Writers on Mormon history frequently mention the Disciples of Christ as close counterparts to Latter Day Saints during the first generation of these religious bodies. The primary point of comparison is that both movements sought to restore primitive Christianity.
Mormons and Disciples both emphasized three ideas: 1) The Bible describes the church as God intends it to be. 2) Most of the time since the period described in the New Testament has been marked by aberrations in doctrine and practice. 3) Their respective movements represent authentic restorations of “the ancient order of things.”
As a life-long member and long-time minister of the Disciples of Christ, I have been particularly attentive to this early linkage, and I have in my own mind objected to the casual comparison of these two impulses in early nineteenth Christianity.
Granted, Joseph Smith and the Mormons on the one hand and Alexander Campbell and the Disciples on the other sought to recover the purity and power of New Testament Christianity.
Why, then, did these two movements develop so differently? The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), to use the contemporary name of the one movement, have remained within the boundaries of classical Christian doctrine and practice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have become a new religious movement with strong connections to orthodox Christianity but significantly different elements in theology, churchly practice, and sacred writings.
One of the reasons why Disciples have stayed with the main Christian stream is that from earliest days, they have understood restoration to be the minor premise in their syllogism. The major premise has always been the unity of the church.
One of the clearest and useful statements of the Disciples’ preference for unity is a paper written by Thomas J. Liggett, who spent his career as missionary, church administrator, and leader in theological education. President Liggett, who died March 27, 2012, and is being honored in memorial celebrations around the country, prepared these remarks for the School of Theology for the Laity at East Dallas Christian Church in Texas, June 22, 1979. The paper was later published in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal.
Although this paper does not discuss the 1830s’ similarities of Mormons and Disciples, it does offer six reasons why Disciples consistently chose unity over restoration. This consistent choice is one of the reasons why the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have remained within the sphere of classic Protestant Christianity.
The concluding paragraphs of Liggett’s paper state his conclusion forthrightly:
Our movement began with the dual emphasis of Christian Unity and Restoration. These two ideas, compatible and complementary in the beginning, eventually were perceived as existing in tension with one another. As this tension grew, we were led to make value judgments and to choose between them. The Churches of Christ and the independent Christian Churches, while exhibiting significant differences of interpretation of restoration, seem to have chosen “restoration” as the primary value. Each movement, in its own way continues to seek to restore the New Testament Church. Neither participates in the formal manifestations of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.
The Disciples of Christ, on the other hand, have chosen “Christian unity” as the primary commitment and value. We have participated from the beginning in local, regional, national and world ecumenical bodies. We have encouraged “mission churches” to enter united churches, we are participants in the Consultation on Church Union and we have engaged in union conversations. We believe that this commitment to Christian unity is based solidly on Biblical and theological grounds. We believe that it constituted a major commitment of Thomas Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and became a major commitment for Alexander Campbell in his mature years. We frankly admit to having given priority to Christian unity rather than to Restoration, particularly in any legalistic sense. There have been solid reasons for this decision, some of which are identified above. The choice has been made and the direction has been set. The full expression of our commitment to the one, universal church continues to be our task.
With the support of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have prepared T. J. Liggett’s paper for republication in an electronic version. To read the entire paper, click Why the Disciples Chose Unity.