By Ron Halbrook
Our country’s 200th birthday is just around the corner. Two hundred years can look like an eternity to young people but only in the last decade have the last veterans of the War Between the States died. And some of those veterans knew old-timers in their day who could remember the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Looking at it from this standpoint, a person realizes how young our country is. Yet the passing of those veterans in the last decade marked the end of an era, and marked it with utter finality. America’s youth is not perpetual. As she prepares to mark her 200th birthday, much will be said about her birth and the transition to modern times. When man is conscious of moving into new eras, he nearly always looks back to the successes and mistakes, the strengths and weaknesses of former eras.
That is not to say former eras are always seen as they really were. Sometimes they are even twisted and reinterpreted in an effort to justify (or condemn) certain trends in the new era. It is pathetic how little is learned from the past. That old truism is still true: men who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. It is just as true that the strengths and successes of the past are a reservoir of wisdom.
The past cannot tell us what are the true standards of right and wrong. Only divine revelation can do that (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The past can show us the consequences of certain attitudes and actions in regard to divinely revealed standards. That is the correct assumption of a book like Homer Hailey’s Attitudes and Consequences. Thus a consciousness of history with the coming and going of various eras can benefit us . . . if only we will allow ourselves to be benefitted. The interests of man include biology and astronomy. Also, history. Rightly so.
Emphatically I want to say that next to history preserved in the Bible, no history should be more interesting to God’s people than church history. Nor should any be more beneficial. Church history properly includes what has happened in America. That properly includes restoration history, or the Restoration Movement, or the account of the restoration effort, or the story of the Restoration Plea (regardless of whether capital letters or lower case be used in “restoration”).
Well meaning preachers have told me not to spend much time and effort studying the Restoration Movement because “the world needs to hear about Christ, not the Restoration Movement.” The choice need not be either-or . . . as though any effort to understand or tell others about the Restoration Movement precludes preaching Christ. The broad implication is that church history has no proper use. Logically, such preachers should burn every study tool on church history in their libraries-every tool on every period of church history, not just the Restoration period in America–in fact, every book, pamphlet, or paper of any kind on any subject. (After all, “the world needs to hear about Christ, not archaeology, geography, someone’s debate, Barnes’ notes, Cruden’s Concordance, Smith’s Dictionary, Thayer’s lexicon, or Truth Magazine.”) Before someone says, “We would be better off,” we ask, “Will you personally set the example and lead the way???”
A few years ago Brother James R. Cope, President of Florida College, said interest in restoration history had been declining for years to the extent that a college would be hard pressed to offer courses in it if the trend continues. The reason is not that everyone is “spending more time studying Christ and less time studying the restoration;” at the very time Cope said what he did, F.C. was struggling to avoid cutting back its whole upper-division Bible program. Declining interest in church history is just part of a broader pattern. At any rate, ignorance of church history just makes men more vulnerable to repeating mistakes formerly made.
“But some folks make a fetish of the so-called Restoration Movement,” someone says. A thousand amens! The choice is not between knowing the story of Jesus and the story of the restoration effort in America, nor between making a fetish of the Restoration and debunking study of a crucial period in church history (or perhaps debunking all church history, period). The choice is between knowing the strengths and weaknesses of man’s past efforts to serve God and being put at a disadvantage by remaining ignorant of those efforts. We do not claim one cannot reach heaven without a knowledge of church history, but neither are we willing to put a premium on ignorance of it. The choice is between the proper and improper uses of church history. If we must choose between knowing church history and Christ-a hypothetical dilemma-there will be no hesitation in choosing Christ. In reality, we may choose to know both and to keep them in proper relation to each other.
We have said the death of Henry S. Ficklin marks the end of an era in that period of church history called “the Restoration Movement in America.” How so? In the twenty years between 1790 and 1810, a spirit of search and inquiry in the American religious scene produced scattered, concurrent efforts at religious reform. Denominational appellations were dropped for the name “Christian” (sometimes written “Christ-ian”); Protestant creeds were dropped for a fresh study of the scriptures themselves. The authority of humanly-devised governmental structures in religion was dropped for the authority of Christ. These efforts were independent, proceeding at different speeds in different areas, led by: Abner Jones and Elias Smith in New England; James O’Kelly in North Carolina; Barton W. Stone on the Kentucky frontier; Thomas and Alexander Campbell in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and northern Virginia. Within fifteen years, these reforms were being spread in the great Western Reserve by evangelist Walter Scott and were established in Georgia by Christian Herman Dasher. Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others left the corruptions and divisions of their fathers’ houses in search of the purity and unity of their Father’s house.
These independent efforts embraced the same basic solution or premise, however imperfectly they saw all the )mplications thereof at first. Professing servants of Christ should go directly to the Bible as the word of Christ for doctrine, discipline, name, worship, and church government.
When young Alexander Campbell entered the field of religious journalism in 1823, he promised, “The Christian Baptist’ shall espouse the cause of no religious sect, excepting that ancient sect called Christians first at Antioch.’ Its sole object shall be the eviction of truth, and the exposure of error in doctrine and practice.” He pled for a renewed interest in (therefore a return to or a restoration of) the Bible as the divine standard of authority in religious matters-to “oppose nothing which it contains, and recommend nothing which it does not enjoin” (citations from “Prospectus,” Christian Baptist, Vol. I, No. 1 (July 4, 1823), p. iv). Or as Thomas Campbell stated their aim previously, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent” (Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. I, pp. 236-237).
Restoration history may seem ancient, but this effort is still young. Henry S. Ficklin helps to prove that, for his tutor was J. W. McGarvey-the same McGarvey who listened to the aged Thomas Campbell recite hymns in his blindness, took notes in Alexander Campbell’s lectures on the Pentateuch, and was presented a Bible by Alexander Campbell with an inscription “for proficiency in knowledge of the Scriptures” (DeLoris and Dwight E. Stevenson (eds.), Autobiography of J. W. McGarvey, pp. 13-17). To think of brother Ficklin having lived in our time is to realize how young the restoration effort is. Yet to think of this veteran’s passing is to realize an era has ended-with utter finality. Time is moving on; indeed, much water has passed under the bridge in so short a time. Assessing the past, we see what has happened, is happening, and can happen.
We look back and realize what an impact the plea for a return to New Testament Christianity has had in America. We also look back in amazement at how quickly so many deserted the effort to return to the Bible-“so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel”-and became “subject again to a yoke of slavery” in denominationalism.
How much more good might have been done if many deserters of the plea had continued “in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of.” The word of God alone is inspired, profitable, all-sufficient (2 Tim. 3:14-17). Using recent church history properly, we find these passages leaping to life: Gal. 1:6 (“so soon removed”) and 5:1 (“entangled again with the yoke of bondage”); 1 Tim. 4:1, 6 (“some shall depart from the faith . . . . put the brethren in remembrance of these things”); 2 Tim. 2:2 (“the things that thou hast heard . . . commit thou to faithful men”) 3:1 (“perilous times shall come”); 4:2-3 (“preach the word . . . the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine”); 2 Thess. 2: 7 (“the mystery of iniquity doth already work”).
How much good is yet to be done “if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end.” (Heb. 3:14). Some are despondent in our day because so many have deserted the plea; the results are divisions, bitterness, and lost hopes. There is a mood of crushed faith-broken imagination-failure. There is a casting around in search of solutions, i.e. further desertion of the plea in hope of finding some panacea. Confidence is replaced by compromise.
We must lift up our heads, not in godless pride, but in faith. Preaching “Christ and him crucified” is still “the power of God unto salvation” (1 Cor. 2:2; Rom. 1:16). The gospel seed only will still make Christians only; the distinctive marks of the New Testament church are just as plainly revealed as they ever were. We do not need disillusionment. We need dogged determination to believe, preach, and practice just exactly what the Lord reveals in His word-looking not at whether men are pleased or displeased, but “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2).
An era has ended because Henry S.’ Ficklin was so far as we know, the last living student of J. W. McGarvey. The impress of McGarvey included: thorough knowledge of the Bible text, simplicity, clearness, conviction. He sent young men all over the world with that impress, but not a one of them is living today. McGarvey’s conviction is seen in leaving his beloved Broadway, where he had preached from its 1870 beginning, when the instrument was introduced in 1902. Brother Ficklin was in the audience the day the vote was taken. “A girl fifteen years of age sat in the pew in front of me, and I thought, her vote will cancel McGarvey’s out. And I knew then that that was something very unscriptural. Brother Collis said, I’ve prayed about this vote, and I haven’t prayed that the organ might be introduced or might be kept out, but that God’s will might be done.’ I thought that was mighty weak! I thought he ought to have told them what was right . . . . the organ was introduced . . . and they didn’t have anybody that could play it, and they had to go and get an Episcopalian to play it” (Henry S. Ficklin, Reminiscing With McGarvey, pp. 8-9).
Ficklin twice left Owingsville rather than surrender his convictions. McGarvey’s example in moving his membership to Chestnut St. solely over the introduction of instrumental music was never forgotten. Convictions are exclamation points; how often Brother Ficklin said, “Everybody ought to have an exclamation point in his life.” “McGarvey didn’t have much use for question marks. They spoke of him as being legalistic and dogmatic. If you speak the truth, if you handle eternal verities in that way, they’ll call you dogmatic!” (Ibid., p. 8).
This is not to say Brother Ficklin worshipped McGarvey or made a fetish of a certain period in church history called “Restoration History.” To the contrary, he frequently pointed out McGarvey’s own inconsistencies in regard to the plea for New Testament Christianity. McGarvey wrote a great deal in opposition to modernism (“Biblical Criticism” column in the Christian Standard, The Text and Canon of the New Testament, Credibility and Inspiration, Jesus and Jonah, The Authorship of Deuteronomy) and he tried to keep modernists out of the College of the Bible. “The folly was that brother McGarvey upheld the Missionary Society and his associates were men who were officers in the Missionary Society” (Ibid.). The Society became a bastion of modernism, and modernists were in a position to take over the college almost immediately after McGarvey’s death.
Furthermore, though McGarvey never was a member where the instrument was used, he visited and preached freely, among the churches that did use it. Brother Ficklin did not know of a single person converted to the truth on this problem by McGarvey’s unsound procedure. “. . . as someone said, `While he preached against the organ he went where they used it and his influence went with his fellowship instead of with his teaching’ ” (Ibid.). Apparently McGarvey himself saw his mistake near the end of his life; he told J. P. Sewell, “You are on the right road, and whatever you do don’t let anybody persuade you that you can successfully combat error by fellowshipping it and going along with it. I have tried. I believed at the :start that was the only way to do it. I’ve never held.-membership in a congregation that uses instrumental music.: 1 have, however, accepted invitations to preach without distinctions between churches that used it and churches that didn’t. I’ve gone along with their papers and magazines and things of that sort. During all- these years. I have taught the truth as the New Testament teaches to every young preacher who has passed : through the College of the Bible. Yet, I do not know of more than six of those men who are preaching the truth today. It won’t work.” (From Biographical Sketches of Restoration Preachers in a lecture by J. P. Sewell.)
Yes, an era of church history has forever closed with the death of Henry S. Ficklin. As we prepare to go forward serving Christ, let us not forget the preparation of understanding what has happened before our, own time. Looking into the past, we see that principles of truth have not changed. Nor have the problems of drifting into digression. Let us reaffirm those principles of truth and do all in our power to avoid the pitfalls and problems which have led men astray.
Let us notice how rapidly brethren drift into digression. “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). It can happen to any one of us. Brother Ficklin loved the “spiritual strength” of churches in Limestone County, Alabama, and found his own strength renewed by them. But he realized how quickly even an area like that can drift away from principles of truth and spoke of that concern. Let us realize that we make and remake every day the decisions between truth and error, weakness and strength, compromise and conviction.
As we continue into the present era, let us see this necessity: clear, simple, Bible preaching. Let us speak with conviction and then act consistently with those convictions. To compromise in conduct is to compromise in conviction. We encourage error when we fellowship those promoting error, even though we may claim to oppose it. Our influence goes with our fellowship, pleas to the contrary notwithstanding. What McGarvey learned by experience to be a mistake going among churches practicing and not practicing error “without distinction,” going along with the “papers and magazines and things of that sort” produced by false teachers-is being dressed up in the garb of “unity,” “grace,” and “fellowship” by such people as Leroy Garrett, Carl Ketcherside and Edward Fudge. Those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them!
If Brother Ficklin’s lips could proclaim the Glad Tidings to us again, perhaps he would include the words with which he closed “Reminiscing With McGarvey.” Speaking of “two memorable verses” which Paul penned to the brethren in the first century, he said, “They sound like a battle cry to me. Listen! ‘Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.’ And now as a balance for all of them, `let all that ye do be done in love.’ If we do that, brethren and sisters, we’ll be sound; we’ll be safe; and we’ll have the approval of God Almighty.”
Truth Magazine XIX: 9, pp. 134-136
January 9, 1975