Hughes, Richard T. Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America. Abilene: ACU Press, 2006, 448 pp.
In Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America, Richard Hughes, a talented evangelical scholar, Senior Fellow in the Ernest L. Boyer Center and Distinguished Professor of Religion at Messiah College, has authored perhaps the finest historical-critical review of the Churches of Christ to date. Hughes is a self-professed, life-long member of the Churches of Christ. It is clear that his specific experiences along with fourteen years of dedicated research have enabled him to provide a deeply internal, yet critical insight into the historical framework of this protestant denomination. As well as a thorough review of the inner-workings of the social and moral fabric that has plotted the course for the past two-hundred years. From the outset, it should be noted that, like Hughes, I am a life-long member of the Churches of Christ. Due to an accumulation of experiences within this tradition, I have a deep and sincere appreciation for Hughes’ work.
Within this detailed review and analysis of the events, issues and people that shaped the history of the Churches of Christ, Hughes highlights and centers his text on two specific and conflicting themes that permeate throughout the entire history of the Churches of Christ: the pursuit of non-denominational unity of all Christians and a sectarian belief that the Church of Christ is the true Church that has been restored from the pattern of the New Testament.
The Stone-Campbell Movement began with two distinct points of focus by two equally charismatic leaders—Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, both of whom trace their history back to Cane Ridge and the Second Great Awakening. Hughes does well in highlighting the dual nature of Campbell as he began and a strict sectarian and transitioned, after a debate with the Arch-Bishop of Cincinnati in 1837, towards a more ecumenical and evangelical perspective. From which he spent his remaining years pushing for unity among all protestant Christians. Hughes also traces the distinct apocalyptic nature and emphasis found with Barton Stone. Because of this apocalyptic focus, Stone was inclined to spurn modern culture and focus almost exclusively on the Kingdom of God. It was from these two men that Stone-Campbell movement is named and it was from their teaching that the Churches of Christ were eventually formed from a split with the Christian Church.
In Part One, “The Making of a Sect,” Hughes takes the reader through the history of Campbell’s hard-lined sectarian influence which was highlighted by his publication of the Christian Baptist. He then highlights the changes in Campbell’s thinking (and theology) that influenced the change towards his ecumenical stance. He also takes this time to trace the influence of Stone’s apocalyptic views to instrumental leaders like David Lipscomb and James Harding. In section two, “The Making of a Denomination,” Hughes leads the reader through the transformation of the Churches of Christ from a sect to a full-blown protestant denomination. He highlights the causes and nature of this transition by specifically pointing out the manner in which the leaders of the movement combined the theology of the two men into what would become the dominant nature of the Churches of Christ for generations to come.
As I mentioned previously, this book has impacted me in a way that may not be relevant (for other readers). Not only am I a life-long member of the Churches of Christ, I spent the majority of my “formative” years being influenced and taught by prominent figures in the radically conservative branch of this tradition. It has only been in the past two years, as I have pursued a graduate level education in New Testament studies and Biblical Hermeneutics, that I have come to challenge many of the assumptions that are often taken for granted among those in my tradition. It is because of this that I have such a profound appreciation for Hughes’ work. In many ways (through his extensive research) I have been able to stand on his shoulders to continue my climb towards a deeper understanding of my faith, a greater appreciation for the Scriptures and a more accurate understanding for how the traditions of the Churches of Christ intersect with them.
That having been said, this book is not only for the Church of Christ member. Though it is true that this work ought to be read by anyone who has been raised among this group, this should not be taken in any way to diminish the value for any student of American religious history. In fact, one of the strengths of this work is the manner in which Hughes incorporates the major themes of religion in America. For example, he does well to explain the idea and concept of Scottish Common Sense Realism, and then draw the readers’ attention back to it at the appropriate times. He also deals repeatedly, and in great detail, with apocalypticism, anti-Catholicism, millennialism and modernism/post-modernism and the influence these provided. Though he treats these topics through a perspective of the Church of Christ, he is not exclusive in this manner. After reading the work, all students will have a greater understanding of the wider religious climate throughout the roughly two hundred year era that is covered.
Hughes should also be commended for the depth of research that he conducted in preparing this work. The text is littered with personal anecdotal information and insight from many of the most influential names in the movement. For example, Hughes cites information gathered through personal correspondence and phone calls, as well as letters in his personal possession written by the likes of David Lipscomb, Tolbert Fanning, et. al. This has only enhanced his research of the more traditional primary and secondary resources and afforded him the ability to provide more thorough and critical conclusions of the information at hand.
With regard to the positive attributes of this work, the objective nature of the research, conclusions and writing style should be noted and commended. Hughes was, for the most part, able to avoid the temptation of allowing his personal opinions and bias to cloud his perspective or taint his objectivity. This is no small feat and should not be over-looked. Because of this accomplishment, the readers who are not familiar with the Churches of Christ or the internal struggles that have plagued it for the past one hundred years are able to read a historical narrative and focus solely on the factual information and insights that Hughes provides. Likewise, this is a great benefit to the Church of Christ reader who picks up the book with prior knowledge and preconceived biases. Because Hughes avoids interjecting his personal opinions this reader is able to engage the facts and information one-on-one without interference.
While this work obviously has much to be said on its behalf, it is not without fault. Particularly, in the second section when he deals with the events and themes from the 20th century, while Hughes deals effectively with the two conflicting extremes that were present. He does so at the expense of leading the reader with the impression that there was no middle ground or group. He only occasionally refers to the centrist group as the “mainline.” Though the inference is clear, the result remains misleading—particularly for the reader that may not otherwise be familiar with the events and people in question. Along these same lines, Hughes fails to interact effectively with the “mainline” response to the growing dichotomy as well as the many social and political events that served to shape the future of the movement.
Finally, this work is well researched, well written and belongs on the bookshelf of every member of the Church of Christ and each serious student of American Religious history.
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