Observations Taken from a Religious Census

By Bill H. Reeves

The Bureau of the Census, of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, prepared a two-volume work entitled, “Religious Bodies: 1936,” which contains some of the most valuable material in print on denominationalism. The government had for a good number of decades taken such a census every ten years. I have only the 1936 work, but prize it highly. In my early years I had heard of older preachers refer to the “more than 250 different denominations in the U.S.” and wondered where they got that information, and if really there were that many!

This work states, “The denominations presented in this report number 256, of which 183 are grouped in 24 families and 73 are listed as separate denominations.” The one feature which I find so valuable is that for each separate denomination the account of its history, doctrine and organization, and work, is prepared by one representing that particular denomination, usually a high official in it. It is not a one-author work, or statements of what others think a particular group believes and practices! So, one can quote from this material and be confident that he is correctly representing each denomination.

I want to quote from two entries in this Census, and then make some observations on them. (I can make available a few copies of the entire entries, if any care to have them).

“Churches Of Christ”

The entry under this heading bears this footnote: “This statement, which is substantially the same as that published in Vol. II of the Report on Religious Bodies, 1926, has been revised by Leslie G. Thomas, Churches of Christ, Dickson, Tenn., and approved by him in its present form.”

Brother Thomas, after mentioning the Campbells, Walter Scott, and Barton W. Stone, and their plea in general, comes to the issue of the missionary society. He wrote:

The agitation for the organization of a missionary society began soon after 1840 and continued unfit the American Christian Missionary Society was formed in Cincinnati Ohio, in 1849.

He quoted from Alexander Campbell’s earlier writings to prove that Campbell was “not the real leader behind the effort nor the same man mentally who had previously opposed such inventions of men:”

Their churches were not fractured into missionary societies, Bible societies and educational societies; nor did they dream of organizing such . . . . They knew nothing of the hobbies of modern times. In their church capacity alone they moved …. They viewed the Church of Jesus Christ as the scheme of salvation to ameliorate the world. As members of it they considered themselves bound to do all they could for the glory of God and the good of men. They dared not transfer to a missionary society a cent or a prayer, lest In so doing they should rob the Church of its glory and exalt the inventions of men above the wisdom of God.

Brother Thomas quoted from the article in the constitution of the Missionary Society which referred to selling of membership and directorship for money, which thing gave great offense to many brethren. Then follows a paragraph on instrumental music, and two other matters of controversy.

The question as to the use of instrumental music In the services of the church became an issue as early as 1859, when a melodeon was placed in the church at Midway, Ky. Much opposition was aroused, and the claim was made that Instrumental music in the church services “ministered to pride and worldliness, was without the sanction of New Testament precept and example, and was consequently unscriptural and sinful.”

Other matters In regard to which there was controversy were the introduction of the “modern pastor” and the adoption of “unscrlptural means of raising money.”

It is interesting to note that the term “anti” is nothing new. It was part of the controversy of the last century as well, according to Brother Thomas back in 1936. He writes:

It was inevitable that such divergencies of opinion should result in the formation of opposing parties, and these parties were variously called “Conservatives” and “Progressives,” or “Antis” and “Digressives.”

After presenting some very helpful material concerning the Missionary Society issue, which divided the brotherhood in the nineteenth century, Brother Thomas then proceeds to surrender his whole contention before discerning readers, as he lists what he calls the “institutions of the Churches of Christ”! Strange that one institution (the Missionary Society), through which local churches do part of their work (that of evangelism), is all wrong, whereas other institutions, built and maintained by churches of Christ, are alright for doing part of their work! If churches of Christ have educational, benevolent and publishing institutions, then they are as denominational in nature as the other religious movements which have the like, and function through such centralized agencies. Here is what Brother Thomas says about the “work” of churches of Christ:

The opposition to missionary societies on the part of the Churches of Christ does not imply any lack of interest in missionary work, which has been fully developed since the division. They are rapidly establishing new churches in different parts of the United States, and are carrying on missionary work in Japan, China, Korea, Persia, Brazil, Hawaii, Philippine Islands, India, Africa, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

The educational institutions of the Churches of Christ include 7 Bible, or Christian colleges, with 184 teachers, 2,206 students, and property valued at $2,610,974. There are also several academies and professional schools; 7 orphanages, with 833 children, and property valued at $496,001; and 2 homes for the aged (1 takes children, too, and is not included In the orphanages), with 50 inmates and property valued at $500,000. These institutions are located in Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and California.

They publish eight monthly, two semimonthly, and three weekly journals devoted exclusively to religious instruction.

We turn now to the second entry which we will notice, this one concerning the Disciples of Christ.“Disciples of Christ”

The footnote under this entry says: “This statement, which is substantially the same as that published in Vol. II of the Report on Religious Bodies, 1926, has been revised by Dr. Stephen J. Corey, president, the United Christian Missionary Society, Disciples of Christ, Indianapolis, Ind., and approved by him in its present form.”

Mr. Corey first gives some brief information on the restoration period, dating from 1800, referring to the Campbells and Barton W. Stone. When Stone, Campbell and their associates effected a partial union in 1832, “the question arose as to the name to be adopted.” He says:

Mr. Stone favored “Christians,” as the name given In the beginning by divine authority. Mr. Campbell and his friends preferred the name “Disciples” as less offensive to good people and quite as scriptural. The result was that no definite action was taken and both names were used, the local organization being known, generally, as a “Christian Church,” or a “Church of Christ,” and, rarely, as a “Church of Disciples,” or a “Disciples’ Church.”

Barton Stone, according to Corey, wanted to use the Scriptural name (Christian, Acts 11:26, a proper name), while Alexander Campbell advocated making a proper name out of a common noun (disciple), in order to not “turn people off,” as it is expressed today. This is familiar reasoning, is it not? Such is the age-old conflict between human wisdom and divine!

I find it interesting to note what Mr. Corey says about public debates of that period:

During the first few years of the movement, Alexander Campbell and other leaders were often.engaged fn more or less heated controversies with representatives of other denominations. Gradually, however, these discussions became less frequent and at the same time more conciliatory in tone.

How true this pattern is followed in all ages! First there is militancy, but as numerical success is realized, the tendency is to slack off, especially on the part of the innovator. During the 50’s and 60’s there were many debates on centralization (“sponsoring church”) and institutionalism (church support of orphanages, colleges, etc.), but now that the liberal brethren have taken the majority with them, they see little or no need for debates. Today debates are virtually unheard of.

Christ and His apostles engaged in public debates almost constantly (e.g., Matt. 21:23-24:1, two and a half chapters of debating; Acts 17:17-34; 19:8-10; Jude 3). Truth has always prevailed in controversy; not so with error. As an old Texas friend of mine used to say, “Some brethren don’t believe in debating for the same reason that a muley cow doesn’t believe in hooking!” (A “p.s.” for city folk: muley cows have no horns!).

Mr. Corey then speaks of the rapid growth of this movement in its early years, and makes a very honest admission concerning opposition within the brotherhood:

The growth of the new organization was very rapid, especially in the Middle West. Throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and Missouri It gathered numerous congregations, though there was evident a strong objection to any such association, even for fellowship, as would appear to involve ecclesiastical organization. This manifested Itself fn various ways, especially in opposition to the use of societies for carrying on missionary work. The use of instrumental music in the churches also occasioned dissatisfaction.

Liberal churches of Christ of our day have revived the old principal of centralization, which underlay the missionary society concept, and no doubt instrumental music in worship will not be long in following. A growing number of preachers are playing down objection to its use. History has a way of repeating itself.

Innovations, being of necessity without Scriptural authority, are always the “wedges” that “split the log.” As in the last century, so in this! Mr. Corey speaks of the division of the last century, and beginning of this one:

During the Civil War the movement suffered from the general disorganization of the sections In which it had gained its strength, and the death of Alexander Campbell in 1866 was no doubt a severe blow. From the effect of these discouragements, however, it soon,recovered, and the period since that war has been one of rapid expansion. With this expansion there developed, out of the objections referred to above, and especially to any semblance of ecclesiastical organization and to the use of Instrumental music In the churches, two parties, generally termed “Progressives” and “Conservatives.” The former were anxious to include all under one general head as was done in the census report for 1890, leaving each church free to conduct its affairs In its own way, but the Conservatives objected, and Insisted on separate classification. Accordingly, in the’ report for 1906 and in subsequent reports the “Conservative” churches have been listed as Churches of Christ. The line of demarcation between the two bodies, however, is by no means clear.

Where would the liberal brethren of today have stood in the controversy of yesteryear? Would they have been the “Conservatives,” as referred to by Mr. Corey? They are not the conservatives of today!

Under the heading of “doctrine,” Mr. Corey gives the “doctrinal position of the Disciples.” It is a good statement of some Bible truths. He then proceeds to say: “In addition to these beliefs, in which they are in general accord with other Protestant churches, the Disciples hold certain positions which they regard as distinctive.” He mentions ten of these, nine of which I find well expressed, as far as their being expressions of Bible truths. But, the fifth one reads: “While claiming for themselves the New Testament names of `Christians,’ or `Disciples,’ `they do not deny that others are Christians or that other churches are Churches of Christ'” This is a little hard to harmonize with a later statement of Mr. Corey’s: “sects are unscriptural and unapostolic,” unless he means that “other churches” are not “sects”!

Within the last few years we have begun to hear language similar to Mr. Corey’s, respecting “other churches,” coming from our liberal brethren! I am amazed as I read this 1936 material, regarding events and attitudes and vocabulary of the last century, and then contemplate the same regarding the last twenty-five years within the brotherhood.

Under the head of “Organization,” Mr. Corey insists that “in polity the Disciples churches are congregational. Each local church elects its own officers, calls its own ministers, and conducts its own affairs with no supervision by any outside ecclesiastical authority.” Furthermore, he says:

There is no national ecclesiastical organization of the churches. There is an International Convention of Disciples of Christ, which is composed of Individual members of the churches. These may or may not be selected by the churches, but their standing In the convention is personal rather than representative, and the convention as such has no authority over the action of the churches, which are at liberty to accept or reject its recommendations.

For mutual conference in regard to their general affairs, the churches unite in district and State conventions. These conventions, however, have no ecclesiastical authority, the ultimate responsibility In every case resting in the local church.

This is interesting to note, in the light of the charges of our liberal brethren respecting the Missionary Society of the Christian Church. Inasmuch as there is a “deadly parallel” between the Missionary Society of the Christian Church (or, Disciples of Christ), and the “Sponsoring Church” of our brethren, the advocates of the “Sponsoring Church” disclaim this parallel by telling us that the Missionary Society controls the local Christian Churches, while the Sponsoring Church does not control local churches of Christ. According to Mr. Corey, our liberal brethren misrepresent the facts! He insists that the local church is not controlled by any “outside ecclesiastical authority”! But, the indirect control which the Missionary Society does effect over local congregations is the same kind of control which the Sponsoring Church effects over local churches of Christ. Both parties deny any direct control. Both must admit that the indirect control is there, to a degree.

Just ask members of churches of Christ, “What is wrong with the Missionary Society?” and you will get one of three answers, in essence: (1) Churches of Christ just do not have a Missionary Society! (Which equals saying, I do not know why, except that we just do not have one!); (2) It is a human organization, controlling the local church and destroying its autonomy (This is the typical answer of those advocating the Sponsoring Church concept); (3) It is a human organization through which churches do work of evangelism, and is therefore without Scriptural authority, being an expression of denominational centralization. (This is the answer that represents the facts. Too few are heard to give it!).

The first answer is pitiable; it shows that brethren are uninformed, and most likely do not intend to inform themselves. The second answer misrepresents the Missionary Society advocates, as the quotes from Mr. Corey amply show. But, there is some truth in that second answer: the Missionary Society is a human organization; it does exercise control, but it is indirect in nature; autonomy is sacrificed, to the degree that the local church turns over its money and work to a human organization. But, all this can be truthfully said about the Sponsoring Church arrangement. The elders of that Sponsoring Church are a human organization, because they have the oversight of work of a brotherhood proportion, or scope. The Sponsoring Church effects an indirect control over local churches through pressure tactics (including unsavory epithets for those not “cooperating,” quarantines, etc.). The third answer is the truth of the matter and condemns both the Missionary Society and the Sponsoring Church, and for the same reasons!

Under the heading of “Work,” Mr. Corey says that the “general activities of Disciples of Christ are carried on through several societies or boards, which, in their organization, are independent of any ecclesiastical control . . . .” He mentions The International Convention of Disciples of Christ, but insists that “its powers are advisory.” This is institutionalism; that is, local churches doing work through boards set up to manage the institutions actually doing the work. There is not one ounce of difference, in principal, between what the Disciples of Christ Churches are doing, and what our liberal brethren are doing.

Mr. Corey admits that “the earlier sentiment was somewhat adverse to the organization of societies,” but affirms that Campbell’s association at Washington, Pa., and the organization with which Stone was associated, were forerunners of the Missionary Society of 1849. The development of various boards and societies is set forth in the following, somewhat lengthy, quotation:

It was with Mr. Campbell’s fun approval that in 1849 the American Christian Missionary Society was formed at Cincinnati,, its object being, as stated in Its. constitution, to promote the preaching of the Gospel in this and other lands.” He was the first president and held the office 18 years, until his death In 1866. In 1874 the Christian Woman’s Board of Missions was organized. Prior to this time a large number of State, district, and city societies had been formed. The next year the Foreign Christian Missionary Society came into being, followed in 1887 by the National Benevolent Association of the Christian Church, in 1888 by the Board of Church Extension, in 1895 by the Board of Ministerial Relief, in 1910 by the Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity, in 1914 by the Board’ of Education, and later by the Board of Temperance and Social Welfare.

These boards continued to function separately until, at the International Convention in Kansas City in 1917, the three missionary societies appointed a committee on unification, instructing the committee to seek to bring about the complete unification of societies so that they should function as one organization, having one headquarters and one management. It was proposed that whatever organization should ultimately be brought about, it should have on Its board and Its executive committee equal representation of men and women.

The committee on cooperation and unification held a preliminary meeting In Indianapolis, December 11, 1917. The original proposal was to unite the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, the Christian Woman’s Board of Missions, and the American Christian Missionary Society, the latter involving the Board of Church Extension, which was a board of the American Society. Later the Board of Ministerial Relief and the National Benevolent Association sought representation on the committee and voted to join the above-mentioned boards in forming. the United Christian Missionary Society.

When the committee on cooperation and unification came squarely up to the legal problems involved in a merger of the several societies, it found that technically such a merger, involving as it would the Immediate surrender and dissolution of the old boards, could not be accomplished, or at least, not for a period of years. It seemed, however, that the objects sought in the unification could be accomplished by creating a new society, duly incorporated, to which the operating functions of the old boards should be committed. The old societies, however, were to continue their legal existence to the States where they originated, for the purpose of holding the trusts committed to them and of discharging the responsibilities required by law.

Appropriate articles of agreement were drawn up and adopted by each of the boards and societies prior to their coming together In the International Convention at Cincinnati, in 1919. At this convention, the constitution and bylaws of the new United Christian Missionary Society were presented and adopted, and the organization was effected. The executive committee chose St. Louis, Mo., as the operative headquarters for the United Christian Missionary Society, and it began its functions there October 1920. In 1928 the Society moved its headquarters to Indianapolis, Ind., where it Is located in Its own commodious quarters, called The Missions Building.

Look what came out of some innocent (?) little city, district and state societies! Organization after organization was formed, until the many were unified into one, the United Christian Missionary Society. It took seventy years (1849-1919). Then the great united society itself began to expand, taking on other endeavors. Modernism showed its inroads by addition in 1935 of departments of social action and of higher education.

The Christian Church has come a long way in its apostasy. This article deals with quotes from 1936. That was 40 years ago! It all started with an abandonment of the all-sufficiency of the local church, God’s only organization on this earth, and the advocacy of centralization and institutionalism. Today, the Christian Church is just another human denomination. The “anti’s” of the last century fought those innovations, and there are churches of Christ today because of their battles. The “anti’s” of today have fought the same battle, the same issues (in principle), and the very young, who are coming to manhood, and so were no part of the battle of two or three decades ago, would do well to give a little heed to history and a little more appreciation for some aging warriors (some have passed on) to whom all of us are debtors. There are faithful churches of Christ around the land today because they fought that fight!

When will man learn that the solution to problems in the church is not the substitution of man-made arrangements for divine ones, but the correction of affairs within divine arrangements? Yes, the judge Samuel, had some bad sons, who as judges were turning aside after lucre, taking bribes and perverting justice. This was bad! What was the solution? Punish the judges and remove them, if they did not repent, and appoint others, as God would direct? Ignore God’s arrangement of government by judges, while He reigned over them as King, and substitute another type of government, a human monarchy? They could do one of the two; they chose to substitute!

It was no different in the last century. What to do since the churches were not getting the gospel spread as fast as some thought they should do? Again, there was the same choice: respect God’s arrangements in the local church and exhort those local churches to do more in evangelism, each one according to its opportunity and ability, or, ignore God’s arrangement and substitute human organizations through which the local churches could do work of evangelism, centralizing the power of the many in the hands of the few, thus activating the entire brotherhood. The “antis” took the first course mentioned; the “progressives” the second. A new denomination was born.

That 1936 Religious Census is very revealing!

Truth Magazine XXI: 18, pp. 282-286
May 5, 1977