Studying the History of Fallible Religious Leaders

Restoration Movement Leaders

Besides studying the Bible, the topic I enjoy learning about the most is religious history – particularly the history of the Restoration Movement (sometimes called the Stone-Campbell Movement). This was a period in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States in which many were troubled by the divisions they saw in the religious world and endeavored to correct this by striving to simply go back to the Bible and follow it alone as their only rule of faith and practice.

Some of the more influential figures in this movement were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Walter Scott. Usually when people think of this history today, these are the men who come to mind. As we begin to study this history, we learn of others who played a significant role in the direction of this movement – men like Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Sommer, and David Lipscomb. Going deeper into the study of this history, we can learn about the contributions of others like David Purviance, Pardee Butler, Samuel Robert Cassius, and more – men who may have been largely forgotten, but can provide us with some valuable lessons.*

One important point to keep in mind whenever we study history like this is that the men we are learning about were just that – men. That means they were imperfect. They sometimes made poor decisions, arrived at faulty conclusions, or failed to reach the ideal they were aiming for in restoring the beliefs and practices we can read about in the New Testament. We can find ways in which each of these men fell short. One example is in the number who supported the missionary society – the first major controversy among brethren in the Restoration Movement. With these faults and shortcomings, does that mean we cannot or should not study Restoration history (or other parts of religious history)?

No, there is no need to avoid studying this history. In fact, there is much good to be gained from it. However, learning about these men is not the same thing as learning what has been revealed for us in the Scriptures. There are some basic points we need to remember:

  1. We are to observe and learn from others – Paul told the brethren in Philippi, “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). They were certainly to follow what Jesus and the apostles taught, but Paul also wanted them to take note of the examples of others who were following the Lord. The Hebrew writer said, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). They were to remember not just what they were taught, but who taught them so they could learn from their example. We can do this today with those who have taught us personally as well as those from previous generations who labored to teach the word of God and whose writings have been preserved for us today.
  2. It is helpful to view things from a historical perspective – Each generation faces a new set of challenges and circumstances. There are some similarities between the world of men like Campbell and Stone and our world today, but there are also many differences. When it comes to what we are to do, we must do all things by the authority of Christ (Colossians 3:17) and make sure whatever we claim as an “expedient” first falls under the category of what is authorized (1 Corinthians 6:12). Often traditions develop as a product of the conditions that existed in that day. If the traditions are authorized, they may have been expedient at the time they were implemented; but it is possible they may not be the best way to carry out the work today. Sometimes teaching is done in a way that puts particular emphasis on refuting some error currently prevalent which, even if the refutation is Biblical, could be misconstrued when applied to another issue later. The reason why it is important to recognize such things in their historical context is so that we might avoid elevating traditions and customs to the level of Scripture. It is essential that we know the difference between what God’s word says and what men have said.
  3. The Bible is our standard and the final authority – While it may be interesting, instructive, and helpful to read what men wrote in the 19th and early 20th centuries about what the Bible teaches, we need to always remember that they were not inspired. They wrote about Scripture; they were not revealing something new from the mind of God. Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, we must “hold fast the pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13, NKJV). The words of Christ and His inspired men will be the standard by which we will be judged (John 12:48; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 14:37). Therefore, the Bible must be our final authority in all religious matters.
  4. We must follow Christ, not men – Paul rebuked the brethren in Corinth for the “divisions among [them]” (1 Corinthians 1:10) that came as a result of them following after men. “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). Even though Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) were faithful preachers of the gospel, the Corinthians were not to follow them. They could certainly learn from them and follow their example as they followed Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1), but they were to remember that they were to be disciples of Christ. In the same way, we must not think of ourselves as being “of Campbell,” “of Stone,” or “of” anyone else. Those who are faithfully doing the work of preaching the gospel will not be trying to draw people to themselves anyway; they will be pointing people to Christ. Paul wrote, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

When we understand the points above, we can benefit greatly from the study of religious history – including the Restoration Movement. Let us always be willing to learn from others – past and present – while making sure we are putting Christ first and following His word.


* The following articles contain lessons from some of the men mentioned at the beginning of this article:

When you subscribe, you’ll also receive 3 free PDF’s: Plain Bible Teaching on Hope, the latest issue of Plain Bible Teaching Quarterly Review, and Thankful.