Liberty, a theme that distinguishes Disciples from Mormons

It is not possible, or, in other words, it is not in human nature, to love liberty, freedom of thought, of speech and of action, in the state, and hate it in the church; or to love it in the church and to hate it in the state (Alexander Campbell).

During the 1830s, many people on the American frontier were drawn to religious movements that sought to restore the basic characteristics of biblical religion. Among them were the Latter Day Saints led by Joseph Smith and the Disciples of Christ led by Alexander Campbell. That their appeals were in some ways similar is illustrated by the fact that a prominent Disciples preacher, Sidney Rigdon, left Campbell’s new Reformation in 1833 to join the one that looked to Smith for its inspiration.

In an earlier column, I discussed the Disciples emphasis upon Christian unity as one of the factors that kept the Campbell movement tightly connected with the historic churches while the LDS movement became increasingly separated from mainstream Christianity. I referred readers to an important essay by mid-twentieth century Thomas J. Liggett in which the emphasis upon unity over restoration is well stated.

One of my respondants proposed that the Disciples’ emphasis upon freedom was another factor that distinguished these two restorationist movements. He cited a book by Disciples historian Ronald E. Osborn (1917-1998) as a cogent exposition of liberty—both religious and political—within the context of Disciples ecclesiology. Osborn entitled his book (published in 1978) Experiment in Liberty. He claims that throughout the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), liberty has stood along side restoration and unity as a central principle that accounts for the theological ideas and ecclesial patterns of his church. Among the emphases in Campbell’s position, Osborn points out, were these:

the freedom of the hearer to believe and obey the gospel, the liberty of Christians to hold diverse opinions on matters not revealed, the emancipation of the church from all oppressive structures of human authority whether theological or ecclesiastical. Repeatedly in presenting his position on church order he resorted to analogies with the American political system. He considered the reformation which he led and the new venture of the United States to be parallel and compatible experiments in liberty.

Although Osborn does not discuss the Mormon movement, the differences between the two became increasingly significant, and their sharply contrasting views of liberty and relationship to the American political system is one explanation.

When Osborn’s book was published, the Disciples were participating in a church union movement called the Consultation on Church Union. One of the partners in this enterprise and in other ecclesiastical activities was the United Church of Christ. Roger Hazelton, a well-regarded theologian in the United Church published a review of Osborn’s book in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal, a quarterly publication of the Disciples Council on Christian Unity. A paragraph from that review summarizes Osborn’s position:

Actually the theme of the book, presented as the Forrest F. Reed Lectures for 1976, is the interweaving of two historic ventures—one concerned with guaranteeing civil liberty in the nation, the other with the ecclesial dimensions of Christian freedom grounded in faith. By and large, both Disciples and especially the Congregationalist tradition in the United Church of Christ have “believed that both ventures were consistent, that both represented the purpose of God” (page 21). To maintain this original vision and commitment without either compromise or confusion, adapting it to changing complexities in church and state alike, has not been easy. Furthermore, there are sharp questions to be raised about this “holy alliance,” as recent discussions of American civil religion have insisted. The idea that political democracy is not only implied but positively sanctioned by Christian freedom under God has been a precious part of our common heritage, yet it needs closer theological and ethical examination. Those of us who share it should at least know better just what it is that we intend to affirm.

To read all of Hazelton’s review, click Hazelton.


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