Reviewing Earl West’s The Search For The Ancient Order (Vols. I and II)

By Richard Boone

The Search For The Ancient Order (Vol. 1-2), Earl West, $27.95 for both.

The phrase “the search for the ancient order” means different things to different people. An avid restoration historian may recognize it as the title of several articles written in the 1820s by Alexander Campbell in The Christian Baptist. A graduate of one of “our” Bible colleges may remember it as the title of a textbook used in a restoration history course. Sadly, it may mean nothing to a younger generation of Christians (especially preachers) mesmerized by the modern lifestyle, unconvinced of the need to study and learn from history.

Brother Marc Gibson has invited me to review the first two volumes of Earl West’s The Search For The Ancient Order and it is my distinct pleasure to do so. His four-volume set is a history of the Restoration Movement in America from 1800-1950. The first two volumes survey the period from 1800-1906.1 will not focus on the names, dates, places, etc. in West’s material. I will only make general remarks on each volume. Having done that, I will proceed to some general observations and close with two thought-provoking quotations.

Volume I (1800-1865)

Brother West takes us from the earliest stages of the Restoration Movement in America to the close of the Civil War in this first volume. Of particular interest and appreciation to me was the work and struggles of those early pioneers. In my opinion, they are the real heroes. They started from scratch and worked their way out of the darkness of denominationalism. They laid the groundwork for generations to come. (Don’t forget  they didn’t have computers, CD-roms, Internet, etc. to help them!) They weren’t always right in their conclusions or consistent in their application of biblical principles, but they were looking in the right direction  the word of God.

That is what the Restoration Movement is all about. It is about going back to the revelation of God’s mind and doing his work in his way. It is about being content to”speak as the oracles of God,” and upon learning what God says, settling there in conviction and practice. West does a masterful job in portraying their mindsets, struggles, and sacrifices. Those who have not had similar struggles can-not fully appreciate what they accomplished.

We cannot forget, though, that men are not always consistent. Sometimes they even change. Of course, consistency and change are good if they are conforming to God’s word, but if they are not the results are disastrous. West documents how Alexander Campbell advocated the missionary society which represented a definite change in his earlier views on para-church organizations. Interestingly, Campbell never saw or admitted that he changed.

The basis of justification for practices changed from “What do the Scriptures say?” to “It is expedient, therefore it is scriptural.” Young preachers should pay special attention to how the missionary society was justified. When Ephraim has his idols whatever it takes to justify them is acceptable, even if it is wrong (cf. Hos. 4:17).

Between 1855-1865, noticeable differences in views to-ward scriptural authority and the church became clearly visible. While open division did not exist, it was present in mindsets. Brother West points out a few trends which re-veal a slow departure from the Scriptures. What amazed me the most, I suppose, was to learn how much man has not changed, regardless of the era in which he lives. The same trends away from the truth that were evident then are the same ones evident now.

Volume II (1865-1906)

Due to the period of time involved, West’s second volume is much more detailed in his discussion of people, events, periodicals, etc., which were important. By this time, the missionary society and instrumental music (especially the latter) were vigorously discussed. More and more evidence pointed to the reality of division. In 1865 few thought division was possible, much less probable. By 1885 division existed. By 1906 Christian churches (those favoring the missionary society and instrumental music) and churches of Christ (those opposed to these practices) were officially listed separately for the first time in the census of churches.

Again, we should take special note of brother West’s discussion of the trends of the day. He lists several points  attitudes toward the Scriptures, consistent application of scriptural principles, the differences between the universal church and the local church (key to the missionary society question and the institutional question of the 1950s), the singular nature of the New Testament church, progressive preaching, etc. Each of these was a sign that times were changing in the Restoration Movement. While the historical material is informative and interesting, West’s discussions of the trends away from biblical moorings is, in my opinion, the most challenging material in this second volume.

General Observations

What can we learn from this overview of the Restoration Movement from 1800-1906? While I could specify several individual points, I will present a few general conclusions.

The Restoration Motto is right. “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent” was spoken by Thomas Campbell in Western Pennsylvania in 1809 and became the motto of the Restoration. That motto is right, not because Thomas Campbell or any other pioneer stated it, but because it is true to the Bible (1 Pet. 4:11; 1 Cor. 4:6; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2 John 9-11; etc.).

We need to appreciate the struggles of faithful Christians who preceded us. They sacrificed much to be just Christians, and deserve honor and commendation where they were right, not our disdain (Rom.13:7). They paved the way for much of the biblical understanding we now have and too often take for granted.4:3-4; etc.). Knowing they will come, we must focus special attention to recognize and stop them when they occur. It is much easier to heal a small wound than a cankered body.

Departures from the truth will come, and we must be vigilant to recognize them. In the first century, departures were predicted (Acts 20:29ff; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; etc.). Knowing they will come, we must focus special attention to recognize and stop them when they occur. It is much easier to heal a small wound than a cankered body.

We should study our history to emulate successes and avoid repeating mistakes. People are not always right or consistent. History allows us to foresee where we may be headed by studying where we’ve been. We can follow the right things of brethren in the past and avoid repeating their mistakes.

Closing Quotations

I now close with two quotes from West’s material. The importance of each is self-evident.

In 1830 Alexander Campbell wrote, “Often I have said, and often I have written, that truth, truth eternal and divine, is now, and long has been with me the pearl of great price. To her I will, with the blessing of God, sacrifice everything. But on no altar will I offer her a victim. If I have lost sight of her, God who searcheth the hearts knows I have not done it intentionally. With my whole heart I have sought the truth, and I know that I have found it.” In 1843 he added, “Numbers with me count nothing. Let God be true and every man a liar. Let me stand, though the heavens fall. When contending with thirty millions of Lutherans, I feel myself contending with but one man. In opposing seventy millions of Greek and Eastern professors, I am in conflict with but one leader. When one hundred millions of Baptists assail me, I feel myself in a struggle with but one mind. In all the Methodists I see but John Wesley; in all the Calvinists, John Calvin; and in all the Episcopalians, one Cranmer. Names, numbers, circumstances weigh nothing in the scales of justice, truth and holiness” (I:54).

In closing his second volume, West observes, “But there has never been a time when the church did not have problems. After the present generation is dead, there will still be others. But, whatever their nature, these are principles that will guide the church on safe ground if the church but re-members them. In light of this we can think of no words to serve as a more fitting close for this volume than those spoken by F.G. Allen a few years before his death. `While we remain true to the principles on which we started out, there is no earthly power that can impede our progress. But the day we leave these walls and go out to take counsel with the world, will mark the day of our decline. We have nothing to fear from without. Our only danger lies in the direction of indifference and compromise. While we are true to God in the maintenance of these principles, the divine blessing will be upon our work. But should they ever be surrendered, ruin will as certainly follow as that the Bible is true”‘(II:462-463). Amen, and amen!

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 23, p. 8-9
December 5, 1996