Church Cooperation: An Historical Perspective

By Wayne Goforth

It has been argued by our institutional friends that “no one believed the things presently taught by the anti movement prior to the 1950’s.” Thomas B. Warren states this in his “Lectures on Church Cooperation” as well as did Bill Jackson in his lecture on “The Challenge of Anti-ism.” Unfortunately I have heard sound brethren claim, “No one believed or practiced the things the liberals now do before the ’50’s.” The truth, as it tends to be, is between these two claims. There were those who believe both sides of the issues from the earliest days of the restoration. While we realize that these men were not God, it is nonetheless interesting to notice how old and how serious the question of cooperation is.

As early as 1831 Walter Scott, Alexander Campbell and others met to discuss Cooperation. This would be a hot topic of discussion for another twenty years. Campbell believed that since the Bible is silent as to the cooperation of churches, that we are free to devise any means to so do and place it in the heavy laden basket of expediencies. Not all of the early restorationists were in agreement with Campbell. This belief of Campbell later led him to advocate the missionary societies using the same arguments. Campbell could see little or no difference between the church local and the church universal and thus he sought to engage all local congregations in single works and thus enact the church universal. He believed the church universal was made up of all the local congregations rather than all the saved, and most questions of the issues result from this misunderstanding to this day. By 1849 he called for a “more efficient” means of cooperating by having delegates from every congregation attend a general convention. This was soon to develop into the societies. It is to be realized that most who were against the use of the instrument at that time were for the society, and most who were anti society were for the instrument. Thus a battle soon ensued. T.M. Henley criticized the society and offered an alternative:

When any church wishes to send out an evangelist, and is unable to sustain him in the field, she may invite her sister congregations to cooperate with her.

He thus became the first to advocate the overseeing church arrangement of mission work. David Lipscomb was also against the type of cooperation advocated by Henley Lipscomb believed the sponsoring church was too big and resembled the society too much. This plan would be rejected for a while in favor of the society until 1866. Ben Franklin attacked the society in his American Christian Review, at which time the society temporarily condescended to the “Louisville Plan.” This form of sponsoring church cooperation would also be attacked by Franklin in another year. Those few, such as Franklin, who were against both the instrument and the society were also against the church using any human institution to carry out the work of the church. Those early opposed to institutionalism included Tolbert Fanning, Jacob Creath, Franklin as mentioned, and others. It was realized that the same arguments used on the behalf of those advocating the society were the same ones used for those advocating institutionalism, that is, the all-sufficiency of the church and the question of authority and silence of the Scriptures which has remained the real question over the years. The real question was not then nor is it now simply just to use societies or other human institutions, it is a much deeper question, that concerning our attitude of the authority of the Scriptures.

In 1855, Fanning established the Gospel Advocate to deal with both sides of the question of cooperation. Fanning wrote:

In establishing the Gospel Advocate, I determine to give the subject of cooperation a thorough examination. I do not pretend to say how it has been wrought about, but I have for years believed that a change must take place in our views of cooperation. . .

These early preachers placed much emphasis upon education. Many a liberal preacher has pointed this out to attempt to show that the church supported institutions even during those years of the restoration, and that this shows that the church in this period practiced the church support of human institutions, and thus cooperated in this manner. Even if this were the case, it would not prove the practice to be scriptural. Yes many schools and colleges were established during those years, but were viewed as an adjunct of the home and not the church. By 1831 P.S. Fall established a girls school. Campbell established Buffalo Seminary in 1818, and Bethany College opened its doors in 1841. Many well known preachers were on the board and taught in this enterprise. Robert Richardson and Jacob Creath were two examples of such. Remember that we have already stated that Jacob Creath was set against the church support of human institutions! Campbell himself had donated the land for the school, and individual contributions of endowments were promised along with the standard tuition fees. In fact, when Campbell opposed Burnet’s suggestion for a Bible society, Burnet reminded Campbell that he had already established one institution, Bethany College. Campbell told Burnet that the natures of the two institutions were altogether different. The college was a private institution, established with private funds, whereas the Bible society was a brotherhood work supported by a church treasury. Thus we cannot find the church in this period cooperating in the support of “Christian colleges.”


One wonders what possible arguments against the missionary societies our institutional friends have to offer, seeing the two arguments used in its behalf, it is doing the churches work and it is an expediency, are the same as the liberals use in the support of their institutions and overseeing method of mission work. Though these men were not inspired, the early leaders who stood against both the society and the instrument were also against the church support of any human institution. These brethren did at least seek to be consistent.

Guardian of Truth XXX: 24, p. 754
December 18, 1986