Friday, July 21, 2017

Alexander Campbell's Four-Part Series "On the Breaking of Bread"

In their quest to rehabilitate what Alexander Campbell referred to as "the divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies," early leaders of the Restoration Movement identified weekly communion as a central practice. [1] For example, when Thomas and Alexander Campbell and like-minded believers established the Brush Run church in Washington County, Pennsylvania, in May 1811, "their first act of worship was the observance of the Lord's Supper, which they resolved to celebrate weekly thereafter." [2]

In February 1825, Alexander Campbell inaugurated a series of articles titled "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things," which he published in his monthly magazine, The Christian Baptist. The completed series included thirty-two installments. Four of the earliest articles, numbers six through nine, were subtitled "On the Breaking of Bread." [3]

Campbell began his series with an indictment of the monthly, semi-annual, and annual observances of the Lord's Supper within the various branches of Protestantism. Neither the frequency nor the demeanor of those observances met the standard of the New Testament. Campbell's complaint likely includes a veiled reference to the yearly summertime festal communions held by the Presbyterians, the denomination of which he and his father were former members. He notes especially that some believers had turned the Lord's Supper into a morose affair, a somber observance. [4] By contrast, he wrote:
It was the design of the Saviour that his disciples should not be deprived of this joyful festival when they meet in one place to worship God. . . . He did not assemble them to weep, and wail, and starve with him. No, he commands them to rejoice always, and bids them eat and drink abundantly. [5]
The heart of the series took up the question of frequency. Campbell well understood that the New Testament contained no explicit command that Christians should observe the Lord's Supper on a weekly basis. This led him to highlight the significance of approved examples in biblical interpretation. Campbell noted that the New Testament
does not altogether consist of commands, but of approved precedents. Apostolic example is justly esteemed of equal authority with an apostolic precept. Hence, say the Baptists, shew us where Paul or any apostle sprinkled an infant, and we will not ask you for a command to go and do likewise. [6]
Passages from three chapters of the New Testament make up the scriptural centerpiece of Campbell's argument for the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper: Acts 2, Acts 20, and 1 Corinthians 11. In the first of these, Acts 2:42 describes how the earliest Christians in Jerusalem "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." Campbell noted that "the first congregation organized by the apostles after the ascension of the King, did as steadfastly attend on the breaking of bread in their religious meetings, as upon any act of worship or means of edification." [7] Thus we learn "that the breaking of bread was a stated part of the worship of the disciples in their meetings." [8]

Based on the first half of Acts 20:7-- "And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread"--Campbell insisted that "above all, we ought to notice that the most prominent object of their meeting was to break bread." [9]

From 1 Corinthians 11:20, Campbell argued that when Paul reproved the church at ancient Corinth for their abuse of the Lord's Supper, by implication he pointed to the central place of the breaking of bread in Christian worship. Paul wrote, "When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper." Campbell, in order to make his point, offered a comparison. If a man hired workers, but later found them idle, he might say to them, "You did not come here to work." Thus, in 1 Corinthians 11:20 Paul indirectly identifies the Lord's Supper as an essential part of Christian worship. [10]

Campbell concluded his series "On the Breaking of Bread" by pointing to early church history as a verification for his conclusions about the frequency of the Lord's Supper. He emphasized that while the New Testament foreground has no authority, it is useful as an answer to those who say, "Innovation!" in reaction to authentic New Testament teaching. The following brief passage includes two disclaimers regarding the authority of tradition. It also provides two reasons for studying church history:
We lay no stress upon what is no better than the traditions of the church; or upon the testimony of those called the primitive fathers, in settling any part of Christians worship, or Christian obedience. Yet when the scriptures are explicit upon any topic, which is lost sight of in modern times, it is both gratifying and useful to know how the practice has been laid aside, and other customs been substituted in its room. There is, too, a corroborating influence in authentic history, which, while it does not authorize any thing as of Divine authority, it confirms the conviction of our duty in things Divinely established, by observing how they were observed, and how they were laid aside. [11] 
At the end of the third of his four essays on the Lord's Supper, Campbell offered the following synopsis of his position on the topic. It serves as a good summary for this blog post as well:

"To recapitulate the items adduced in favor of the ancient order of breaking bread, it was shewn, as we apprehend--

1. That there is a divinely instituted order of christian worship, in christian assemblies.

2. That this order of worship is uniformly the same.

3. That the nature and design of the breaking of bread are such as to make it an essential part of christian worship in christian assemblies.

4. That the first church set in order in Jerusalem, continued as stedfastly in breaking of bread, as in any other act of social worship or edification.

5. That the disciples statedly met on the first day of the week, primarily and emphatically for this purpose.

6. That the apostle declared it was the design or the primary object of the church to assemble in one place for this purpose, and so commanded it to the churches he had set in order.

7. That there is no law, rule, reason, or authority for the present manner of observing this institute quarterly, semi-annually, or at any other time than weekly.

8. We have considered some of the more prominent objections against the ancient practice, and are ready to hear any new ones that can be offered. Upon the whole, it may be said that we have express precedent and an express command to assemble in one place on the first day of the week to break bread. We shall reserve other evidences and considerations until some objections are offered by any correspondent who complies with our conditions." [12]


[1] "Order of Worship"Christian Baptist, Vol. II, July 4, 1825, p. 164. Along this line, another of Campbell's phrases was "the ancient order of worship in the Christian church." See Ibid.

[2] Paul M. Blowers and Byron C. Lambert, "The Lord's Supper," in Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 489.

[3] The first installment in Campbell's series titled "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things" appeared in The Christian Baptist dated February 7, 1825. The final, thirty-second installment was published in the issue dated September 7, 1829. Campbell published The Christian Baptist from 1823 to 1830.

[4] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--IChristian Baptist, Vol. III, August 1, 1825,  pp. 174-75. For more about the origins and history of festal communions and camp meetings, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001). For the famous 1801 Cane Ridge Revival as a Presbyterian festal communion, see Paul K. Conkin, Cane Ridge: America's Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), a book that owes a good deal to Leigh Eric Schmidt's 1987 Princeton PhD dissertation, and to Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625-1760 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[5] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--I," Christian Baptist, Vol. III, August 1, 1825,  p. 174.

[6] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--II," Christian Baptist, Vol. III, September 5, 1825, p. 179.

[7] Ibid., 181.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--III" Christian Baptist, Vol. III, October 3, 1825, p. 187.

[11] "On the Breaking of Bread, No. IV," Christian Baptist, Vol. III, November 7, 1825, p. 194. I note that Churches of Christ historian Everett Ferguson offers much the same rationale for, and caveats regarding, the study of Christian history in the introductory chapter of Church History: Early and Medieval, 2nd ed. (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1985).

[12] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--IIIChristian Baptist, Vol. III, October 3, 1825, pp. 187-88.

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