Friday, April 10, 2015

Division in the American Restoration Movement: A Summary of Jonathan Woodall's Dissertation

Woodall, Jonathan Franklin. "The Post-Termination Rhetoric of the American Restoration Movment." PhD diss., University of Memphis, 2014.

In 2014, Jonathan F. Woodall, under the guidance of Professor Sandra Sarkela, completed a PhD in the field of Communication at the University of Memphis. The dissertation, “The Post-Termination Rhetoric of the American Restoration Movement,” combines rhetorical studies with historical investigation of what traditionally has been called the American Restoration Movement. 

As Woodall explains, the word termination is a technical expression that refers to the death of the founder of a movement. In this study, termination specifically points to the death of the religious pioneer and patriarch Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). Woodall seems to favor the older term American Restoration Movement because, apparently, he does not believe that Barton W. Stone (1772-1844), though prior to Campbell, provided critical leadership in what has more recently been called the Stone-Campbell Movement. To be clear, the author does not explicitly deny Stone’s influence—especially his influence in one of the post-termination factions—so much as he simply focuses on Campbell as the much more significant figure. Again, the all-important “termination” event featured in this study is the death of Campbell.

Woodall's basic research question involves the commonly debated issue of exactly what generated division within a once-unified American religious movement of the nineteenth century. Also, when did division occur? From the early 1830s until he died in 1866, Alexander Campbell presided over an impressive and growing movement that sought to reconstitute biblical Christianity. Today, three distinct religious bodies represent the movement associated with Campbell: the Disciples of Christ denomination, independent Christian Churches, and the acappella Churches of Christ. The first group, the Disciples of Christ, would be listed among several liberal, mainline Protestant denominations. The other two groups subscribe to a conservative theology and practice congregational autonomy. How and when did these three branches emerge?

Woodall argues that, from the standpoint of rhetorical analysis, four sermons included in an 1868 anthology, The Living Pulpit of the Christian Church, edited by W. T. Moore, represent a key to answering those questions. The author explains that rhetorical studies involve, among other things, “the identification of groups” which will be generated “during a period of termination” (1).  “[I]n a moment of termination, what is ultimately at stake is the movement's ideology” (2). Woodall asserts that in his exploration of American Restoration Movement texts, he has “located competing ideographs, or patterns, within the movement and discovered new leaders as they sought to organize their audience and convince them to support the ongoing efforts” (2). Significantly, he notes that a tension in the outlook of Campbell himself increased the likelihood of “competing ideographs” of the early post-termination period:

Campbell’s influence was far reaching, especially through the circulation of his perfecting ideology within his journal. However, Campbell’s ideology not only contained a perfecting myth, but a democratic view of religion with very little structure. In fact, there was no official leadership position outside the context of the local congregation; hence, Campbell’s leadership stood as a contradiction to the very ideology he promoted (12).

Woodall argues "that while the Restoration Movement of Campbell terminated at his death, new rhetorical leaders emerged using competing ideographs found within the work of Campbell to seek new inceptions leading to splintering." Close textual analysis of the four sermons he examines reveals "a widening diversity of ideas within the movement instead of a constant unity of beliefs, values, and practices" (20).

Paradoxically, Alexander Campbell’s compelling leadership of a movement committed to religious principles that were thoroughly democratic nearly guaranteed post-termination splintering. Either way, the heart of Woodall’s dissertation examines four leaders, all of whom knew Campbell, and all of whom contributed a sermon to Moore’s anthology. Following the Civil War and the death of Campbell, Moore wished to present a united front. According to his vision for the collection, all of the best-known preachers and editors of American Restoration Movement during the early post-termination period would speak with one voice. Yet, according to Woodall, it was not to be. In the pages of The Living Pulpit of the Christian Church he detects four competing ideologies. He provides a map of the four central chapters of his work when he writes,

The Movement had an emerging “association” ideology through the establishment of colleges and universities, fueled by the leadership of W. K. Pendleton; a “militant” ideology focused on the frontier and rural areas, fueled by Benjamin Franklin; a “purification” contingency in the South, fueled by Tolbert Fanning; and a “progressive” contingency in the North, fueled by the leadership of Isaac Errett. Each ideology can be traced back to Alexander Campbell’s own ideographs throughout his decades of leadership (30).

Significantly, not only did each of these post-termination leaders contribute a sermon for Moore’s anthology, each one served as the editor of an important serial publication of the time. Pendleton, a son-in-law to Alexander Campbell, took over the editorship of the Millennial Harbinger, which Campbell had begun in 1830. Franklin was editor of the American Christian Review, which promoted biblical primitivism and the common man, and exuded the popular myth of the wisdom of the rustic. Fanning was the founding editor of the Gospel Advocate magazine. Published from Nashville by a southern pacifist, the Gospel Advocate espoused a radical resistance to all human government and championed the kingdom of Christ alone. Errett, editor of the Christian Standard, espoused a progressive outlook which highlighted the fact that God had not written one book, but two. The church, said the Standard, should interpret both biblical and natural revelation in order to gain the understanding necessary for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ.

Not only does Woodall’s work help to explain the sources and trajectory of division in the American Restoration Movement, it also provides an answer to the question of chronology. Specifically, the dissertation takes a side on the question of when division occurred. Did it happen at or near the time of the Civil War, or did the break come in the decades that followed? In his review of some of the pertinent literature, Woodall notes that scholars like Douglas A. Foster and Bill Humble have insisted that the movement divided in the 1860s. On the other hand, Earl I. West, the father of distinctively Churches of Christ historiography, said that almost everyone in the movement was attempting to hold it together, and that they succeeded in maintaining unity for some time following the war. Siding more with Foster and Humble, Woodall writes, “From the point of the Living Pulpit publication in 1868, it is almost impossible to view the Restoration Movement holistically” (170-71).

“The Post-Termination Rhetoric of the American Restoration Movement” represents a solid contribution to the study of the rhetorical range and history of the Campbell tradition. Although the dissertation was done in the field of Communication, specifically Rhetoric, historians of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement can learn much from it.