After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the European nations quickly became the world’s religious leaders with France and England being chief among them. What is more, theologians began to use French as their language of choice. However, the unification of language in their writings did not immunize churches against the disease of interreligious strife. In 1562, a prolonged period of war and unrest began in France between the new Reformers and Catholics which would later be known as the French Wars of Religion. This conflict soon spread when protestants fled from the catholic-controlled country to the center of the continuing reformation movement. England. This, we may take notice, was also one of the early indications in the modern period of the enduring discord between the French and the English nations.
One of the reasons for the conflict between the two leading religious systems was the choice of translation of the Bible. The Latin Vulgate had been trusted and used for centuries by catholics, but there were some protestants who realized and resented the intense theological bias present in that rendering and the clergy’s interpretation thereof.
Previous to and simultaneous with the wars was the rise of renaissance humanism which, unlike its modern counterpart, suggested that Greek and Hebrew studies, philosophy, history, classical grammar, and rhetoric would allow scholars to produce a historical-critical exegesis of the scriptures and also a new and improved translation, thus allowing for a purification and renewal of biblical christianity. This, coupled with the amelioratory movement, gave rise to a new age of church scholarship.
Over the next century, new translations seemed to be produced almost yearly. The Geneva Bible, which was the first English version to include numbered verses, was printed in 1560. Seemingly in rebuttal, the Catholic church completed the Douay-Rheims Bible in 1609. Then, in 1611 the King James Version, including the Apocrypha, was printed and quickly became the translation of choice of many protestants.
For the next two centuries political and religious unrest did not cease. The seventeenth century saw the rise of calvinism, lutheranism, and atheism with all three claiming to be a restoration of the original order of the world. The eighteenth century saw the rise of political and religious differences between the British mainland and the American colonies. In particular there were three events during this time period which, in this author’s opinion, acted, perhaps in the providence of God, as stepping stones to the launch of the American Restoration movement, viz. the rise of Renaissance Humanism, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution.
The rise of Renaissance Humanism. As previously mentioned, Renaissance Humanism was a movement which began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that called for a revival of classical studies of antiquity. Many of the first members of the movement were Catholic theologians or scholars including Pope Sixtus IV, Leo X, and Pius II, but in some sense their ties to humanism disagreed with their religious beliefs. While they believed and practiced the traditions of the church, at the same time these men were calling for a reinterpretation and restoration of the early Greek and Roman documents and scrolls. Consequently, many Reformers took hold of the movements ideals and ran with them. No matter the religious background of the proponents, they all encouraged their peers to learn the ancient languages (e.e.g. Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Sanskrit, etc.), revive the study of archaeology and history, and practice a protohistorical-critical method of interpretation.
We may now notice the particular impact that this school of thought had on the men who called for restoration in America in the nineteenth century. When the restorers began their search for the Ancient Order, they practiced many of the same principles as the Humanists of the fifteenth century, but they took them to their fullest extent. Alexander Campbell, for example, refused to prepare or deliver a sermon to the church until well into his twenties because he did not yet have a grasp on the biblical languages.
Furthermore, JW McGarvey wrote, concerning the grounds on which we receive the Bible, “Believers may be divided, in reference to their grounds of belief, into three classes; first, the uneducated who have never made a study of the evidences of Christianity; second, the more intelligent class, who have paid more or less attention to the subject, but have never studied it systematically; and third, those who have investigated the subject exhaustively” (Garrison, 24). Those in this third class, McGarvey says, have devoted much time to the study of the ancient languages and have “ransacked the ancient libraries of Europe, Africa, and western Asia, in search of manuscript copies of the New Testament.” These restorers had become textual critics (we may even recognize them as Renaissance Humanists) with the highest degree of respect for the authority and inspiration of the scriptures.
The Enlightenment. Spanning nearly two centuries (c.1637-1789) and eventually circling the globe, the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, emerged out of the Renaissance Humanist movement and expanded upon its precepts. Thinkers in this movement brought new ideas about liberty, technology, human progress, epistemology, and knowledge to the forefront scholarly investigation. It is difficult to give a single reason or mission statement to the crusade due to its myriad members, but in its most general terms we may say that its purpose was to ask a single question: “Why?”
Following the European religious conflicts of the previous century, philosophers of the Enlightenment developed into two schools of thought concerning religious philosophy, each which proposed a solution to the issues regarding the union or separation of church and state. The first group, sometimes called the moderate variety or the “middle ground,” suggested a compromise or accommodation between reform and traditional religion and faith. Essentially, these proponents held to a belief in God, His work in history, His mission for the world, and the need for the Church, but they, like many other reformers (including the Renaissance Humanists) realized, although somewhat vaguely at first, the need for a restoration of primitive Christian practices. The second group, often termed “liberal” or “radical,” was characterized by its suggestions concerning liberated self-expression and a total eradication of religion over the moral aspects of man. Proponents of this second group thought that man’s moral properties and faculties ought not to be governed by any god or religion, but rather that ethics could be relative.
John Locke (1632-1704), often characterized as perhaps the most prominent, and probably the most recognized, Enlightenment thinker, was a member of the former group. Following in the footsteps of René Descartes, Locke spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge and while on that journey came to believe in the God of the Bible, or at least some form thereof. Some scholars have classed him a Calvinist, some a Socinian, some an Arian, some a deist, and still others a Pelagian. No matter how he is termed, there is no doubt about his beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible. He held firmly to a belief in verbal inspiration and that the miracles of Jesus, viz. the resurrection, and the apostles served as a proof for its authority. He would spend much of his life writing about the Christian evidences and their absolute compatibility with reason. He retained the conviction that Christianity was the sole religion which reason could confirm.
It is widely documented that many preachers during the restoration movement would carry with them on horseback a copy of the Bible, often Alexander Campbell’s translation, the Living Oracles, and John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Not only this, but his philosophies and works influenced the founding fathers of America as well and ultimately influenced the religious ideologies found within the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. We may say that Locke’s signature can be just as clearly seen on the Declaration of Independence as that of John Hancock.
The American Revolution. Prior to the signing of the Declaration and the subsequent birth of the United States, the American colonies were under the rule of King George III of England. By this time, the English were known for their traditionalist views of nearly everything (Middlekauff). They, like the Epicureans of old, wanted no change or uproars in society but were perfectly content to remain unmoved in their government, trade, economy, and religion. The rich stayed rich, the poor got poorer, and the middle class didn’t have enough influence to make a difference.
During the period of colonial revolution, many of the British soldiers were opposed to religion altogether and subsequently influenced some of their American counterparts. Also, because of the long periods of war, there were men and women who found themselves pulled away from Sunday morning worship, and some deserted the ministry of the Church completely.
Voltaire, another thinker during the Enlightenment, was very influential to the infidels of this time period. He was a member of the second “radical” group mentioned above, and his writings primarily focused attention on the corruption of religion and of priests in particular. According to James Murch, Voltaire’s ideologies convinced the early Americans that religion was fraud and trickery “imposed on the ignorant multitude by the priestcraft.” The absolute infidelity and heathenism that was produced by this school of thought ran rampant in the streets of America after the revolution.
To fully conceive of the extent of skepticism and unbelief in the late 18th century we may notice several sources all quoted by Murch.
“We are fast becoming a nation of drunkards. We could ascertain that there are 300,000 drunkards’ graves” (Parker).
“Youths, particularly those who have been liberally educated, and who, with strong passions and feeble principles, were votaries of sensuality and ambition, delighted in the prospect of unrestrained gratification, and, panting to be enrolled with men of passion and splendor, became enamored of the new [infidel] doctrines” (Timothy Dwight).
“Murderers, horse thieves, highway robbers, and counterfeiters fled … until they combined and actually formed a majority” (Peter Cartwright).
Certainly no man can deny the absolute depravity of that generation; the generation that would be inherited by the restorers. As a result, those men who still cleaved to religion, viz. Christianity, saw the need not only to reform the Church and destroy its denominations but also to convert the growing population of lost souls. This, combined with the previous two events, provided more than enough motivation, reason, and ideology for men like the Campbells, Barton Stone, and James O’Kelley to call for a restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth.
Perhaps much more could be said concerning the historical prelude to the restoration symphony in America, but these three events and ideologies will, to the students of them, serve as the foundation of understanding and interpreting the historical and religious contexts of the movement which would change the lives of millions both in this life and the next.
Garrison, J. H. The Old Faith Restated, Being a Restatement by Representative Men, of the Fundamental Truths and Essential Doctrines of Christianity in the Light of Experience and Biblical Research. College Press, 1972.
Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause. Oxford University PR, 1982.
Murch, James D. Christians Only. Standard Publishing.