Campbellites! A term of disparagement sometimes used to refer to the people of the Restoration Movement, of which, Alexander Campbell was one of the founders. The pejorative has been used since the earliest days of the movement. In 1828 Campbell, responding to the question of what “Campbellism” is, wrote,
“It is a nickname of reproach invented and adopted by those whose views, feelings and desires are all sectarian – who cannot conceive of Christianity in any other light than an ism.”
I can only speculate as to why the name calling began. Perhaps it was because the movement was promoting new ideas; people don’t like change. Perhaps the clergy of the day were threatened by the large numbers of people who joined the unity movement. While the term “Campbellite” is still in use today, I suspect the present reason for the name calling might be different than the reason it was originally used.
Campbell was no sectarian
People who resort to name calling usually do so because they are upset. Why would people be upset with the Church of Christ today? In the early 1800s the movement was accepting of all Christians regardless of denominational affiliation. However, by the end of the century it had digressed into sectarianism. The Church of Christ has, regrettably, earned a reputation for proclaiming that everyone not affiliated with our denomination is lost and hell bound while simultaneously denying our own denominational status. Not all congregations went down the dark path, but a great many did robbing the movement of it’s appeal and momentum thereby destroying the unity that had been achieved.
It was not Campbell who was to blame for this departure. He hated the notion of exclusivity and sectarianism as the following quotes make clear:
...[Alexander Campbell] was never sectarian in the sense that he saw his movement as exclusively the body of Christ and his people as the only true Christians.
He [Alexander Campbell] went on to brand such exclusiveness as “Protestant monkery” and sectarianism as “‘the offspring of hell.”
Throughout the seven volumes of The Christian Baptist he was eminently ecumenical in his plea for the unity of all believers. To a reader with whom he did not agree on a number of issues, he wrote: “I will esteem you and love you, as I do every man, of whatever name, who believes sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah, and hopes in his salvation.”
I have no idea of adding to the catalogue of new sects. This game has been played too long. I labor to see sectarianism abolished, and all Christians of every name united upon the one foundation on which the apostolic church was founded.
(The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, page 122)
While accepting denominational status, Campbell was adamant about not being a sect. "Denomination" meant that they were a distinct religious body with clearly defined marks of identification, such as a particular name or names. A sect claims to be within itself the entirety of the body of Christ to the exclusion of all other Christians.
(The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, page 125)
...Robert Richardson called on him [Campbell] shortly before his death. He [Richardson] told him that the Reformers - meaning their people - and the Baptists were meeting in hopes of effecting a union between the two groups. "There was never any sufficient reason for a separation between us and the Baptists," Campbell responded. ...Campbell openly wept with joy over the prospects of such a union.
(The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, page 134)
We have achieved division. Hallelujah!
The unity movement ultimately fell into division. The schism can be partially blamed upon a man named Daniel Sommer. Sommer was what many today would call a “brotherhood watchdog.” He felt compelled to denunciate anyone who held doctrinal conclusions that differed from his. He, like many today, felt he was God’s policeman whose duty it was to keep the church pure and “mark” those who taught what he considered to be false or unsound.
Sommer pushed for division which later resulted in two distinct groups: the Church of Christ and the Christian Church. The wedge Sommer used to drive the split were controversies that had already been brewing for some time within the movement such as instrumental music and para-church organizations. During the Sand Creek Address and Declaration in 1889, Sommer said,
"In closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such innovations and corruptions to which we have referred, that after being admonished, and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren."
(Leroy Garrett. The Stone-Campbell Movement. College Press. pp. 591, 592.)
When the division finally came to pass, it was reported that Sommer rejoiced saying, "The Church of Christ will be entirely separated from the Christian Church. Hallelujah!"
Sommer didn’t do this alone. He wouldn’t have gotten far if there wasn’t a willingness on the part of many to sin by creating division among the people of God. Later in life, Sommer came to regret his part in dividing the brotherhood. He worked to undo the damage, but by then his leaven had spread to those who love to wallow in their pride and feelings of superiority.
Perhaps the most ignored commandment of God is for us to have unity. Jesus prayed for our unity (John 17:20-21). Paul admonished us to preserve it (Ephesians 4:3). The psalmist declared how good it is (Psalms 133:1). Division in the body of Christ is just as much a sin as drunkenness, fornication, theft and murder. Some of us have begun to reverse this trend by embracing grace and understanding that while we may be Christians only, we are not the only Christians.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of other people in the Church of Christ who continue to sin by maintaining a state of division. In a sad turn of events, they have become the ones that Campbell wrote about; those whose “feelings and desires are all sectarian – who cannot conceive of Christianity in any other light than an ism.”
To those who would call the divisive members of our tribe "Campbellites," please reconsider. Don’t blame the present state of affairs on Alexander Campbell.