Review of James L. Gorman, Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement

Author: Paul S. Chimhungwe
Published: Winter–Spring 2019

MD 10.1

Article Type: Review Article

JAMES L. GORMAN. Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017. 240 pp. $22.99.

In his book, Among the Early Evangelicals, a revision of his dissertation at Baylor University, James Gorman, Associate Professor of History at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee, argues “that the Campbell Movement in the United States emerged from transatlantic evangelical missions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The earliest Campbell tradition, as articulated in the Christian Association of Washington and its 1809 Declaration and Address was more indebted to the evangelical missionary movement than it was to the fertile frontier and democratic soil in the United States” (23). The Campbell Movement is part of the Restoration Movement or the Stone-Campbell Movement—a tradition that consists of three distinct denominations: the Churches of Christ, the Church of Christ/Christian Church, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He unpacks his thesis in eight chapters and a postscript.

Gorman’s chapter titles give the reader a glimpse into the book’s contents. For example, chapter one, titled “Reframing the Religious and Historical Context of the Campbell Movement,” describes how “the influences of the evangelical missionary movement that emerged throughout the transatlantic region in the 1790s was the clearest and most comprehensive context that produced the earliest manifestation of the Campbell Movement” (15). In chapter two, “The Rise of Transatlantic Evangelical Missions in the Eighteenth Century,” Gorman argues that before the end of that century evangelicals were deeply interested in missions. He concludes that, “They believed that denominationalism and confessionalism often provided criteria for the essence of Christianity that focused on the intellect but neglected new-birth experience”(53). Along the same lines, in chapter four, “Thomas Campbell’s Formative Background in Irish Evangelical Missions,” Gorman maintains, “the story of the evangelical missions in Ireland . . . shaped the theology and practices of Thomas and Alexander Campbell” (95–96). Chapter six is titled “From the British Isles to the United States: The Christian Association of Washington.” In this chapter, Gorman gives the historical background for the Declaration and Address, one of the two most important documents for understanding the Stone-Campbell Movement. Gorman states, “Traces of evangelical missions exude from nearly every page of the Declaration and Address. The plan of the Christian Association of Washington resembles the plans of the Evangelical Society of Ulster, London Missionary Society, Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home, and other evangelical societies” (161–2). The last chapter is entitled “The Campbell Movement’s Roots in Transatlantic Evangelical Missions.” In this chapter, Gorman’s conclusion, he reiterates his argument that “the Campbells’ [Thomas and Alexander’s] early ideals and practices, as expressed in 1809 [in the Declaration and Address], were not unique among transatlantic evangelicals of the era” (209).

Stone-Campbell Movement historians acknowledge Thomas and Alexander Campbell—father and son—together with Barton W. Stone, as the chief architects of the Stone-Campbell Movement; but they have conventionally identified “two” Alexander Campbells. In this book, Gorman argues for a “third” Campbell, if not “the earliest Campbell who, with his father, supported missionary societies for two decades; a ‘second’ who opposed them in The Christian Baptist; and a ‘third’ who eventually affirmed them” (197).

Among the Early Evangelicals revolutionizes Stone-Campbell historiography, and this “third Campbell” is one of the significant contributions that can be appropriated by Stone-Campbell Movement historians, because the three major branches of this fellowship “have constructed entire traditions based upon one or the other of these [“two”] Campbells” (216). For example, “the Churches of Christ, found a usable history in the ‘first’ Campbell, who was right to oppose missionary societies because they represented extra-congregational cooperation that was unbiblical in origin and denominational in direction” (216).

Although Gorman is concerned with the Campbells, his inclusion of Walter Scott’s contribution to the success of Campbell’s movement enriches the fellowship’s theological history. Scott’s “evangelistic tool, the five-finger exercise, was influential on missions practices, overall expansion, and soteriology in the Campbell Movement” (204–5). His five-finger exercise, also known as the “plan of salvation”—“have faith, repent, be baptised, receive remission of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and eternal life” (205)—is still the revered “plan of salvation” in Churches of Christ in the Global South, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where the movement is experiencing exponential growth.

Among the Early Evangelicals unshackles Stone-Campbell Movement historians from ungrounded ecclesiastical traditions. Stone-Campbell historians frequently argue that Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address was influenced by his education in Glasgow and involvement with the church in Ireland. Gorman acknowledges these facts but argues audaciously that “Thomas’s Christian Association of Washington and its Declaration and Address were reproductions of other evangelical missionary society charters, plans, organization, ideals, and means of evangelization” (209–10). In Ireland, Thomas Campbell cooperated with other denominations for missions, and the “first” Alexander espoused that belief. Gorman then urges “segments of the [Stone-Campbell] Movement who have completely rejected cooperation with other denominations, or even with other Stone-Campbell Movement congregations, to reconsider their own historical development and how they got to a place so different from anything Thomas Campbell envisioned at the beginning of the Movement” (216). If Thomas Campbell worked with other denominations, what is the origin of exclusivism and sectarianism, two significant characteristics that identify the Churches of Christ?

As an indigenous African, I highly recommend this book, which is not an easy read for the typical person in the pew, to every lecturer or teacher in Bible schools, preachers’ training colleges, and Christian colleges in sub-Saharan Africa, and anybody serious about the historical background of the Stone-Campbell Movement. It will unsettle our understanding of Stone-Campbell Movement history because “the earliest documents and actions of the Campbell Movement reveal its roots in evangelical missions . . . [through] pragmatic primitivism” that nurtured ecumenical cooperation (187). Pragmatic primitivism uses “the Bible generically (rather than a legalistically defined pattern) as a shared foundation on which denominations could unite for ‘simple evangelical gospel’ missions” (188n86). The Movement left pragmatic primitivism for patternist primitivism, which holds that the “New Testament contains a ‘pattern’ for worship. This primitivism focuses on identifying, extracting, and applying that primitive pattern in modern times” (188n86).

Therefore, historians need an informed understanding of these “vibrant roots [that] provide a corrective to old narratives, ones that embraced exclusion and sectarianism, as the original vision of the Campbells” (217). Regrettably, exclusivism and sectarianism, which were bequeathed to us in the Global South, with good intentions by our missionaries, are too often the hallmarks of the Churches of Christ.

The book has an extensive bibliography useful for Stone-Campbell historians, but one hopes that Gorman will include an index in the second edition.

Paul S. Chimhungwe


African Christian College

Manzini, Eswatini