothed in the habiliments of a stern and harsh and inflexible Mosaism (I:193-194).
The Search for the Ancient Order
The second assessment of this development of the new mindset among the disciples comes from Earl I. West, author of the four volume work, The Search for the Ancient Order. Brother West is writing from the more conservative perspective of the churches of Christ, although he committed himself to institutionalism, the sponsoring church, and church fellowship halls in the late 1960s. Despite the developments of liberalism in his own fellowship, he never made a decision to disassociate himself from that fellowship. His assessment of the change in mindset that resulted in the publication of the Christian Standard is given below:
But why was the Christian Standard established? Was there a particular need for the paper? That certain brethren felt there was a need for the paper is obvious else it never should have been started. But as to what that need was is a different question. Lamar pointed out the inadequacy of the currently published religious papers. He writes:
There were several weeklies also, among them the Review and the Gospel Advocate, but these were not satisfactory. They were regarded as being narrow in their views on Scriptural truth, essentially sectarian in spirit, and, in many respects, hurtful rather than helpful to the great cause which they assumed to represent. I would say nothing here derogatory of the editors of these papers. They represented and fostered that unfortunate type of discipleship to which allusion was made in, a previous chapter — a type with which the leading minds among the, brotherhood could have no sympathy. We may credit these writers with sincerity and honesty, but we cannot read many of their productions without feeling that we are breathing an unwholesome religious atmosphere. They seem to infuse an unlovely and earth-born spirit, which they clothe, nevertheless, in the garb of the divine letter, and enforce with cold, legalistic and crushing power. The great truth for whose defense the disciples are set, demanded a wiser, sweeter, better advocacy — an advocacy that should exhibit the apostolic spirit as well as the apostolic letter.
Thus Lamar assures the reader that the Christian Standard was needed because the Gospel Advocate and the American Christian Review were edited by men of “unlovely and earth-born spirits” who were cold, and legalistic. Now the fiction in this is easily discernible. Plans for starting the Standard were under way by 1864. The Gospel Advocate had appeared as a small, monthly paper from 1855 to 1861, having ceased because of the war. The first issue of the Advocate as a weekly did not appear until January, 1866. In April that year Isaac Errett wrote to David Lipscomb requesting back copies of the Advocate saying he had not yet seen an issue of it. Yet this paper which Errett had not seen was the occasion for starting the Standard. To state that brethren were influenced to establish the Standard because of the “earth-born spirit” of the Advocate but betrays the prejudice Lamar felt and shows the undying contempt in which he held the Advocate. This is the element to which Bittle referred when he accused Lamar of resorting to imagination — not to facts.
The American Christian Review was being printed as a weekly before this time by Ben Franklin. It was widely received: indeed, it was the most popular paper in the brotherhood, and it was this fact that worried an element of prominent men in the brotherhood. Franklin, on almost all issues before the church, stood opposed to Errett, Pendleton, and preachers of kindred thought. The editor of the Review, they considered “narrow” and “bigoted.” Knowing Franklin’s popularity with the majority of the brethren, it was their constant fear that Franklin’s “narrowness” would fasten itself upon the brotherhood, and prevent the restoration movement from following along more “liberal,” “progressive” lines. No person can go back to the study of this period and fail to see that the chief reason for the establishment of the Christian Standard was to kill the Review, and lead the brotherhood away from Franklin’s influence into these more liberal channels (The Search for the Ancient Order II:29-30).
Brother West’s assessment of why the Christian Standard was formed is succinct: “The plain truth of the matter is that Ben Franklin was the man of the people. There were a few men with both money and position who disliked Ben Franklin’s close adherence to the scriptures, and who were determined to sell the church over to their liberal ideas” (II:35). These men were determined to kill the influence of Benjamin Franklin and the American Christian Review (II:32).
The spirit of liberalism divided the church, taking with it those who thought that the church must make adjustments in its preaching and work to accommodate itself to the changing times in which those men lived. The concept of a pattern for the church was too legalistic for their palate. The sermons preached by a former generation were not suited for the new age in which those in the late 1800s were living. This liberal mindset developed into the Christian Church.
Moses E. Lard — Warning Those Who Would Hear
A third voice to give his assessment of the liberal mindset that developed into the Christian Church comes from Moses E. Lard, editor of Lard’s Quarterly. Lard lived during the time these changes were coming and wrote to warn brethren of the change in mindset in an article entitled, “The Work of the Past — The Symptoms of the Future.” He introduced his article as follows:
The prudent man, who has the care of a family, watches well the first symptoms of disease. He does not wait till his wife is helpless, and his children prostrated. He has learned that early cures are easy cures, while late ones often fail. On this experience he resolutely acts, and the world applauds his wisdom. Why should not the same judicious policy be acted upon in the weighty matters of religion? All must say it should (II:251).
After assessing the unique position of the Lord’s people in reference to several matters, Lard warned brethren of a change in attitude toward the need for vigilant examination of false doctrines. He said, “As long as error is possible, investigation should be free” (II:257). He then described some “ill-omened symptoms in our ranks.” One of the developments he decried was this: “Effeminate sentimentalism, and a diluted, licentious charity, are the carbonic acid gas of the kingdom of Christ. No soul can live in them or with them. The truth itself dies under their blight, while the church grows cadaverous and lean. Sound men in the pulpit, sound men at the press, sound men in the field, with hearty elementary teaching and preaching — these are what we now need; and what, by the Lord’s blessing, we must have” (II:258). What kind of preaching did Lard have in mind which he described as “effeminate sentimentalism”? Is he describing that kind of preaching that is full of stories and anecdotes that warm our hearts, but has scarcely any Scripture in it? Note his assessment of its effects on churches: “No soul can live in them or with them. The truth itself dies under their blight, while the church grows cadaverous and lean.”
He also lamented the following: “neither do we want men who erect their morbid sympathies into a standard by which to pronounce their brethren heretics, and the sprinkled sects around us saints” (II:258). Apparently some were so enamored by the denominations around them that they could refer to them in glowing terms, but only had reproach for their brethren who opposed denominationalism.
Lard was concerned about a unity-in-diversity attitude that developed toward using mechanical in the churches. He wrote:
. . . Editors and preachers may write and preach against organs till the last trump shall sound, but while they countenance the churches in which they stand, visit them, and suffer the machines to be cracked over their heads, they are but whistling idly in the air. There is but one way to cure the spirit in question — crush it. When a church learns that no preacher will set foot within its doors while it holds an organ; when it sees that its members are abandoning it; that it is fast coming to naught; and that unless it gives up its unholy innovation it is destined to ruin — then will it kick out its organ, not before (II:260).
Lard also described the “spirit of innovation” in his day.
The spirit of innovation is a peculiar spirit. While coming in it is the meekest and gentlest of spirits; only it is marvelously firm and persistent. But when going out, no term but fiendish will describe it. It comes in humming the sweetest notes of Zion; it goes out amid the ruin it works, howling like an exorcised demon. At first it is supple as a willow twig; you can bend it, mould it, shape it, to anything; only it will have its way. But when once it has fully got its way, then mark how it keeps its footing. It now calls for reason, for argument, for Scripture; but no more has it an ear for reason, argument, or Scripture than has the image of Baal. Argue with the spirit of innovation indeed! I would as soon be caught cracking syllogisms over the head of the man of sin. Never. Rebuke it in the name of the Lord; if it go not out — expel it. This only will cure it.
I know that I am accused of writing too severely on these matters. It is idle to so accuse me. I cannot change. Others may do as they see fit; but by the Lord’s help I will never tamely submit to these innovations. My whole mind, and soul, and strength shall be spent to check them. It is high time that manful and outspoken voices were lifted against them. They are the insidious leaven of Satan, and, for one, can get no countenance from me. If I go down, if my humble paper goes down, be it so. I am immovable. Defeat with the truth is better than victory with error. Give me the Saviour and a cross rather than the Enemy and a crown.
He is a poor observer of men and things who does not see slowly growing up among us a class of men who can no longer be satisfied with the ancient gospel and the ancient order of things. These men must have changes; and silently they are preparing the mind of the brother- hood to receive changes. Be not deceived, brethren, the Devil is not sleeping. If you refuse to see the danger till ruin is upon you, then it will be too late. The wise seaman catches the first whiff of the distant storm, and adjusts his ship at once. Let us profit by his example.
Let us agree to commune with the sprinkled sects around us, and soon we shall come to recognize them as Christians. Let us agree to recognize them as Christians, and immersion, with its deep significance, is buried in the grave of our folly. Then in not one whit will be better than others. Let us countenance political charlatans as preachers, and we at once become corrupt as the loath- some nest on which Beecher sets to hatch the things he calls Christians. Let us consent to introduce opinions in politics as tests of fellowship, and soon opinions in religion will become so. Then the door of heresy and schism will stand wide open, and the work of ruin will begin. Let agree to admit organs, and soon the pious, the meek, the peace-loving, will abandon us, and our churches will become gay worldly things, literal Noah’s arks, full of clean and unclean beasts (II:261-262).
Are there lessons we can learn from this? Surely we can see that men’s clamoring for a gentler and sweeter presentation of the gospel, a rejection of the “old worn out sermons” of the previous generation, a repudiation of men who defended the cause of Christ as legalistic and Pharisaical, and the desire for a more sophisticated presentation of the gospel in terms more appealing to the age are but symptoms of a liberal mindset. The issues may differ but the end results are the same.