THE MISSIONARY SOCIETY: WHAT IT WAS; WHY IT WAS WRONG
The American Christian Missionary Society was established in Cincinnati in October 1849. This, along with the introduction of instrumental music in worship, created a furor that ultimately divided our brotherhood. Those who accepted these innovations came to be the Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ. Observation tells us that most of our brethren, including our preachers, have no idea what the Missionary Society was and why our brethren rejected it.
A look at the founding documents provides an idea of the nature and purpose of the Society. Those assembled at Cincinnati adopted the following resolution: "Resolved, that the ‘Missionary Society,' as a means to concentrate and disperse the wealth and benevolence of the brethren of this Reformation in an effort to convert the world, is both scriptural and expedient." The constitution adopted began with the following articles:
1. "This society shall be called the American Christian Missionary Society.
2. The object of this Society shall be to promote the spread of the gospel in destitute places of our own and foreign lands.
3. The Society shall be composed of annual delegates, Life Members and Life Directors. Any church may appoint a delegate for an annual contribution of ten dollars. Twenty dollars paid at one time shall be requisite to constitute a member for life, and one hundred dollars paid at one time...shall be required to constitute a director for life.
4. The officers of the Society shall consist of a President, 20 Vice presidents, a Treasurer, a corresponding Secretary, and a Recording Secretary...
5. The society shall also annually elect 25 managers, who together with the officers and life directors of this Society, shall constitute an executive board, to conduct the business of the Society..."
The delegates selected Alexander Campbell to be the first President and D. S. Burnett the First Vice-President.
From the beginning, serious objections were raised. Among the criticisms were the following:
1. Since delegates, membership and officers were all limited to those who paid the set fees, therefore the Society was built on a money basis and that was wrong.
2. It was argued that God's Word "knows nothing of a confederation of churches in an ecclesiastical system, culminating in an earthly head, for government or for any other purpose..."
3. It was a dangerous precedent, a departure from the principles for which we have always contended..."
4. Many feared "that the Society would grow into an oppressive ecclesiasticism..."
Among those who led the opposition to the Society were Jacob Creath, Jr., Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb and Benjamin Franklin
The church in Connelsville, Pennsylvania issued a public statement in opposition to the Society which encouraged many other congregations to join them in rejecting it. Among their objections were these:
"We consider the Church of Jesus Christ, in virtue of the commission given her by our blessed Lord, the only scriptural organization on earth for the conversion of sinners and sanctification of believers."
"...Conscientiously, we can neither aid nor sanction any society, for this or other purpose apart from the church, much less one which would exclude from its membership many of our brethren, and all of the apostles...because silver and gold they had not."
"We consider the introduction of all such societies as a dangerous precedent–a departure from the principles for which we have always contended..."
"We also consider them necessarily heretical and schismatical, as much so as human creeds and confessions of faith, when made the bonds of union and communion."1
Through the Gospel Advocate, David Lipscomb and others brought additional charges against the Society. They said:
1. That it was a substitute for the church, that it was a human invention and without divine authority. When the society did its evangelistic work it was usurping the rights of the church.
2. That societies were built on the assumption that the Lords's church cannot or will not do the work assigned to it. The founders must therefore assume that their plan can do the job better than God's.
3. That the Church of Christ is the Lord's Missionary Society. He is its Head, and every member a life member and director.
4. That the Society had its origin in a desire to be like the denomination's around us.
5. That to do its announced job the Missionary Society would have to assume power or control over the churches who were the source of its income ands the fruit of its efforts.
6. That the Society was the cause of division and conflict in the brotherhood.
7. That the society was a poor investment of God's money since the operating overhead consumed most of the money.
8. That there was no Scriptural authority for the creation and existence of the Missionary Society, therefore it was unscriptural, unauthorized and condemned.2
History tells us that the majority ignored the warnings and accepted the Missionary Society to be their organization for evangelism. After a shaky start, it grew in power and pursued a steady course away from God's Word. Scores of additional state and local societies were launched. The Disciples of Christ denomination is the modern consequent of that decision. All of the warnings about what would be the end result have come true.
A wise man observed that, he who does not remember the lessons of the past is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. The prevailing ignorance about the Missionary Society leaves us vulnerable to those who propose human systems to do the work of the church today. We have an abundance of them. Be thankful to God for those faithful soldiers who stood and fought to save the church from the corruptions of these human schemes.
May we, their heirs, never forget the battle fought and the price paid for our freedom in Christ.
1. Homer Hailey. Attitudes and Consequences of the Restoration Movement, Second Edition (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1952) pp. 148-178.
2. Earl West. Search For the Ancient Order, Vol. 2 (Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, 1950) pp. 51-71.